Saturday, September 7, 2013

Privilege, Power, and Difference

In the first three chapters of Privilege, Power, and Difference  by Allan G. Johnson, Johnson argues that gender, race, and sexual orientation are the primary factors in determining stereotypes and perceptions of people in American society.  He further argues that while social class impacts one's feeling of self worth in society, it does not supersede the innate characteristics with which we are all born, such as our sex, our skin color, and our sexual preferences. While on one hand I found myself agreeing with most of which Johnson wrote, on the other, I could not help but think of exceptions to his theory that race, gender, and sexual orientation outweigh both social class and individual circumstances in determining one's so-called "place" in American society.
Johnson immediately discredits the old stereotype that "human nature" is why all of us, regardless of our skin color, sexual orientation, and gender can't see eye to eye.   I absolutely agree that our perceptions of people are learned behavior, or as Johnson puts it, "We are prisoners to something, but it is closer to our own making than we realize."  In other words, our social perceptions are learned behavior. 

(Here I relayed a childhood story about Smurfs on Ice...)
Johnson says that people "ignore the trouble by trying to get rid of the language that names it."  I was emboldened by his words to relay the above story using the "n" and the "sp" words, but I have NEVER EVER used them in real life, nor would I.  I hate them.   My father learned quickly as soon as my sisters and I were old enough to understand racism that he must NEVER utter those words.   I can't tell you how many family fights, often violent, we've had through the years about his "racist" tendencies.  I can't tell you how many times Smurfs on Ices has come up.   In short and to my dad's credit, that may be the only time I ever heard him utter those words.  But it made a huge impression on me, and I feel like I've carried that burden around my whole life.  I go out of my way to try to judge people based on their actions and to not base my assumptions of anyone on first impressions.  I do make assumptions, but I really do not make them based on race, gender, class, or sexuality; rather, actions.  Again, to credit my father who I am not trying to bash in any way because his is an incredible man, his actions were based on his life experiences and out of an instinct to "protect" his family.  He is a very kind and, believe it or not, not even racist man.  He has friends of all kinds, and he would give the shirt off his back to ANYONE.  Sounds strange, right?  This is why racism is so complicated. 
Having lived in a couple of situations in which I was a minority, I can in some ways understand the anger that stems among many people toward the privileged white majority.  In my sophomore year at UMass Amherst, I lived on the ALANA floor which was the African, Latino, Asian, Native American group against racism which organized many campus-wide awareness events and protests against racism.  I don't know how I ended up there; I didn't request it.  My roommate and I were the only two white people.  It was an eye-opening experience because I literally had never been in a minority situation in my life and quickly learned how it felt to be excluded.  The conversation often stopped when I walked by in the corridor.  My study break was boycotted.  I got crisp hellos but no follow-up as I walked down the hall. This went on for months, but of course, gradually, people warmed up to me.  I ended up dating a guy down the hall when brought me further into the group, and ironically, a whole world of cultures.  It was one of the most difficult, challenging, eye-opening, and rewarding experiences of my life.  And I was still in America, on a predominately white campus, just two hours from my home town.  
I went abroad to Seville, Spain, and there, I experienced a similar type of disdain.  This time, racism was real.  Americans abroad like me stuck out in a monoculture, and we were not all liked.  In fact, we were often perceived as imperialists.  I looked different as it was, and when I opened my mouth to speak, I felt like a fool.   Again, this got better as the year went on.  Within several months, I made friends, and eventually, I had a boyfriend.   I loved and simultaneously hated going to his very small pueblo where not a soul spoke English and I was the only white American.  I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was the center of awe and interest at the same time.  People spoke to me like I was deaf and dumb, and I often didn't feel intelligent.  I beat myself up but also got stronger, and I learned, learned, learned about the world outside of the States.
So when Johnson states that "Whites can choose whether to be conscious of the racial identity or to ignore it and regard themselves simply as human beings," I agree.  When he writes, "Whites don't have to deal with an endless and exhausting stream of attention to their race," I agree.  I concur also with his perspective on gender and sexual preference in that men don't have to deal with taunting about their sexual attractiveness (or lack of sex appeal, which I have heard from my male friends), and that heterosexuals will never be accused of "flaunting" their sexuality as some homosexuals are.  I understand Johnson's stance on racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, but I think that his argument that social class is secondary to these factors is untrue.
Social class, in my opinion, takes into account one's individual circumstance and is equally important in determining who in this society is oppressed by the predominant social culture in which they live.  If you are a "scared white boy in a black neighborhood" as referenced in the song "Father of Mine" by Everclear; if you were my father growing up in Providence, if you were living as a minority as a Catholic in a wealthy neighborhood in  Newton, Massachusetts, l believe that you also are in some way going to carry the burden of being discriminated against.  Yes, when taken outside of your subculture, you may still be "white" and therefore "privileged", but there are facets of this society that never leave their subcultures.  If you are a minority in your subculture, regardless of your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or social class, then you are a minority.  The "outsider" generally gets the digs, as evident in any elementary school classroom.  I believe that in order to FULLY understand the society in which we live, we need to put as much thought into people's individual circumstances in order to form more thorough opinions about their individual character.  I also believe that understanding the roots of people's anger will help to make our American society more tolerant of each other.


  1. Thanks for sharing all of this, Amy. GIves a lot of context and history and memory to the ways you are and will make sense of this "power" stuff in an academic space!

  2. Amy, I enjoyed reading your memories as they applied to the text. One point that I am pondering is this: "Social class, in my opinion, takes into account one's individual circumstance and is equally important in determining who in this society is oppressed by the predominant social culture in which they live." I agree that social class is related to individual/economic circumstances and that anyone can be an outsider. I was an outsider living as a white woman in N.London, in a predominantly Caribbean and Asian neighborhood, and, in essence, was snubbed. But, I often thought that was because I gave off an energy of fear as in fearing the unknown as Johnson pointed out. But, for the most part, in American society, the norm has been that individual circumstances is often related to one's race and that if one is of the predominant race in Society as a whole, it is much easier to step over barriers which impede economic and thus, social, opportunities. In other words, a white person in a minority neighborhood still has an advantage over others in that neighborhood when they leave to enter the greater society.

    1. Polly, your last statement here really struck a chord with me. I think that both you and Amy make excellent points regarding the way that white people can step into and out of various settings and still have the upper hand in the end. I also agree that this brings a certain level of discomfort that is difficult in its own way. I often wonder if this is part of the reason why people choose to remain in self-segregated communities, maybe (all) people are most comfortable in familiar environments and neighborhoods...How do we fix that? I also wonder what this will look like thirty, forty or fifty years from now. We have huge numbers of Latinos moving into the USA and the demographics will change, "white" or "Caucasian" will soon become a minority race. As years pass by and we become part of the minority, I wonder how the tables might turn. I also wonder if this is why so many people are so afraid of immigration reform, they don't want to become part of the minority. Sorry for the tangent, but this post and comment lead to a stream of thoughts for me.

  3. Amy, I think it was good that your father warned you to be leery of black people. He was trying to protect you against a group (not an individual) that he was conditioned to be leery of himself; we don’t know how many times he may have been punched in the back of the head by a black person. So, I too do not think your father was a racist. I also think that he unlike Johnson would not have had an issue speaking to his black female friend about their differences. Courage is was is needed to risk your friendships in order to cross cultural divides and close gaps across categorized people. Johnson seemed to think long and hard about the consequences that might arise from doing what your father did so naturally.