The Blindness of Privilege

Privilege is inextricably woven with a blindness to one's privilege. To be privileged is to be blissfully unaware of the many ways in which privilege helps one to advance through society. When those who are privileged learn to listen to those who are not, they are often shocked at what those who are not privileged have to put up with. And they often respond in a very human way: to deny that they see the ways they are privileged. To minimize the complaints of the non-privileged. To try to explain away the evidence of privilege. And to ignore when those issues come to the fore.

This is not just the error of conservatives, sexists, racists, and homophobes. It takes work to see evidence of oppression when one is not the one being oppressed. It is far easier to simply ignore it, even when one knows one shouldn't. I have been guilty of this, and I'd suspect everyone reading this has been guilty of this as well.

I've had Amanda Marcotte's new book, It's a Jungle Out There, sitting on my desk for a few weeks now. I was going to write a review of it for my former employer, before my former employer became my former employer. And in the midst of that change, I've been more focused on getting resum├ęs together, finding new employment (which I've done, thanks for asking), and generally figuring out how to make life work than reading a book I've been wanting to read.

In a way, I'm glad I haven't read it yet, because in reading it now, I will see what I may have otherwise chosen not to see: that someone made an indefensibly racist decision in its selection of artwork for the book.

Quite frankly, there's no excuse for the image at right (image credit to Wolfa via Dear White Feminists); it's racist, full stop. As are other images used to illustrate the book, images of a white woman attacking indigenous people who are portrayed as savages. There is no defense for those illustrations. None.

The illustrations, from the old comic Lorna the Jungle Girl, were probably not chosen for their racism, though. Doubtless, they were chosen by some editor at Seal Press who found the images of a woman fighting in the jungle, and who thought they would make nice, cheap, and kitschy images for a feminist book with the word jungle in the title -- images that were an improvement over the original cover, which featured a gorilla carrying a woman, an image that was not just racist, but seemed to accept violence against women as a given. I misdoubt those who cleared the images never thought about the racism inherent in the images, because they didn't have to. It's easy to ignore racism if one is white in America. I'm sure that the folks at Seal thought the images were really just showing an attack on patriarchal oppression. If the thought crossed anyone's mind, doubtless they were able to easily rationalize it: the savages were men, after all, so it's just an image of a woman attacking men. Race doesn't enter into it, they would argue.

But one can't separate the two. One can't attack the patriarchy with racism, any more than one can undo racial oppression with sexism. (Quick aside: some Obama and Clinton supporters should tattoo that onto their foreheads.) And one can't simply ignore the bad part of an image to look to the good part. That's privilege in a nutshell, because frankly, it is a white person's privilege to ignore the racism inherent in these images. It's not an attack on us.

I don't particularly enjoy calling Amanda out on this, because I like and respect Amanda. She's one of the two people who I most credit with helping me see my own male privilege. (Melissa is the other.) She's a fantastic writer, sharp-tongued, acerbic, and witty. And I would state flatly that I hope that the good parts of her book and her message can be salvaged.

But we can't ignore the bad parts of a good message, and the imagery used in the book is deeply troubling. It is racist. And it detracts from the message of the book. It should be called out for what it is, and it should be removed from all future editions of the book. And while I know enough of how publishing works to know that Amanda likely did not have much to do with the selection of these images, she still owes the broader community an apology and an explanation for their inclusion. We cannot as a movement achieve equality for women without achieving equality for women of color. We cannot get to a more egalitarian society by marginalizing groups. And we must work assiduously to hold allies to a higher standard. It isn't always fun to be held to a higher standard -- I know this well, having been called out for ignoring my own privilege during the coverage of the election -- but it is necessary. We cannot grow unless we see our own flaws.

See also: Maia at Alas, a Blog; Holly at Feministe; Jeff at Feminist Allies; Ampersand; Ann at Feministing; Karnythia at Angry Black Woman.

UPDATE: Amanda apologizes:

I’m sorry. Plain and simple. I didn’t pick the offensive imagery in my book, but I should have caught it sooner than now. I didn’t and there’s no excuse. It was my first book, I was excited and happy, but I needed to have a more critical eye. I would do anything to remove racist images from the first printing of the book if I could, and I am relieved and happy to say that they will be removed from future printings. Seal Press has their note of apology up too, and they accept full responsibility for these mistakes. I really recommend reading it.

I can understand why anyone would choose to boycott a book with these images, and I respect that choice. Hopefully, once they are removed, people will reconsider supporting the book if they like the content. I, for one, will be ripping the pages out of my copy but keeping them as a reminder to be alert. Thank you to everyone who’s engaged in a conversation that’s been tough for me but productive nonetheless.

Good. As I said, it's not fun to get called out on privilege, but it's important when one is to listen and learn from it. Hopefully, this incident can serve as a positive event, insofar as it forces white people to own up to our own racial privilege -- and encourages us to listen to and value the voices and perspectives of people of color.

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