In a very good article* at the New Republic about being an adjunct professor teaching writing, Sarah Marshall says something very honest and insightful:
“Over the course of a ten-week class, I play the role of therapist, priest, mentor, and friend. In their writings, in our class time, and in their meetings with me, students tell me about their pasts, their aspirations, their medical and mental health emergencies; about family tragedies and abuses they have survived; about their sexualities, their identities, their relationships, and their fears. I do not ask them to tell me any of this, but they offer it freely, as if they have simply been waiting for someone to tell.”
She goes to say something really insightful:
“This happens because I am in a position of authority, but I am also deeply non-threatening for being a young, blonde woman who smiles a lot. I can’t strike fear into anyone’s heart, and certainly this has a great deal to do with my age and gender, but it also means that I benefit from a very specific kind of privilege. White male privilege means the gift of easy authority and confidence, among other dubious rewards. White female privilege means being viewed as harmless, innocuous, and safe to confide in. For a teacher, this is both a blessing and a curse. But mostly, I’ve found, it is a blessing.”
In teaching is may be mostly a blessing, because often the trust she evokes leads to respect. What she is describing can clearly be a real curse, but then that says something about the endeavor the person is engaging in, doesn’t it?
But the point is that privilege is situational. It’s situational on two levels. For one thing privilege is contextual. It’s not some personal attribute, although that is almost exclusively how people conceive of it and use the term. This is more due to the hyper-individualistic norms of our culture than a reflection of how privilege or rights or advantages actually work. It’s contextual because it takes other people to confer privilege. Simple as that.
It’ situational also because this or that kind of privilege confers an advantage, actually functions as a form of privilege, only in certain situations, while in other it can confer definite disadvantages. Here’s a neutral example: just envision someone using a prestige variety of a language in the wrong setting and getting his ass beaten for it.
And here’s an example of how situational privilege can be:
“I know I’m not alone. When I asked my coworkers if they’d had the same problem—the confidences of a student whose behavior or whose problems they couldn’t handle—to a one, they said yes. We are all newly minted adjuncts, but in one or two or three years of teaching, this is the once experience that crops up again and again. Every female teacher and many of the male teachers described students who visit their office hours to discuss their personal problems.”
Male teachers tapping into what the author identifies as a typically female form of privilege. How situational is that?
This kind of insight is the gift only honesty can give. Only freedom from cant and cultural conditioning, only a dogged reliance on one’s own observations, can grant this kind of insight. No wonder her students learn from her. The power of her good example is irresistible.
*For whatever reason, I am having difficulty inserting links. Here’s the link to the article:
- The Woman Card - May 2, 2016
- Frat boy bachelorettes and the invasion of gay bars - April 15, 2016
- “Not my kid….” - February 22, 2016