TOWARD A PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSOR
Michael Kimmel | Tikkun Magazine Nov/Dec 2002
THIS BREEZE AT MY BACK
To run or walk into a strong headwind is to understand the power of nature.
You set your jaw in a squared grimace, your eyes are slits against the wind,
and you breathe with a fierce determination. And still you make so little
To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail
effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind; it
feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the
effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. It
is only when you turn around and face that wind that you realize its strength.
Being white, or male, or heterosexual in this culture is like running with
the wind at your back. It feels like just plain running, and we rarely if
ever get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled
by that wind.
It is time to make that wind visible.
In recent years, the study of discrimination based on gender, race, class,
and sexuality has mushroomed. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the
research has explored the experiences of the victims of racism, sexism,
homophobia, and class inequality. These are the "victims," the "others" who
have begun to make these issues visible to contemporary scholars and lay
people alike. This is, of course, politically as it should be: The
marginalized always understand first the mechanisms of their marginalization;
it remains for them to convince the center that the processes of
marginalization are in fact both real and remediable.
When presented with evidence of systematic discrimination, many members of
the "majority" are indifferent, sometimes defensive and resistant. "What does
this have to do with me?" they ask. Some mention several "facts" that, they
believe, will absolve them of inclusion into the superordinate category. "My
family never owned slaves," "I have a gay friend," "I never raped anyone,"
are fairly typical responses. Virtually none seems able to discuss white
people as a group. Some will assert that white people are dramatically
different from other white people (ethnicity and religion is more important
than race); others maintain that white people, as a group, are not at all
privileged. And virtually all agree that racism is a problem of individual
attitudes, prejudiced people, and not a social problem.
Such statements are as revealing as they are irrelevant. They tell us far
more about the way we tend to individualize and personalize processes that
are social and structural. And they also tell us that majority members resist
discussions of inequality because it will require that they feel guilty for
crimes someone else committed.
Even those who are willing to engage with these questions also tend to
personalize and individualize them. They may grudgingly grant the systematic
nature of inequality, but to them, racism, sexism, and heterosexism are still
bad attitudes held by bad people. They are eager to help those bad people see
the error of their ways and change their attitudes to good attitudes. This
usually will come about through "better education."
Those of us who are white, heterosexual, male, and/or middle class need to go
further; we need to see how we are stakeholders in the understanding of
structural inequality, how the dynamics that create inequality for some also
benefit others. Privilege needs to be made visible.
MAKING PRIVILEGE VISIBLE
To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously
ubiquitous and invisible. You're everywhere you look, you're the standard
against which everyone else is measured. You're like water, like air. People
will tell you they went to see a "woman doctor," or they will say they went
to see "the doctor." People will tell you they have a "gay colleague" or
they'll tell you about a "colleague." A white person will be happy to tell
you about a "black friend," but when that same person simply mentions a
"friend," everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that
doesn't have the word "woman" or "gay" or "minority" in the title is, de
facto, a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those
courses "literature," "history," or "political science."
This invisibility is political. This was first made visible to me in the
early 1980s, when I participated in a small discussion group on feminism. A
white woman and a black woman were discussing whether all women were, by
definition, "Sisters," because they all had essentially the same experiences
and because all women faced a common oppression by men. The white woman
asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, in spite of
racial differences. The black woman disagreed.
"When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?"
"I see a woman," replied the white woman.
"That's precisely the problem," responded the black woman. "I see a black
woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not
privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it's how you are
privileged. It's why there will always be differences in our experience."
As I witnessed this exchange, I was startled, and groaned - more audibly,
perhaps, than I had intended. Being the only man in the room, someone asked
what my response had meant.
"Well," I said, "when I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm
universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no
race, and no gender. I'm the generic person!"
Sometimes, I like to think that it was on that day that I became a
middle-class white man. Sure, I had been all those before, but they had not
meant much to me. I enjoyed the privilege of invisibility. The very processes
that confer privilege to one group and not another group are often invisible
to those upon whom that privilege is conferred. What makes us marginal or
powerless are the processes we see, partly because others keep reminding us
of them. Invisibility is also a privilege in another sense - it is a luxury
that only white people have in our society not to think about race every
minute of their lives. It is a luxury that only men have in our society to
pretend that gender does not matter.
While this story took place over twenty years ago, I was reminded of it
recently when I went to give a guest lecture for a female colleague at my
university. (We teach the same course on alternate semesters, so she always
gives a guest lecture for me, and I do one for her.) As I walked in to the
auditorium, one student looked up at me and said "Oh, finally, an objective
All that semester, whenever my female colleague opened her mouth, what this
student saw was "a woman." Biased. But when I walked in, I was, in this
student's eyes, unbiased, on objective opinion. Disembodied Western
rationality - standing right in front of the class! This notion that
middle-class white men are "objective" and everyone else is "biased" is the
way that inequalities are reproduced.
Let me give you another example of how power is so often invisible to those
who have it. Most of you have email addresses, and you write email messages
to people all over the world. You've probably noticed that there is one big
difference between email addresses in the United States and email addresses
of people in other countries: Their addresses have "country codes" at the end
of the address. So, for example, if you were writing to someone in South
Africa, you'd put "za" at the end, or "jp" for Japan, or "uk" for England
(United Kingdom) or "de" for Germany (Deutschland). Even if you write to
someone at a university in another country, you have to use to country code,
so, for example, it would be "ac.uk" for an academic institution in Britain,
or "edu.au" for an educational institution in Australia. But when you write
to people in the United States, the email address ends with "edu" for an
educational institution, "org" for an organization, "gov" for a federal
government office, or "com" or "net" for commercial internet providers. Why
is it that the United States doesn't have a country code?
It is because when you are the dominant power in the world, everyone else
needs to be named. When you are "in power," you needn't draw attention to
yourself as a specific entity, but rather, you can pretend to be the generic,
the universal, the generalizable. From the point of view of the United
States, all other countries are "other" and thus need to be named, marked,
noted. Once again, privilege is invisible. In the world of the Internet, as
Michael Jackson sang, "we are the world."
I was reminded of reaction from the privileged recently when I appeared on a
television talk show opposite three "angry white males" - three men who felt
that they had been the victims of workplace discrimination. The show's title,
no doubt to entice a large potential audience, was "A Black Woman Took My
Job." In my comments to these angry men, I invited them to consider what the
word "my" meant in that title, that they felt that the jobs were originally
"theirs," that they were entitled to them, and that when some "other" person
- black, female - got the job, that person was really taking "their" job. But
by what right is that job theirs? By convention, by a historical legacy of
such profound levels of discrimination that we have needed decades of
affirmative action to even begin to make slightly more level a playing field
that has tilted so decidedly in one direction.
THE INVISIBLE KNAPSACK
One way to understand how privilege works - and how it is kept invisible - is
to look at the way we think about inequality. We always think about
inequality from the perspective of the one who is hurt by the inequality, not
the one who is helped. Take, for example, wage inequality based on gender.
We're used to hearing that women make about seventy-one cents for every
dollar made by a man. In that statistic women's wages are calculated as a
function of men's wages; men's wages are the standard (the $1) against which
women's wages are calculated. In this way, the discrimination against women
is visible - doing the same job, they earn less, just because they are women.
But what if we changed the statistics? What if we expressed men's wages as a
function of women's wages? What if we said that for every dollar earned by a
woman, men make $1.34? Then it wouldn't be the discrimination that was
visible - it would be the privilege. Just for being a male, a male worker
received an additional thirty-four cents. This is what sociologist R. W.
Connell calls the "masculinity dividend" - the unearned benefits that accrue
to men, just for being men.
One could easily apply this to race, class, and sexuality. Perhaps no one has
done that more successfully than Peggy McIntosh, in her celebrated essay on
what she calls the "invisible knapsack." The invisible knapsack contains all
the little benefits that come to us simply because we are white, or straight,
or middle class, or male. We have to open up that knapsack, dump its contents
out and take a look at all the very different ways that these ascribed
characteristics (those we were born with) have become so obscured that we
have come to believe that the events of our lives are the results of achieved
characteristics. Making gender, race, class, sexuality visible - both as the
foundations of individual identity and as the social dynamics of inequality -
also means that we pay some attention to the differences among them as well.
Just as all forms of inequality are not the same, all forms of privilege are
not the same.
For example, race and gender appear, at least on the surface, to be based on
characteristics present at birth: one's sex or race. That means that they are
always visible to an observer. (Well, at least nearly always. There are, of
course, people who change their biological sex, or who dress differently from
established norms, and those who try and pass as members of another race.)
Thus the privileges based on gender or race may feel even more invisible
because those privileged by race and gender did nothing to earn their
Two other dimensions of identity - sexuality and class - are not immediately
visible. One can more easily pass as a member of a privileged group. But
sexual minorities also may feel that their identity is not a social
construction but the fulfillment of an inner essence - i.e., it is more like
race and gender than it is like class. While race and biological sex may be
evidently inborn, biologically based and/or "God-given," sexuality also feels
like that, to both heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Class, however, does not. In fact, class seems to feel exactly the opposite -
as a status that one was not born with but that one has earned. Class is less
visible than the other dimensions because while our objective position in an
economic order depends on empirically measurable criteria (income,
occupation, education), class as an everyday experience rests on other
people's evaluation of our presentation of self. It is far easier to pass as
something we are not - both for people of modest means to affect the
lifestyle of the rich and famous and for very wealthy people to affect the
styles of the poor. While most of us would like to have everyone think we are
wealthier than we actually are, it is often the case that the truly wealthy
want everyone to think they are less wealthy than they are. We may dress "up"
while they dress "down."
Class can be concealed and class feels like something we have earned all by
ourselves. Therefore, class privilege may be the one set of privileges we are
least interested in examining because they feel like they are ours by right,
not by birth.
THE SOULS OF WHITE (AND STRAIGHT AND MIDDLE CLASS AND MALE) FOLK
It's difficult and often unpleasant to acknowledge that all the good things
that have happened to you are not simply the result of your hard work and
talent and motivation but the result of something over which you had no power.
This realization, in turn, often leaves us feeling powerless, impotent. We
can become mired in guilt. Some people argue that guilt is a negative
emotion, and that we shouldn't have to feel guilty for the things that
happened generations - even centuries - ago.
Yet guilt may be an appropriate, even necessary feeling - for a while. Guilt
isn't always a "bad" emotion after all. How would you feel about hearing
Germans say that they "really don't want to feel guilty" about what happened
there? "After all, I never personally sent a Jew to the gas chambers." If our
guilt does not freeze us in abjection, it can motivate us to transform the
circumstances that made us feel guilty in the first place, to make
connections between our experiences and others' and to become and remain
accountable to the struggles for equality and justice around the world. Guilt
can politicize us. (Perhaps that's why we often resist it?)
While noble in intention, however, this posture of guilty self-negation
cannot be our final destination as we come to understand how we are
privileged by race, class, gender, and sexuality. Refusing to be men, white,
or straight does neither the privileged nor the unprivileged much good.
Renouncing privilege ultimately substitutes an individual solution for a
structural and social problem. Inequality is structural and systematic, as
well as individual and attitudinal. Eliminating inequalities involves more
than changing everyone's attitudes.
Trying to rid oneself of bad attitudes, renouncing one's unearned privilege,
also, finally, brings us no further than the feelings of impotent despair
that we often feel in the face of such overwhelming systemic problems. We
feel lonely. We feel isolated from our friends, our families, or our
classmates. It's the loneliness of the long distance runner against the wind.
The struggles against inequality are, however, collective struggles, enormous
social movements that unite people across geography, race, religion, class,
sexuality, and gender. Participating in these struggles to end inequality
brings one into a long history of those who have stood alongside the victims
of oppression, those who have added their voices to the voices of those who
had been earlier silenced. Examining our privilege may be uncomfortable at
first, but it can also be energizing, motivating, and engaging.
Even more energizing, if exhausting, can be to explore the ways in which
race, class, gender and sexuality intersect and interact. "Where does the
black person stop and the woman begin?" ask some writers. How can one analyze
the totality of one's experience without examining the ways in which all
these categories coincide, collide, contradict? Do we dare explore the ways
in which race, gender, class, and sexuality interact in the lives of those
who are privileged by one or more of these identities? Examining those arenas
in which we are privileged as well as those arenas in which we are not
privileged will enable us to understand our society more fully, and engage us
in the long historical process of change.
Michael Kimmel teaches sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook. This is an early version of the introduction to Privilege, edited by Michael Kimmel and Andy Ferber, to be published by Westview Press in March 2003. © 2002 Michael Kimmel.
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