“Why do we talk about privilege?” Ericka Hart, the keynote speaker for the 2019 Intergenerational Spring Seminar, asked the audience.
“To recognize it! To acknowledge it!” A few chimed in. “To use it to help others!”
“But acknowledging privilege and having empathy does not change the infrastructure of oppression and colonization,” Ericka reminded us, “You must use your privilege to dismantle systems. You have to take action, with intention to give back.”
All too often, well-meaning allies fall victim to verbally empathetic, self-congratulatory, and whitewashed allyship that does not consider their own position in society. As such, participants were encouraged to get comfortable with saying out loud words like “privilege,” “white,” “black,” and even “vulva,” and to turn inwards to reflect on their own identities.
As a queer female with pretty privilege, how does my identity inform my experience in my communities?
As a white male whose gender presentation is aligned with how society perceives a “man” to look like, what systems of white supremacy am I inadvertently maintaining by believing that narrative?
Without thoughtful self-reflection and deconstruction, we can unintentionally subscribe to and reinforce institutional systems of white supremacy and cultural colonization. Ericka Hart - who self-identifies as a black, queer, cancer-warrior, activist sexuality educator and writer - set out to challenge and shift that mentality. Ericka began our Spring Seminar with a sobering yet energizing reminder that social justice without reflective and purposeful action is simply not meaningful. What does it mean to be an action-oriented activist? What does a purposeful ally look like? What is intersectionality?
With these burning questions in mind, 113 participants dove into the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s 2019 Intergenerational Spring Seminar in earnest. This year, our seminar “Equity in Action: Gender in an Intersecting World” was comprised of worship services, panels, and interactive workshops, taking place in venues from the United Nations Headquarters to Community Church of New York. The workshops tackled issues such as the importance of noticing and deconstructing gendered language, since language absolutely shapes and informs our biases (think about what images pop into mind when you imagine a secretary vs. a Secretary General). Participants also learned about the action led by Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist women leaders around the world, such as coordinating violence prevention programs, health camps, and leadership development for women and girls. At our theme panel hosted in the halls of the United Nations, four speakers discussed the role of gender equity in achieving disarmament and challenging discrimination.
In between workshops, participants met in smaller Collaboration Groups and Identity Affinity Groups for discussion and reflection, where they took time to process what they had learned and confront the question: What is intersectionality, and how does it fit into my work as an activist and ally for gender equity?
Kimberlé Crenshaw - an American civil rights advocate, leading scholar of critical race theory, and black feminist - was the one to coin the phrase “intersectionality.” By taking into account people’s numerous and overlapping identities (how they identify in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) we can better understand the overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage that people face. However, this term has unfortunately been co-opted and whitewashed from its original meaning, an error that Ericka Hart was quick to remedy: “Intersectionality is more than just talking about the numerous identities a person holds, it is about the overlapping, multiple sources of oppressions that people experience due to their multifaceted identities.”
“I feel exposed and vulnerable,” one of our participants confided during an activity. To which we say: Yes! This is encouraging and absolutely a vital process in allyship. We only grow through discomfort, and social justice should never be a comfortable endeavor. So echoing Ericka Hart’s words, we encourage you to engage with this language and these thoughts because our silence will only reinforce systems of white supremacy and patriarchy. When you are in a town hall or congregational meeting, always ask: Who is not present in these spaces? Why aren’t they here? Is it safe for them to be here? We should be talking about white supremacy and oppressions at all times so we are not silently complicit. In action-oriented activism, we are no longer protected by our “good intentions.” So we encourage you to be bold in dismantling these systems, and to say the words out loud. PRIVILEGE. WHITE. BLACK. VULVA!