Thursday, December 5, 2013

Writing Privilege on My Face

I found it eerily beautiful when we unveiled the twenty large photos at the gallery opening of "The
Privilege Campaign," an educational effort a group of my colleagues and I have been working on. Each photo has an administrator's or faculty member's individual face staring out at you, with writing on their image. Eerie because it's jarring to see words written on a person's face, but beautiful because each person was making themselves vulnerable, by writing about the privileges they experience and having them transposed onto their image.

The goal of the campaign (based on the incredible Un-Fair Campaign) was to start with employees of the College. So often in higher ed, it's only students who we ask to be vulnerable. We ask them to speak their minds in classroom discussions, write personal essays, participate in campus dialogues, and work together with each other in student organizations. In contrast "The Administration" of the College is often seen as a monolithic authority, with little humanity to it. So my two partners and I decided that we needed a proactive campaign to talk about issues of privilege, oppression and identity.

We reached out to some of the employees students see the most on campus--res life, certain professors, security, campus life, campus activities, etc.--and 20 people agreed to participate for this first installment of what we hope to be a multi-year campaign. To participate, folks had to write both a "face statement" and an "artist's statement." The face statements had to be short and to the point, and had to focus on the person's privilege. But we all know that our privileges and identities are more complicated than a couple statements, so the artist's statement was a way for each participant to expound on the tangle of their privileges and lack of privileges. Here is my image and artists's statement:
"I chose to focus on my white privilege for the Privilege campaign because it’s the part of my identity in which I experience the most unearned privileges. I also wanted to interrogate my white privilege because my whiteness is a part of my identity that I don’t ‘see’ unless I really focus on it. In contrast, I find that my class privilege is a form of my identity that I can ‘see’ more clearly—I see it in the places that I work, in my interactions with my upper middle-class family, in my clothes and in my hobbies. My racial and class privileges have hugely influenced the access I have to resources, networking, and all different kinds of opportunities.  
Directing the LGBTQ Center and the Women’s Center means that I wear some of the identities in which I don’t experience privilege on my sleeve—they’re right in my job title. Because of the insulation my class privilege provides, the discrimination I’ve experienced as a queer-identified woman has mostly been structural—I’m limited in where my partner and I can live and be considered equal citizens, for instance. But because of my class, I can choose where to live and what kind of jobs to have. In contrast, the discrimination I’ve experienced being a female-identified person has been insidious for my whole life. Once I learned the word “microaggression” a couple years ago, I thought, yes! That’s exactly the right word for what I experience. Micro-misogyny feels ever-present to me. It’s there when people use “crazy” as a go-to word to describe women. It’s there when male-identified people take up significantly more verbal space than women in meetings and classrooms. It’s there when people condescend about women’s sports. Each individual act of bias is small, but a lifetime collection of them can sometimes weigh me down."
In the spring, we will up Campaign participation to anyone at the College who is interested--students and other administrators, faculty and staff. Just as in this first round of the Campaign, participants will go through a workshop led by the director of our multicultural center and me. In the workshop we discuss racial identity models, the different kinds of social identity groups, and ask people to think about what identities make it particularly easy for them to move through the world. For this first installment, people talked about race, sex, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, citizenship, religion--it was really an amazing array of experiences and perspectives.

And the next big question I am asking myself and I hope other participants are asking themselves is--okay, now how do we act on this knowledge? Now that some of our privileges are more visible to us, how are we going to contest them? How are we going to talk to others about the privileges that we share and do the hard work of dismantling them? I guess I'm hoping this blog post is at least a start.

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