I've thought a lot about power and privilege these past two months. Actually, I've struggled with the concepts of power and privilege since 2003, when I first read Peggy McIntosh's 1988 essay "White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack". It's a landmark piece of anti-racism literature.Instead of discussing racism and social hierarchies in terms of the disadvantages suffered by marginalized individuals or groups, she focuses on the oft-unacknowledged and protected advantages enjoyed by the dominant group. She argues that this latter group carries "an invisible package of unearned assets which they can count on cashing in each day." While McIntosh's arguments have since been criticized as outdated apologetic white guilt, her call to examine power and privilege remains pertinent.
I'm a white, educated, English-speaking, middle-class, straight young woman from the global North. Thus, by virtue of where, when and to whom I was born, I came to embody just about all of the "dominant " or "majority" traits that are synonymous with power and privilege. I carry an invisible knapsack of privilege.
McIntosh made me squirm. I became the rhinoceros who stole the Parsee's cake, writhing with discomfort in my own skin. I was disgusted, repulsed, frustrated at my undeserved privilege. What if ... no, when, would the veil be lifted? Who would call my bluff? When would I be exposed as a fraud? What would happen if others realized discovered my achievements resulted from nothing more than lucky circumstances? And, most troubling, what about the real majority pushed to the margins?
During my first experience in the global South (aka developing country, third world country, underdeveloped country, ...), McIntosh's words sprang off the page. It was like the start of a Disney movie in which the opening frame is of a thick weathered leather tome. Inside, the opening lines read "Once upon a time in a faraway land, ...". The words then morph into animated princesses, dragons and other creatures. You are swept away and enraptured by the shift from symbols to images. Except for one key difference. Disney movies make you feel good. Being put on a pedestal because of your skin colour has the opposite effect.
My most visceral reactions to white privilege and power have taken place on jail premises. In Kenya, cops rounded up a dozen street boys and had them stand shirtless, shoulder to shoulder so the thief could be identified, then punished for assault with a weapon and robbery. In a Ghanaian holding cell, a young teenager pleaded that I not press charges against him for stealing my bicycle and soccer cleats. And now in the Philippines, a visit to the Morong 43 elicited hopeful comments from the imprisoned men and women health workers that, with the support of the international community, they would soon be freed. White skin can open doors that are usually locked for locals. Sometimes, as in the former two cases, they are doors you never want to have opened, not because of the initial crime, but because being asked to decide the fate of another human being is a horrible experience.
* * *
Some brief reflections on my research, power and privilege
I plan to use "participant videography" or "participant authored audiovisual stories" as a research method. In other words, it will be the vulnerable groups of people who will hold the camera. They will choose what to include in the frame, which stories to tell. If all goes as planned, their films will be used to share their experiences - ones that are often ignored and/or untold - with government officials and policy-makers at various levels, with the aim of informing critical, relevant and thoughtful policies and programs.
Participant videography and other participatory methods are part of my attempt to shift the balance of power so that it is more equally shared among the research participants and myself as the primary researcher. (As an aside, Naila Kabeer has done some very interesting work on sharing power.)
Indeed, it is ironic that it is a white girl from afar who claims to struggle with undeserved power and privilege is trying to "give a voice to the voiceless". And yes, parallels can be drawn between the proposed research and well-meaning NGOs, development agencies and missionaries who can cause more problems than they fix, and ultimately create dependencies. But it is a calculated risk, and one I think is worth taking ... so long as I never forget my invisible knapsack.