by Amina Knowlan | April 2010
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subjects taboo.2
WHEN A GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS from different backgrounds (class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, sexual identity, faith traditions, national identity, etc.) cultivate relationships that are open enough, they develop interest, curiosity and deep knowing of each other. When direct communication in the open, feedback and transparency become the norm, it is inevitable that the individuals and the group will begin to collide with-or push up against-the systems of oppression and privilege that are represented in the group.
Navigating the complex intercultural fields that include our collective history of injustice and discrimination is challenging. Keep in mind that everyone belongs to a mixture of identity groups. Whether visible or not, if we could see deep enough into each person's biography, we could find a mixture of dominant or privileged identities and targeted or oppressed identities.
A kind of 'fog' often descends on the interactions between people in the dominant or privileged group (in the identity group or role of being 'oppressors') and people in the marginalized group (in the identity group or role of the 'oppressed'). This can include confusion, blind spots and even defensiveness. When a 'fog' settles into the consciousness of a member of a dominant identity group, it is often because it feels like, 'I personally' have not oppressed anyone. Perhaps I, too, have been marginalized as a member of a different identity group. I am a white man who was raised as 'white trash.' How could I be an oppressor?
For a member of a marginalized or oppressed identity group, the fog or confusion may be the result of confronting her own internalized oppression-the ways in which she has defined herself according to the limiting beliefs and opportunities that are available to her. To the extent that she has assimilated or accommodated to the dominant culture to gain acceptance, opportunity or status, it is risky to begin to confront these issues. A woman working to become a manager, risks alienating her male bosses if she comes across as a feminist.
The invisibility of privilege is culturally encouraged when dominant group members are systematically taught to see themselves as individuals, not as members of a group, and to view privileges as distinct entities that are effects of individual merit.3
For everyone, it can be challenging to acknowledge and understand the impact of systems of oppression and privilege on our personal relationships. It requires that we peel away the veneer of our individual merit and peer into the reality that being a member of a dominant group (white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) confers privilege.4 Similarly, being a member of a non-dominant (or minority) group (person of color, female, gay or lesbian, disabled, etc.) places individuals in 'a network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding'5 of their lives and place in society.
To truly understand systems of oppression and privilege, the first requirement is that we shift our focus from individuals to groups of individuals that are defined as a group by sharing a common identity such as being male or female, white (Caucasian) or African-heritage, Latino/Latina, elderly our young, owning class or poor, gay/lesbian or heterosexual, Jewish or Christian, etc.
In order to begin to understand systems of oppression and privilege, we must deconstruct our white, U.S., Euro-centric, and male (patriarchal) orientation to the life through the lens of individual merit. Warning: when you are a member of a dominant cultural group, it is very hard to take this individualism apart and see yourself as a part of a privileged group that has a $100 bill in your pocket6-whether you earned it or not; whether you spend it or abuse it or even know that it's there.
Any one individual can maintain that he or she is not racist. As members of a dominant group in our U.S. culture we are trained to see racism or sexism or homophobia as individually mediated acts of unconsciousness, meanness or even violence. Most of us are not trained to see the privileges that we are given to us simply because of an identity we share with others.
A man (also a white man) was personally challenged by identifying as a member of the privileged group of white men in the role of the oppressors when the field of sexism was being explored in a group. I was initially frustrated with his inability to stand in for the system that conferred privilege on white men. Then I remembered a principle from our Matrix trainers who are also diversity trainers with NCBI.7 'The ways in which we fail to ally with others are directly related to the ways in which we got hurt.' I knew I had to give this man a chance to really be heard about his own mistreatment as a kid. He had to connect with his deeper feelings of being oppressed or victimized before he could acknowledge himself as an oppressor by virtue of being born a man with white skin.
It is not that men don't suffer at the hands of the system of sexism. They do. A classic statement acknowledging the impact of men's oppression is, 'Work until you die.' This statement might be thought of as the overlapping impact of classism and sexism as it affects men as providers. It helps to understand that there is a difference between harm and oppression. Harm happens to individuals. Oppression happens to targeted groups because they are members of that identity. In trying to distinguish between systemic suffering and individual suffering, Marilyn Frye compared harm and oppression.
Dominant group members may suffer and experience harms, but dominant group members cannot experience oppression because there is no complex system whose only options are double binds. The lives of people who experience oppression, on the contrary, are embraced with double binds so that every path that can conceivably take them to success is blocked, sometimes by concealed "glass ceilings."
Even if men as a group suffer because of their inability to cry, their social status is not thereby diminished. On the contrary, men who do not cry are perceived in the social imaginary as strong and are in various ways rewarded for that perceived strength.
To meet in the realm of our identities in order to peel away the blinders of both privilege and oppression — while simultaneously opening to the connection that is beyond our identities — is a steep but incredibly rewarding path to a tremendous window of possibility. The possibility of realizing a just and interconnected world informed by mutual necessity, understanding, value and love requires that we take up the work of deepening our knowing of each other's cultures, and the fields of oppression and privilege that inform our connections.
Amina, excerpted from Matrix Leadership: The Art &
Science of Leading & Living in Radical
Interconnectedness, forthcoming, 2011.
2 McIntosh, Peggy, 'White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,' excerpted from Working Paper 189. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women'sStudies" (1988); reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.
3 Applebaum, Ibid, p. 4.
4 Applebaum, Barbara "White Privilege, Complicity, and the Social Construction of Race". Educational Foundations. FindArticles.com. 07 Mar, 2010. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3971/is_200310/ai_n9330066/
5 Frye, Marilyn, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory, Crossing Press: Freedom, California, 1983; p. 2-7.
6 Regan, Max, in personal conversation with the author, March 17, 2010.
7 Boyd, Gerald and DeMark, Joanne, Ph.D., trainers with the National Coalition Building Institute, in conversation & work with the author, 2001 - present.
MLI was an incredible experience that helped me grow tremendously personally and professionally. As a clinical psychologist, I had studied group process before. However, this was the experience that most helped me understand myself in new ways. The training was not easy nor simple but was one of the most important experiences in my life. Thank you for your caring, your expertise, and your loving leadership.
— Sue L., Ph.D.