As I reflected this week on the ability of my female counterparts to express themselves online, it became abundantly clear that many women and indeed people who are on the margins of society simply do not feel safe commenting in online spaces. Depending on where you live in the world, the ease with which you may take part in meaningful conversations online will differ. However, the differences are not simply geographical. Those who are operating from a base of, often unseen, power will have much more social capital and therefore agency to participate in online discussion and be heard and validated without fear of reprisal. These power bases can be socio-economic, gender-based, age-based, sexual orientation-based, race-based, class-based, and even ability-based. Peggy McIntosh‘s work on white privilege is one example of how certain people in society operate from a base of power. Here is another visible example of how privilege plays out in society.
Should we be surprised that people who are marginalized are experiencing feelings of fear and insecurity in online spaces because of who they are? Not at all. The human race has always been fearful of what is different, and for this reason, our prejudices are reflected online often times with more intensity and ferocity than occurs face to face. Privilege exists in degrees and therefore some people will experience more while others experience less. As shared by equity matters, it is “constructed and normalized by the established frameworks of society – narratives that have been developed based on the power struggles of history.” As the narrative is reinforced, privilege is also further normalized. When I first began studying about this topic, I went through a variety of stages as I grappled with the reality of what I was reading. At first, I denied it existed. Then, I felt guilt. Finally, I realized that I could either be a part of the system or seek to change the discourse in order to foster change. Over the past few years I have done an exercise like the one below with my students in order to get them to think about privilege a little bit. Students at the front of the room are closer to the basket and therefore, have an easier shot than those at the back. The comment “that’s not fair” comes almost immediately after I explain the game. However, students soon realize the intended lesson and I have had some very meaningful discussions on equity with students who will hopefully continue to explore what privilege means in our society.
Photo Credit: http://www.Buzzfeed.com
The online attacks on marginalized society members who are brave enough to speak up are a sad commentary on the state of society. Racism, bigotry, sexism and hate are everywhere. This is clearly evident in the amount of comment pages that have been shut down by news and media sites over the past few years. Due to the fact that there is really no accountability for what is said online, it becomes challenging to receive justice in these cases. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to know how to respond when attacked online. Many countries do not have express laws addressing online harassment. In addition, because it is often the marginalized who are the victims, there are few resources available for support in these situations. In a 2014 PEW study, women and minorities experienced online harassment far more often than others and young women in particular were also experiencing more severe forms.
As Kristy Tillman’s article in the New York Times stated, “anonymous communication certainly has its place on the Internet, but it is important to understand how our social ills are exacerbated when users are not required to be accountable for what they say, and how that disproportionately affects some individuals more than others.” There are crucial steps that can be taken together in order to change the discourse and allow all members of society to feel the freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the charter. The first step is for those with agency to continue to lend their voices to the conversation. The role of those with agency is thus crucial in addressing the issue of privilege and harassment. If there is silence on this front, we are unequivocally signalling a surrender of equity, decency and respect for the human spirit. Secondly, it is imperative that educators continue the slow and painstaking work of teaching about privilege at all levels. To build on Justice Murray Sinclair’s words, education will be the key to changing the narrative and ensuring a disruption of social “norms.” As we begin to recognize and do away with pieces of discourse that serve to divided us as people, there can be progress.
However, as Justin Ford explains, the best way forward does not come from pointing out the ills of society or playing the blame game. It starts on the individual level. It starts with me. By recognizing the ways that I interact with privilege everyday, I can begin to, through small actions, equalize the playing field. This may mean examining the way I treat women. It may mean examining the way I treat minorities or my attitudes towards those with disabilities. As I engage in these small daily exercises, the privilege will be recognized, confronted and dealt with. It will not be easy. Giving up something that gives you power or advantage is never easy. Neither is learning to read or do math. We model reading and mathematical strategies to students all the time. Isn’t it time we started modelling examination of privilege as well?