One of the biggest things I’ve been dealing with since coming to Chicago — particularly since starting my internship with TJLP — has been learning to see, and check, my own privilege.
In his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, Alan G. Johnson uses Peggy McIntosh’s conception of privilege: “privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do”¹.
Part of the difficulty with recognizing my privilege is that I don’t have to — as Johnson writes, “[t]he ease of not being aware of privilege is an aspect of privilege itself, what some call the luxury of obliviousness’ (or, in philosophy, ‘epistemic privilege’)”². Not only does society not teach people to recognize their privilege (be it white privilege, or class privilege, or some other form), society generally acts as though those who are privileged deserve it.
Remembering my privilege can also be difficult because I’m not a member of the privileged group for many of the categories most recognized by society (I’m Korean; I’m trans — and before I identified as trans, I identified as a girl; I’m queer). I’m used to being the minority; it’s easy to fall into some kind of presumption that privilege doesn’t apply to me (although that’s obviously not true). As Johnson puts it, the lack of one kind of privilege can blind people to the other kinds of privilege they do have³. I certainly learned to recognize some of my privilege (class, particularly) a while ago, but other aspects (ability, for example) were only first noticed in college.
And absolutely, I’ve never been as challenged as I am now. It’s not that people are calling me out for being a classist or ableist, for example; it’s more that I’m now around people who are incredibly conscious about their privilege, and that, in turn, has made me more aware of my own privilege. It’s not a matter of political correctness; it’s a matter of seeing the ways that classism, racism, transphobia, and other kinds forms of oppression have been ingrained into that institutions that hold up society. It’s a matter of seeing how individual interactions are part of a broader, systemic picture.
It’s an odd balance. I find myself really nervous at times because I’m aware that I don’t know enough; I’m sure that I’m going to say something wrong. At other times, though, I’m struck by how oblivious other people are — their casual disregard for their privilege, their unknowingly offensive attitudes. How do I call someone out on that without alienating them, especially when I know that I mess up, too?
¹ Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. (McGraw Hill: Boston, 2006) 21.
² Johnson. 22.
³ Johnson. 23.