Privilege is a tricky thing to illuminate. This is because if you happen to be benefiting from privilege, it is more often than not, somewhat invisible to you. On the other side of the coin, if you are at the expense of someone else’s privilege, that can be either incredibly overt or deeply insidious and hard to even pinpoint. It is the insidiousness of the privilege/oppression cycle that I find myself drawn to illuminating most often.
This theme arises frequently in my practice with clients struggling with eating disorders and the size shaming, diet promoting dynamics that perpetuate oppression and privilege cycles amongst body types. It also arises in time spent with women who have been through sexual assault, who so quickly internalize feelings of fault and blame. It shows up in the day to day identity exploration with my LGBTQ+ clients in deep levels of being invisibilized by our heteronormative promoting culture. These are just a few frequent examples, the list is long.
As a social worker, a lot of my social justice work is slowly illuminating those dynamics of oppression and privilege. Without doing so, all too often people move through the world entangled in these webs without being able to see them, which makes them feel as though the problem must be located within.
In this episode of my long-held favorite radio program, This American Life, a woman named Ladonna, walks us through her experiences of peeling back the curtain of her work environment to see the many layers of oppression at play to sustain privilege for some at the significant expense of others. Repeatedly throughout the story, as Ladonna makes progress moving up the ranks, the interviewer asks her, “did that make you feel powerful when…” to which Ladonna answers, “no it did not.” Ladonna answers the same way, every single time. The interviewer reflects on her surprise and her clear emphatic belief that it must somehow be getting better for her as she gains more authority in the system.
However, what Ladonna beautifully illuminates, are the massive invisible forces of racism and sexism, and the pain of noticing them and the ways in which institutions can uphold them, both unknowingly and then intentionally. The listener is left with accurate, if disheartening awareness, that something radical on a much larger level would have to shift in order for Ladonna to feel the way the interviewer so badly wishes for her to feel.
The bittersweet realization that the problem is not just yours, but SO much larger than you, is powerful. It is both a relief and a daunting and exhausting call to action. As a provider, I repeatedly examine where I may unintentionally collude with invisible forces of oppression and where my privileges are sustained through it.
This is a listen for anyone who has ever felt unseen and powerless, but all the more so, for anyone who hasn’t.