Rather than simply endorsing reflection papers and their potential to dramatically connect course content with students’ lives, I want to share an example. I display this unedited reflection paper anonymously with permission of the author who I will call John. Of particular note is the visceral experience John has in recognizing his own positionality vis-a-vis the studied class topic. The impact of this experience was heightened as John and the other students engaged one another in class on their experiences writing these reflections.
(You will find the actual instructions for this assignment under the Paper Assignments tab.)
November 5, 2013
The concept of privilege positions in society was only made aware to me in recent years as I have had the luxury of learning about these subtle forms of oppression through continued study of social justice. I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to afford to be ignorant of such phenomena, but for some, these facts of social life are daily lessons of how they do not fit into a view of reality portrayed by mainstream culture. I had been focused on seeing overt forms of oppression where one group actively impacts another; however, I had never realized the part I played, and the advantages I gained from this system of oppression. Once the privileges were pointed out to me, it was as if I had become aware of a secret world that penetrates the very fiber of society. It wasn’t until I learned of my privilege that I began to see examples of it everywhere I looked. For my reflection I decided to do a little field work, so I took a walk around a local mall to search for examples of privilege.
Peggy McIntosh describes these privileges as an invisible knapsack of tools an advantages, and how those advantages manifest themselves is by virtue of the disadvantaged position it places those not lucky enough to be born into the right place in society. While white privilege is a common example, there can be many forms of privilege along the lines of sexual orientation, religion, physical attributes, and so on, as long as there is a tipping of the scales of justice that leaves one group in an advantaged position at the expense of another group. I think the main form of privilege I found in my field trip to the mall was the expectation that my general appearance and sexual orientation would be reflected in the products and advertisements, thus allowing me to have an immersive shopping experience. I got the sense that the layout of the mall was designed with me as its target customer, and this may be hard to explain, but it is a good feeling to know that you are welcome in a public space, and that every storefront is designed with you in mind.
A short list of the kinds of privilege I encountered included advertisements with young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples, around my age. Mannequins with average to slim body proportions. Makeup and pantyhose, with lighter skin tones listed as “neutral”or “flesh”colored. Most of the stores I went into had white staff members in positions of authority. Picture frames have white, attractive, heterosexual people displayed in them. Greeting cards generally target white, heterosexual, people, with the exception of a small section off to the side devoted to cards with people of color in them. There were two events in particular which really stood out to me on this field trip.
The first was when I was walking through a toy isle looking at all the young white children portrayed on the boxes having fun with their toys, and the only other customer was a young Hispanic girl and her father. The girl was playing on the floor with a white doll as her father perused the section. I thought it was so sad that this little girl must not help but be able to notice that she was different somehow, that she didn’t fit in here, and that her father had to search for a toy with a million smiling white faces staring at him. The difficulty is that this kind of oppression is not overt, not malevolent on the part of the toy makers, it is just the way that they system functions. Advertising works no matter how hard we try to avoid its clutches and seeing oneself reflected in the product is important for the customer satisfaction. The sad part is that the toy companies are probably maximizing efficiency by targeting what they perceive to be the majority customers appearance in their adds, and the minority customers are oppressed by virtue of their groups position in the economy. The difficult part is how to correct these forms of oppression, and I simply do not have an answer, but I do recognize the problem.
The second experience I had, and the thing I will remember most about my experiment, was when I walked into a Hallmark store and asking the lady behind the counter if they carried same sex greeting cards of any kind, but instead of simply saying that they did not, she paused for a few seconds and gave me a look that made me feel instantly uncomfortable. I could hear some of the other customers in the room stop for a second to look at me, and I could feel a heat move over my face. I quickly clarified that I was only doing a report for school, implying that I was not in fact homosexual, and the clerk’s demeanor changed as she stated that she didn’t think so, but I was free to check. It was the only time during the field study that I had felt the need to explain what I was doing to anyone. I could get out of the situation with a simple clarification, but what if I really was a member of the homosexual community walking into a situation where they not only can’t find the product they are looking for, but also are made to feel like a freak for even suggesting that they would like to be included along with everyone else. After I walked out of the store I felt guilty for having denied being homosexual, I am not, but still, why should I have to clarify anything when walking into a store? I have never had to tell the clerk that I was straight before shopping for Valentine’s Day cards for a significant other, but then again, no one asks if they carry heterosexual greeting cards.