Navigating Privilege: When to Step Up, When to Step Back

The George Zimmerman trial has brought race back into the national dialogue, though not in a particularly useful way.  One news channel broadcast a segment on whether “cracker” is as bad an epithet as “the n-word.”  If you can’t write or say the latter without being offensive, the answer is “probably not.”

Wendy Davis: an interesting case study on conflicting intersectionality

At the same time, Texas women are fighting for their reproductive rights.  Their champion is Texas Senator Wendy Davis (left), a slim, blond, white woman with Barbie-doll styling, a Harvard degree, and a history of grit.

Only 44% of Texans are non-Hispanic and white, yet if you look at photos of a July 1 pro-choice rally in Austin, there are few people are color.  Maybe they weren’t there.  Maybe they weren’t photographed.  Either way, it’s interesting.

Most of us are privileged in some ways, disadvantaged in others.  This is because of something called intersectionality, the idea that our identities have multiple features.

Sometimes these intersections reinforce our disadvantage (for example, a poor woman who identifies as queer is marginalized in different ways for each of those characteristics).

At other times, our identities are a mix of characteristics that privilege and disadvantage us.  For example, a gay white man is privileged in his whiteness and masculinity, disadvantaged for being gay (which is why he may choose to stay in the closet).  In all cases this disadvantage is not an intrinsic result of the characteristic, but is a social construction which unfairly denotes some people as better than others.

I don’t know Wendy Davis or her thoughts on privilege, but she’s an interesting case study on conflicting intersectionality.  When she filibustered the anti-choice Senate Bill 5 on June 25th, she did so as a woman in a body which is 77% male and as a Democrat in a body that is 62% Republican.  It was appropriate for her to step up because she was in a position of disadvantage.

When she found herself standing on a podium composed mostly of white people at the July 1st pro-choice rally, she might have thought of stepping back (and pushing someone else forward), by getting a Latina or African-American woman a speaker spot on the program. In the context of the rally, she was in a position of privilege.

The idea of “step up, step back” is useful in thinking about how to navigate privilege and disadvantage.  The principle is part of consensus process and is used by many activist groups.  (Anarchists, who care a lot about being egalitarian, are particular proponents.)  On his blog, Enormous Face, artist Kalan Sherrard defines the step up, step back principle as “taking responsibility, but not taking over to dominate, a situation or group dynamic.”  (The New York General Assembly which formed during Occupy also has a whole page devoted to the concept.)

The bottom line is, when you are in a situation of disadvantage, step up.  When you are in a situation of privilege, step back.

This idea is empowering because even people whose identifies disadvantage them most of the time will find themselves in a position of privilege some of the time.  An unemployed African-American man can step up and defend a gay Latino man whom his friends are hassling.  A transgendered woman can ask the contractor renovating her kitchen to pay a living wage to the workers on the project, knowing they may have difficulty demanding better working conditions because they are in the country illegally.

The most powerful thing that anyone can do with their privilege, however, is not to step up for others, but to step back and let them step up for themselves.  A white male scholar who finds himself on a conference panel on race without any people of color could take it upon himself to try to express the opinions of excluded voices.  That would good.  He could also talk to the conference organizer and suggest that his colleague, who is African-American, be added to the panel.  This would be even better.

It is important that we defend our own rights, but it is also important that we use the rights we already have to pass the power along to others.

Image source: Wikipedia

7 thoughts on “Navigating Privilege: When to Step Up, When to Step Back

  1. I think this is a very useful guideline. However, sometimes we are in situations when we are simultaneously in both positions of advantage and disadvantage. For instance, in a marriage between a Chicano man and a white women. A friendship between a Jewish man and a gay man, or an owning class woman with a disability and a raised poor, immigrant woman.

    What I think this requires is keeping two things in our mind at the same time. And lots of experimentation – trial and error, as they say. I don’t think it’s a matter of trying to figure out who’s right, and who’s to blame. Blame is an outdated concept. But rather realizing that whatever oppressions are present in a relationship need to be tackled or they will run the show, even if both people are opposed to the oppressions in their mind.

    One of the effects of oppression is that it is hard for many of us to think about them. Most of us want to know “what to do,” but these kinds of relationships require us to constantly keep thinking and trying and growing. It also requires lots of kindness and patience. 🙂


  2. Thanks for another great comment, Emily. “Sometimes we are in situations when we are simultaneously in both positions of advantage and disadvantage.” Totally agree. Mindfulness and compassion are indeed the best way forward.

  3. Good thoughts, but “she might have thought of stepping back (and pushing someone else forward), by getting a Latina or African-American woman a speaker spot on the program.”

    Here’s the speaker list for that day:
    State Rep. Jessica Farrar
    Lisa Edelstein, actress
    Ilyse Hogue, NARAL President
    State Rep. Senfronia Thompson
    Stephanie March, actress
    State Sen. Kirk Watson
    State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte
    Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood President
    State Sen. Wendy Davis

    A little googling goes a long way.

  4. I feel like I need to defend Wendy Davis a little bit here. I think to refer to the way she looks — Barbie-doll stylings — is belittling. She was a single mom living in a trailer when she was 19, and still she managed to be the first person in her family to graduate from college, and then she went to Harvard for post-grad … talking about her privilege with an eye to how she looks seems a bit short-sighted. She’s also a elected representative; in theory, she’s shouldering the burden of the privilege, or lack thereof, of her constituents. She does good work for people who are poor, and she has been that poor person. It goes beyond “grit.” I think it’s a more complicated example than this acknowledges.

    • Hi Ellen,

      I admire Wendy Davis. She is a great woman. She bootstrapped her way up from the very circumstances you describe. She fights bravely for those with less power than herself. Yet, just as I would feel comfortable talking about the privilege of a self-made white man, I feel comfortable talking about the privilege of a self-made white woman.

      As a blond white woman myself, I feel justified in saying that her skin color, her hair color, her appearance affect how she in able to operate in the world. Just as her economic background was a hinderance, these physical traits, the fact that she is photogenic, are assets, assets which many other poor, intelligent people do not have. This is the kind of complex mix of advantage and disadvantage that I was trying to get at.


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