Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.
1. Fight The Power
McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.
2. Speak Out.
McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.
3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.
Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.
4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.
McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:
” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”
This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.
Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.