Changing Perspectives on Privilege

I recommend this article “The Problem with Privilege” by Andrea Smith to folks thinking about anti-oppression work in their organizations, movements, or workshops.  There is an especially powerful section where she discusses solidarity work – in this instance, with indigenous communities, but I think the issues discussed would carry for people doing solidarity or ally work with any community.  FYI: It’s in fancy academic language, and I had to look a few words up, but I’m glad I did.

As a side note, there was this trend in my church camp I attended every summer (for free) for confessional stories around the campfire, where people would tell about rough times they had had and how Christianity/trusting God had guided them through. Of course, there are some beautiful aspects to this, but I sometimes felt a subtle one-upmanship. After all, God only challenged you with how much your faith could handle, therefore greater challenges equaled greater holiness, or at least, more time in center stage at the campfire. On the whole, I think these campfire confessionals were mostly a good thing; while they may have glorified the speaker’s struggle, they also made me feel less alone in mine. The issue I had with this model was that while I really see value in story sharing, I think a key piece that is difficult and sometimes lost is how we use our stories to build agency and power to address the root issues that created these problems to begin with. 

So back to activist culture, while I haven’t participated in the specific exercise Smith describes where people name their privileges to the group, I have certainly noticed the trend mentioned in many communities – from church camp as a kid through to activist circles:

“Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered….Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.”

Also known as the Oppression Olympics.  Of course, claiming and reclaiming various ways I have experienced oppression and privilege have been an important part of my journey to defining my own version of  health and success — so I try to prevent my eyes from rolling tooo hard when I see this happen.

What I am interested in, is discussion about how to get beyond talking about problems and move forward to have agency to fix your problems.  This was missing at church camp and it is missing from many anti-oppression workshops.  It feels pretty powerful to name our struggles, since we aren’t supposed to talk about them, and to name privileges, since they are invisible to many people, but then what?  A few interesting questions I think I might like to discuss in an anti-oppression workshop (maybe one someone else is leading):

  • What are good things and bad things about naming/reflecting on our own privileges and oppressions?
  • What work in the non-profit or activist work is ‘paid work’ and what is ‘volunteer work’ (In my experience, more allies/intermediaries are getting paid than directly impacted community members…) why are different skills/work valued differently?
  • How can we create more situations where directly impacted people are telling their stories for themselves, instead of audiences hearing about impacted communities through the lens of an ally/outsider/intermediary?
  • How can we create spaces and narratives where the privileged ally isn’t the person with agency capable of personal transformation and/or learning and caring about other cultures/struggles?
  • How do we move from naming the ideals we want to see in our groups/movements/societies to enacting them?
  • Think about and discuss the phrase “ally industrial complex”
  • And the classic, “How can one be a good ally?” but like, really y’all, let’s think about it.

In my small experience, I see movements/groups having the same Anti-Oppression 101 training over and over again – which I do think is valuable, especially for privileged folks who have never heard such things. But then what? The great challenge Smith presents in the article (I think) is to push people past self-reflection and individual transformation and towards movement reflection and societal transformation. An intimidating goal, but as she states:

Our imaginations are limited by white supremacy, settler colonialism, etc., so all ideas we have will not be “perfect.”


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