Privilege: Seeing the Invisible

A comment by PortlyDyke responding to the Marcotte Book Imagery issue got me thinking (emphasis mine):

I honestly cannot believe the number of people here who have claimed that the use of racist imagery was some form of intentional irony, and who have chided others for not getting “the joke”, or to “lighten up”.

In order for something to be intentionally ironic/satirical, you have to consciously use a hyperbolic image or concept to point out an absurdity. That is not the case here. Seal Press has already said that they missed the racism — that they “were not thinking”. Amanda has said that she didn’t “catch it”.

That’s not ironic/satiric use of racist imagery.

It is blindness to racist imagery, which is based in white privilege — and blindness to white privilege has been precisely at the heart of all the issues about the cover, appropriation, and now, the artwork.

As I’ve watched this thread evolve over the past few days, the demonstrations of white defensiveness in the face of confrontation have actually surprised me (although I suppose they should not have) — it is simply astounding to me that progressives or feminists would defend these images in any way, much less in the ways that they have.

(Note: I myself defended Amanda specifically, not the images).  What’s interesting is the practical problem faced when discussing any sort of privilege.  Take male privilege.  A fairly blatant example comes mind.  In college there was a pathway through the woods between two dorms.  The path was narrow, poorly lighted, and filled with bushes and trees.  It was known colloquially as “The Rape Trail”.  While people generally walked across it in groups, I’d traverse it at night, by myself.  While at times I do confess to getting a sudden start from a quick movement in my periphery, by and large I did so with confidence.  Contrast that to worrying about walking home alone across a well-lit campus.  That stark difference in perception is one many men are not aware of.  Further, the socialization that produces that fear is one that is outside the realm of experience for most males.  Hence we might say their privilege blinds them.

On the flip side, its something I’ve experienced as a non-Christian.  I was raised as a conservative Jew (note: conservative Judaism is, intensity wise, in between reform and orthodox, and has nothing to do with politics).  So singing songs about Jesus in elementary school might seem normal to most other kids, while to me I was worrying about whether I could fake singing, or if I needed to abstain entirely.  A music teacher insisting I sing along did so blind to the idea that forcing someone to sing Christmas songs might slightly problematic.  The same might be said for the district in New Hampshire that scheduled school picture day on Yom Kippur (I like to think that was blindness).

In any case, if the problem of privilege is blindness, the natural question becomes, how do we find sight?  Generally there are a number of barriers to overcome to even get anyone with privilege to accept the concept, let alone that it applies to them and they need to make an effort to begin to see how it does.  The thing is, privilege is simply the natural mask of perception mixed with societal norms.  We live in a society that elevates rich, white, christian males.  Thus there is a corresponding privilege for each group, a sense in which their perceptual blind spot is supported by society.  Some of the outrage at the racist imagery in Amanda’s book came from the response.  The publication of the images was one thing, but the automatic defense of the images themselves was a textbook outbreak of privilege.

So if privilege consists of the uniqueness of individual perception combined with the support of society for the resulting blind spots, then both provide potential break points in the chain.

We are ultimately lucky to find privilege at work in a community that is, essentially, a community of allies.  Lucky because we have the most receptive audience possible outside of people who already understand and agree.  Therefore we ought to take care in bridging the gap within the feminist community.  Not only to engage in a rhetorical style that invites and empowers (and learning about privilege, especially your own biases and blindness, is an empowering experience), but to take notes.  Because the larger task facing us all is to address the societal support for privilege, and that means we’ll have to find a way to make the same case to people who are openly hostile to everything we stand for.

Let’s start with our friends.

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