Which version have you seen more often?
Archives For privilege
My first encounter with Peggy McIntosh‘s concept of “the invisible knapsack” was in 1999. I was 23 years old. I had just moved to Washington, DC a few months prior to work at Arena Stage in the education department (a two person plus an intern office at that time). We were to work closely with Living Stage Theatre Company, seek alignment between the “two organizations” (not really separate since Living Stage was a part of Arena but that’s another story). The entire staff at Living Stage and the education department went through an intensive, multi-day anti-racism/anti-oppression training with the great Rebecca Rice and Erika Thorne. I contextualize because it was a gift I thank the universe for every day.
It was the first time I became aware of the reality of systemic racism, White supremacy, and the backpack of privilege I carry with me everywhere.
W.E.B. Du Bois described the concept of “psychological wage”in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction in America. It was a mindset, a status boost, that allowed White laborers to feel superior, to feel better-than Black ones in the workplace despite being on the same employment level. Du Bois would go on to identify the colonial activity of Europeans and subsequent “White supremacy” across the world. While the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the Civil Rights era by activities, it wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh, a Women’s Studies scholar at Wellesley, wrote her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988 that the term gained traction.
McIntosh, a White woman like me, was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” But in methodically going through and identifying the daily, seemingly mundane effects of her White Privilege–her mind was blown.
My mind was also blown when my knapsack was pointed out in 1999… and I journeyed through a series of extremely typical responses people of privilege do when confronted for the first time (in this case White people confronted with White privilege and systemic racism):
- What?!? No!
- Sure, but not me? I’m not like that.
- All White people!?!?
- But I’ve had friends who are not White. I’ve dated non-Whites. I’ve….
- Does this mean [enter Black friend’s name] won’t be my friend anymore?
- Not me.
- Oh my, me? Me?
And this was not a five-minute journey. And there was crying. Because of course there was. There was a lot of guilt. There were long periods of knapsack removal and ignoring attempts. There was a long stretch of extreme over-compensation in which I was the most obnoxious “righteous not-listening person because ‘I am a person in-the-know’.”
At this point, I think I’m in a phase of perpetual “working on it.” But that’s a wobbly phase. The knapsack, it is invisible and therefore so easy to forget. There’s no ridding myself of it. There’s no emptying it. Somedays I am back in my “not-listening person” state and bless the patience of everyone around me as I swing my knapsack around and point screaming at all the knapsacks on everyone around me. [shudders at self with embarrassment, then gets over it]
The point: privilege is a knapsack society packed for us and slapped on our backs. The first step on the journey is acknowledging it’s there.
Is that your bag? Yup.
Not familiar with McIntosh’s article? Follow this link for a commonly excerpted version.
A privilege is an advantage, or right, or opportunity, or pleasure, or immunity granted to a particular person or group of people. “Privilege” is the holding of a set of advantages, rights, opportunities, pleasures, and/or immunities as a person or group of people. By definition it means there are others who do are disadvantaged, left out and behind, uncomfortable, pained. By definition it means there is imbalance and inequality (according to yesterday’s post, does it imply those who are “unlucky” according to “the system’s standards”).
Another definition of privilege I’ve encountered, from Facebook of all places, is this: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.”
Phoenix Calida defined and broke-down “privilege” thusly:
Privilege simply means that under the exact same set of circumstances your in, life would be harder without your privilege.
Being poor is hard. Being poor and disabled is harder.
Being a woman is hard. Being a trans woman is harder.
Being a white woman is hard, being a woman of color is harder.
Being a black man is hard, being a gay black man is harder.
This does not mean that having privilege, unearned advantages, in any area automatically makes life “better.” But it does mean “all things being equal” doesn’t exist. The starting line will always be ahead. Less metaphorically, it means that anyone holding privilege is more likely to have power or being in positions of power. They are more likely to share this power with people “like them.” And power-sharing, whether it’s investment tips, a role in a play, or the benefit of the doubt when stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation, increases the “betterment” for only some.
Are there definitions of privilege you’ve found useful? Please share. In this case: sharing knowledge to all –> empowering all to affect positive change.
Challenging myself this month to more openly reach out to my White, non-disabled, Hearing colleague with my writing. Seeking to share my perspectives, as jumbled as they may be right now at the point in the journey I’m on, and encourage more dialogue about diversity, inclusion, access, and equity. A fool’s errand? An out for my ramblings? Possibly both. I hope you’ll humor me. I hope you’ll join me. – rg
Growing up with a sibling, the desire for equality burned in heart, I saw personal injustice everywhere, and the phrase “that’s not fair” lived on the tip of my tongue, ready to be unleashed on the adults around us.
But, looking back on this behavior, I am embarrassed. I know despite any challenges we may have faced how “lucky” we were to have been raised in a two-parent household, to never go hungry, to always have a roof over our heads, to have access to high quality medical care, to have been able to attend college, for her to be able to attend graduate school. This “luck” is a result of the privilege we inherited from our ancestors, who happened to be White non-disabled U.S. citizens. Yes, my father’s parents are Jewish and, yes, my sister and I are both cis-gender female. This does afford us less privilege than, say, a Christian Anglo-American cis-gender male United States citizen. And yet, we are doing just fine by comparison. Consider a handful of stats:
- Young black boys/men, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white boys/men
- In April 2015, the unemployment rate for White U.S. Citizens was around 4.7%. At that time, ABC News reported that the unemployment rate for Black citizens had landed at a “seven year low of 9.6%.”
- Repeated studies have been released over the past few years demonstrating managers’ preferencing job candidates with names who sounded “more White” than “more Black.” Managers have also expressed less preference for a candidate with the exact same qualifications when the candidate was identified as female rather than male.
As I continue to educate myself, and hopefully in the process broaden my perspective, develop a deeper understanding of what “fairness” actually means in this world, I continue to revisit the many privileges I possess. And, I humbly hope, position myself to advocate for greater equity. Because right now, things sure as hell aren’t fair.
In honor of February, I propose an official ban on the phrase “I don’t see color” and derivative phrases of this sentiment used in the non-profit theatre community like “color-blind [___fill in the blank___].”
Who’s with me?
Not convinced already.
- Watch part two of Jane Elliot’s The Angry Eye, starting at 10:00 (ps found one #withcaptions). Sharing not as an endorsement necessarily, but at 10:15 she asks a student if he identifies as male and black; he confirms he does. She asks if it is important to him ; he confirms it is. Why would we want to deny this of him by “not seeing” it, she asks.
- Did anyone hear about Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of “colored people” in an interview with Tavis Smiley, referring to black actors? (what he said at bottom of article) Yes, the phrase “People of Color” is widely used, abbreviated to POC. I have also heard POC referred to as “People of Culture” which I both am interested in (gets away from “colored people”) and uncomfortable with (moves us in the #allLivesmatter direction). This is a roundabout way of saying, let’s check our vilifications and generalizations.
- In December Lavina Jadhwani (Artistic Associate, Silk Road Rising and Oak Park Festival Theatre) shared her thoughts on color conscious casting in a HowlRound journal article. She details the process she and her design team went through in casting The Dutchess of Malfi at DePaul University. Getting a thorough look inside their decision making—fascinating. But what I loved was how concisely she summarized “the issue” in her opening paragraph: “I can’t think of an environment, in real life, where race doesn’t factor into relationship dynamic….I prefer the term ‘color conscious casting,’ by which I mean that race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.”
While my undergrad theatre instruction was narrow, it taught me that “to ignore” is not an active verb tactic. The same is true of white people when it comes to negotiating conversations about race.
If you too decide to ban “color-blind [___fill in the blank___]” from here on out, I recommend starting with reading Jadhwani’s HowlRound piece and these two articles. The first one (shared with me by the amazing Natalie Hopkinson who you should also follow because, well, she’s amazing) eventually introduced me to the word “unbalanced” to describe the feeling people of privilege have when discussing or navigating situations that spotlight their privilege. It’s not something we’re used to seeing. But it is a part of our identity, and there’s humbling strength to embrace it.
FWIW, Benedict Cumberbatch said:
“I think as far as colored actors go it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.”
“We’re not representative enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up apace.”
My husband and I sit side-by-side most mornings here drinking coffee in bed, staring at a gorgeous rising sun and reading the newspaper. On our devices. I read the backlog of blog entries from the last 4-11 months. Sometimes I tweet them. I’ve been accused of not really being on vacation, because I’m using my iPhone. [sigh] No, I’m not disconnecting myself from the rest of the world while on vacation. I spend so much time disconnected from it as is on a daily basis. It’s a pleasure to have the time to re-engage with it. In fact: last year after vacation I attempted to carry forth the morning coffee and news reading ritual throughout the year (mild success). This year I’m experimenting with not bringing my phone, also my camera, with me everywhere. No access to anything, happy haters?, BUT, no picture taking. Gotta tell you: not missing it. Don’t need to document every day at the beach. Even tested a theory that no one would notice and posted a photo from two years’s ago vacation on Facebook:
This all reminds me of the study/project I was a part of at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s Museum Camp 2014 about whether the use of technology allows you to enjoy nature more. At first I was on the “screw you anti-technology people, let us Instagram if we want to” side of the debate (impartial in the study, obviously). Now, definitely not so sure.
On my mind a lot these days (read: years) but nothing like being on the beach with your spouse and good friends in January to bring it to the forefront. It’s also primary in my thoughts because of my work on Squares. (which has been in development since fall 2013 but kicks into higher gear in 2015) and an upcoming dog & pony dc ensemble meeting to review year one of our diversity and inclusion initiative, and plan for this year’s work (year one significantly changed our landscape). I’m in the privileged position of being able take personal and organizational-based action in myriad ways to raise awareness of privilege, seek to educate myself and others, create space for dialogue in which I can listen and be heard, promote intersectional thinking, and increase the spheres of people who are openly conversing and acting for equity. (Check this recent HowlRound post, I dug it.) So, no, I am not feeling guilty or bad (ok, maybe occasionally a little) In the midst of all this sunshine, sand, and surf, but this vacation allows me important reflection time. It’s vital amidst all the upcoming activity to remind, to reinforce that this work is a journey. There is no final destination we to reach. But we must always keep moving toward it.
Work /Life Balance
Two colleagues mentioned they’re working on this in 2015, one who is trying to weight “life” more and one who is trying to weight “work” more. If I asked them, my guess is both–hell, everyone–would say I weight work too much…to the point of having almost no “life.” As a person with no children, though, and who currently manifests her passion in her job, my “work” and “life” are complicatedly intertwined. But let’s pause for a moment: what does this phrase “work/life balance” mean? Life means: friends? pets? significant other? children? going to happy hour? working out? binge watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? taking a figure drawing class? all of the above?
A friend/collaborator and I were talking about another mutual friend who’s spouse is very into cosplay. If I worked at a bank, but spent all my free time and disposable income on costumes and travel to conventions, would I have a work/life balance problem? No, we determined. “dog & pony dc is your cosplay.” she declared. Yes. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek out relationships with others and go for drinks, hit the gym, binge watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or expand my horizons. I like doing those things, and they make my work and life richer, more vibrant. They balance my scales.
For the first time since high school I am actively trying to learn another language, American Sign Language. It terrifies me. I’m known to utter the phrase “I barely speak English,” and I don’t think people understand how much that’s actually true. I’m highly insecure about my understanding of parts of speech, grammar, syntax, and my inability to spell. I eschewed formal classes, knowing that environment didn’t serve me in the past, finagled a most excellent ASL tutor and have excellent, understanding friends and collaborators who are Deaf or ASL interpreters. None the less: I’m petrified that it won’t actually take me years upon years, it will take me never. Is it possible that I’m too old to acquire a new language? Or is my brain not hardwired to learn languages? Yes, I am doing my ASL homework on vacation but I’m also obsessing about multiple intelligences theory and the diversity of mine.
Which is to say I thing “the ocean is beautiful,” or “am I going to fall asleep,” or “rum is good,” or “I love my husband” for extended periods of time.
“Do you sense a tension…”
“I’m hearing a tension…”
“Let’s explore that tension…”
The “t” word appeared many of my sentences last year as I attempted to more closely examine the relationship between beliefs or practices with conflicting implications, rather than my opinion of a particular situation.
What do I mean by “tensions”?:
- the Narrative – Experience tension
- the Impact – Reach tension
- the Privilege – Responsibility tension
However: it isn’t until months later that I feel I’ve gotten enough distance on a particular event of 2014 to be able to clear my vision and articulate the tensions in spite of my opinions. I knew that when I jump started A Big Eyed Fish that I needed to force myself to tackle this topic in the first few posts.
There’s a laundry list of disclaimers I could go into, but instead I ask everyone to know that I am writing with the best intentions, writing solely from my personal perspective, and writing with the purpose of prompting reflection… and possibly dialogue.
This fall, Virginia-based theatre company WSC Avant Bard jointly produced the world premiere of Visible Language with Gallaudet University. The show told “the true story of the 1890s culture war when two powerful and egotistical men—Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet—clashed over how the Deaf should be taught to communicate. The outcome of that contest…changed the life of every Deaf person in America.”
Tension: Hearing Production – Deaf Story
Visible Language was written, directed, featured, and publicly produced predominantly by hearing people. And I want to emphasize publicly produced; I was surprised to learn after see the show that it was a “joint production” (the phrase on WSC’s website) with Gallaudet University’s theatre department (addressing this next). The dominant language in the show was spoken English. The show was 100% captioned and a handful of scenes (regretfully I don’t know an exact number) transpired in American Sign Language (ASL). A number of the characters engaged in “Sim-Com” or simultaneous-communication, speaking English and signing at the same time, which is technically speaking two languages at the same time and still privileges the spoken word over the signed.
What responsibility does a company have to be aware of its own privilege when producing a show that features the history, stories, language, people, and voices of a non-dominant culture and community? What responsibility do the hearing artists who wrote and directed the show have to turning over the reins of artistic leadership of this project to their Deaf artist collaborators? Who was the most appropriate company to produce the show? Should it even have been finished in the first place, after having initially been commissioned numerous years ago by another company for which it may have been stewarded with more care? I am not suggesting that Avant Bard should not have tackled this project. I love that they did. But I question whether the privilege the hearing artists held, because they are hearing, prevented them from realizing the tremendous responsibility they were shouldering with this endeavor and the amount of capital they withheld from their collaborators.
Tension: Professional Production – University Production
While Visible Language was a professional theatrical production, it was also the student production at Gallaudet. What is the responsibility of the producing organization to serving the needs of students when in partnership with academic institutions? The needs of the faculty and alumni? What was the impulse behind the partnership for the producing organization? What did Avant Bard provide the students of Gallaudet as far as professional training? How is that being extended beyond this one experience?
And, because Gallaudet is a higher education institution dedicated to the “advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals” and Avant Bard is a hearing theatre company…where was the imperative from Avant Bard to uphold and forward that mission through Visible Language?
Tension: Promotion of Inclusion – Maintaining Critical Standards
Washington Post closed out its review thus: “Visible Language makes you want to lean in and understand.”
Washington City Paper with: “There’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems….The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.”
DC Metro Theatre Arts noted the show “moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.”
Which is AWESOME!
But these quotes were drawn from reviews that also commented on the production as being under-rehearsed (e.g. actors dropping large sections of lines), songs as “insipid,” script as “expository,” “moving forward with blunt strokes,” and “leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction.” Read all the mainstream reviews for Visible Language in full, and one gets a feeling of cheerleading an underdog.
Broadwayworld.com remarks: “Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a ‘unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing,’ and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. “ How does the reviewer, who I am guessing is hearing, know this?
A Twitter conversation on #OccupyVL (a hashtag initially started just for the group I attended the show with to discuss our reactions) revealed:
@jrscoyote Yes, and the pacing and staging is driven by the music, so the signing seems ‘shoehorned’ in and suffers accordingly #OccupyVL
@DrKVG I see it as driven by ENGLISH not by music. The ASL had no connections to music in terms of beat, handshape, motion etc. #OccupyVL
Also shared on the hashtag from the blog Surdus Explores:
“Most songs are given the SEE [Signed Exact English] treatment, which renders them fairly meaningless. A poem closes the show; it receives the same treatment. While SEE can help us perceive the English side of a poem in writing, it doesn’t lend itself to the performance of meaning.”
I share all this not to debate or debunk the critics, or to say the production was not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary—the exact opposite. However: what is the balance of critical review and promotion of inclusion, of equity, on DC stages? What role can the media play in this? How might the critics, writing for audiences not artists, encourage mainstream population (i.e. hearing) attendance at productions like Visible Language but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate cycles of inspiration porn?
Still, three months after seeing the show, I remain disappointed in my hearing peers’ decisions with this production. While I don’t believe they acted with any ill intentions, I believe they acted with the paper bag of hearing privilege over their heads. Who knows whether it was the scope of the project, the notoriety, the possibility for notoriety, or just the simply not knowing, and with some education, thinking you know all?
Not knowing the full story, I can only surmise based on what it felt like from the outside.
But I am left with these questions, and so I leave you:
- What is the producers’ responsibility in carrying conversations forward that their productions begin, once the show is done?
- What is the tension between the privilege we have as non-profit arts organizations and our responsibility to the communities with which we collaborate? the communities we serve? the greater communities that support us?