Privilege

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.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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18 Responses

  1. Bonnie Flint says:

    Excellent and thought-provoking post. Being priviledged does give us the opportunity to call ourselves “feminists” but it also gives us the voice and opportunities to do more. Also, you can’t just drop a “teaser” about your sacrament meeting and then not give details. Do tell!

    • mraynes says:

      Thanks, Bonnie! I like your point that being privileged gives us the opportunity to do more, that’s exactly how I feel. As for the sacrament meeting talk, let’s just say that I find it ironic that the bishop knew more about being a wife and mother than I do. 😉

  2. jks says:

    I’m a little confused. You didn’t actually stay put the entire time. You were a woman. So there was NO ONE there who was considered completely privileged, everyone had some sort of inequality that applied to them.
    Growing up “well off” and “academically gifted” I understand perfectly the humiliation of being privileged. It is often socially awkward and produces feelings of guilt.
    I am also privileged to have spiritual gifts like a testimony. I think my parents raised me well to understand that you have more responsibility and accountability if you are more privileged but you just do the best you can.

    • mraynes says:

      You’re right, jks, I did move once. Sorry that wasn’t clear, I was up late thinking I was in labor. I wonder what you feel your increased responsibility is as somebody who is privileged? I’m honestly curious about how others navigate this. Thanks!

  3. Conifer says:

    This is not a response to your whole post because I don’t have the time (sorry). I just have to say something about this sentence:

    (I hope I did that right.) I hear this kind of thing being said sometimes around here and FMH and I think it’s ridiculous. It’s just such a non-issue! I grew up super poor in a “broken family” with all kinds of other unprivilage that I could go into, but that doesn’t make me extra qualified to be a feminist. Not having lousy crap in your personal history doesn’t dequalify you. I just can’t wrap my brain around why anyone ever thinks this for even a moment.

    Most of the people I knew growing up were too beaten down and stressed and uneducated to take a good logical look at privilege and feminism and social mobility. They all had opinions on these issues, but they weren’t well informed or fleshed out and were often just plain wrong. And even if they had seen a big need for change, they would be too scared to try it themselves. They all had everything to lose.

    So my point is that if those people who are privileged think they don’t qualify to care about feminism or social justice just because they aren’t personal recipients of the worst of it then change is NOT going to happen. People who lose over and over again don’t have the courage to try again, but you guys do. You guys have been raised with the outlook that your voice can be heard and you have the right to make a stink about something you don’t like. Please don’t take that lightly. If you don’t champion these causes that aren’t personal to you then who will?

    I know I stereotyped in this; I know this doesn’t apply to everyone. But really, guys. Quit acting like you don’t deserve to do the right thing because you haven’t earned it.

    I probably won’t be able to be actively engaged in this discussion, but I wanted to at least say that.

  4. Excellent post! I’ll be thinking about this for quite a while.

    In acknowledging my own privilege, one thing occurs to me: “Where much is given, much is required.”

  5. Conifer says:

    Wow. I so totally did not do that right. Sorry! Here’s what I wanted to say and I won’t try that again.

    This is not a response to your whole post because I don’t have the time (sorry). I just have to say something about this sentence:

    “Should I stop being a Mormon feminist because I am not representative of those who suffer the most in our community?”

    I hear this kind of thing being said sometimes around here and FMH and I think it’s ridiculous. It’s just such a non-issue! I grew up super poor in a “broken family” with all kinds of other unprivilage that I could go into, but that doesn’t make me extra qualified to be a feminist. Not having lousy crap in your personal history doesn’t dequalify you. I just can’t wrap my brain around why anyone ever thinks this for even a moment.

    Most of the people I knew growing up were too beaten down and stressed and uneducated to take a good logical look at privilege and feminism and social mobility. They all had opinions on these issues, but they weren’t well informed or fleshed out and were often just plain wrong. And even if they had seen a big need for change, they would be too scared to try it themselves. They all had everything to lose.

    So my point is that if those people who are privileged think they don’t qualify to care about feminism or social justice just because they aren’t personal recipients of the worst of it then change is NOT going to happen. People who lose over and over again don’t have the courage to try again, but you guys do. You guys have been raised with the outlook that your voice can be heard and you have the right to make a stink about something you don’t like. Please don’t take that lightly. If you don’t champion these causes that aren’t personal to you then who will?

    I know I stereotyped in this; I know this doesn’t apply to everyone. But really, guys. Quit acting like you don’t deserve to do the right thing because you haven’t earned it.

    I probably won’t be able to be actively engaged in this discussion, but I wanted to at least say that.

    • mraynes says:

      Great comment, Conifer. I hope I didn’t sound whiny about my privilege, that wasn’t my intention. I also want to state that I am in no way trying to let myself off the hook, I just wanted to have a conversation about this since others have suggested that privilege is an issue. I agree with you, I have every right to advocate and it’s important to do so for people who can’t. When I was working with dv victims none of them cared that I had a college degree, they only cared that I could help them make their life better. It’s a interesting point you make on how privilege gives you the courage to use your voice, I think that is so important. Anyway, thank you for adding your perspective, I really appreciate it!

  6. Jesse says:

    I think the conversation is the point–not one, single conversation, but an ongoing conversation and awareness of others around me–a constant striving to tap into the experiences and perspectives of others more and less or simply differently privileged than I am.

    Of course, when I speak, I do not speak for everyone…I speak for myself, but my words and actions can be informed by the experiences of my bereaved friend, my abused Sister, my divorced aunt, my psychotic brother, my alcoholic father, my neighbor-without-a-home. However, they will only be informed by those perspectives if I make the effort to engage those individuals–and it can be a huge, intimidating effort for me because the divide between us sometimes seems so wide.

  7. ssj says:

    I’ve done similar exercises in my counseling classes. I have always found it to be eye opening and a little humbling. I guess after thinking about this topic a lot, I have gotten over the “white guilt” because there is nothing I can do to change the circumstances I was raised. Warren Buffet calls it the ovarian lottery and I won. The small amount of traveling I have done has forced me to accept my privilege. What I can do is be aware, be empathetic, and help out in any way I can. I have a brother and sister that were raised in a very poor part of Ethiopia. The awareness of my privilege has helped me to understand them better and helped me to grow closer to them.

    • mraynes says:

      You make a great point, ssj, there’s no point in becoming paralyzed by guilt. Guilt just confounds the problem of privilege. I’m glad you bring up empathy, I think part of being a disciple of Christ is the ability to be empathetic and then do good from there. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Kmillecam says:

    Understanding my own privilege has been one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had. It continues to amaze me as I realize a new area where I wasn’t aware of my privilege. I love to hear stories of what it is like for people different than me. It is very satisfying for me to hear and understand where other people are coming from, so I can feel connected to them and interconnected with them as well.

    It’s hard to walk that line between privilege-awareness and the guilt of enjoying that privilege when there isn’t much you can do about it.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    An eloquent post with eloquent comments that I totally agree with.

    As one of the white, educated, married, SAHM/feminist, I wonder how we can adequately represent the experience of those who are different from us to stay true to the goal of making feminism inclusive. Sadly, I don’t think we can, but I do feel responsible to try when the opportunity arises.

    I also feel like it’s my duty to make sure that women who don’t share the privileges I do feel welcome and like their voices have a place (and are respected) on this blog and other feminist forums because I have women in marginalized groups say they don’t feel heard in the Church or in Mormon feminism. I wonder how we can as Mormon feminist institutions can do this better.

  10. Corktree says:

    Sometimes I feel privileged even in Mormon communities, making it doubly hard to identify as a feminist. I don’t get the social capital aspect of it. I’ve never seen any advantage of claiming the label around members, and it’s true that we are a bit behind in relation to mainstream feminism, so I don’t see this aspect as indicative of those adopting the term.

    I agree with Kmillecam. I thrive on hearing the experiences of others so that I can be more aware of the perspective that my privilege clouds. I do feel guilty much of the time, but I try to remember that I can do more about these issues than others (in some aspects), and that I should be using my privilege for others instead of myself.

    I would really like to hear more from those that fall under different labels from myself, but I wonder if we need to be careful of calling people “less privileged” in any form. I wouldn’t want anyone to consider it a self-fulfilling prophecy or judgment.

  11. jks says:

    What is our increased responsibility and accountability if we are privileged?
    I think it all comes down to humility. Truly understanding who God is, who we are and who everyone else is. Then the arrogance and judgement can fall away and we can do God’s will here on earth that he wants us to be doing.
    I think the parable of the talents is fairly applicable. I’ve been given a knowledge of who I truly am. Whatever my circumstances, am I doing the best I can with them? There isn’t some set thing that I have to do. It is really just about taking each day and trying to improve myself and trying to serve others because ultimately, I am just trying to serve the Lord. Some days it might mean that all I did is I made mistakes and then repented. Some days it might mean that I was an amazing mom plus I managed to serve many different people (like last Sunday when I taught teen Sunday School, taught primary, fulfilled my music calling plus took an elderly sister to and from church because I can drive and she can’t). At a certain point I thought….is this crazy? Is this too much? But I decided that no, it wasn’t too much for that particular day. I’m not about being a martyr, but I am about letting the Lord know each day that today I will do what you think is most important for this day and within my realm of responsibility I try to do it. When my marriage is on the rocks its different than when I have an infant and PPD its different than when I’m sick its different than whatever else my circumstance brings. So I totally get your feeling about knowing you’re privileged yet also knowing that you have challenges and sometimes getting through the day in one piece seems like a major accomplishment.
    It is nice to be 39 and to see half of the big picture that my life has half made. It is nice to have some perspective.
    This is especially on my mind because my life now screams “perfect Mormon family”. I’m now a walking commercial. Certain recent events bumped me up a little so I’m now a little sensitive that I’m in that category that makes others feel a slap in the face. So I continue to do what I can to truly love and serve others. I appreciate all the trials that have happened in my life because I have learned from them….does that mean my trials weren’t bad enough? I guess my husband survived his cancer. My son did start to talk and just has an LD. My daughter’s issues weren’t the worst and she handled them well and hopefully without long term damage. My husband is no longer addicted to a computer game. My husband’s layoff only resulted in 2 months of unemployment and I apparently can live with the insomnia it started. My sisters don’t hate me anymore although we aren’t always close. We made it through all the PPD and medication seems to keep my chronic anxiety to a completely livable level.
    I could keep talking about this, but I really think the gospel can help us. If we are really living the gospel we are spreading positive energy in the world. Imagine everyone being humble and serving the Lord and loving others. Someday maybe.

  12. Brooke says:

    I love this post, mraynes. It is something I think about every day as I go about a city where the divide between privileged and underprivileged is so obvious and so close in proximity. One of the most moving films I’ve seen sort of put this into perspective for me: Dark Days (2000) made by Marc Singer (and the most moving part of the story is the actual making of the film). I think this man exemplified helping/advocating for the underprivileged without being condescending. Have you seen it?

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