December 1, 2016

Why You Should Stop Using the Word Privilege

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If you think accepting your privilege and checking your ego at the door is important – even necessary – to improving social justice and harmony in our world, hear me out. I agree with you. But let me tell you where I’m coming from and why I think we need to stop using the word privilege.

Life in an MFA program in Creative Writing sometimes feels more like constantly being reminded to check my privilege, speaking excessively politically correctly in order to keep spaces safe, and striving to be liberal enough to fit in. When I came into the program, I had three focuses: reading, writing, and teaching. A discussion of privilege was not what I’d signed up for. I am not criticizing my specific program at UNC-Wilmington. I love it, and I have learned more about my own privilege in the past year than ever before. It’s forced me to look hard at what I’ve been given in life rather than what I’ve earned and to reach out to and fight for people who didn’t have these opportunities and had even more setbacks from the very beginning.

I want to note that this emphasis on privilege doesn’t apply to all of my colleagues and professors at all. There is a circle of us who share our issues with this and want to focus more on writing as art than the way in which it’s carefully presented so as not to offend anyone. Whereas our far left colleagues are outspoken about their views, the majority of us who disagree with them (to some extent) are afraid to speak up and only do so with one another, behind closed doors. When I spoke up, one colleague left the room because it wasn’t a safe space. In doing so, she shut down the conversation and shut me out.

The majority of us in this circle are white, male, and straight. Does it make you like me more that I’m female and bisexual? Will that help my argument more? We’ll see. It is important to remember that the majority of us are white, male, and straight and aware of our privilege (and I know you’re rolling your eyes at me because you hate white, male, straight people). But it’s important to your own cause that you understand their perspective and stop rolling your eyes.

Here’s why.

Too often, we as academics, writers, and social activists turned social justice warriors use academic terms that the real people who are suffering from lack of privilege and the real people who won’t accept their privilege never use. If you’d brought up the term privilege to me growing up in Tennessee, I would have laughed at you (and I considered myself pretty radically liberal in that location). I also would have been thoroughly offended. Me? Privileged? You’ve got to be kidding. From my perspective, I didn’t have privilege. Privilege was a word that brought to mind Donald Trump with his golden wallpaper and golden toilets, the people who had vacation homes, housewives who drove Hummers, and the boys at Putt-Putt who got paid more than me even though I managed them. I didn’t realize then that being healthy, white, and middle-upper class was what my privilege meant. And I know from living in the south surrounded by religious conservatives that the majority of them feel the same way I felt before a year in graduate school. 

When you point out someone’s privilege, especially in the south, you make them feel attacked. They immediately go on the defensive and build a wall against everything they’re about to hear. I know this because I’ve been trying to talk to them this entire election season, using the word privilege, and it hasn’t worked with one of them.

I think as writers who actually wish to see a change in the world, we need to take into account one aspect of our work much more seriously: our audience. While I’ve enjoyed reading cultural critics who take on a more accessible voice (I’m looking at you, Roxanne Gay), I still think we’re missing the mark. We are writing to each other: a small, exclusive club of people who are all wildly privileged thanks to our education. (Check your privilege, readers). We aren’t writing to the very people we want to change, the people who we want on our team. Rather than educating, we are isolating ourselves and alienating the people we hope to reach. 

My biggest problem with the present state of the creative writing world is that it has corralled itself in. I believe the academic world is more separate from the rest of the world than ever before. No one besides us reads our academic journals. No one besides us reads our literary magazines. What are we getting done by just talking to each other? What are we getting done entrenching ourselves in theory, regurgitating the same thoughts to one another in mental masturbatory circles? We’re feeding our egos. We’re ignoring our privilege. And we’re making division, even hatred, and especially contempt in our country worse.

As a creative nonfiction writer, I believe more than ever that we have a responsibility as writers. We have the power to change things, to change minds, to persuade, to connect. E. M. Forster put it best: “Only connect.” And with his literary novels, understanding of the less academic, and outreach via the radio, he connected much more than we do because he opened up himself to others in words they understood. 

Psychologists who study affect (your facial expressions) during conversations with significant others have found the greatest predictor for a relationship that will fail is contempt. We as liberals ideally paint ourselves as tolerant and understanding. We are, undeniably, contemptuous of much of the American public. This has to stop.

Empathy is what we need right now. Stop talking and start listening. There are people uneducated and educated who are racist, sexist, and bigoted in many ways. Some of them may be impossible to reach. Others, though, can be reached. They did not have evil intentions in voting for Donald Trump – they did it because they thought he would make their world better or because that was what everyone in their circle was doing. They did it because Hillary Clinton is not perfect no matter how awesome her pantsuits are. Instead of telling people you disagree with they’re privileged, listen to why they believe Trump will help them (even though you disagree with them, even if you hate Trump so much you wish he were dead). Strive to understand them.

Instead of pointing out how they’re privileged, tell them about your own experience and how you’ve learned you’re privileged (without using the word privileged). Even better, show them by example. Invite them to help others in ways that they understand, rather than posting a rant on Facebook that will only make them unfollow you (or unfriend you, as my aunt did). I have this perspective because I learned the hard way.

If you want true social change, encourage people who don’t see their privilege to find their own way to do so. Instead of telling them they’re privileged, ask them if they’d ever want to go volunteer with you somewhere you know they’d learn about their own privilege, without ever having to use the word. Have honest and open conversations. Above all, listen to them, practice empathy, and let them learn on their own time, in their own way. TC mark

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