We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s article and the TEDx talk (posted earlier) that further explained her paper and her life’s work. After showing the video, I gave each of the 12 students a notecard and told them to write in three minutes their immediate reactions to the article and TEDx talk: an observation, a challenge, a question. Here’s some of what I got:
- I like that she raises the point of white guilt and that it’s not our fault if we’re born into certain circumstances. However, as human beings, we should be held responsible for how we act in accordance to our circumstances.
- How is the idea of lessening white privilege separate from white guilt?…What could the emotional response be besides guilt?
- I appreciate that she made it clear that good people can be “oppressive” and that realizing that you are oppressive doesn’t magically rid you of privilege or oppressive thoughts / actions.
- It’s sad to think that so little has changed in 25 years.
- In the U.S. white people are generally favored just because of the idea of superiority that this nation was built on.
- While those benefitting from privilege are the ones who would be able to do something about the inherent unfairness of it, because they are the ones intertwined into the system, nothing gets done about it.
- Definitely written for a female audience. Some of her comments were not useful for making her point and were designed to elicit a negative response toward not just the oppressiveness to men, but men in general.
- A distinction that McIntosh makes in her paper—that privilege systems are detrimental to society as a whole, not just to the people who are oppressed by them, seems like it might be useful in teaching people of privileged groups about these systems and, at a basic level, convincing them of their existence since it can’t be read as accusatory and might not turn people away.
As expected, a range of responses. I really thought that #8 was smart and useful, especially in a community of privileged people. And, in our ensuing discussion, we were debating what rhetorical strategies could possibly be effective in bringing those benefitting from privilege systems into a conversation about the system’s dismantling. They were trying vehemently to find “the answer” (good students that they are), but I had to remind them that they weren’t expected to find “the answer,” but that their pursuit should be smart.
The students were exposed to a couple of $25 academic words for the first time in the paper: epistemology and hegemony. We talked a bit about epistemology and theories of knowledge and knowing. I posed this question as something that they should ask themselves continuously, especially while in educational environments: “How does my positionality bias my epistemology?” Or “How does who I am and where I stand in relation to these other people shape what I know about the world?” Considering these questions / aspects of oneself can really offer pathways for learning and self-understanding.
We circled back to the article after some more discussion, and I asked them which of the 46 privileges due to whiteness they found most effective. They all, surprisingly, rang out in agreement: “Number 46!” For her final “privilege” due to her race, McIntosh says, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.” The fact that she ends this list on a concrete image, a visual image, a concrete image, really grounds the list in lived experience. I couldn’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ mantra: “no ideas but in things.” There’s also T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative at work here, as well. McIntosh takes this idea of privilege, something rather abstract, and makes it a physical thing easily seen: a ‘flesh’ colored bandage. That resonated with us all.
When we looked to the end, where she lists eight heterosexual privileges, I reminded the class that she published this in 1988—at the height of the AIDS crisis and a much less accepting cultural attitudes towards the gay community. Queer studies didn’t really exist as a discipline, so McIntosh’s exposure of heterosexual privilege is both brave and forward-thinking. I asked them, though, why, in a paper titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege” that spends a 4 of its 20 pages (20%) discussing heterosexual privilege, does she not include “heterosexual privilege” in the title as well. They were quick to come to the conclusion that including bringing up sexuality in the title could have been the death knell for the paper; including a heterosexual privilege in the title could have been “too far” and thus deterred editors from publishing the paper.
I asked them if they thought that if I titled our course something like “Minority Literatures” or “Texts from the Margins” or something less loaded than Queer Literature and Theory my class would have had more people enroll. I wonder what sort of stigma, if any, they’ve experienced for signing up for a queer-labeled course.
Tomorrow, to reinforce some of the ideas of McIntosh’s discussion of privilege systems, I’m going to show them this cartoon.