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The Way We Speak

Dear Readers,

I  first met Jacob Udell at a meeting with the Religious Life Council, at the very beginning of my first year as Dean of the College. His intellectual fire, fierce leadership, and disarming honesty instantly impressed me. Subsequently, he followed up with a meeting in which we explored how to bring together students from all backgrounds and encourage them to collaborate, get to know one another, and challenge themselves. We’ve been working together and getting to know each other ever since.  I am pleased that Jacob has decided to share part of his experience with the Middlebury community as guest blogger this month, and I look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts about this compelling topic.

—Shirley M. Collado
Dean of the College

Early last year, a close friend of mine was sitting in Proctor when my name came up. “Who is he?” someone at the table asked. “Oh, you know, he’s the kid with that funny hat,” responded another. My friend, aware of the internal struggle I’d had in deciding to wear a Jewish head covering on campus and Jewish himself, indignantly snapped back, “It’s called a kippah!’ Much to his surprise, however, the funny hat being referred to was not the kippah but actually a flannel Middlebury cap that I often wear. Embarrassed, my friend apologized for his strong reaction and couldn’t wait to laugh about it with me later.

This story is on my mind as I write this blog post because it captures the importance of language in grappling with identity. I arrived on campus sophomore year as one of two students wearing a kippah because without it I felt unable to share with others the language that helped shape my worldview. I wanted peers to ask me why I wore it and for that to be an entry-point into conversations that would allow us to share our personal beliefs and ideals on our own terms. At the same time, I dreaded the possibility that my choice might exclude me from the “language” of our campus: What if I was left out of what it meant to be attractive? What if my outward religiosity implied that I was something less than a critical thinker? What if I was known on campus as “the kid with the funny hat” and then left at that?

I’m acutely aware that this particular identity-marker is unique in that I can choose when to take off my kippah or when to put on a hat instead. Yet despite the benefits of this unusual flexibility, wearing a kippah has attuned me to a tension felt by so many on our campus: on the one hand, we desire for our identity to be acknowledged and respected in its distinctiveness, and, on the other hand, we fear being marginalized by the kinds of conversations and social codes that pervade our community.

Let me explain by returning to the anecdote at the table in Proctor. Though it was nothing more than a miscommunication, I think my friend responded so passionately in my defense because the phrase “funny hat” seemed so overtly demeaning. I’m proud to have friends who speak out in response to perceived intolerance, but it seems to me that much of the normative exclusion that happens on campus is a different kind of intolerance altogether—decidedly more hidden and subtle. When we speak about going out to dinner, our spring-break plans, or the comprehensive fee, do we consider the financial backgrounds of those listening to us? When we discuss romantic pursuits, does the language we use exclude those who don’t fit into our assumptions about categories like sexual orientation, gender, or level of sexual activity? When we make plans to go to a party, how often do we overlook the students who silently struggle with the culture of alcohol or the repressed but not uncommon danger of sexual assault?

Since this post is about language, I’ll be very clear in naming what I’m talking about: privilege. The privilege conferred by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion is not only manifest when someone is actively discriminated against, but also when people fail to think critically about the power of their language.

But our privilege does not have to be damaging. My decision to wear my self-selected identity on my sleeve (or rather, on top of my head) is, in every sense of the word, a privilege, and it has given me countless opportunities to share a medium that has shaped how I speak about the world. For every time I’ve been nervous about being typecast, I’ve had two or three conversations that have left me feeling validated and have given my peers the space to feel the same.

Perhaps what we as a community need is not to prepare our tolerant, liberal selves for the next time someone makes a discriminatory remark, but rather to work on cultivating an atmosphere in which our multilayered identities are out on the table, along with the privilege and the struggle that come with them. Perhaps we need to give voice to those who feel excluded in our community. And most importantly, perhaps we need to celebrate our power by shaping collective language and striving to listen to the narratives of others in the co-creation of that language.

And if anyone is interested in wearing a kippah, I have a few extras in my room… 

—Jacob Udell ’12



21 Responses to “The Way We Speak”

  1. Mori Rothman says:

    word, Jake. 🙂 Beautifully written and thought-out.

  2. Topher Hunt says:

    It’s very rare here that I hear the words “power” and “privilege” wielded with a positive connotation. It disappoints me when concepts which could, as you offer, be celebrated, are instead treated primarily as personal failings which corrupt healthy dialogue. Thank you for bringing these thoughts forward!

  3. Natty says:

    Nice, Jacob! Love to hear your insights, as always. Look forward to hearing more.

  4. Joey Radu says:

    Great post, Jacob.

    The reason it seems to be difficult to talk about privilege on this campus is because we can’t agree on what the term means. I definitely do not use it positively, or as something to be “grateful” for.

    Since people seem to be very confused about how many of us use the term privilege, I’ve pasted a document below that might help explain things.

    *Adapted from the Transformative Justice Law Project’s “Check Your Privilege 101” Document (www.tjlp.org)

    Checking Your Privilege 101

    What is privilege?
    Privilege is any right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person or group beyond the advantages of most. Privilege can be seen as an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over marginalized groups. For example, since transgender people are not included in the dominant group, non-transgender people often have many privileges – rights, benefits, immunities – that transgender people don’t have including legal rights, social acceptance and understanding, gender-affirming medical treatment, bathroom access, family support, etc. A key aspect of privilege is that, due to its unearned nature, those who have privilege often do not realize they have it. In other words, they don’t see the access and opportunity being a member of a dominant group affords them. This is why, as organizers and activists fighting for liberation, it is essential that we learn how to recognize our privileges and check how our unearned advantages play into the work we do.

    Who has privilege?
    Most of us have some privileges that we may not realize. Being a citizen of the United States affords extreme global political and economic privilege, as well as privilege domestically (compared to undocumented and other types of immigrants to the United States). We call this citizenship privilege. As activists, we strive to actively engage with, be accountable for, and discuss many types of privilege as a part of our organizing work:

    Class Privilege:
    The privilege of being a person raised with financial stability and access to financial safety nets through family or other assets. Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time. In our society, class privilege often dictates “opportunities,” “freedom,” access to “legal rights” and power to influence political systems and the media.

    Race(/White) Privilege:
    The United States operates within a system of institutionalized racism. Unlike prejudice, which may include racist statements, slurs, or acts induced by personal dislike of members of other races, institutional racism is structured into our politics, our economic system, our geography, our educational systems, our social institutions, etc. We call institutional racism in the U.S. white supremacy, where the “norm” is whiteness and the society is structured to privilege white people.

    Educational Privilege:
    The privilege of a person who has been able to access higher education, which is sometimes, but not always, a result of other privileges such as race and class privilege. Educational privilege not only affords access to job opportunities, but also uses language and communication that is alienating and fundamentally rooted in higher education learning institutions, which many people have little or no access to.

    Gender(/Male) Privilege:
    The privilege of being a masculine-appearing, male-identified person living in the United States, which both historically and currently functions in a system of patriarchy. Some women may not feel that sexism or discrimination based on their gender is still a constant reality. At TJLP we recognize internalized oppression and how it functions within a broader system of institutionalized oppression. For every woman who has hated her body, been on a diet to look thinner, has experienced gender-based sexual violence, or has simply felt scared being on the street alone – patriarchy persists.

    Cisgender(/Cissexist) Privilege:
    The privilege of having a gender presentation that correlates with the dominant group’s expected gender “norms.” This means being a person who is male-assigned at birth and identifies as a man, or female- assigned at birth and identifies as a woman. Privileges include having identification that reflects your gender, bathroom access, freedom from police targeting on the basis of gender non-conformity, gender- affirming medical care, etc.

    Age(/Ageist) Privilege
    This is the access afforded to people who are considered “adults” in our systems and institutions and conversely the disadvantage of being considered “youth.” We also recognize that elders are often stripped of meaningful participation in many systems and institutions as well due to age.

    Body Size(/Thin) Privilege
    This is the privilege to be born with a body type that is celebrated and considered “beautiful” by the dominant group as reflected in the media, advertisements, social norms, etc. Oftentimes this body is thin for women and muscular for men, in addition to reflecting other dominant norms such as whiteness and able-bodiedness. We call the fear this privilege stems from fat-phobia.

    Able-Bodied(/Neurotypical/Ablenormative/Ableist) Privilege
    Much like other privileges, able-bodied privilege is the ability to physically participate in society because society was made to accommodate only the “dominant” group – people who are perceived to be able- bodied and not physically disabled. This effectively cuts disabled people out of society. In addition, this privilege invisibilizes and stigmatizes mental disability, which ostracizes and shames folks with mental disabilities and cuts support services from them. This ableism leads directly to the criminalization of mental disability as evidenced by an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of people incarcerated who have mental disabilities.

    Life-on-the-Outside Privilege
    Being incarcerated clearly leads to the loss of many privileges. Not only are you confined against your will, but often inmates are unable to read, write, go outside, wear the clothing of their choice, practice their religion, communicate with people on the outside, access the legal system, exercise, eat foods of their choice, have access to medical care, have autonomy over their sexuality, etc.

    “Passing” Privilege
    The privilege to be able to “pass” as a more privileged group, such as a light-skinned person of color passing as white, a transperson passing as non-trans, a disabled person passing as able-bodied, etc. While passing may be a goal for some because of the privileges it brings, it can often be a disadvantage. All transpeople should have the same rights and privileges regardless of whether they are seen as transgender or not. All people with disabilities should have access regardless of whether their disability is visible to a non-disabled person. Our races should not be assumed to be white unless otherwise indicated.

    Religious Privilege
    This is the privilege to be a member of the dominant religion in the United States – Christianity. Both traditionally and currently, other religions have been stigmatized, ostracized, and criminalized – most notably Judaism, Islamic religions, Buddhism, and Indigenous practices and beliefs.

    Sexuality(/Heterosexist) Privilege
    The privilege of being a heterosexual and/or of not being labeled a sexual deviant. Traditionally “sexual deviants” often include non-straight people, people who have sex for pleasure outside of marriage, people who practice polyamory or have more than one sexual partner at a time, kinky people, etc.

    Why do we feel privilege must be recognized in activist work?
    We feel that privilege must be recognized and checked as a commitment to our values and our process. We are working towards building a long-term movement and a movement that is in solidarity with groups that we are not a part of as a collective. We have seen closely the dangers of not checking privilege even as members of oppressed groups (women, transpeople, people of color, poor people, etc). Not checking privilege ultimately doesn’t foster fundamental change but rather repeats dynamics that already exist in our oppressive society within organizing circles such as classism, racism, homophobia, ageism, etc. By constantly checking our privilege, we create a process for change that reflects how we want the world to be while fostering deep-rooted solidarity work and allyship to communities we are not a part of.

    How do we check our privilege?

    Action steps to checking privilege!
    1) Acknowledge that the privilege exists,
    2) move away from immobilizing guilt,
    3) understand that your privilege will not go away until the root systems that give you privilege are abolished,
    4) be an ally to communities you are not a part of,
    5) recognize how and why your privilege can destruct community empowerment,
    6) use your privilege to benefit groups you are not a part of,
    7) educate others with your privilege to check themselves, and
    8) call people out and embrace being called out about privilege.

  5. Jacob U says:

    Thanks for that post, Joey.

    I agree with you that the term privilege doesn’t come with positive connotations. I wanted to get across how vital it is to claim privilege, with all of its baggage, and then to use that as a means to become more aware about the power that each of us holds in the seemingly innocuous ways we go about our days.

    At the same time, I’m challenged by what Topher wrote. Where is the line between celebrating and recognizing privilege? Which approach creates more space to listen to narratives that are otherwise unheard? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts…

  6. Zach Schuetz '11 says:

    Jacob: As someone who, I am told, is known across campus as “Bathrobe Guy”, I both sympathize and empathize with your story, particularly the “desire for our identity to be acknowledged and respected in its distinctiveness”.

    Here at Middlebury, we have incredible freedom to express ourselves, both verbally and otherwise. The challenge, as you noted, is to do so in a way that is respectful of others who may come from different backgrounds. Too often, this leads to a tendency to avoid talking at all, except within certain “safe” parameters and subjects – midterms, weekend plans, etc. Although this may avoid a certain number of awkward moments in the short term, I feel that it is counterproductive as it deprives us of the chance to learn more about each other and question our assumptions. It also, as you noted above, contributes to a certain thoughtlessness – literally, a lack of mindfulness and deliberate thought – when we are speaking.

    Like you, I hope that my manner of dress can be a conversation starter. Occasionally we all need to be shaken out of our comfort zones. After all, privileges are negative only when they are extended to some groups and not others. Stopping to think about these privileges, and understanding and appreciating the advantages we have, is the first step in figuring out how to extend them to others and create a more equitable society.

  7. Barbara Ofosu-Somuah says:

    Thank you so much Jacob for talking about this. It is not something that is discussed nearly enough on this campus. The words “power” and “privilege” have become such taboo terms that we all sometimes forget that in our own ways we have both and that it is in how we use them that matters.

  8. Bente says:

    I think you nailed it Jacob. Referring to Topher’s comment about power and privilege, I offer the quotation “With great power comes great responsibility” (FDR or Spiderman depending on who you ask). To me privilege seems also to come with a lot of extra responsibilities.

  9. Jeffrey Garofano says:

    Jacob, it was enlightening for me to read about your personal considerations in deciding to wear a kippah on campus. I’d also add that my personal conversations with you, as well as your blog post, attest to your critical thinking. On the topic of language, I was curious as to why you view your decision to wear your self-selected identity (in this case, a kippah) as a privilege, “in every sense of the word.” I would consider it a human right–not a privilege granted. Here I disagree with Joey’s note: a human right, at least in my understanding, cannot be a privilege, because it cannot be granted from anybody. In the same sense, it cannot be merely “tolerated,” which is to say, enjoyed only due to the forbearance of someone else. I see rights as existing before government (governments can only “secure” them, in the words of our Declaration). I agree that we should be thankful for the rights that we have wrested from government interference, and that we should ally with groups whose rights are as-yet unsecured. But there can be no guilt in living free (wearing a kippah, being black, gay, etc.), because freedom is the default state respected by the idea of human rights. There can only be shame when such identities are disrespected and unsecured.

  10. Melida Maldonado says:

    Really great post Jacob! “Es war sehr gut!” 😉 *hopefully that was grammatically correct!*

    I also agree with Topher’s post on celebrating and recognizing privilege. I am also grateful for Joey Radu’s breakdown on privilege. It is a word with negative connotations when in fact we all have a form of privilege even if we are not aware of it or like to admit it. However, it is all a matter of how one uses their privilege in regards to their relationships with others that truly matters to me. Like Jacob said, it could really be a conversation starter or a way of putting different ideas on the table. Unfortunately, certain privileges such as social class depreciate others and is the dominant perception in people’s minds when they think about the term privilege.

  11. Jay Saper says:

    Jacob, thank you very much for your post. I could not agree more with the positive message of listening to others, in so doing becoming co-creators with them.

    Joey, I appreciate you posting the document addressing privilege adapted from the TJLP.

    Jeffrey, I am confused by your statement regarding rights existing before government. It is very much the case that our government absolutely confers and denies rights, privileging and marginalizing groups regardless of how wrong this is. For instance there are over a thousand rights tied to marriage (see: http://www.gao.gov/archive/1997/og97016.pdf and http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04353r.pdf). None of us exist outside of power and it is necessary for us to acknowledge this fact (and not claim otherwise) so that we can work to make things more just.

  12. Tara Affolter says:

    Jacob- Thanks for writing this and thanks for your honest and transparent analysis of privilege. I think you trouble the notion of identity markers and choice quite powerfully. Joey’s post about differing types of privileges actually goes hand in hand with your exploration here…especially the action steps at the end of the piece. In a space like Middlebury where privilege is so prevalent and yet so mired in guilt and inaction, I found your post quite refreshing. Thanks again for taking the risk.

  13. Jeff Megared says:

    Jacob – you hit the nail right on the head. It is refreshing to read about someone who has the courage to speak so openly about privilege and to do so in a constructive way. Fantastic eye opening article.

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