Recognize Privilege

Ginger Grimes and Melissa Martorella,
J.D. Candidates 2015, UCI Law

Joined by:
Black Law Students Association
Latino Law Students Association
Disability Law Society
South Asian Law Students Association
Asian Pacific American Law Student Association
Jewish Law Association

The Vagina Monologues has been criticized as reinforcing patriarchy, heterosexuality, and ableism. It has also been criticized for representing only privileged versions of feminism and women-identified experiences. It is from this point of departure that we hope to spark a conversation about privilege.[1]

We implore you to use V-Week as a starting point to think about the ways in which your life is made easier by virtue of a privilege. That privilege could be related to ability, sexuality, gender identity, gender performance, linguistic fluency, race, religion, socioeconomic status, education—your presence at an elite law school by itself is a form of privilege—or some other identity category and combinations of categories that you take for granted in your everyday life.

As law students, we are required to craft our own personal narratives in applications to law schools, law firms, judges, government employers, and nonprofits in a way that demonstrates a challenge we have faced and how we have overcome it. We are asked to explain how our own personal experiences have informed our interests in law and future professional goals. But rarely are we asked to think about the ways in which our lives have benefitted from privilege, and even more rarely are we challenged to question and discard the benefits associated with privilege.

What does acknowledging and relinquishing your privilege entail? This is law school—as always, the answer is: “it depends.” It depends on your privilege, your understanding of how privilege operates in daily life, and your ability to deny the benefits of privilege.

To put this exercise into concrete terms, your authors use the example of free entrance into bars that comes with our identities as young, white or mixed-race women. This is a trivial example to put into perspective how the effect of privilege builds over time, and is not simply the result of isolated events. It is also an example situated both in privilege and the lack of privilege. On one hand, we might see ourselves as the victims of a society that privileges male desire. But we might also choose to engage in a critical dialogue with our male, women of color, LGBT, and sober friends by asking them about their experiences in the social space of bars and nightlife. What is it like dealing with the presumption that because you are a man you should pay more? What is it like being in a social situation surrounded by folks with a different sexual orientation? What is it like feeling unsafe waiting in line longer because of your non-conforming gender identity? What is it like being left out of social circles because of your sobriety? What is it like explaining to the bouncer that you’re over 21, but you don’t have a state ID because your state doesn’t issue driver’s licenses undocumented immigrants? What is it like being held to white standards of beauty, which values thinness, height, lack of musculature, symmetry, and of course, pale skin? Perhaps by exercising our empathy muscle, we can better understand the ways our privilege operates to disadvantage others, and how renouncing our benefits is an active step towards equality.

If you’ve never walked into a department store knowing you would be followed because of the color of your skin, you have benefitted from privilege. If you’ve never hesitated to enter a bathroom because your gender matches the one you were assigned at birth, you have benefitted from privilege. If you’ve never walked through a dark, empty parking lot with your car keys interlaced between your fingers, you’ve benefitted from privilege. If you’ve never thought twice about locating the nearest ramp or elevator at the entrance of a building, you’ve benefitted from privilege.

We understand that a simple renunciation of privilege is not how this works—the declaration, “As of today, I no longer benefit from white privilege!” is not an effective way to relinquish the benefits associated with whiteness. But just as identity can be thought of as a series of daily performances and interactions that work together to produce the way we understand ourselves and are understood by others, we can make an active choice every day to work against the injustices we see in the world (and came to law school to fight).

The Vagina Monologues is an experience in which we explore the history and everyday injustice of gender-based violence. We are joined by the Black Law Students Association, Latino Law Students Association, Disability Law Society, South Asian Law Students Association, OutLaw, Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, and Jewish Law Association in our invitation to you to critically interrogate the way that gender affects you. In the context of privilege, consider particularly how male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, monogamy privilege, and passing privilege interact with other types of privileges and identity categories to shape your experiences. This invitation is to a conversation with us and others about what it means to benefit from privilege, how to begin to recognize those benefits, and what resistance looks or feels like. Come join us in our expression of and resistance to privilege at the Vagina Monologues, on March 13 and 14 at 7:00PM.

[1] For a basic discussion of privilege, see Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, excerpted from Working Paper 189, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” (1989). McIntosh writes, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”