Part 5—The privileged white woman’s tale: Fifty years back, in another bad time, Bernadine Dohrn forgot to check her privilege.
What happened when she forgot? Because this brief passage is so fascinating, we post it for the third time:
The concept of white privilege also came to be used within radical circles for purposes of self-criticism by anti-racist whites. For instance, a 1975 article in Lesbian Tide criticized the American feminist movement for exhibiting “class privilege” and “white privilege.” Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn, in a 1977 Lesbian Tide article, wrote: “...by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it, I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles.”Because she hadn’t checked her privilege, Dohrn prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all her work and betrayed revolutionary principles!
Later, she self-criticized. But even after checking her privilege, she continued to show bad judgment. Nothing, not even checking our privilege, can protect us against that.
By the way:
Are people betraying a sense of “privilege” if they feel they have the right to build bombs, then use them, in support of a noble cause? (Dohrn’s crowd went that way, even after conducting that check.)
There is no ultimate answer to that question. But sometimes, people who think they’ve checked their privilege may continue to exhibit a fairly strong sense of same.
Things work out for people like Dohrn. Today, she’s an associate professor at Northwestern Law School. She’s past director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center, which is fine with us.
That said, her experience may help us see the potential problems with bumper sticker directives like the one which is suddenly hot.
In theory, it’s a good idea for people to “check their privilege”—to be aware of advantages they may have which other people may lack.
In practice, though, this approach may work out poorly. Because we all have imperfect judgment and weak brains, adherents may end up sounding like bureaucrats in The Great Leap Forward, as Dohrn does in the statement we’ve quoted. They may apply a good idea in highly unfortunate ways.
Could that happen even today as people are told to check their privilege? Of course it could!
The directive can be used as a way to shut people up. It can be used as a way to spread unhelpful guilt and self-loathing.
Revolutionary cadres have always enjoyed inducing this loathing among running dogs. They may not notice their own lack of judgment as they engage in the practice.
In our view, the dumbness of the work at Salon can be seen as a form of privilege. The children rarely seem to feel that their work has to make any real sense as judged by traditional intellectual norms.
There’s little sense that their editors tell them, “Check your potential dumbness.” The youngsters know that they are right. So of course did Dohrn.
The dumbness is always within us! So is the impulse to tyranny, which may explain the way a sense of privilege can survive a privilege check.
We thought of these points in the last week when we read a fascinating memoir by Mariah Dickinson in the quarterly Rethinking Schools. You can read part of it here.
After graduating from American University in 2009, Dickinson spent two years in Teach for America. Today, she’s a strong critic of the program, which is fine with us.
We’ve never been big fans of Teach for America. That’s especially true of the miracle tales its founder likes to spread.
To our ear, several of Dickinson’s critiques seem to make perfect sense. But lordy!
Dickinson lards her tale with the language of “privilege.” She describes the Teach for America training sessions “as a sort of indoctrination boot camp for privileged idealists.” She muses about her own “life as a white, economically privileged woman.” Concerning the work load adopted by some TFA teachers, she says, “It is an example of privilege to be able to work yourself to the point of burnout, knowing that you don’t have a family to support, and you only have to hold on for two years.”
We can’t exactly call that “wrong.” But, despite her checking of privilege, a sense of privilege seems to emanate from Dickinson’s short memoir.
By the second day of her training sessions, she thinks she knows what should be happening better than session leaders do. (We can’t say we’re convinced.) At one point during her teaching years, she makes a suggestion to a program director—and it isn’t adopted!
She seems to be sure that she and her “critically thinking friends” know more than others around them. But even her checking of privilege can’t save her from judgments like the one which follows. Indeed, belief in the doctrine of checking-your-privilege may create thinking like this:
DICKINSON (2014): I was disturbed by the language that TFA used, starting with “closing the achievement gap.” Achievement is an individual act of effort and skill. Opportunity, on the other hand, is a condition of circumstance. To say that there is a gap in achievement is to say that the students on the wrong end of this gap are failing to perform, rather than that they are being set up to fail by an inequitable system. How can an organization mobilize its members to shift a failing education system when it blames the very groups it claims to be helping?Gack! We’re sorry, but no—when you talk about “closing the achievement gap,” you aren’t thereby blaming “the students on the wrong end of this gap.”
Checking her privilege didn’t forestall that rather peculiar deduction. And as she continues, Dickinson’s critique doesn’t get much better:
DICKINSON (continuing directly): One day we watched a video of a “successful” corps member in his classroom. It was a lesson on classroom management. He had enlisted his 3rd-grade students into a rallying cry, “work hard, get smart,” to the point that they begged him for extra assignments. I watched this story unfold and wondered, what is the message here? This corps member was saying that, if only his students worked hard enough, they would be smart and achieve in school and life. Does that mean that students’ families struggle financially because they do not work hard enough to achieve a “middle-class” life? How classist, oversimplified, and misinformed.There can always be an issue when we urge children to surpass their parents’ attainments. But luckily, no—if you exhort kids to “work hard, get smart,” you aren’t thereby saying that their families don’t work hard enough.
Dickinson inserts the language of privilege into her short memoir four separate times. She describes the times when she was forced to listen to people with blonde hair or blue eyes.
But alas! Even these revolutionary perspectives can’t protect her from the dumbness which afflicts us all, even when we haven’t purchased some easy point of dogma. Indeed, true belief may encourage errors of judgment, as may have happened with Dohrn.
God save us from the imperfect judgment of youngsters armed with dogmas! On the brighter side, we checked to see what Dickinson is doing today, three years after her term in the classroom.
The white, economically privileged woman landed on her feet! Today, she’s a senior consultant for Booz Allen, the mega defense contractor which is owned by the Carlyle Group.
Who knows? She may be doing something good there. According to her LinkedIn profile, she’s working in “Education Management.”
But no facile admonition can protect us from our dumbness and our bad judgment. At Salon, youngsters armed with the language of privilege seem to us to prove that point every day of the week.