Student Voices: Privilege and Language | Work of Arts
Student Voices: Privilege and Language | Work of Arts

Student Voices: Privilege and Language

Student blogger Shayne Golosky-Johnston discusses privilege and language, and the importance of inclusive language in battling casual racism and other forms of injustice.

Student Voices is a WOA blog feature that presents the experiences and point of views of current arts students around campus. Get to know our creative and passionate students through their “voices” and get a snapshot of life as an arts undergrad. The views and opinions expressed within these student voices posts are solely those of the author.

A new year and a new term! New faces will be roaming the halls this chilly January, and I would just like to remind everyone that inclusive language and allyship is important. Sadly, we still live in an unequal world based on divisions of class, gender, sexuality, race and other social divisions that come with a lot of toxic –isms, which can be harmful for the mental, spiritual and even physical health of those around us. Being a victim of this myself, I can truly attest to how words and language can change a good day into a day filled with self-doubt, insecurities and a dramatic drop in mood and self-esteem. In some cases all it takes is one out-of-place comment to ruin someone’s day. Sometimes those comments are overheard on public transit, in classrooms, in hallways, and online. So, it is a good idea to remain conscious of what you say around people, and be aware of your position of privilege.

privilege n. a special benefit, exemption from a duty, or immunity from penalty, given to a particular person, a group or a class of people.

Some people are just naturally born with privilege, and many times they do not realize they have it. For example, if you are free to practice your religion without ridicule, and love whomever without fearing for your life, you have privilege. Being able to use the public toilets without anxiety is also an example of privilege.

Remain conscious of what you say around people, and be aware of your position of privilege.

Writing this post, I acknowledge my own privilege. Lots of people do not have the opportunity to attend university, so I have privilege in that way; also, when I came out as queer and transsexual, my parents accepted me. Not all people have that gift. I give thanks for my own privilege, but I don’t exercise it over others and oppress them with it; I use it to bring awareness to other people who may not enjoy the privileges I have right now. As part of that, let me examine a few examples of oppression that people may not realize exist.

Casual Racism

I am sure you’ve heard the saying, “Pancake Syrup is my spirit animal,” or a variation thereof. I have heard it a lot around campus and on social media. This is an example of casual racism. Spirit animals are sacred to most native people and they often come to you in a deep state of meditation and ceremony. By using this phrase casually, not in its serious context, and without knowing the cultural and historical background, you are trivializing a practice that has been around for a very long time. An article, brilliantly written by one of my favorite bloggers Lesley Kinzel at xoJane, states:

“Part of the reason why people like [Wade Michael] Page and communities to support him can continue to exist is because of this artificial line we’ve drawn between Real Racism and casual, joking-around, everything’s-cool racism. One is an unknowable other, a horrifying fringe group most of us can claim a certain amount of distance from — the other is just, y’know, people not being oversensitive. The resistance to talk about the latter only feeds the former; racism, no matter how quiet or good-natured, is a pervasive thing, and if we give casual racism a pass, that leaves room for more overt and violent racism to keep on happening.

Other examples of casual racism you might be familiar with (and do see the excellent Microaggressions for more): Saying we got “gypped” or “jewed.” Telling a black person that they’re “articulate” or “well spoken.” Asking people who look at all racially ambiguous, “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” Attempting to touch a black person’s hair without their permission. Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, the Land O Lakes lady and “flesh” colored Band-Aids. Speaking in a “funny” fake Chinese or Japanese accent. Calling things “ghetto.” It’s a bummer to find out stuff we once thought was just silly and funny may in fact be harmful and mocking. It sucks because once we know the potential hurt they can cause, we can’t un-know it — we have to walk around with that information and understand that if we continue to use these terms, we may be willfully contributing to a lot of crap and misery in the world.”

– “Casual Racism is Not My Spirit Animal.” xoJane. Lesley Kinzel. August 9, 2012.

Casual Racism, however, is not the only factor that affects people. Of course there is homophobia, transphobia and all the others that people just casually “allow,” as Lesley puts it, and that needs to stop.

However, you also need to be careful when calling people on their behavior. Calling people out and alienating them from the issue isn’t productive.

Call in

Instead of calling out, call in. Explain to the person what they did, how it was wrong, why it was wrong and then proceed to educate them more about that topic, so that in the future, they may make better choices in wording and learn how to be a more inclusive person.

Also, if you find yourself being “called in” (or out), below is a handy tool I found on tumblr that might be useful (I’ve linked it at the bottom for future reference):

.      Don’t tone police. It is NOT your right to dictate how someone should react to their oppression.

.      Don’t demand a detailed explanation. You’re basically asking the person to justify their call out. It’s exhausting, many resources are available, and often this is just a way to try and derail, start an argument, or discredit the other person.

.      Don’t get defensive. A call out is not all about you as a person.

.      Don’t take it personally. Calling out/in is not a personal attack. If someone calls you out, they’re trying to teach you something. Calling out/in is a way for people to educate others on how systems of oppression operate on a day-to-day, individual level.

.      Don’t attack the person who’s calling you out. Just don’t.

.      Don’t assume the person calling you out is just “looking to get offended. Nobody enjoys calling other people out. To call someone out, people often have to mentally prepare for serious repercussions. Calling someone out might mean starting an argument, during which many people will side with the oppressor by default (especially if you’re privileged over the person calling you out).

.      Understand that being oppressive is not the same as being offensive or hurting feelings. The damage you’re perpetuating is part of a larger system of oppression.

.      Realize that your intent is irrelevant when it comes to whether you were oppressive or not.

.      Recognize the power dynamics that are in place between you and the person calling you out.

.      Understand intersectionality. i.e. Just because you are oppressed by classism doesn’t mean you lack male privilege.

.      Know that being privileged means being oppressive, but you can work to reduce the ways that you are oppressive.

.      LISTEN.

.      Genuinely apologize.

.       Work on oppression reduction and being the best ally you can be. The point of calling you out is to draw your attention to how you’re being oppressive, so that you can work to change it. If you made an oppressive joke, there’s probably oppressive thoughts in place (conscious or not) that led you to think the joke was appropriate. Everyone has to unlearn the oppressive things they’ve absorbed from an oppressive society. We are all taught ways to keep marginalized people in their place, but the good thing is that we can identify these things in ourselves and change. And then we can start working on dismantling the kyriarchy, yeah!

With that, I wish you all the best in dismantling oppression and in a new year in school. If you are interested in more information regarding privilege, see the links I have added to the bottom of this page as well as the book Undoing Privilege by Bob Pease.

Related links:

University of Alberta: The NoHomophobes Project!/today/

How to deal with being Called out

Lesley’s Blog Post on Casual Racism

Microaggressions: Power Privilege and Everyday life

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About Shayne Golosky-Johnston

Shayne Golosky-Johnston

Shayne is a 3rd year English and History student in the Faculty of Arts. Originally from Fort McMurray, he is an executive member of the Arts Aboriginal Council and identifies as Two-Spirited.