restricted access 51 Making Systems of Privilege Visible
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51 Making Systems of Privilege Visible STEPHANIE M. WILDMAN WITH ADRIENNE D. DAVIS How Language Veils the Existence of Systems of Privilege Race and gender are, after all, just words. Yet when we learn that someone has had a child, our first question is usually "Is it a girl or a boy?" Why do we ask that, instead of something like"Are the mother and child healthy?" We ask, "Is it a girl or a boy?" according to philosopher Marilyn Frye, because we do not know how to relate to this new being without knowing its gender.1 Imagine how long you could have a discussion with or about someone without knowing her or his gender. We place people into these categories because our world is gendered. Similarly, our world is also raced, and it is hard for us to avoid taking mental notes as to race. We use our language to categorize by race, particularly, if we are white, when that race is other than white. Marge Shultz has written of calling on a Latino student in her class2 She called him Mr. Martinez, but his name was Rodriguez. The class tensed up at her error; earlier that same day another professor had called him Mr. Hernandez, the name of the defendant in the criminal law case under discussion. Professor Shultz talked later with her class about her error and how our thought processes lead us to categorize in order to think. She acknowledged how this process leads to stereotyping that causes pain to individuals. We all live in this raced and gendered world, inside these powerful categories, that make it hard to see each other as whole people. But the problem does not stop with the general terms"race" and "gender." Each of these categories contains the images, like an entrance to a tunnel with many passages and arrows pointing down each possible path, of subcategories. Race is often defined as black and white; sometimes it is defined as white and "of color." There are other races, and s,ometimes the categories are each listed-for example, as African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American, and White American, if whiteness is mentioned at all. All these words, describing racial subcategories, seem neutral on their face, like equivalent .titles . But however the subcategories are listed, however neutrally the words are expressed, these words mask a system of power, and that system privileges whiteness. Other words we use to describe subordination also mask the operation of privilege. Increasingly , people use terms like "racism" and "sexism" to describe disparate treatment and the perpetuation of power. Yet this vocabulary of "isms" as a descriptive shorthand for undesirable, disadvantaging treatment creates several serious problems. From PRIVILEGE REVEALED: How INVISIBLE PREFERENCE UNDERMINES AMERICA by Stephanie M. Wildman et al. Copyright © 1996. Reprinted by permission of New York University Press. Copyrighted Material Making Systems of Privilege Visible 315 First, calling someone a racist individualizes the behavior and veils the fact that racism can occur only where it is culturally, socially, and legally supported. It lays the blame on the individual rather than the systemic forces that have shaped that individual and his or her society. Whites know they do not want to be labeled racist; they become concerned with how to avoid that label, rather than worrying about systemic racism and how to change it. Second, the isms language focuses on the larger category, such as race, gender, sexual preference. Isms language suggests that within these larger categories two seemingly neutral halves exist, equal parts in a mirror. Thus black and white, male and female, heterosexual and gay/lesbian appear, through the linguistic juxtaposition, as equivalent subparts. In fact, although the category does not take note of it, blacks and whites, men and women, heterosexuals and gays/lesbians are not equivalently situated in society. Thus the way we think and talk about the categories and subcategories that underlie the isms allows us to consider them parallel parts, and obscures the pattern of domination and subordination within each classification. Similarly, the phrase "isms" itself gives the illusion that all patterns of domination and subordination are the same and interchangeable. The language suggests that someone subordinated under one form of oppression would be similarly situated to another person subordinated under another form. Thus, a person subordinated under one form may feel no need to view himself or herself as a possible oppressor, or beneficiary of oppression, within a different form. For example, white women, having an...