Understanding Privilege, Race and Intersectionality
The ideas of race, privilege, oppression, and intersectionality have become buzzwords in our society. It is common to hear them in everyday conversation and controversy. As an Intern at Peace of Time Wellness, I had the opportunity to facilitate a group dialogue about privilege, race, and intersectionality.
In the context of social justice, privilege is defined as “the other side of oppression” (Ferguson, 2014, para. 9). Having privilege does not mean that an individual does not face hardships in life. However, it does mean that they carry an unearned benefit in society simply by the nature of their identity. For example, think about gender norms in American society. The assumed gender of a person is that which is assigned at birth. If someone identifies as queer or outside the predominant gender norm, they will likely need to clarify their gender identity and carry a higher risk of stigmatization.
The topic of privilege can be quite uncomfortable to discuss in a group setting. In leading the group discussion, I felt some personal discomfort in openly sharing about situations in my life where I acknowledge my own privilege. I felt hesitant and nervous in the discussion. By acknowledging my privilege, I was also acknowledging the reverse side of privilege – which is oppression. In the discussion, I shared some examples of privilege such as growing up in a financially stable two-parent home and having support in education. I reflected on how my experience may have differed if I had grown up with more instability in my home. I questioned whether I would have been able to graduate high school and college without my parents’ guidance. I felt it was important to acknowledge that these privileges played an important role in assisting my achievements in life.
Privilege can be tough to discuss with strangers, especially when there is no insight into the other group members' experiences with parent relationships, support in education, or racial discrimination. While sharing my privilege in this setting felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, it also felt important in moving towards a greater understanding of social justice and equality. Fortunately, folks in the group discussion seemed to approach the uncomfortable topic of privilege with a sense of curiosity and wiliness to explore. We were able to have an engaging discussion and vulnerable sharing of experiences, and worked to understand which areas of oppression are important to identify in social justice efforts.
The group also discussed the idea of race. Race is a social construct that separates people into groups based on physical features. This idea has no biological basis. Race is a man-made idea that emerged around the 17th century and was used to justify the early American economic system that depended on slavery for labor. In the discussion, I was surprised to hear about how differently everyone perceived racial identity. I took note of how race seemed to have a unique impact in each experience. As a new facilitator, this was an area I found challenging. I felt unsure of how to balance moving through the material, hearing about individual experiences, and directing the conversation towards the overall picture of social justice. Every participation felt important and valuable to hear.
The last topic we discussed was the idea of intersectionality. Intersectionality builds off of the definition of privilege to encompass multiple variables that may be involved in privilege and oppression dynamics. It refers to “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” (Oxford Dictionary). In simpler terms, intersectionality means that people have their own unique experience of privilege and oppression, all identities considered. In looking at intersectionality, you need to consider anything that can be marginalized in a person. For example, a non-Christian, non-cis gendered person of color may be marginalized because of religion, gender identity, or race. If a woman of color feels marginalized, it is unclear if the discrimination is because she is Black or because she is a woman, or because of both identities combined. Identifying intersecting identities is not meant to invalidate any particular experience. Rather, it is helpful to understand a diverse range of unique experiences in the world.
The topic of intersectionality was the most difficult for me to describe and spark discussion in the group. I felt as though a short 10 minutes was not enough to truly dive into the complex idea. In future discussions covering intersectionality, I realize that it may be appropriate to simplify the description as much as possible and include engaging components such as a video or interactive activity to identify intersectionality in oneself and others.
Reflecting on the flow of a 1-hour discussion, I am reminded of the importance of balancing individual sharing with covering material. Because the topics of discussion were vulnerable and uncomfortable, I had some difficulty knowing how to direct the flow of conversation while making space for each share to be heard. I am also reminded of the skill required to direct a group discussion towards a productive place. In any group, members take on different roles and adopt a group dynamic. As an intern with little experience in tough group discussions, I struggled in finding a confident voice to direct the group. While it was easy to identify moments where facilitation is needed, knowing how to assert authority to change direction seemed daunting at the moment.
Overall, the discussion covering race, privilege, and intersectionality pushed the group to think about how these topics impact each experience. I found it helpful and inspiring to hear about how differently people experience privilege and racial dynamics. In the greater scheme of social justice, facilitating the discussion helped push me to better understand how we can move towards the goal of a more equitable society.
Ferguson, S. (2014, September 26). Privilege 101: A quick and Dirty GUIDE. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/what-is-privilege/