When we are very wrong

by Philippa Willitts // 15 August 2011, 09:53

Tags: oppression, privilege

A black and white photograph made up of lots of small square photographs of the faces of a diverse range of people. If someone calls someone else out on their privilege, it is time to listen. The very nature of privilege is that we are mostly unaware of the privilege we hold, in the areas we hold it in. So if a black person tells you, a white person, that you have been racist, it is almost certainly them, not you, who is right.

If you are told that language you just used, or attitudes you just showed, are oppressive, then take note. While your initial reaction may be to explain yourself, justify what you did, or dismiss the criticism, this is silencing and derailing. It is because we have privilege that we have been able to get through life without realising how hurtful or divisive it can be to say or do certain things, so just because someone's challenge may not make immediate sense to us, does not mean it is untrue.

We must always respect the lived experience of those we have privilege over, and take note when they take the time to tell us about it. So if a black woman challenges something racist said by a white woman, or a disabled woman challenges a disablist attitude, or a working class woman challenges middle class privilege, it is time to listen. Don't argue! If a bisexual woman tells a straight woman that she has shown her privilege, then the straight woman must listen. Take it in. Respect the experience of the other woman.

    This applies if:
  • a trans woman calls out cis privilege
  • a disabled woman calls out disablist privilege
  • a woman calls out male privilege
  • a black woman calls out race privilege
  • a working class woman calls out class privilege
  • a genderqueer person calls out cis privilege
  • a fat woman calls out thin privilege
  • a lesbian, bisexual or pansexual woman calls out straight privilege
  • an older woman calls out ageism
  • a woman of colour calls out white privilege
  • a woman calls out slut shaming
  • many, many other variations
    Things NOT to do if someone calls you out on your privilege:
  • Don't kick out. Be glad someone told you, and learn from the experience.
  • Don't try to justify what you did. We all know 'splaining when we see it, and this is what you would be doing.
  • Don't ever say, "But my gay / trans / disabled friend isn't offended when...". It's the same thing as "But some of my closest friends are black!". Members of oppressed groups are not homogeneous entities who think, feel and react in the same ways. And maybe your friend hates you doing it too.
  • Don't repeatedly apologise. Say sorry once, and learn.
  • Don't hate yourself. The way privilege works is that those of us who hold it don't always see that. Take responsibility for what you do next, don't endlessly beat yourself up for mistakes already made.
  • Don't demand to be educated by the person who challenged you. It is your responsibility, not theirs.

Being white, non-disabled, cis etc. does not mean that you have a perfect life. Most people have privilege in some areas of their life while experience oppression in others. Use the issues you know about (being a lesbian, for instance) to inform the more privileged parts of your life (being white, for instance). Relate the one oppression to other oppressions outside of yourself.

It's pretty unpleasant to be told you have just been anti-Semitic, or heterosexist, but it's even more unpleasant to be on the receiving end of prejudice. Be glad someone told you, and use the experience to make sure you never do it again.

[The image is s black and white photograph made up of lots of small square photographs of the faces of a diverse range of people. It is adapted from an image by Colemama, and is used under a Creative Commons License]

Comments From You

andrew // Posted 15 August 2011 at 12:24

Are you saying that someone from an "oppressed" group must by definition be correct when they "call out privilege?" I ask because i have a close friend who has just won an employment tribunal case taken against her by a black woman who claimed that she been discriminated against on the grounds of her race and religion.

My friend disputed this and was able to produced evidence which contradicted the woman's view of a series of events which resulted in her leaving the organisation. The tribunal weighed up the case made by each side and made their decision, based on the evidence.

Surely this is the correct approach to take. I don't see how it would have been fair for the tribunal to uncritically accept the perspective of the woman purely because she was identified as coming from an "oppressed" group.

Similarly, people who criticise Israeli foreign policy are often called antisemitic. While i have no doubt that lots of the antipathy towards israel is due to antisemitism, most people I know can distinguish between the actions of the Israeli state and the jewish people.

Now imagine one of them was taking part in discussion about Israeli foreign policy and a jewish person falsely "called them out for their antisemitism". Are you really saying that they should be glad someone told them, and use the experience to make sure they never do it again.

Troika21 // Posted 15 August 2011 at 13:25

I hope you realise that the manifesto you've written justifies a rather repressive form of censorship, to a degree which I find frightening. But much more concerning is that what you've advocated here basicaly makes the claim that, for example, a lesbian 'calling out' privilege is *always* right (that is is privilege), and even that there is only one way of thinking about the situation - hers.

Now, I don't believe that you mean it in quite such a limited and censorial way (althought I can see, and have been subject to, the comments policy here, so frankly I'm not so sure), but its clear that this is used to silence/delegitimise differing opinions.

Given how important discussion and reasoning out our differences are, the idea that one side should just be quiet and get talked at is reprehensible, even if the criticism is valid.

LUVM // Posted 15 August 2011 at 16:03

I found this article quite patronising.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 15 August 2011 at 17:04

Andrew,
What I'm saying is that we should start from a position of being ready to accept that we can, and do, get it wrong. Not commenting on your friend's situation, as I know nothing about it, but in general tribunals live in the same kyriarchal rules we all do, and can come from that place and get it wrong too.
If someone called me out for antisemitism during anti-Israel activism, I would check myself and my behaviour, and check that I hadn't turned the issue from problems with a government and state into problems with people belonging to the religion.
I'm saying we should start from a position of trusting the other person's experience. Like you say, it won't always be accurate, but in the first instance at least, we should assume it is true and check ourselves.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 15 August 2011 at 17:21

Troika21,
I never once said they were *always* right, because that's an impossible, and untrue, statement to make. I said we should begin by assuming they are, and question our own behaviour. I stand by that.

Troika21 // Posted 15 August 2011 at 18:22

Philippa Willitts,
No, not always, but by your article and comment you certianly mean that they should be regarded as right by default because they posess an atribute that I don't, this simply is not justifiable.

Second, you list of 'Thou shalt nots' clearly makes a mockery of debate, saying "We all know 'splaining when we see it" is done simply to shut down debate.

Zoggi // Posted 15 August 2011 at 19:01

The bit that gets me in this is the idea of a fat woman calling out thin privilege. What exactly is the privilage afforded to thin people? In my experience (and I don't even consider myself particularly thin) it consists of catty comments from other women, jokes about needing to put on some weight, and the implication that I am attractive therefore should be glad of all the attention from men. Others are maligned for supposedly being anorexic, or told that a man likes a woman with a bit more meat on her bones etc.

This idea of privilage works both ways. To me, it feels like anyone possessing the desired characteristics is stripped of any right to complain about the way they might be treated or to be unhappy with their status. I can see the point of this article but I think the tone does imply they are always right, rather than simply that their views should always be given the benefit of the doubt.

tooloudtoignore // Posted 15 August 2011 at 19:04

I have to say that classing 'being white' as a privilege is a massive generalisation. Contrary to popular belief, it is white boys of working class backgrounds who consistently perform the lowest in education.

And there does seem to be some discrepancy between what you intend (be prepared to accept you may be wrong, which is a laudable attitude) and what you have said in your manifesto (if someone accuses you of something, you are guilty).

Perhaps it would be a better reflection of your intention had you phrased the manifesto as more of a discussion prompt- instead of denying the speaker the right to defend themselves, offer a series of questions they could ask to establish the criticism more clearly. For example; in what way have I offended you? If someone in the same situation as yourself had made the comment, would you still find it offensive?

This would then allow more room for debate, clarity and balance, surely?

Philippa Willitts // Posted 15 August 2011 at 19:32

It is often the people with the most privilege who understand this issue the least, and it's not surprising really, because as I said in the post, the privileged are frequently unaware of their privilege, by its nature. I'm struggling to see why it's so difficult to assume that sometimes we all get it wrong.

Troika, I'm sorry you read it as shutting down debate. In talking the way I did, I was concerned about individuals in real life, not any kind of debating. Sometimes, if I tell someone they have hurt me, I don't want to 'debate', I want them to take responsibility.

Zoggi, you asked about thin privilege. Two places to start are here and here.

tooloudtoignore, the reason I didn't suggest questions was because the scenarios I had in mind were ones where the person doing the challenging was already in a vulnerable position, having felt victimised or bullied. If they were brave enough to say to someone, "What you just did is really disablist", or "That word you used is racist", the last thing they need is to be questioned on it.

In my experiences, and in situations I have witnessed, it is really hard to challenge someone. To then have the person get defensive, derail the issue and fight back negates the voice and fear of the person who tried to stand up to them. That's what I was talking about. When people are shouted down, the issues disappear again, and nobody has to challenge their own behaviour.

Zoggi // Posted 15 August 2011 at 20:36

Thankyou for those links, but I was hoping that I could have my point of view acknowledged and possibly debated, rather than simply being educated about why I am wrong. This is really why I take issue with the whole premise of this article. It's the idea that what you are saying is not open for debate.

The issue I have with the phrase "thin privilage" is that really you have just highlighted the opposite extreme. One of the examples from heyfatchick states:

"I do not have to be afraid that when I talk to my friends or family they will mention the size of my body in a critical manner, or suggest unsolicited diet products and exercise programs."

"I will not be accused of being emotionally troubled or in psychological denial because of the size of my body."

These are huge assumptions to make. Thin people *do* find that their size is the subject of critical comments with the added insult that you have no right to complain.

This is really the point I am trying to get across - I do not deny that people who are perceived as being a normal weight are privilaged compared to those who are thought of as fat. I get that. The experiences of people who are different from me are very important, and I do value them in so far as they help to inform me about how lucky I am.

However..

What riles me is when I am called out not on my prejudice or bigoted views, but on simply *being privilaged*

I am slim therefore I am happy, I am attractive therefore I should be grateful every time a man takes it upon himself to inform me that he does not find it difficult to think of me in a sexual way. I would like to live in a world where women (or just people in general) can stand up for each other regardless of whether we are fat, thin or average, but this makes me feel that every time I receive unwanted attention or sexual harrassment as a result of being supposedly privilaged, I should not turn to a non-privilaged person for support in case my self-centeredness upsets them.

Here is an article from a woman who you might call "thin and large breast privilaged" which highlights exactly my point:

http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2008/12/i_was_saddened

Philippa Willitts // Posted 15 August 2011 at 20:51

Zoggi, I have been thin and large breasted, and fat and large breasted, and sexual harassment is no fun on either end of the spectrum. All women do need to support each other in the face of these things - street harassment, judgements and comments on our body. But society and the world around me were a million times more accepting of my anorexic self than my fat self, even though I was horribly ill at the time.

It's not about saying that if you are thin, white, male, straight, non-disabled, cis, young, then everything in your life is perfect and you have no right to complain.

But it is about acknowledging that there are areas of our lives where we have privilege over others, and other areas where others have privilege over us. That, as a white woman, if a black woman tells me I've messed up, I need to listen and believe her. And that, if a non-disabled woman messes up, she will listen if I tell her.

Laura // Posted 15 August 2011 at 21:04

@ Zoggi,

I don't think it's the case that these issues are not open to debate, rather that those of us with the privilege in question should stop and listen to those without that privilege first, because they are the experts on their own lives. In the case of thin privilege, if a woman has only ever been thin, she's not in a position to understand what life would be like without that privilege, and she is unlikely to even be able to recognise the privilege she has. So it makes sense to listen, rather than getting all defensive, when someone calls her out.

The concept of thin privilege doesn't imply that life is hunky dorey for thin people, or that you don't receive any flack for being thin, but that you are spared specific oppressions suffered by fat people.

cim // Posted 15 August 2011 at 21:26

Regarding thin privilege:
All of the examples so far of harm suffered by thin people are actually harm suffered by thin women. Thin men don't (in general) get the same sort of body policing at all. (Whereas both fat men and fat women get "You're fat, obese, going to die, going to make everyone else fat, etc." - and fat women get the usual arbitrary beauty standard rubbish as well on top of that)

If you consider how weight-based oppression affects men, it's fairly obvious that there is thin privilege. For women, sexism of course means that thin women don't win either - but that doesn't mean that fatness doesn't come with its own overlapping set of oppressions.

Kat // Posted 15 August 2011 at 21:36

I was just like "Yay! Cool! Another great feminist website!" Great article! Then I read the comments. I will definitely not come back- unless you change your commenting policy and provide the safe space we deserve. Safe from sexism, racism and fatphobia. All of which are in the comments. I've I needed male privilege, I wouldn't come to a feminist website.

Zoggi // Posted 15 August 2011 at 22:55

@ Laura Woodhouse Yes, I totally agree - my comment about the issues being not open to debate was a criticism of the way that they came across in the original post and in the comments. I felt that the standpoint was very much "This is the way it is, they are right - not you."

The idea that we should listen to other people's experiences and remember that we have no idea what it feels like to be someone else cannot be faulted. However, to me it seems hypocritical to *explicitly* deny the other side of the discussion from sharing their experience.

One thing I have tried to explain but I'm not sure is getting across, is that I am not talking about being called out for being insensitive or bigoted or for treating someone differently because of their weight, I am talking about being told that I have no right to complain about unwanted attention from men, because I should be grateful for being slim or attractive. I'm talking about totally unprovoked comments, not in response to something I have said or done. Calling someone out for being racist is not the same as calling someone out for being white... this is the difference I am trying to explain.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 15 August 2011 at 23:21

Kat,

I'm really sorry the comments above have made you feel unsafe. Moderating comments here requires some really hard decisions, balancing safety with not censoring. There is a very fine line to be drawn, and we can rarely do it in a way that makes everyone happy.

However, I am genuinely sorry that the comments have made the site feel like an unsafe place.

Kate // Posted 16 August 2011 at 12:50

Thank you for this article. Calling out privilege is difficult. I had to do it just last night. This article has come at the right time for me. 'Derailing' is a massive problem in this area, too, and a lot of it is horrendous. 'This isn't as important as x thing' is the type of thing sexists say when they're losing an argument and want to make you feel bad for no reason. It is also irrelevant when you're talking about a particular issue for someone to undermine you like that. Not okay.

sian norris // Posted 16 August 2011 at 15:39

i'm really surprised at the comments in the article (not about the moderation, just how people have responded!) because when Philippa says this:
'What I'm saying is that we should start from a position of being ready to accept that we can, and do, get it wrong. '
it is exactly how i think we should think about privilege.

I have a lot of privilege. i have some areas where others have privilege over me. To me, it is about checking yourself, considering what you say and, as this piece says, recognise that we can get it wrong. it doesn't mean that someone with privilege is always wrong, and someone who lacks privilege is always right. It's about recognising how power structures in society work, and to whose benefit, and tackling that. it's about hearing each other's truths and listening to other people's lives. It's about being respectful and paying attention and noticing.

Sites like the F word have introduced me to privilege, and kyriarchy. it's hard sometimes, recognising what our privileges are, and hard to accept sometimes that we're wrong. But articles like this highlight how important it is that we do check our privilege and fight power structures that may help one group (that you might be a member of) whilst oppressing or harming another group.

Vicky // Posted 17 August 2011 at 02:17

Philippa, this is a great article. It comes at an opportune moment for me. Last night a close male friend made a joke about rape - the first time that I've ever heard a friend do so. I was too upset and disturbed to say anything other than an inarticulate, "What?!" followed up with, "Rape jokes aren't funny." He replied, "Everything jokes are funny."

I wanted to tell him that it is not him, a man who has never been raped, who gets to decide whether such remarks are funny. That is the prerogative of people who have been assaulted and the people who live in fearful knowledge that it could happen to them (and be blamed on them, depending on what they were wearing/whether they'd been drinking/if they had been flirty...). These people are almost overwhelmingly women. His male privilege cushioned him from the horror of what he was saying. I knew that if I pressed the issue further, we would eventually get to something like, "It was just a joke - I would never rape anyone." This is privilege again: the belief that you have no part to play in oppression unless you personally and deliberately choose to go out and commit an oppressive act.

As a disabled person, I make a point of speaking out when able-bodied people demean or dehumanise people with disabilities (using words like 'tragedy' to describe the birth of a child with Down's Syndrome, for example). Usually I get told that I am too mildly disabled to be able to comment on a severely disabled person's quality of life (the able-bodied person gets to define what severe and mild are, of course). More privilege. No, it is not the able-bodied person's right to have an intellectual debate over what constitutes 'severe' and 'mild' disability. It is a disabled person's right to be able to get on with life without having it judged and found wanting by other people who have no idea what it's like to be disabled in (and by) this society.

This does not mean that I am always right when I talk about ableism or that a woman is always right when she talks about rape. What it does mean is that we are likely to have more insight into these topics than able-bodied people and men respectively. To stick with the ableism example, read widely, surf disabled advocacy forums, and make a mental note of what other disabled people are saying on these topics. You might well turn out to have a valid point. You might not have been ableist after all. But the only way to find out is to listen to people who have experiences that you have not, and to reflect carefully on your own views. Privilege does the opposite of that: it starts talking and won't shut up.

And I know how unpleasant it is to be called out on privilege. It happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. I criticised representatives of a minority ethnic community for a political decision they had made. A member of that same community said, "I think you should let us decide what's good for us." My gut reaction was to argue. I had to swallow that urge, because she was absolutely right.

andrew // Posted 18 August 2011 at 01:46

If all this boils down is 'What I'm saying is that we should start from a position of being ready to accept that we can, and do, get it wrong. ' That's just common sense. It's not what you said in the original post though.

Also, regarding this "experts through experience" argument. If someone has experience of something then they are experts in how they feel/experience that situation. It doesn't follow that they necessarily have a good understanding of the causes of/solutions to their problems.

To take the employment tribunal case that i mentioned earlier. I read the submitted papers and it was clear that the woman involved had made the allegation of discrimination based on her, no doubt genuinely held, understanding of events. However, in coming to this view she had made assumptions (eg. that her complaints had not been taken seriously, agreed actions had not been implemented etc) which witnesses showed to be incorrect by producing evidence such as emails, minutes of meetings etc.

To take another example, i used to work with people who had been homeless, drug dependent and criminalised. If you asked them to explain what is was like to be in this type of situation, the difficulties they faced etc they were clearly experts. However, when it came to drawing wider conclusions (eg what public policy changes would help) they came up with a load of racist nonsense - which I argued against.

So this argument "I think you should let us decide what's good for us" is wrong because it assumes that a person from an oppressed group can gain nothing from dialogue, discussion and even arguments with someone who does not belong to that group.


LUVM // Posted 18 August 2011 at 13:37

My last comment didn't get put up, presumably in case I offend the sensibilities of someone who says she writes off a whole site on the basis of comments on a thread. What is the point of having a comments facillity if not for feminists to debate with each other (not spammers, not flamers: feminists.) I think it's absolutely crazy that feminists are not allowed to engage in debate in a comments setting on a feminist website. This is the reason why women are afraid to call themselves feminists, because of this type of over-reactionary behaviour that is sanctioned (by the moderators) by not giving others the right to reply to it. I find it very frustrating.

Zoggi // Posted 18 August 2011 at 19:15

I understand that only the individual knows their own experiences, and as such their opinion should always be respected, but my concern is that when anyone has low self-esteem and feels that no-one understands them (and I have been in this situation for various reasons) being reassured that it's ok to feel that way might not be as helpful as you might think. It gives short term relief from the anxiety you feel, but doesn't help anyone to build the confidence to actually stand up for themselves. For a long time I believed that I was difficult to get to know, and that no-one would or could understand me. What I didn't realise was that every time I told myself that I am the only person who will ever understand what it is like to be me, I thought I was reassuring myself but I was actually reinforcing my low self-esteem.

@ Phillipa "the reason I didn't suggest questions was because the scenarios I had in mind were ones where the person doing the challenging was already in a vulnerable position, having felt victimised or bullied. If they were brave enough to say to someone, "What you just did is really disablist", or "That word you used is racist", the last thing they need is to be questioned on it.

In my experiences, and in situations I have witnessed, it is really hard to challenge someone. To then have the person get defensive, derail the issue and fight back negates the voice and fear of the person who tried to stand up to them. That's what I was talking about. When people are shouted down, the issues disappear again, and nobody has to challenge their own behaviour."

I can totally see your point, but this advice doesn't help anyone in the long term. Having your experiences and point of view questioned can be horrible when you already feel vulnerable, but every time you shy away from communicating your point of view, you give yourself short term relief from the anxiety, but the belief that "no-one understands me" goes unchallenged. Since we are talking about a situation between people who don't understand each other, it's easy to see how others end up reacting defensively to tone of voice and body language because we have nothing else to go on. It would probably help to keep the situation from escalating if you use a more neutral choice of words, because people often react with hostility when they are blamed for something they don't understand. For example, "What you just did is really disablist" won't get the message across to someone who (as you know) doesn't have the faintest clue. The point is to communicate how you feel, not just to vent. It might be better to state how it feels to be on the receiving end, by saying: "when you say that, I feel ... rejected/hurt/etc" and then you have the opportunity to explain your train of thought that leads up to the emotion you experience. It's a lot easier for someone to react defensively if you say: "YOU make me feel this way.." because they don't understand why you are blaming them.

This brings me to another very important thing - in order to have your opinion acknowledged by someone, you must acknowledge their right to an opinion, even if you disagree with it. Instead of telling yourself: "this person doesn't understand me" or "white/male/straight/ etc privilaged people don't understand me" it would make a massive difference to the communication and to your self-esteem if you say: "me and this person aren't understanding each other" or "sometimes, me and white/male/straight/etc privilaged people don't understand each other." This acknowledges that they aren't mind-readers when you get upset, and if they don't understand you it doesn't mean they are hurting you on purpose.

I would recommend that anyone reads this site on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mentalhealthinfoforall/treatments/cbt.aspx

I think it's sad that people reading this might avoid visiting the site in future, because an article provoked strong reactions. Avoiding a triggering situation does nothing but increase the fear in the long term, and it worries me that this article might cause people who feel vulnerable to simply avoid confrontation, rather than showing them how they can actually take action to improve their ability to communicate their feelings in a given situation.

Quietly Anonymous // Posted 20 August 2011 at 22:47

Loved the post. One thing I would add: when children call out age privilege. The very young are extremely disenfranchised. One example: corporal punishment is legal in all states in the U.S. Regardless of whether a parent exercises that privilege, the fact remains that parents have the legal right to use bodily force on their children at their own discretion, something that would be illegal between, say, two (non-consenting) adults.

I'm not arguing that children should have all the same rights as adults, but bodily autonomy is the least anyone can ask for, and it's something that USian children (and those in other countries, I'd guess) are not legally guaranteed.

Gingerert // Posted 22 August 2011 at 20:45

Hmm. Interesting debate.

With specific regards to ableism, I do have one point to make. My child, who has an extremely rare chromosome disorder, cannot stand up and fight for himself when people who are not disabled say the R-word or the S-word, or say they would rather abort than have a child like him. No, that duty is mine. I am not disabled, nothing like it. I am white, female, moderately-wealthy, able-bodied and straight. But just because I have not experienced first-hand what my son lives with does not mean I don't get to call other people out on their behaviour. And I call out other people with disabilities ALL THE TIME. Disability isn't just living with physical limitations, and developmental delay gets forgotten about so easily, even by disabled adults. Disabled access doesn't just mean ramps for wheelchairs, for example.

So when I hear people with disabilities making sweeping generalizations about 'access' or forgetting that impairment isn't limited to just not being able to use a part of your body, I sure as hell call them out. I'm not disabled, but that doesn't mean that they are automatically right and I am automatically wrong.

Balance is needed, as always.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 August 2011 at 20:50

Hi Gingerert,

I agree, access is so much more than ramps and disability is much bigger than body parts!

Have Your say

Latest Comments

Reclaiming The F-Word

Founder of The F-Word, Catherine Redfern, has co-authored a new book with Kristin Aune. Find out more at the Reclaiming The F-Word website.

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word Feeds
  • #
  • #