Privileged dilemmas: how to feel bad without making it all about me

A few years ago while working as an undertrained, underpaid, undersupported case manager, I found myself struggling with a nasty case of secondary trauma. It is difficult for me to even talk about it without going down the rabbit hole of psychobabble and self-doubt. The best way to describe it is to describe one of the most startling symptoms: every time I saw a mother and child, a couple, or really any kind of family unit, without being fully conscious of it, I would try to move out of earshot. I was working in domestic violence, and eventually I realized that I wanted to avoid seeing the display of verbal or physical abuse that I had begun to assume must be occurring in every family. In other words, when I saw a hetero couple strolling together down the street, I assumed that the man would begin calling the woman names or hitting her at any moment. Fucked up, right?

Anyway, one of the major problems I’ve had with acknowledging and dealing with secondary trauma  is that it occurs because of intense empathy for others’ pain (which is not to say it is inevitable). Because of this empathy, it is really hard for me to acknowledge my own pain—the secondary trauma—as legitimate. I mean, what could be more whiny-first-worlder than to complain that other peoples’ problematic lived experiences are so bad that they are traumatizing me? Those people had to actually live it, not just hear about it!

It seems to me that there is something in there that has a lot to do with broader struggles for social justice and wanting to recognize one’s own privilege. My understanding of the world suggests that while I am oppressed by certain systems (capitalism and gender, for example), I also benefit from others (race, class, sexuality, and nationality are all systems that privilege me and my experiences). What gets tricky for me is balancing being a good ally and trying to notice when my experiences are being validated a little too easily, but also feeling ok acknowledging my own pain and–dare I say–oppression.

Maybe this is part of what generates so much defensiveness around intersectionality on the left (I’m thinking especially of feminism here–just check out the comments on this post to see what I’m talking about). I suspect that sometimes I get defensive  because acknowledging my privilege can feel like it requires downplaying my own pain. But (and here’s where the rabbit hole starts) then I worry: how can I tell the difference between the need to validate my own feelings and simply feeling threatened by the loss of privilege? Is there one?

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6 responses to “Privileged dilemmas: how to feel bad without making it all about me

  1. You have to have both. That is, we must be aware of and acknowledge our privilege. But we almost must acknowledge our oppression/suffering. They don’t invalidate each other; they coexist. Perhaps it’s a paradox, or maybe just a result of the complex interactions of various types of hegemony at play in our lives. Sometimes we are on top of one pyramid, exercising our privilege at the expense of others. And at the same time we’re at the bottom of another. You can never peel apart the interconnected layers. The fact that you’re asking these questions has to count for something.

    • Yes, I definitely think we need to acknowledge our pain, even if only to ourselves. I mean, feelings are basically these things we have that we can’t control, change, or shut out, so I try to always run toward them to understand them rather than avoid (not that I always succeed at that). I guess for me the trick is figuring out how to act on the feelings. How to balance taking care of myself with fighting with others–come to think of it, I guess the trick to that is that there isn’t necessarily a balance because I can only fight with others if I’m taking care of myself. And you’re right: maybe I can only recognize my privilege if if I recognize my oppression.

    • I think you are so right about not being able to act effectively on behalf of others if you’re not taking care of yourself. But it also works in the other direction: As long as anyone is oppressed, we are all oppressed (whether we feel the effects of it or not). In battling against our own privilege, so to speak, we are serving ourselves as much as we are serving “the oppressed” among us. When any person suffers, we all suffer. (Of course, then we run into that paradoxical thinking again. Because I can make a statement like that in the abstract, but in reality there are others who are really genuinely suffering, and I don’t want to downplay that by claiming their suffering as my own!).

  2. Anonymous

    I think it might have to beyond acknowledgement when it come to privledge. I think privledge needs to be exposed and offered up for use. Those with privledge need to confront the feelings of shame that can come when others call them out on it. I think the shame is socially constructed and that if the priveledge is separated from the person it can be a good tool?

  3. Hey so I found your blog from the Crunk Feminist Collective Post. I’m an anarchist feminist woman of color but while I sympathize with much of their critique I don’t totally agree with it.

    Institutional racism is a huge problem and I believe that white privilege needs to be addressed but I think that a lot of the women of color criticizing SlutWalk are missing the point, guilty of trying to speak of women of color as a monolith, ignoring the very real participation of many women of color slutwalk supporters and have some mis-directed criticisms. Rape & victim-blaming affect all women and women of color are disproportionately affected by them.

    As I was looking at some of the most recent comments on Aura Blogando’s piece which was the most famous of the WOC bloggers that criticized SlutWalk [http://tothecurb.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/slutwalk-a-stroll-through-white-supremacy/], I saw that Slutwalk LA steering committee was organized by some Latina women, a New Orleans (I think) slutwalk is emerging that is run completely by women of color organizers, and there was recently a Slutwalk in Mexico City and in Guatemala. The hypothesis that SlutWalk organizers are leaving women of color or their issues out is a bit of an oversimplification I think. Crunk specifically deals with Black Women’s issues and I understand their concerns because Black women’s sexuality in American culture is treated in a very problematic way.

    Although I understand where they are coming from I know in Latina culture which comes from Latin American culture, similar issues are at play in women perceived as being as too sexual by dominant society & their rapes are not taken as seriously. Their worth is tied to their appearance and sexual activity. Hence the word “cualquiera” which is an insult in Spanish which literally means “whomever or anyone” [but referring to women] but which as a derogatory slang term means more like “common women” which basically means someone is calling you a prostitute.

    Months ago I wrote a response to these sorts of critiques but don’t know how useful it is now: http://trancegoddess89.blogspot.com/2011/05/slutwalk-and-oppressed-groups-hating.html

    Sorry for this comment weeks after you wrote the post but I just found your blog and quite enjoy it.

    I grew up in a mixed Latina/o & Black neighborhood (no other races) and have been arguing with people with white and class privilege for at least the last 8 years of my life (high school & college) about how they’re privileged and how oppression affects people of color and working class people (and a host of others). People I knew in college & myself made a lot of privileged people uncomfortable at my mostly white college by talking about how were affected by racism on campus. Even though I have an anti-racist activist background, I don’t find these critiques of SlutWalk to be very productive. I think there’s a lot more white Feminists these days who are aware of their white privilege and the need for Feminism to be intersectional with class and race and a host of other things. Many Feminists don’t get it yet but Feminism imo is a lot farther ahead on intersectionality than a host of other social justice movements.

    I have seen a bit of white privilege in a lot of activism & when I thought of a new movement to combat victim blaming (slutwalk), it really does not seem like a white women’s movement to me. I’m all for checking our privileges though & still speaking out about how were oppressed. I have privilege in that I pass as hetero and am cis, a citizen. Sorry for the uber long post.

    Just to get back to your original point, secondary trauma is very real. I want to read a book called “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others”. From the snippet I read of it, the author gets so worn out helping others with trauma that when she goes on vacation to a relaxing remote place, and when she sees a cliff she mentions to her companions that she wonders how many people have jumped off that bridge to commit suicide. Not sure if she felt traumatized herself but those in positions to deal with a lot of traumatized people often become traumatized themselves.

  4. Rocio, thanks so much for your thoughts. Glad you are liking the blog and hoping to keep engaging on these issues in the future!

    You make a great point about the Slutwalks and the critique, i.e., that perhaps the CFC critique is guilty of essentializing an alternate women of color position. I think this is a really important point, and a problematic that has no endpoint. In other words, I think we are going to have to keep wrestling with and problematizing essentialism while we simultaneously rely on it to make sense of the world.

    As an activist, I have often noticed that you can tell when someone is correct in pointing out a situation of privilege based upon the level of defensiveness of those who are being critiqued. For example, if I suggest that a cis-man is coming from a place of male privilege in a meeting, I feel more sure of my hunch/accusation/critique if his reaction is to immediately deny that he is accessing any privilege whatsoever and to instead blame me for causing a problem. We’ve all seen it happen–this man might very well start telling me what a great feminist he is and how all of his feminist women friends praise him all the time as a way of suggesting that I must be wrong. Instead of simply stopping for a minute, and saying, “oh, maybe you’re right. let me step back for a moment.” It’s this kind of reaction on the Crunk Feminists’ blog that makes me see that there is a whole lot of substance to their critique; the sheer amount of effort white people are spending in the comment forum denying their privilege is a good indicator.

    So of course it is a both/and situation–I see a lot of white privilege involved in the zeitgeist of the Slutwalk movement. It is a form of activism that speaks to the experience of white people (and may well speak to the experience of many women of color as well) so it is getting more attention than other efforts that speak more directly to the experience of women of color. This is not to say that the Slutwalks themselves are a bad idea, or only for white women, or that isn’t a meaningful tool for women of color, as you point out. From what I can tell, the “marcha de putas” in Buenos Aires resonates with many women here.

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