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Commentary: Don't take 'Un-Fair campaign' personally

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2012 - Some say the recent Un-Fair campaign launched by the YWCA in Duluth, Minn., is just that- un-fair. My belief is that it is a spot-on example of what it means to be an ally. The YWCA is living its mission, which includes “dismantling racism” and using its sphere of influence to draw attention to the important topic of privilege. In this predominantly White town of Duluth, the YWCA has decided to addressissues of institutionalized racism. Yet billboards depicting White individuals with examples of White privilege have left some feeling blamed.

I understand the defensiveness many people feel when White privilege is mentioned. It’s hard to balance the institutional piece (i.e., citizenship being limited to Whites as late as the 1900s, laws mandating separate facilities, etc.) with the personal piece.

I see White students struggle with feeling shame when they see how they have benefited from Whiteness yet did not have a personal hand in the matter. It’s a similar feeling that I could get when the topic is heterosexual privilege. I could get defensive and argue that I, personally, do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, yet I would be blind not to see the numerous institutional ways in which those who are part of that group are systematically disadvantaged (i.e., health-care benefits, marriage right, etc.).

If I can see the discussion of such privilege as not a personal attack but merely the unfortunate FACT of the current state of things, I can move beyond my own feelings of defensiveness and listen to and validate the experiences of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and /or transgender. That is being an ally, and that is what the Un-Fair campaign accomplishes.

Being a predominantly White community, Duluth is engaging with people where they are. And the awareness of White privilege - which is not synonymous with blame, shame and finger pointing - is a smart place to start. In many ways it can get us as individuals out of the equation. So it’s not so much about he said/she said, he’s racist/she’s a bigot but being bold enough to look at the system and see the patterns of the community. One person does not create those patterns, and it is precisely that larger perspective that needs to be examined.

Interpersonal work is important, yes. But beyond me trying to convince you that it’s important to respect - not just tolerate - difference, I think my biggest obligation is to work for systemic changes that will mandate equity.

For example, I support the rights of marriage being extended to people regardless of the gender makeup of the partnership. Some would argue that it is not equity until it is called marriage for both parties. Yet, I would argue the financial and social privileges that systematically get handed out to married people should be widely available regardless of what it is called. If it needs to be called something other than marriage, because some people think narrowly, so be it. They can remain caught up in the language, while everyone is given access to the privileges that come with the term. Maybe it’s an interim step, or maybe it’s seeing the bigger picture.

In the recent changeover to timeline, my Facebook profile defaulted to “civil union” to characterize my marriage. I would have to manually go in and change the designation (which I have not). It could have been a glitch in my migration or a clever move. What if we did the same in our government- simply made civil unions, with the privileges of what we now know as marriage, the default. To be clear, language is powerful and I am not advocating for a mere reconfiguration of the inequality we have. For real change to happen, all people would have access to a civil union, which would carry the current marriage privileges. People could then choose to get married but it would carry no “extras” in the eyes of the government.

The Un-Fair campaign is simply stating the obvious: If you are willing to be honest with yourself. I’ve attempted to illustrate how a person with privilege can engage in the exploration of it rather than get defensive when it is pointed out. What would be powerful is if the campaign continued after this year to highlight other types of privilege. We might all be pushed to see the ways we have privilege -- in particular unearned entitlements.

Perhaps a similar campaign will come to St. Louis, and I am hopeful we could hold constructive dialogues. Yet, there’s no need to wait for a campaign. We can use this one as a launching pad to be reflective of our own experiences and open to hearing those of others. Those shifts are what allow us to see it, know it, stop it.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks