On the first day of my first graduate seminar, the professor announced that we were going to do an exercise to “check our privilege.” She asked us all to line up against the wall and instructed us to walk across the room when she read a statement that applied to us. This was supposed to be a visual representation of what privilege looks like; those who walked across the room were the unprivileged class, those who stayed put were the beneficiaries of a social inequity. The exercise started with the question, “Are you a woman?” I walked across the room and then…stayed put. “Are you a person of color?” “Do you come from a single parent home?” Are you or have you ever been overweight?” “Have you or any of your family members been incarcerated?” Do you identify as homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, queer?” I was the only person who stayed in the same spot the entire time.
I was stunned by my privilege. I had never seen it so starkly contrasted and to be honest, I was a little humiliated by it. I worried about my credibility as an advocate for the abused and under-privileged. But more than that, I was uncomfortable because I don’t feel privileged. I, like everybody else, have struggles in my life. I have struggled with chronic illness and depression, our finances feel tighter than they should, life feels very hard right now. I don’t feel like I get any special rewards for being me and yet I am an exceptionally privileged woman.
This feeling of discomfort has arisen again as recently the issue of privilege among the Mormon feminist community has arisen. I am a white, western, highly educated young woman. I married in the temple to an active priesthood holder and am the mother of almost three children. But once again I don’t feel privileged. I have been deeply hurt by the patriarchy. It didn’t feel like I had any social capitol when my bishop got up after my sacrament talk and corrected what I had said about being a Mormon wife and mother. It doesn’t really feel like a privilege to be nine months pregnant and to already have two hyper-active toddlers to nurture. And yet I recognize that the specifics of my life do make me as privileged as I can be within our community.
Privilege is a touchy subject and it is perfectly natural to feel defensive about one’s own privilege. After all, it’s not like we did anything to deserve it and most of us are just trying to do the best with what we’ve been given. When these situations arise I always wonder to myself, what am I to do? Should I stop being a Mormon feminist because I am not representative of those who suffer the most in our community? I have always thought that the best way to deal with my privilege is to be self-aware about it and then do all I can to address the injustice. This is why I’ve chosen a career in public service and also what motivates me to speak out for equality within Mormonism. But the fact that I get to choose this is symptomatic of my privilege and so is perhaps patronizing in and of itself.
I’m not sure what the answer is here but I do think it’s important to have the conversation. How do we recognize our privilege and be sensitive to different experiences? How do those of us who want to make a difference do so in a way that isn’t condescending? How do we respectfully represent the experience of those who are so different from us? It’s a difficult conversation to have but without it we run the very real risk of becoming complicit in oppression.