Privilege and Power. Or: Is reverse -ism really a thing?

If you spend any time at all on the internet, you have surely heard accusations of “reverse racism/sexism/heterophobia” thrown about. Generally by “Men’s Rights” activists and supposedly disenfranchised white people. Sometimes (often?) these are the SAME people. But anyways, IS this actually a thing? Has the pendulum swung the other way? From the civil rights era and 2nd wave feminism goals of creating equality between races and sexes, to giving those groups power OVER whites and men? If we are to believe a significant segment of the population, the answer is “yes. Totally.”

Women no longer want to be equal to men, they think they are BETTER than men. Manhood and masculinity are under attack! The natural order of things is being mocked and changed and I, I mean “we”…wait. No. I mean SOCIETY won’t stand for it.

And people of color (POC)? Do NOT get them started on poc that are unfairly stealing the American dream from REAL hardworking Americans that have pulled themselves up by the bootstrap while working hard for their money, never accepting a handout and embracing everything that makes this country great. Like BBQ (true), NASCAR (questionable) and Wal-Mart (a definite lie).

The thing is, when people complain about others not doing things the “right way”, they ignore or don’t understand the systems that allowed them and theirs to do things “the right way.” For example, did your grandfather come to this country with $3, a stick of gum and lint in his pocket and work soooo hard that he was able to raise 5 kids without taking handouts from anyone, let along the government? Awesome. Good for him. Thing is, he had two things going for him that were/are really, really important when it comes to success and dreams realized in America: He was, well, a HE. Male. And white. Or at least what was acceptably white then (race meant different things at different periods of time. Check out a history of the U.S. Census for more detail). Those two things gave your grandfather a HUGE advantage over others. Yes, he worked hard, but his race and sex may have worked even harder for him. Oh, this doesn’t fit your family’s story? Well, okay. There are lots of variation and individual stories and circumstances. Point is, as a whole, men and whites have been systematically privileged in this country for as long as it has existed. Great strides *have* been made to level the playing field for others, but it’s not there yet.

People who claim that we don’t need feminism anymore or affirmative action or the courts to weigh in on marriage equality think that we live in a post-whatever society that has magically fixed all its inequality problems. If you think that’s true, simply go outside and ask someone of a different race, sex, religion, orientation etc about their experiences in post-whatever America. Don’t be surprised if the person doesn’t know that they are apparently living “high off the hog” in this new America. I would strongly advise you NOT to try and convince them of this. Just a  friendly piece of advice.

Now, back to my original question. Is reverse -ism really a thing? I once read an answer to this question that argued that blacks, for example, cannot be racist because they do not have the POWER to be racist. Um. What? Put another way, to be racist or discriminate, you have to have institutional power that gives you advantages over someone else based on something arbitrary–like a penis. Or skin color. So, can blacks be bigoted against whites and others? YES. They sure can. Hi, grandmother! But are there enough blacks in power structures (govt, corporations etc) to make it hard for whites to get certain jobs and positions? No. Are whites over-represented in the criminal justice system? No. Are blacks more likely to go to better schools and live in safer areas? No. If you are white, do you watch the news and pray that the suspect *isn’t* white? Because white people are going to be stereotyped and not trusted and profiled (by the police and society at large)? Probably not. That’s privilege.

Another example: Can women hate men? Yes. Duh. But, remember the whole power thing! While patriarchy (the system that favors men over women) hurts EVERYONE with it’s limited gender roles and limited tolerance for stepping outside of those roles, it still benefits men MORE. As a man, you are capable of being a victim of domestic and sexual violence. No question there. That said, you are much less LIKELY to experience these things. Especially if you are an adult. You probably weren’t taught how to avoid being raped. You probably don’t wonder how you can “have it all” in your life/work balance. It’s expected that you *will* have it all.That’s privilege.

Oh, before I forget, let’s have an example of heterosexist privilege! First thing that comes to my mind is this: Has anyone ever said to you, “well, I don’t mind if they’re straight, but why does he/she have to flaunt it??” You may not be down with PDA in general, but you won’t get too many looks and/or comments if you engage in it with your opposite sex partner. I don’t think too many people wonder how to explain “heterosexuality” to their children when a man and a woman get married on TV or kiss in the park. And unless you are in some very strict religious sect, having a picture of your SO on a desk or talking about weekend plans with them is not likely considered “flaunting” your relationship. Get where I am going with this? Privilege. Some have it, some don’t. You can have one type of privilege, but not another. So a white gay male has TWO privileges: white privilege and male privilege. A straight black male also has two privileges: male and straight. I am a triple minority: black, female and queer. But I *do* have educational privilege. It’s complicated, right?

Sorry that I rambled on and on and don’t even have any answers for you. How rude! Unfortunately, the issue of privilege is not something with an easily solvable equation. Too many variables. And the messy human factor. You aren’t expected to have a solution or an answer. At least *I* don’t expect that, but it would help ALL of us if you could be aware and think about what you say. Especially on the internet. You can speak, you can have an opinion–I love that! But could you also listen and ask questions and try to empathize with The Other? It’s hard enough to Be in this society without having your specific truths and experiences dismissed as not real or important by people who don’t, and refuse to, “get it.”

Thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “Privilege and Power. Or: Is reverse -ism really a thing?

  1. Hey Niala! I’m going to share this. I think you’re off to a great start. The post is very well done and I’m sure that as you post more, a unique way of talking about privilege will develop and help people to understand it better. For now, you’ve got something that is accurate and intelligently written. I don’t feel like this is going to convince someone who denies that privilege exists, but you’re smart and genuinely care about people so I’m certain you’ll figure that out as you continue to work at the problem.

    I really like the end. I wished you had answers but the acknowledgment that you do not and the asking people to just listen to each other is grand. I think some people will accuse you of not listening to the oppositions truths, because to them it is truth, but that you are addressing how messy this whole thing is and how privileges can overlap is something too many people ignore.

  2. I think you actually may be discussing two different phenomena that often get crossed.

    1) “Privilege” is having favor one did not earn. Being a part of the dominant culture gives one favor just by share numbers – and when the members of the dominant culture hold that position over time, it certainly increases their power. It is tribalism. “If you are like me, you can’t be against me, so you must be for me.” It is a bit naive, but it primal. Those who share privilege are usually so immersed in their experience since birth, they have no to little idea that they have it. How does a fish no anything else but water? So when confronted about privilege, there is often this angry naivete akin to “but that’s just common sense” or “I am a nice person; I would never do anything to hurt anyone.” One of the advantages of being privileged, is that one never has to look at it.

    2) Reverse racism/feminism/heterosexism? I think these cries are a misperceived observation of a normal stage of identity development of any person who does not a member of the dominant culture. Most theories on identity development of an oppressed group share similar stages. There is a continuum of development that can start with identification and assimilation into the dominant culture that can eventually move into an “angry outsider” stage (when faced with an “encounter” that does not fit into the assimilated/we’re all the same worldview). During this angry stage, the world becomes very binary — (us) good vs. (them) bad. It is during this stage that members of the dominant culture feel a lot of heat, become defensive, and essentially now know what it is like to feel like an outsider. I think it is here that these reverse -ism cries of unfairness occur. People get caught up in the us/them, seeing difference, and defining the world on all/nothing certainties that do nothing to understand the complexity of the human experience. A reflection on how vulnerable we are; and how poorly we manage that vulnerability.

    The resolution stage of identity development is usually characterized by a pride in self but an appreciation of the dominant culture. A blending/an integration. This is not a linear or static process; and people can go back and forth among stages depending on the person and other social variables.

    • However, I think that anybody in any stage of Identity development can participate in meaningful dialogue so long as they are affirmed by a peer group, thus mediating the effects of Stereotype Threat. I’m fearful of using such “stages” of development, as it seems to imply that people in one stage are better than people in another. It focuses on the individual, when I think the system may be at fault.

      I think that any person, in order to dialogue with somebody significantly different from them, will need to be affirmed by a group of people who share their traits. For people in power, this affirmation happens very easily with little effort. But for people who are more disenfranchised, this does not happen so easily, and seeking out peer groups that affirm them must be approached with more intention.

      The problem is not necessarily the “individual” in a stage of development. We all go through those a lot, repeatedly (I believe that Beverly Tatum called this an “upward spiral.”) I think that instead of asking “What stage are they in? Is that why they’re so angry and defensive,” we’d want to look at our ways at approaching dialogue in general in a specific context, and ask why somebody is not being affirmed. Because that *is* something that we may have more control over, and it *is* something that I think poses a huge problem to anybody, regardless of where they are in their identity development. Because I think the us/them boundary is usually indicative of that lack of affirmation (Which is a flaw in whatever system of dialogue they’re engaged in), more than an individual problem – a lack of “pride” in themselves or a lack of a proper “appreciation” of the mainstream culture. I think we approach blaming somebody for a system in which they had no choice regarding their participation.

      • I don’t imply any judgement with anger. It needs no more criticism than joy or pride. It is not about saying one stage is better than the other, but rather to understand behavior or feelings than can be so easily misunderstood.
        Being human is an amorphous thing, but in order to discuss the experience, we must give it form. Form sometimes can imply a limit to what it means to be human, but rather it is simply a starting place for understanding and discussion. It is not to identify the “person” as a problem, but rather the misunderstanding of his experience as the problem. It is normal to be angry when one has experienced unfair loss. That needs to be held with respect.

        I think having an affirming peer group and role models is vitally important. Shame is the primary weapon of the oppressor, as it destroys from within. Clearly, when the judgments of the dominant culture are internalized, it leads to unhealthy self-image and shameful existence. Research tells us that having just one healthy role model who shares the same experience can make a huge difference in identity formation. I can only grow more resolute when I see my hope realized in the life of someone else.

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