Using Your Privilege for Positive Change

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The League of Badass Women recently hosted a Global Power Talk virtually on privilege and power. Episode 6 features two of the badasses who attended: Singapore-born child rights activist Eirliani A Rahman, and Brooklyn-based social worker and foster care advocate Pauline Goldsmith-Johnson. They bravely share their personal stories around recognizing their own privilege and using it for positive change.

This is the transcript of the League of Badass Women Podcast Episode 6: Using Your Privilege for Positive Change. You can listen to all the episodes on Soundcloud.

Pauline: We really can’t talk about privilege without talking about race.

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Valerie: Welcome back to the League of Badass Women Podcast. I’m your host, Valerie Orth.

The League recently hosted a Global virtual Power Talk about recognizing your own Privilege and using it for positive change. In this episode I talk to 2 badasses who share their stories and revelations from that discussion.

Eirliani A Rahman — one of the badasses-, born in Singapore, polyglot, currently residing in Colorado, is a Child rights activist and lover of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Eirliani: We were talking a lot about white privilege too, but I think one of the points that came out was how racism can be assiduous and everywhere so it doesn’t necessarily have to be just a white person against a non white person. Even within people, you know I’m not white, exists everywhere.

Valerie: Pauline Goldsmith-Johnson is a social worker, a foster care reform advocate, and animal lover, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Here she is talking about one of the first times she recognized her own privilege.

Pauline: I think I was about ten years old and my younger sister who is biracial, half black half white, we were at a baseball field in our neighborhood in urban Boston and we were playing with a number of other neighborhood kids and two boys a little bit older than us, maybe they were 13 and 12, came up to us in a very intimidating way and asked us to leave and there were about 7 or 8 of us and 2 of them, but all of us were under the age of 12 and were swearing at us and telling us to get off their field, that they wanted to play and they didn’t have a glove or a ball. We asked them, actually, to join us and they said “No we want the field — get off”. And my little sister said “Leave us alone”, and the older one said “Shut up you half nigger.” I don’t actually remember those moments, I just know that I stormed toward him and I remember sort of hearing my sister muted in the background yelling “Stop! Don’t go don’t go! And I just approached him and I punched him in the face and I had never punched anyone before, and not since either, and I just punched him in the face and then he just stood there, like, stunned for a good minute and then they both ran away and as he was running away he was swearing at me over his shoulder. And I remember one of his insults was to call me Mother Teresa and I thought how is that insulting? Because I was standing up for my sister he used this horrible term and when I turned back around my sister was sobbing and she was about 7. She didn’t know what that term meant. I’m not even sure that she knew that he was talking to her and she was more upset with me that I had harmed somebody else. And so that’s always stuck with me for that reason, that here’s my sister who this person threw this horrible slur at her, she had never either heard it before or didn’t understand what it meant, but I did in that moment and was protecting her and then she was angry with me for protecting.. I guess it was the way that I protected her.

Eirliani: One other point that didn’t actually come up, which I thought was interesting, was gender, because for me, my only experience… I’m from Singapore. I moved here 2.5 years ago to the US and I’m have Malay, half Chinese, but being a Malay in my society — it’s very much gender focused so as a child I learnt pretty early on that women would eat later, men would always eat first in a community event. Or I was asked at the age of 10 or 11 to give my brother rice at lunch time even though he was only 1 year younger than me and I wasn’t allowed to take part in sports. That was a whole ongoing battle for my whole life. The privilege that comes with being a male in Malay society is just very much staring in your face. Also, because Malay’s are defined mostly as Muslim. I talk to my friends here in the US, they are usually white Americans, explaining how I’ve come back from that kind of background and then now doing athletic pursuits — it’s a far cry from how I grew up. I am working on skiing to the North Pole and then eventually South Pole hopefully and at some point Greenland.

You know my message to women is that you can do whatever you set your mind out to do and of course we sit in caveats. People tend to look at me and then they say “Oh okay Asian female”. I was in Europe for 10 years. They look at you and they see the other and then this orientalising of the other, whatever you want to call it. And I can see it, like for some people… I’m in Germany, I’m walking into an ice cream parlor and can see the fear in the person’s eyes — oh my gosh is she going to be able to speak German and I’m like “Ein Kugel Eis bitte” like completely normal — I want a scoop of ice cream and he’s like “Oh! Okay here you go!” and it’s just that, that not knowing about the other and that creates a lot of fear and insecurity and I see that a lot and as soon as I open my mouth I speak I’m accepted. In the US it’s different. I find it’s interesting here because still off the bat without opening my mouth people assume I’m Asian American. I don’t have to say where I’m from, what I’m doing, nothing and that benefits me so that’s privilege here in that sense. I always have to say actually I’m not American, but that was positive for me being here, the privilege of being Asian and that is probably.. It’s much easier being Asian American than it is to be brown or black so it’s something I’m learning still and it can be quite sobering.

Pauline: My own life experience has made me a lot more aware of how race plays a role in the world, because I am a white woman, adopted by a Jewish family, with a sister who is half black. So I was aware pretty early on that I had a privilege that they didn’t have. That I wasn’t going to be treated poorly because I’m Jewish, because people never assume that I am. And I’m not going to be treated poorly because I’m black, because I don’t look black because I’m not black. Those are absolutely factors that also drove me to Social Work school and make me want to have an awareness and have the tools to see the change that I want to see in the world. To make it a safer place for everybody. In particular, you know, obviously, my own family and my loved ones I want them to be safe all the time, but to see that change ripple throughout the world.

Valerie: We discussed, once you recognize your privilege, what to do about it.

Pauline: Being a white woman certainly makes it a lot easier for me to address racism among other white people. If I was a woman of color it would be a very different sort of situation and it might even put that person at a pretty big risk. My risks are a lot lower and though I think those conversations need to happen between white people because it’s, these beliefs are… they live within white people, it’s in all of our institutions and in all of our interactions in some form or another. So if white people don’t have these conversations then the conversation isn’t moving anything forward. So having those conversations with your circle, whoever that is, whether it’s your parents, friends, coworkers or even random conversations. I mentioned being on a plane with a guidance counselor from a high school who was against affirmative action because she believed some of her white students were not getting into the schools that they had expected to get into and she believed that that was because black people were taking those positions and I tried to dispute this with her and I couldn’t… I just couldn’t get her to think differently. She was a little bit aggressive in her defensiveness and I thought you know when am I going to be able to get off this plane, because I can’t have this conversation anymore. It’s just… and I think I really didn’t have the tools then that I have now and I think the biggest tool that I have, that I developed, over the course of my time in Social Work school is empathy and not trying… not coming at it from the approach of schooling someone. No one wants to be schooled. No one wants to be told that they’re dumb or that they’re wrong, but just approaching it in a way that says well if you can think of it this way, or if you can think about it differently, or you can consider that this person might have had a different experience. It doesn’t discount your experience, it’s just adding to the story. Keeping the triggers down and keeping… if you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath. If you feel like it’s becoming to intense, walk away. Pick it up another time. Never do it when excessive amounts of alcohol are involved. Made that mistake a couple times!

Eirliani: Like with Pauline, I like to call people out on it and say let’s talk about that — lets not just sit in our bell jars — let’s engage with people who feel differently to us, because sometimes it’s not necessarily a thing about them necessarily having a particular viewpoint, but just not realizing what privilege means. I think my privilege comes from having traveled and experienced so many different things that when I come back to this little ski resort town I’m just so grateful about how like a paradise it really is. A lot of my friends here are really kind of insular. They haven’t traveled as much or they just have seriously in every way privileged lives. One girlfriend of mine — blonde, blue eyed — grew up here and she said “I don’t get the #metoo movement, I don’t see how it affects me” and I’m just like woah I can’t believe we are having this conversation and so I just turned around and said “Hey, you know, you just got married, you might have children one day, so your children, whether it’s a boy or a girl, do you really want them to go through what the people in this #metoo movement are talking about, whether you are the harasser or the harrassed? The light went up in her eyes, we were hiking, and she turned around to me and said “Thank you, because now I get it.” And that was great. That was a good feeling, but it was really hard not to get mad at her and some people wouldn’t even be put in that position of even thinking about it. It was just life. Just life went by.

Pauline: I work a lot in advocacy around foster parent adoption reform. Having conversations around the stigma of foster children, you know, there are disproportionately more black and brown children in care that are also then available for adoption that don’t get adopted. And so, like I said, you really can’t have a conversation about privilege without talking about race. There’s been many people, white people, that I’ve had these conversations with that will say “Yeah but I was poor, I grew up poor. So I’m not privileged.” And I’m like, “But you’re white.“ So it’s still better to be white and poor than it is to be black and poor. So, just sort of trying to parse out in clear examples to those that walk into these conversations already defensive. One thing that I have to remind myself constantly is just lose the chip on your shoulder. Just lose the chip. You’re not here to change anyone’s mind. You are a change agent. Part of your job is to welcome everybody and to really come from a place of empathy where everyone is welcome. Be a safe holding, we call it a “holding space” in social work, and let people come to these terms in their own time because if you don’t then you’re not really doing the work anyway. No one’s mind is changed. No one is even absorbing the information. It’s a very delicate balance. It’s super difficult to achieve and most of the time you feel like you get nowhere but once in awhile when you see the change. It’s the most inspirational powerful motivational thing that can happen to you and it’s just a reminder that every conversation counts. It may not feel like it, but every conversation counts. And just having the willingness to do it is everything.

Eirliani: I’m a survivor. I experienced sexual abuse as a child, and so one thing you do as a survivor is that when it’s happening to you, you learn to disassociate from your body and you switch off so it’s like a gift. It can be a curse, it can also be a gift. And so now I incorporate it to where I can switch off and I learned how to switch off too, like be mindful, do lots of self care, hot baths, walks. That’s how I remain grounded.

Pauline: I never wanted to get into this work because I had been a foster kid. So unlike you, Eirliani, I really just wanted to go to school, get my clinical license, and like set up a private practice and just see like your everyday run of the mill average neurotic person, like pets or adults. That’s all that I wanted, that was my life dream and then I went to Social Work school and my final year clinical internship was at a public school and two of my clients are brothers and they’re in foster care. It was one of the toughest cases I think I’ll ever have in part because it was very triggering for me reminding me of my foster care experience and just that helplessness. I was in care for 4 years. Their story, although parts of it were very different from mine, there was just that initial trauma of being removed from your family, not having certainty or stability, or connection at such a time in your life when connection is everything, when attachment is everything, especially to a caregiver. It was really eye opening and it really forced me to reevaluate my experience and to figure out what do I really want out of this work? When I terminated with these 2 boys at the end of my internship I remember saying to both of them “I’m going to fight for you. I’m always going to be fighting for you. I don’t know how, you won’t always be able to see it, but I will be fighting for you.” (cries) Sorry.

Eirliani: That’s awesome.

Pauline: And I walked away and I went home and I thought I get to move on with my life. I get to do nothing or do something and that’s my privilege. So I decided to do something.

Eirliani: We talk about privilege now, but a few of us have had backgrounds where our parents didn’t come from privileged backgrounds and then they came to a place where it was comfortable, it got comfortable or, for example, in my case, my grandmother was an outlier being slightly feminist and wanting her daughters educated against the wishes of her husband. My mom got educated but she didn’t go on to college because her father didn’t allow that, but she was still the outlier. In her time she was the first girl, the first Malay girls in the community to have gotten educated. It got to the point where the teachers were marrying the girls because they were the first girls to be educated in the society. It was still super interesting because although all these outlying factors it’s led me to where I am right now. I have more agency, more options, more opportunities. I look back now and I need to thank those women in my life who have made that possible.

Pauline: Yeah, I completely agree with you. That’s exactly what this work is about: acknowledging and understanding your privilege, knowing that someone fought for you to have it. So fighting for others to have it too. And whether it’s someone who looks like you or doesn’t look like you or you’ve lived their experience or you’ve not lived their experience isn’t the point. It’s creating that privilege for everybody, for those who don’t have it.

Valerie: Thanks for listening to the League of Badass Women Podcast. Produced by and music by Valerie Orth. Mix and mastered by Dizmix. For more info visit us at leagueofbadasswomen.org. E-mail your questions and comments to podcast@leagueofbadasswomen.org. Thanks again to our featured badasses of today’s episode and thank you for being a badass.

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