I just quit my job as an English teacher, and this has given me a lot of mental room for reflection on my experiences implementing curriculum. You’d think it’d have been easy for me as an Asian-American male to teach my students about both male privilege and white privilege, considering the fact that I belong to one privileged group and not to the other. The truth is it’s hard to talk about male and white privilege no matter who you are.
In discussing issues of both gender and race, students (and adults, too) are usually resistant to the idea that we’re not all “in the same boat.” If I began talking about white privilege, it was very easy for students to see me as some radical, angry minority with a chip on his shoulder. Once, after a class about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, one of my students stayed to ask a brief question after class: “Is Mr. Williams’ [my white colleague and co-planner for the course] class doing this, too?” The meta-message of her question was clearly, “Are you bringing your own agenda to this class, or is this part of the ‘real’ curriculum?” I’ve found both white and non-white students to be resistant to teachings about racial inequities. For some reason, Asian students in particular seem to raise the strongest objections to any implications that whites might have some kind of special status that other races do not. In a similar fashion, when I tried to bring up the idea of male privilege as a sociological (rather than individual) phenomenon, the girls in my class were the first to talk about how they themselves had certain “benefits” that boys did not.
These words, in discussion of race, gender, sexual preference, class, etc. seem to be the most problematic and conducive to misunderstanding and outrage: oppression, privilege, institutional. Certainly oppression is rightly troublesome. The word lends itself to a type of victim status, a complaining mentality. Many people who actually are oppressed refuse to identify themselves as oppressed people because they do not want to be viewed as ungrateful, disruptive, rebellious, or radical. Unfortunately, while many feminists are able to embrace the term survivor instead of victim as an identifier for a woman who has been raped, there is no empowering way yet to label one who is institutionally oppressed. Privilege, though theoretically less troublesome in its accuracy of description, is actually more inflammatory when used. As McIntosh says (I’m paraphrasing), it’s easier to acknowledge the sufferings of others but harder to acknowledge the ways in which one benefits from the sufferings of others. Finally, I’ve yet to understand why whites and non-whites alike usually refuse to embrace the idea of institutional racism—that there is a system that discriminates. If it isn’t a system, it’s individuals. Individual racism places blame. It says, “You, you, you, and you are responsible for racism.” Insititutional racism has a “we’re all in it together” feel to it. It says, “It’s not your fault, my fault, her fault, or his fault. It’s just the system, and we need to dismantle the system.” Yet, students (and American people in general) do not want to acknowledge a system of racism, sexism, or heteronormativity.
One example I used in class to introduce institutional racism had most of the class convinced, but (ironically) one of my smartest students simply refused to admit it was evidence of institutional racism. I asked my students when there would be a non-white president of the United States. They said there wouldn’t be for a while, and people had various year projections (2040, 2100, etc.). I asked them why it wouldn’t happen. Clearly, most people in America do not say, “Let’s discriminate against Black people.” There had to be a system. It was after the class had finally decided an institution had made the president white year after year that one of my brightest students said something along the lines of, “No, it makes sense that the president is white because white people are the majority, and the president needs to represent the majority of people.” By this point, the class was in such a flurry of a discussion that when the bell finally rang soon afterwards, nobody (including myself) realized how illogical this (usually intelligent) student’s statement was. First of all, this student was acknowledging that the president is white—not accidentally, not through the workings of an unseen institution—because individuals wanted him to be white. This student was actively and consciously discriminating against non-white presidential candidates. Secondly, this student was oblivious to the fact that the president in other sociological ways was not representative of the majority in America—the majority of Americans are not male, rich, or college-educated.
A final example of the ridiculous lengths people will go to defend the status quo from questioning comes from my short stint as a long-term substitute English teacher (translation: low pay, no benefits, high responsibility, little respect), I tried to introduce a radical race curriculum to my 11th graders, and they were very resistant, almost all of them. Perhaps two of my 120 students were sympathetic or open-minded—at least they wanted to understand what I was teaching before disagreeing with it. Finally, when I had the students fill out a course evaluation, I got many negative responses, including one that said (I’m paraphrasing), “You need to start teaching the real English curriculum. You shouldn’t have us read all this radical stuff like Thoreau.” I kid you not. Here was a student who was so outraged by my introduction of “radical” curriculum that she objected to even Thoreau, one of the staples of traditional high school English curriculum, thinking that I had somehow snuck his theories of civil disobedience in as part of my personal agenda.
The real problem, though, is the polarization of thinking about oppression, privilege, benefits—whatever you want to call it. Sure, most people in America think about race, gender, etc. the way my students did (and probably still do), but I’d say almost everyone I’ve talked to about these issues holds one of two positions: 1. We’re all the same. Sure, there are problems in the world, but everybody has problems. No one race, gender, etc. is oppressed more than others. 2. We’re not all the same. White people, males, straights, the rich, Americans, the educated, the physically abled, the non-mentally challenged, etc. all benefit from systems of oppression, and everyone who does not fall into those categories is oppressed. We are not equal.
Now, I tend to lean more toward #2 than #1, as you can probably tell from my student anecdotes, but I’d say the problem is that there rarely exists a #1.5 or #1.75. What would most accurately describe racism, sexism, and all the other -isms of America would be the acknowledgement that systems of oppression and privilege exist, but that, as Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, the system is so messed up (these are not her words—I fail to capture her eloquence, so I’m paraphrasing once again) that even those in positions of privilege suffer from privilege itself. Benefits are not just benefits. Benefits come with a cost. All of these “double standards” that whites and males are so quick to point out (affirmative action, for example) are part of the cost of an unequal system. I think I’m borrowing this illustration from Tatum (it may be Susan Brownmiller, or I may have even made it up myself—I’m not sure), but this benefits system is like a marriage. If a marriage is an equal one, both partners benefit, and both are happy. If it is unequal—if one partner “benefits” at
the other partner’s expense, he may enjoy some of his “privileges,” but he will lose out on the ultimate fulfillment an equal marriage would offer. Perhaps his wife spoils him with massages. Perhaps she does all the housework and cannot say anything her husband might take as a disparaging remark. Perhaps her husband can say anything he wants, and she won’t object. These would seem to be privileges he has—he can do whatever he wants, and she’s supportive and servile. They’re both, though, missing out on the intimacy, trust, and fellowship that comes from a marriage of equals. Another way to look at it is as a prisoner’s dilemma. If both criminals work together to not ‘fess up, both criminals will benefit the most. If one ‘fesses up, and the other doesn’t, both will receive sentences, but one will get a lighter one than the other.
Yes, there are ways, as a male, that I recognize there are things that seem “unfair” to me—these “double standards.” For example, while my wife has the “freedom” to lack career ambition, I do not. Nobody wants a husband without ambition, one who says, “Yeah, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Maybe I’ll just quit my job.” A wife can safely quit her job and lack ambition. However, if you examine this “double standard” closely, you’ll see it stems from the historically male oppression of females in America. What I could call a “freedom” of my wife to lack ambition is actually, in some ways, the oppression of my wife by society, as the male-dominated society is only too happy to see another woman exercise her “right to choose” by staying at home and not threatening males’ lead in the workplace. It’s the rigidity of the system of privilege itself that makes many “privileged” parties (males, whites, straights, etc.) feel “oppressed” themselves. In some ways, it’s like the mythic prince or princess who has no privacy, is not able to leave the castle or palace, and has no choice in whom to marry, but who also lives a life of luxury, pampering, and fame. It would not be right for this princess or prince to go up to a beggar on the street and say, “Yeah, so you’re hungry and poor—we’re all oppressed.” It is the princess’ or prince’s very “oppression” that is making this street beggar also oppressed. At the same time, though, the princess’ or prince’s “privilege” is not without cost.
Where will progress come from? Well, first of all, the princes and princesses of America need to recognize that they are, in fact, princes and princesses—that they do benefit from a system of privilege designed specifically for them. Secondly, the street beggars need to recognize that even though we’re not all “in the same boat,” privileged people suffer from the very system that benefits them. Thirdly, we all need to recognize that the dismantling of said system benefits everybody, not just the street beggars.