In light of last week’s staff meeting and dialogue about racial injustice, joined and facilitated by former JFS board member and retired elementary school principal Robin Welch, I shared these thoughts with everyone.
I was so grateful to have begun the conversation with Robin yesterday about our role, our place and our discomfort with the moral revolution our country is facing in this time. I have appreciated how much it makes my psyche squirm and I am grateful that our agency has chosen to stop, listen and feel the discomfort rather than perpetuate our privileged position with mention. Thank you to Lino, Rosie and Robin for making me uncomfortable.
In my comment [during the staff meeting] I mentioned the privilege backpack/knapsack concept. I’ve found it so helpful a construct that I wanted to share a bit more with you all to continue our conversation. First, it’s not new: Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar, developed it in 1989, which means it’s an idea older than I am. You can read her full original article here.
For those who are not familiar, I wanted to share the basics: the backpack is filled with the tools, circumstances, comforts and items of leverage that I can tap into every day. Peggy lists 26 of them related to race. Now, there are also privileges according to class, education level, geographic location, gender, sexual orientation, religion and any other element of salient identity. For now, I want to focus on race and a few of her items that I’ve been struggling with in my backpack.
No. 7: I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
I’m struck by this because the eraser of race or underprivileged individuals in school has been awful for generations. I read mostly white male authors in school, and if I didn’t make a conscious effort my kids’ shelves would be filled with white authors. Furthermore, throughout my schooling the well-loved authors of color were tokenized not as equals but as “great for a [novelist/playwright/thinker].”
Unfortunately, one too common reaction to this lack of representation is to just not talk about identity all together. Not to promote the inclusion of diverse voices into our curriculums or images or representations but to simply “represent less.” As a parent, I ask myself what harm would come to my white children if they were asked to read a list all black, brown and biracial authors for not just a month a year, two years, more? My answer? None. No harm would come to them. And yet we have asked our black and brown children to read all-white reading lists for hundreds of years. What harm has come of that? Far too much. So why are we so resistant to this change?
No. 23 I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
This one is a little complicated for me. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I have grown accustomed to scanning vendors, restaurants and shops and judging my safety based on my surroundings. That having been said, unlike race, I, as a fem-presenting lesbian, can choose to leverage my appearance and my disclosures to tap into straight privilege if I need to: to “pass.” Regardless of whether I identify with “white” as my racial classification, many Jewish people I know do not. I still am given advantage of white privilege by society. Whether my ancestors did or not, whether I asked for it or not, I have it. It’s there, waiting to be exposed for what it is: unearned privilege based on the color of my skin. Those whose identity can’t allow them to pass because of gender presentation or skin color can’t do this.
This awareness is hard: It’s hard not to feel guilty or angry or choose to reject it by parading my underprivileged identity. The reality is that oppression is not mutually exclusive. I can be over-privileged in one identity and under-privileged in others. I may be more comfortable to claim under-privilege, but it’s as important and maybe more important that I claim my over-privilege. This is also hard that I’m not really in a position to lessen this privilege and promote privilege for my fellow Americans. I don’t own a business, manage a public space or have the legislative power to promote equity in consumerist or recreational settings. However, I can notice when inequity is present. I can take note of biased behaviors on the part of my vendors and providers and I can let them know that I see it and that it is unacceptable. And so I will.
No. 17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
GAH!!! Even my criticism of government benefits from my race! It’s true; I’ve never been called unpatriotic because of my opinions, and yet so many African American and Latinx Americans have been. I wonder, then, if this privilege could be loaned? Could I as a white American stand behind a black American and for every argument she makes to dismantle unjust practices agree and applaud and commit my support? If enough of us do this, can we throw a mirror in the face of those in power to say, “No, we who support equality, democracy and opportunity are the Americans, and you who support power, privilege and elitism are the outsiders!”
That, I believe, is exactly what this movement is all about.
Now, I know that my backpack is far from empty. I know there are many more situations and opportunities to set down, point out and acknowledge my unearned skin privilege. I have only begun this process and it will likely never end, nor should it. The most important thing is that we begin, and never stop.
Before I finish, I wanted to promote an artistic response. This a song I found captured many of my feelings beautifully. It also happens to be my father-in-law, a white, straight rabbi. So there’s that.
Stephanie Rohr, LICSW, is a JFS family assistance social worker and manager of inclusion programs.
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