Friday, October 17, 2014

XYP! Examining Your Privilege

When you were somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, did you ever hear someone shout, “XYZ!!” while pointing at a classmate’s crotch and giggling?  Maybe you were doing the shouting, or maybe you were wearing the offending pants, but the point is that you needed to “examine your zipper” because it was unzipped and your underwear were probably showing.

Well, today, I’m shouting “XYP!”  My time doing research in the Dominican Republic has forced me to examine my privilege.  The thing about the zipper is that you don’t realize you’re unzipped until someone else points it out to you.  I think the same is true for privilege.  You don’t realize your privilege is showing until someone else makes it plain to you.

As a sociologist, I am very familiar with the concept of privilege, and I have not considered myself a “privileged person” in the past.  Many instructors use Peggy McIntosh’s work “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to illustrate the benefits of whiteness that go unnoticed. There are assumed and taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that are associated with privilege of all kinds including race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality, physical ability.

I am a black woman who grew up in a working class family that struggled to make ends meet.  I am very proud of my background, but I have never considered myself a person with privilege…until now.  Being in a developing country and connecting with people here has made me realize that my privilege is showing.  Here’s my list of privileges:

  • “American in the DR” – I have connections through the US Embassy and other organizations that validate my work because I am here as an American scholar at a prestigious American university.  
  • “American woman of a certain social class” – I was sitting at someone’s house in my field site chatting with a woman who was about my age, married, two kids.  She asked me “your husband is not mad that you’re here?”
  • “Not dark-skinned” – There are benefits and drawbacks to being a brown American and not a white American here.  However, being “lightish brown” also matters.  Research has shown that for people of color, there is a penalty for having darker skin (education, wages in the labor market, etc).  This happens in many countries in the world (U.S., India, Latin America). It’s called colorism.
  • Highly educated – On one level, I am literate. Reading and writing comes with its own privilege, but being a scholar is a different level.
  • Money – We still worry about debt and covering bills, but the money we have here has provided a car, an apartment with hot running water and electricity, and the luxury to not worry about how I will feed my kids each day.
  • Able-bodied – I don’t have to think about and plan for whether or not my body will do what I want it to do.
  • Sexuality – I introduced my husband and family to everyone at a couple of churches.  We fit into their schema of what a family looks like: husband, wife, kids. This helped with my community integration.
We move about in pretty homogenous spaces. This means that invisible privilege is likely to remain invisible.  Go somewhere different! Start small: neighborhood, grocery store, mall.  Call each other’s privilege out! Would you let someone walk around with their fly open?? Tell your loved ones when their privilege is showing.  It’s the right thing to do.