Teaching People to “Get” Privilege

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a blog post* outlining why I felt a shakeup in our notion of being an ally was critically needed. It followed up on my attempt to start a conversation around redefining privilege, begun publicly at the West Michigan TDoR a few months earlier. I started, in essence, with how I am dedicated not just to recognizing the marginalization of the LGBT community, but to ending it. And the end I foresee is a world in which we are valued for the gifts we bring, where people know that we anchor communities, where people know that we make towns and cities vibrant, and where people feel motivated to keep us safe not because they feel sorry for us, but because it’s in their own self-interest. To get there, I argued, we needed to become more aware not just of marginalization as we experience it, and privilege as others experience it, but we need to be aware of the privilege each of us carries, and become increasingly willing to leverage that privilege we have to engage audiences, tell stories, build relationships, and change the world.

The second place I engaged in this conversation was by starting Our Narratives, along with my Teri and others, as the Network‘s new initiative to help LGBT people know their stories, relate their stories to the Struggle, and use their stories to advocate for change, both big and small. We started this with our November 2014 Our Narratives workshop (and we have another one coming up, in a couple of weeks). Our Narratives was a critical piece of what needed to be done, because it is difficult to use privilege to advocate for change if you don’t really understand how to advocate for change, or how to broaden that story beyond just your own story. We showed with that inaugural event that our participants came in feeling they knew their story, but they didn’t know how to relate it to the struggles of others (or distill the universal theme or align the societal statistics with their story), and they really didn’t know how to use their own story to advocate for change or understand why their own story was relevant in advocating for change**. And we showed that we could change all that, just in a day. Teri commented, also, that he was blown away by the intensity of these stories, and he felt kind of badly for having underestimated our community, going in. This, I think, really recapitulates my point at TDoR. That passion behind that storytelling… is a kind of talent or privilege, and it’s just one of the many talents*** we don’t recognize or leverage as a community.

So, I’ve got people talking about and understanding their marginalization. But my belief is that we cannot be good allies unless we understand our privilege, too, and we begin to understand intersectionalism of both marginalization and privilege. So, really, I set out with So You Want To Be An Ally (SYWTBAA), which happened at the end of January, with two goals. First, I want to learn to teach people that we exist within an intersecting web of privileges and marginalization – it is fundamentally flawed to think of “us” as marginalized and “them” as privileged. Second, I wanted to socialize our people to critically analyze our behaviors as allies. Again, pulling us out of an “us v. them” mentality, I want us to be good allies to others (because it will stop unfortunate things like ethnic minority groups attacking LGBT rights, because they perceive that “our” freedom is incompatible with “theirs,” when in reality, we are all “us,” and there is no “them”).

I’m coming back now to talk about where I succeeded, and where I’m still trying. SYWTBAA was a three hour seminar with group activities interspersed. Unlike Our Narratives, it placed a heavier emphasis on instructor led content. I originally conceptualized it as being co-led by an LGBT person and a heterosexual ally (and had one picked out). But, the more and more I thought about it****, SYWTBAA became not primarily about heterosexual allies working with the LGBT community, but rather, a broader and more conceptual thing. I got feedback, privately, from some people I trust and respect, that I needed to thin down the feminist theory, because people who came to such an event would be well versed in it already. I respectfully disagree (and I’m sticking with that assessment). At least, here, in Grand Rapids, we do not have people show up to these events with bell hooks under their arm. And I would challenge, that, honestly, while there are a few of us out here, we do not even make up the majority in our own activist/advocacy spaces, let alone the majority of mobilizable people that can make the army we leverage to end oppression. A simple analysis of how many HRC bumper stickers one sees and the sales data on the feminist classics quickly reveals that.

So, the workshop ended up being more of a solo presentation, by me. I would like to broaden the examples I drew on, but I used examples from multiple kinds of marginalization – related to disability, mental illness, different racial and ethnic groups, the young and old, women, and, of course, the LGBT community. I used examples ranging from the Victoria’s Secret expropriation of Native American culture three years ago, to raising the possibility that the 99% may just be the largest of all marginalized groups, even larger than women as a group (or the 51%, as we like to call ourselves). I acknowledged my heroines, provocatively putting Andrea Dworkin and Julia Serano on the same page*****. And I preached feminism. I talked some gay – I explained why we don’t have a straight pride, as an example of how privilege assumptions and the power structure they maintain form an asymmetrical view of the world.

There was some good stuff. Unlike the very targeted before/after results we saw for the flagship Our Narratives workshop, we saw broadband improvements on all five of the questions we asked about our participants’ before and after experiences. But, the biggest gains were in understanding one’s own privilege (that is, understanding of one’s own privilege improved markedly, whereas improvements in understanding one’s own marginalization were more subtle), and feeling able to critically analyze one’s behaviors as an ally. So these are exactly the things we set out to do, and this preliminary data, from the first time we did the program, were very favorable. It also turns out that Keynote makes totally fetch slides, and although I used it at First Event earlier in the month, this is the first really meaty presentation I made in Keynote, and it was much more sophisticated than that prior one.

#Geekgirl loves her data, so here are the numbers – again, noting the big gains on the top-most and middle items:

Participant survey data from our January 2015 So You Want To Be An Ally

Participant survey data from our January 2015 So You Want To Be An Ally

There were some surprises. Using the Network’s detailed identity question****** on our post-hoc survey, only 55% of respondents classified themselves as allies (#FAIL? Or humility?). Of course, with all the work to make sure there were plenty of presentation materials, it went a little long. The last exercise was supposed to really critically push people to identify both when they were an ally and when they were an accomplice (and really, all four roles in the paradigm I borrowed and presented earlier). I do not feel like I fully got across the idea that things like reverse racism are not valid constructually, because of global effects overwhelming the local effects (so that in a majority black neighborhood, like the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where I lived before I moved back to Grand Rapids, the national/systemic racism against black people overwhelms the fact that Caucasians are a minority just in those few blocks, even though the President of the United States of America lives 2.5 blocks away, etc.). People also still tended to think of themselves as primarily privileged or primarily marginalized (and I really should’ve asked a poll question about this, and I did not – I really want people to come away from something like this understanding that we are all both).

Don't make me do Michelle Obama side eyes.

Don’t make me do Michelle Obama side eyes

Overall, though, I was pretty happy with the conversation. In spite of the early critiques that the feminist / conceptual approach would not be what people wanted, we had a pretty sold-out event, and we had really positive feedback from the participants. One, who leads a drop in center for homeless and runaway youth, followed up by inviting me to a training panel discussion to talk about this content. There was interest in exporting the training to another group, which is something we’re possibly open to (although we really want people to come in our doors). We want to do this quarterly, so I’ll be curious to see if we can find 20-25 people who want this training every three months (I think we should be able to – there are, in any event, to me, more than 20-25 people who need this training every three months).

What’s next? Well, we’re looking at ways other than dramatic / prose speaking and blogging to teach people to tell their stories. Maybe spoken word art, maybe something video-based, so we can go wreck YouTube. I’m also thinkiI’mng of more content elements. I’m wondering, particularly, if we need to QueerTheConversation on racial justice – still giving you side eyes if you talk reverse racism at me. We could come clean (or even cleaner) about how everyone who’s been on our Board of Directors in the last couple of years has been Caucasian or Asian (and, as I’ve argued, there are many ways in which I feel a need for pause and caution, and I do not consider myself a good spokesperson for racial injustice), and much more strategically talk about our outreach to ethnic minorities, both in terms of building support for LGBT people from these populations but also building a reciprocal ally base, because we’ve got a lot to give back to people. We’ve been talking about that a lot, but right now, I feel like we need to double down on that. Amidst all the other things were trying to revolutionize and all the other systems we’re trying to wreck (now, usually I don’t do this, but why don’t you go ahead and break them off a little preview of the remix?).

I guess it turns out that Queering the New Year is a resolution one really must keep all year long.

* Slash manifesto

** For instance, it is also a narrative we can leverage that, in the midst of fighting over whether transgender people should be equal (or should be excluded), my narrative that I am societally accepted, largely by everyone, that I’m here in Grand Rapids creating jobs and opportunity for adults and teaching kids with autism how to communicate and learn, and that I am in danger not of killing myself, if I can’t have rights, but of not building as many jobs (mostly for straight people) or helping as many kids (again, predominantly straight people’s kids) – my narrative is an important narrative, because it dovetails exactly with what the rest of the business community has been saying about our civil rights act. It’s just, by and large – and not for want of talent, see the next footnote – I’m the only trans person saying it. But this is an example of a privilege-based narrative, used to advocate for good. Making me something more like Tesla and Elon Musk, arguing, “Hey, your life would be better if you changed your laws for me.”

*** Sometime, let me write a blog post about all the kinds of people I know because I’m engaged in the LGBT community, that wouldn’t normally be in my social circles… sure, there are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and CEOs, but actors and actresses, airplane pilots, retired Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, authors, poets, comedians, magazine editors, … I’m really not kidding when I say my network broadened by coming out, and didn’t contract really at all.

**** And, well, because we woke up early and finished the last bits of the program the morning of the event, itself, and Teri even cooked us breakfast, so that I could finish.

***** I should be even more provocative, and have some male role models too, and in truth, I do, although most of my strongest inspirations are other women, and I put up six pictures of women. For the record, they were: bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Julia Serano, and Mira Nair.

****** For a lot of our own surveys, we use an inclusive identity question, where a long list of options is presented, and respondents check all that apply, with no validation process. Currently, our list is: female, male, androgynous, agender, bigender, cisgender, transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, cross dresser, intersex, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous, sexually fluid, asexual, aromantic, questioning, two spirit, queer, and ally. There is a free response “other” option, and my smart-ass boyfriend put in heteroqueer. So we add items as we go – it had less items the last time we used it. Recently, I’ve been asked how to do this on surveys, and I agree that this approach is cumbersome for someone other than an LGBT organization. So my second approach, when we’re trying to make it simpler, is to ask two questions, modeled after the two-question approach of identifying ethnic/racial grouping. There, questions are asked separately, here in the US that is, about being Hispanic/Latino, and about ethnic affiliation. I propose something similar, which is (1) Do you identify as trans/transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, or non-binary? (Yes/No/DK) and (2) Do you identify as (male/female/other). This is nicely subversive, too, in that the questions make more sense and are more welcoming if trans people are put in front rather than put in as an afterthought.


One thought on “Teaching People to “Get” Privilege

  1. Pingback: Towards a World Where Every Child Belongs | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

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