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Being an Activist, Having Privilege

Thoughts from inside the university

In a recent conversation with a fellow graduate student (and dear friend) in the English department at my university, I expressed my concern that there is something alienating — even adversarial — about the ways in which contemporary activists approach “privilege.” In decrying privilege, do we risk excluding those “privileged” progressives who genuinely want to help heal the country’s social wounds? My colleague responded with rationale that will ring familiar to many readers: when it comes to questions of tone, privileged people need to “suck it up” because “this conversation [regarding social justice] is not about them.”

On the one hand, this line of thinking makes a great deal of sense to me. “The conversation” will never be “about me” (my own privilege will figure prominently in this essay), nor those like me, since we will never know what it is like to move through an anti-Black world in a Black body, nor will we know what it is like to grapple heroically which questions regarding one’s gender. And yet, the claim that the discourse surrounding equality does not include those with privilege seems dangerous, since it suggests that the future that every progressive person wants (a future marked by equality, justice, and peace for all) can be achieved without every progressive person’s support.

To this end, this essay grapples with the complicated role of “privilege” in contemporary activism. To do so, it focuses on “privilege” in academia, which seems to have undergone something of an increased radicalization in the wake of the 2016 election, and, more precisely, “privilege” in graduate programs in the humanities, an uncanny professional space wherein students seem to inhabit a kind of social aporia. On the one hand, the annual income for a graduate student at a public university hovers just above the national poverty line: the Federal Poverty Level in Wisconsin, where I am based, is $12,060 for a single family household; I will make $12,308 this year. On the other hand, graduate students have actively chosen such paychecks, knowing full well the material constraints of graduate school. In addition to receiving tuition remission and health care, financial packages such as these are long-term investments that we presume will launch us into the upper middle class. Though the chances of getting a tenure-track job might be slim, my sense is that many (if not most) graduate students will ultimately end up in income brackets equal to or greater than those of their financially stable parents. Even if this is not the case, if a hypothetical student were to complete her degree with unmanageable student debt and no job in sight, her very choice to have pursued wealth by this means and not another was itself a privilege. This is because the slow, private work of writing a dissertation (the capstone project of any humanities degree) stands in marked contrast to conventional labor, which is defined by and performed for others — a corporation, a business, a school.

It is hard, however, to maintain such a philosophical perspective in the throes of one’s own life. Hence, the small paychecks graduate students receive can easily become one’s reality. This sense of perceived mistreatment holds implicit professional affordances; as humanities departments grapple with questions regarding emancipatory politics, social and distributive justice, identity politics, and the like, academic “oppression” connects us, on a very human level, to the work that we do. This kind of empathy, I contend, is understandable and even somewhat productive; it makes us more gracious and compassionate teachers. This being said, in misidentifying ourselves as being professionally or financially “mistreated,” graduate students risk forgetting who they really are. The first claim of this essay, then, regards the privilege of being a graduate student — a privilege that can be difficult to remember when one’s day to day existence is lived at the poverty line. My second claim is the real work of this essay, and it concerns the word “privilege” itself and the quite nearly pathological baggage that that word has come to hold in academia: the sense that “privilege” is shorthand for a kind of naïve presumptuousness, an assumed self-importance born from centuries of institutional coddling.

Privilege, like oppression, does not have only one form; it is nuanced (people can be privileged in some ways, but not in others) and it is personal — that is, it is inextricably bound to individual narratives and to the family unit. Though it would be wonderful to imagine a world where individuals (in this case, graduate students with activist concerns) could set aside their personal insecurities in pursuit of the greater good, my sense is that this is not the way people — actual, individual people, with their own frustrations, hopes, and desires — operate. For pragmatic reasons, therefore, activists both within and outside of the academy must augment their understanding of “privilege” in order to secure the participation of these many differently situated individuals in the revolutionary fold.

* * *

I want to speak, as a kind of case study, about my own privilege, and connect that privilege to my decision to serve as a steward for the graduate student union, whose concerns for the “labor rights” of graduate student “workers” seem an apt metaphor for this essay’s larger thematic concerns regarding the ways in which the notions of “privilege” and “oppression” are deployed in the left-leaning university.

The TAA, a graduate student union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a chapter of the AFT, American Federation of Teachers. The TAA is the oldest graduate student union in the country and has done powerful and important work since its inception in 1966. We have won tuition remission for all of our graduate students; we have won healthcare, sick days, and the extension of equal benefits to same-sex partners. In addition to these benefits, among others, the TAA has stood in solidarity alongside other activists, contributing solidarity and support to Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, and other movements that share our concern for “justice,” in all its varied iterations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the TAA has tried — bravely but unsuccessfully — to defend the University of Wisconsin against Scott Walker and his administration’s ongoing assault on the Wisconsin Idea, most recently in the form of his $250 million cut to our budget in 2015.

“Bravely but unsuccessfully” is key here. When Walker passed the “Right to Work” bill under Act 10 in 2011, the TAA was effectively defanged, meaning that our work since that time is largely symbolic. A first question that arises, therefore, is a political one: is it moot — foolish, even — to join a union that has no actual power? A second and related question is more personal: why join a union when one is not technically part of the “proletariat”? Is there a kind of Marxist posturing latent in the act of joining a graduate student union? In other words: are we, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pseudo-laborers in a pseudo-union? “You can talk the talk of these socialists,” my mother told me on the phone after listening to me rail against “The System” the other day, “but don’t forget who you are.”

* * *

Who am I? I am certainly very privileged. Not only am I white and cis, but yikes, it gets worse: I am white and cis and an upper middle class Jew from the tri-state area! I also had an eating disorder for many years, which means I have “historically” subscribed to certain hetero-normative beauty standards that are only available to the well-off. These are all things that I have (embarrassingly) hidden throughout my graduate career, since this bundle of privileges has seemed so utterly antithetical to my scholarship and the kind of activism I have learned to embrace. In my love of Marxism, in my support of Palestine, in my resolve, alongside friends and colleagues, to press back collectively against the systemic terror inflicted upon black, brown, and undocumented bodies, I have feared myself, more often than not, to be a fraudulent activist, and, by the same token, a fraudulent scholar.

Indeed, this “identity” — a straight, Jewish woman from an academic family (certainly a form of privilege, if not wholly in a material sense) — serves as a surprising minefield in academia. To have any kind of privilege, it often seems, is a source of shame; indeed, I was surprised, in a recent moment of honesty with some colleagues, to learn how many other graduate students were receiving financial help from their parents. It is, of course, stressful to be on the cusp of thirty — or on its other side — and find oneself financially beholden to one’s family. But the shame of which I speak is a different kind. It is a moral shame; it is the sense that one’s advocacy is adulterated by our incapacity to understand true suffering, and is therefore unwanted.

This kind of “privileging of non-privilege” seems a vital first stage in the movement towards real equality. As in any major relief effort (we are reminded here of what lies ahead for the city of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey), the initial “heavy lifting” in the wake of a catastrophe is monolithic; literally (for Houston) and metaphorically (for activists), responders must let go of the particulars in order to “stabilize” a disaster zone. As we slowly start to clear away the wreckage of history, however, the phobia of “privilege” that riddles contemporary activism emerges as, at best, obsolete, and, at worst, a barrier against the realization of a real emancipatory polity. This is because those that are truly marginalized and oppressed need the solidarity and support of everyone, not just those who can speak directly to a shared wound.

In the graduate student union, I find an opportunity to look squarely at my own privilege, to remind myself that I had the luxury to choose this life. Conceiving of my work in this way, that is, as an active choice, I am prompted to remember why I chose it, why it matters, and, more broadly, why the public university matters and why its mission must be tenaciously defended. At the root of all of this, therefore, is the contention that the work of the scholar cannot be parsed from the work of the citizen. Moreover, it is the particular work of the humanities scholar to continue to hunt for inclusive and compassionate narratives of resistance that include everyone. Such work is eminently urgent, since the challenges that this country faces — both now and in the future — require the energy and solidarity of everyone: privileged, under-privileged, and everything in between.

Liz Scheer is pursuing a doctorate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Liz Scheer

  • Scott

    This is a nice, insightful essay. I’m glad someone has approached the topic of privilege in a thoughtful, reflexive manner. If more activists would use the term in a similarly self-conscious way (and be more reflexive and self-conscious is general) our capacity for solidarity would be greatly enhanced.

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