“Women, We Need to Stop Arguing About Privilege, ” says the Privileged

A little over a week ago, I came across an article on my newsfeed titled “Women, We Need to Stop Arguing About Privilege.” The author, Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, felt compelled to write the piece because of the emerging “Check Your Privilege” campaign that is sweeping social media, especially Twitter. According to the author, feminists who use the phrase are “well-intentioned and are making an attempt to maintain the sanctity of the feminist movement”; however, conversations about privilege “threaten to cut off the legs of the feminist movement before it can even crawl.” The author’s solution to the supposed privilege policing is to curb the conversations, since everyone has some form of privilege, and get to working on securing the rights “that we all want afforded to each other.” She ends by calling for a new hashtag on social media; instead of #CheckMyPrivilege we should utilize #CheckMyWork.

It would be an understatement to say that this article angered me. I read over it a few times and I continuously found reasons as to why this perspective on privilege is quite problematic. Ok, Caroline, who is a host and producer at HuffPost Live, wanted to weigh in on the conversation. After all, it is one that has become ubiquitous in social media, given the atrocities that have occurred in 2014, especially pertaining to police brutality. Additionally, it has been a topic of concern on the feminist agenda with Iggy Azalea’s shenanigans, the leakage of nude photos of Jill Scott and Jennifer Lawerence, and Emma Watson being appointed as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. It may appear, and the author makes such implications, as if the conversation is being dragged out, especially since “everyone has privilege”; however, I believe that discussions about privilege are critical and should not cease for the following reasons:

1. Privilege sets up a hierarchy; it allows certain individuals to thrive while marginalizing “the less fit.” More specifically, it allows White, middle-class individuals to have sole power and decide the outcome of others’ lives. There are countless examples to highlight this fact: colonialism of Native American land (that’s the real Thanksgiving story); the Trail of Tears, which further decimated Native Americans; slavery; Jim Crow laws;  involuntary sterilization; The Tulsa race riot; and Japanese internment camps. Though different people were involved,  the goal was the same each time: to dehumanize a group while using privilege to advance the dominant one. The hierarchy has been so entrenched in society that it has now become normalized. Therefore, a London born woman writing about how “we need to stop arguing about privilege” is acceptable simply because she has privilege.

2. Privilege silences others. When there is a hierarchy, those who are at the bottom are not recognized. It is as if they are rendered invisible. Whenever there have been movements against injustices, the privileged have led it and often ignored the concerns of those who were most oppressed. Ironic much? Take the women’s movements for example since that was the focal point of the article: White, middle-class women have always been the leaders. No, the feminist movement isn’t crawling as the author suggests, it’s been running for decades all over women of color and poor women. They are the ones who had to march in the back during the suffrage movement and the ones who were fighting to escape reproductive control and have their motherhood recognized during the reproductive rights movement. White, middle-class privilege silenced their voices and pushed them further down while their counterparts made advances.

3. Privilege allows blame to be placed on the oppressed instead of the real culprit. One example of this is the reverse racism argument and it works in the following way: the dominant group can destroy another group’s culture, deprive them of educational opportunities and economic stability, and devalue their reproduction, but when they speak out against the cruelty, they are then victimizing the dominant group. If they speak out against educational inequities and gain an ounce of opportunity, they are then taking all of the spots at colleges and now the dominant group is “experiencing discrimination.” If they speak out against the appropriation and exploitation of their culture, now the dominant group feels as if they are “being marginalized.” Privilege allows individuals to use the oppressed as the scapegoat so they can continue to exercise power over them and keep them in a certain place, leaving little room for mobility.

“Women, We Need to Stop Arguing About Privilege” was an attempt to unify the feminist movement, but there are certain things that the author should have considered before writing it. First, it is difficult to come together as one when you have been historically placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and your voice has been silenced and continues to be silenced in contemporary society. Second, it’s insulting to say that “everyone has some privilege” when only CERTAIN individuals benefit from that privilege. Yes, it may be a privilege to live in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, but what does that even matter when America continuously devalues your humanity and you are brutalized for just walking down the street in  “your” country. As Malcolm X so eloquently stated, “when we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”

So no, Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani. We don’t need to halt our conversations about privilege just because you have checked yours and you feel it is not necessary to examine who has more. We don’t need to re-focus that passion and fight for the real issues at stake because to be honest, we are NOT fighting for the same thing. What we need is for individuals to recognize AND relinquish some of that privilege. We need to uplift the voices of marginalized women and encourage them to lead the feminist movement instead of implying that they assimilate into what has always been dominated by White, middle-class women.

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What Happens When You Lack Privilege

In 1988, feminist Peggy McIntosh published the groundbreaking essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” The most notable excerpt from the essay was “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a selection in which McIntosh outlined specific privileges that most White individuals, including herself, experience on a daily basis. McIntosh’s work was so compelling because of her strong ability to recognize and critically analyze the privileges that the dominant group has experienced since the inception of this country. Privilege has been so ingrained in the fabric of America that, as McIntosh argued, it has become invisible. Similar to air, privilege is something that is not always visibly seen but still ever so present. And just as air is needed for survival, privilege is needed for the dominant group to maintain power and control.

McIntosh was one of few academics during the 80s who was brave enough to note how she engages in and benefits from privileges that are not afforded to all groups of people. Sadly 26 years after her essay, there are still people who are not as forthcoming about how they exercise and benefit from their privilege on a daily basis, either because it’s become so normal that they don’t realize it or that they are refusing to acknowledge it. And what’s so scary about privilege today is that if one is being called out for it, he/she sometimes plays the victim and even go as far as to say there is nothing wrong with privilege. But then again…privilege enables such arguments. I believe that some individuals have forgotten (or simply are unaware of) the manifestations of privilege. I’ve observed some occurrences in the past few months and have included them as a friendly update of how privilege continues to work in some groups’ favor while being deleterious to others. Instead of highlighting the advantages, I’ve decided to focus on what happens when you are not afforded that “special entitlement.” Essentially, it’s what happens when you become disadvantaged by others’ ability to exercise rights that you do not possess.

-Going to jail because you are struggling with drug addiction and had a child. However, there are minimal rehabilitation centers in your area and/or you can’t afford those services
-Going to jail because you can’t afford childcare and you need to work and/or find work to support your family
-Having your name posted and bashed on a website for being “the girl who ratted”
-Not being able to enter a business because you have on a hoodie
-Losing your life for not walking on the sidewalk
-Being raped by a police officer because you are a Black woman
-Not having your rapist brought to justice because of rape backlogs
-Not being able to call an event a Swahili name because it’s feared that it won’t be welcoming to the entire campus
-Losing funding because your organization does not appeal to the dominant group
-Not being able to afford a restaurant that someone picked out as a meeting place to discuss cases of injustices, including economic disparities
-Not being fully accepted by your family because your skin is darker and the community in which you live is racially intolerant
-Not being able to secure a job because you do not have a European name
-Not being able to get support for a film because you lack a White hero
-Not being informed of effective treatment for a deadly disease until individuals from another country and race become infected
-Not being offered effective treatment for a deadly disease because of your race and class
-Being labeled an “angry Black woman” for addressing pertinent issues that affect Black women
-Not receiving support for the leakage of nude images though support was offered a few days earlier to a woman of a different race
-Not achieving much success in the rap industry because someone has taken what you’ve worked hard to create, misrepresented it but still is highly profitable
-Not being able to have an initiative for your concerns while your male counterparts do
-Working a minimum wage job that pays $7.25 an hour and you have a family of 4
-Having to take a drug test to receive government assistance
-Being laid off from your job because you took time off for chemotherapy
-Being discouraged from applying to a job because you have a disability
-Being pulled over because you’re Black and you’re driving through a wealthy neighborhood
-Going to jail for protesting to raise the minimum wage to $15
-Going to jail for seeking justice for an unarmed teenager who was killed at the hands of a police officer
-Having to take measures such as carrying around a mattress to prove a point because your college refuses to properly address your sexual assault
-Being suspended multiple times for the same behaviors that your White counterparts display. However, they just get a phone call home
-Being told to talk “proper” English, insinuating that the way you talk is wrong though it’s part of your culture
-Being told that affluenza is a logical defense for all the behaviors that the White privileged engage in to marginalize other groups of people (like really)

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“Women Stop Emasculating Men”

While on social media sites, whether Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I frequently come across posts that describe how recent generations have deviated from norms that have been embedded in society for centuries. In particular, the norm that my contemporaries seem to greatly defy is an adherence to the traditional roles of women and men. Women in 2014 live drastically different lives than they did in the mid 20th century. With hit TV shows such as Scandal that has a female lead and Beyoncé’s release of “Run the World” and “Flawless,” two songs that highlight women’s empowerment, it seems that we are transitioning into an era in which women are becoming more comfortable with asserting and embracing their independence. It’s no longer uncommon for a woman to establish and sustain a source of income based off of her own skills and education. It’s no longer uncommon for a woman to seek and gain visibility in the public sphere. Overall, it appears that millennials are more accepting of women taking on roles that expand past the traditional ones of wife and mother.

Instead of all viewing this as growth, some perceive the shift as a downfall. In the last past week, I’ve encountered a significant amount of posts that discuss how a woman displaying independence is a disadvantage to society. She (an independent woman) is destroying the nuclear family unit by embracing autonomy. She is “emasculating the man” by trying to be self-sufficient. She is ruining her children’s lives and is one reason why males become trapped on the pipeline to prison. Though these statements may seem far-fetched, they are ones that I’ve read and also heard in conversations. Apparently (though not surprisingly and definitely not new) there are people who believe that women’s empowerment aka feminism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: at first glance it appears to be advantageous (especially coming from a time when women couldn’t vote or own land), but in actuality, it’s a threat to the lifestyle that our society has become accustomed to for years.

The lifestyle that feminism is so threatening to (and what some people are trying to salvage before there is “total destruction”) is one in which men subjugate women. When people argue that “women should let men be men and stop trying to take on their role, ” they are really saying, “let’s uphold patriarchy and keep women in a subordinate position.” Though it’s often phrased that feminism is a threat to the well-being of families and children, it really is seen as a threat to men and men only. This is because in order for women to have autonomy, men must give up some of the privilege and power that they have always held. They must agree to the social, economic, and political equality of women and recognize and accept them as their own agents. Feminism, just as other ideologies that aim to eradicate injustices, challenges a system that people have assimilated into for so long that some will guard it off in order to maintain an order that is not only deeply rooted in society, but in minds as well. Therefore, a change can be viewed as an affront even if that change is for the freedom of a group of people who have been devalued and dehumanized by the system.

When I hear or read about individuals asserting that women need to stop emasculating men with their independence, I realize how manipulative the system of patriarchy is. It tricks individuals into thinking that the ones who have been victimized are the perpetrators. It suggests that women’s empowerment is crippling and a disadvantage to men even though they are the ones who have historically maintained power and control. It shows that injustice is acceptable because when men declare independence they are praised, but when women do it they are castigated. Instead of asking women not to emasculate men with their independence, let’s ask men to relinquish some of their privilege and commend women for seeking recognition and freedom after being disparaged for centuries. In reality, patriarchy is detrimental to both women and men as it confines everyone to a rigid position with no room to move or grow. Feminism liberates us from that space and allows us to develop as individuals.

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Black Womanhood is a Spectrum

When I was younger, I used to believe that Black womanhood was solely synonymous with strength. After all, I was raised by a single mother who always stressed the importance of being strong in the midst of adversity, since that’s what she had become accustomed to while trying to raise three children alone. She believed that she had to be strong because single mothers encountered challenges on a daily basis and they couldn’t let their children see them sweat. This insurmountable strength was necessary not for herself, but for her children who looked to her to fulfill the duties of superwoman since the other parent was not present.

My mother made it her goal to pass on these same values to my sister and I while we were growing up. The essence of Black womanhood, in her opinion, was unshakable strength and self-reliance. We were taught that we shouldn’t rely on anything or anyone but God and that if we wanted our dreams to come true, WE had to make them happen. Life had taught her that she must fight for the things that she needed and wanted as a Black woman because people weren’t always dependable. She didn’t want us to have to endure the same struggles that she had to go through, so her vehement message to us was that independence and strength were necessary tools for a Black woman to lead a successful life.

For so long, I believed that these were the only tools that Black women needed and used them in my own life. Though I was born in an impoverished area and attended schools that had inadequate resources,
I was determined to be resilient and assert my independence. I excelled by coming into contact with organizations, such as the Memphis PREP Program, that exposed me to a variety of educational and networking opportunities. When it came time for college applications, I filled them out and mailed them off myself because like mama said, if I wanted something to happen I had to make it happen myself. Ultimately, I attended Vanderbilt University and became the first person from my immediate family to graduate from college.

Once I graduated, I was sure that what got me through an institution like Vanderbilt was my strength. Talk about overcoming a wide set of challenges! It was here that everything I had been taught and believed my entire life was tested: resiliency, faith, my intelligence and independence. Though I am a better person because of the experience, I no longer attribute unwavering strength as the thing that got me through my struggles. It would be untrue to say that I kept on strong with things despite my circumstances. I wanted to quit and contemplated doing so at different points throughout the four years. It would be untrue to say that my self-reliance got me through my obstacles. I wouldn’t have graduated without several people who offered guidance and support, including family members, friends, line sisters, professors, and mentors.

After graduation and even today, I still face a variety of challenges as a Black woman living in contemporary society. These challenges have led me to re-think the notion that Black women need to be strong and exactly what encompasses Black womanhood. Strength is definitely an aspect, but it is not the only thing that guides Black women’s efforts. Black womanhood is multifaceted and that’s the beauty of it all. I believe it’s ok for Black women to encounter failures and want to throw in the towel at some point. I believe it’s ok for Black women to not always have the solution to every problem. I believe that it’s ok for Black women to experience an array of emotions including love, anger, hurt, excitement, and fear. I believe it’s ok if we don’t always have it together. I’m thankful for the lessons and values that my mother has passed on to me, but also grateful that I can formulate concepts based on my own experiences as well. Black womanhood, in my opinion, is beauty, strength, resiliency, struggles, failure, wanting to give up at times, sisterhood, dependency, support, weak at moments, sacrifice, fear, and love. Overall, Black womanhood is a beautiful, fluid spectrum of humanity.

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Why There is Still a Need for Black Feminism (in 2014)

“The distorted male-dominated media image of the Women’s Liberation Movement has clouded the vital and revolutionary importance of this movement to Third World women, especially Black women. The movement has been characterized as the exclusive property of so-called White middle-class women and any Black women seen involved in this movement have been seen as selling out, dividing the race, and an assortment of nonsensical epithets. Black feminists resent these charges and have therefore established The National Black Feminist Organization, in order to address ourselves to the particular and specific needs of the larger, but almost cast-aside half of the black race in Amerikkka, the black woman…”

The above excerpt was part of The National Black Feminist Organization’s Statement of Purpose. Founded in 1973 by notable black feminists such as Florynce Kennedy, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was designed to give Black women a voice and space to express their struggles. For too long, Black women were put in a unique position where they had to choose their race over their sex in the Civil Rights Movement and their sex over their race in the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, it proved to be virtually impossible to choose one over the other since Black women experienced oppression primarily because of the intersection of their race AND sex.

This concept of Black women facing a “double burden” because of their identities surfaced long before Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” and perhaps has been around since African women were brought to this country. Being both Black AND woman allowed slave masters to rape slave women, exploiting their bodies for an increase in productivity and revenue. Being both Black AND woman allowed states to coerce women into sterilization because of the fear that too many Black babies meant people paying more taxes into the welfare system to support these children. Lastly, being both Black AND woman allowed negative depictions of Black womanhood to be perpetuated in the media, particularly the images of Black women as being hypersexualized, loud and lazy, and the contradictory image of Black women being good “mammies” to White children but unfit mothers to their own.

The founding members of NBFO recognized these struggles and were adamant about seeking the inclusion of Black women in society, since they had often been excluded from movements against racism and movements against sexism. Initially, this seemed like a powerful idea and the organization garnered widespread support from Black women. However, because members could not come to a consensus about strategy and politics, the organization became inoperative in 1977. 37 years after the demise of one of the first organizations to address Black women’s issues in a feminist context, it is sad to say that we, as Black women, haven’t made too many significant strides because we continue to live in a society that thrives off of our marginalization.

In 2014, Black women are still being subjected to sterilization, brutality at the hands of White men (mainly the police), and those same negative images of Black women are still lingering in society. We are still welfare queens, angry bitches, and according to Chris Brown, disloyal hoes. Black women continue to experience oppression because of our “double burden,” as we receive backlash from African American men and White feminists. Within Black communities, we are told that we are using feminism to dehumanize Black men and destroy the Black family and White feminists think we are far too angry and aggressive. Our issues continue to be placed on the back burner and today we can’t even find inclusion in the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, let alone gain our own space and establish an organization like NBFO. When will enough be enough? It’s time that Black women stop taking a back seat and waiting for a “better time” to address our concerns.

I know I am tired and I’m sure others are. In the words of Audre Lorde, “What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” The time is now to vocalize our experiences and make them known to whoever will listen because our silences never have and never will protect us.

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