Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On privilege

I've been thinking about privilege a lot lately, thanks partly to having discovered the site Microaggresions. It's a collection of anonymous, user-submitted stories of "power, privilege, and everyday life." (Tip of the hat for the site to sexy webcomics goddess Elena Barbarich, a.k.a. Yamino.) Much as we need to pay attention to the giant scandals, the massive hypocrisies, the enormous gaps between those who have privilege and those who don't, we also need to see the minor stories, the moments, the minute-to-minute reminders that the system is unjust and our unconscious beliefs shape our every interaction.

I think part of the reason I'm so interested in privilege is that I've got quite a lot of it. I'm a straight, white, highly educated, cis-gendered male born into a middle-class, two-parent family in middle America. On paper, I'm about as whitebread hetero-normative as you can get. So I want to broaden my horizons as much as possible, remind myself that not everyone has the same advantages and perspectives that I take for granted.

(The site is also helpful, incidentally, for reminding me of all the ways that I'm not whitebread, of all the groups I belong to that don't hold the power. I'm an atheist, for example, which puts me at odds with a huge percentage of America. I don't follow much of mainstream culture, which doesn't exactly make me underprivileged, but certainly marks me as different. And being highly educated is as much an advantage as a disadvantage in certain contexts. I did actually submit my story of the only time I ever felt repressed for being an atheist, but it hasn't shown up yet on the site.)

One of the issues that's bound to come up sooner or later in my new job as a small-town librarian is whether to include books about people who aren't represented in the community. For example, I'm willing to bet Glenwood has no Muslim population to speak of (though I'd love to be proven wrong). Should I then add a book like, say, Does My Head Look Big in This?, about an American Muslim teen? Obviously you want your collection to reflect the needs and desires of your patrons, but you also want to provide materials for them that will enlarge their world. Much as it is important to provide books that reflect the world around your readers, isn't it more important to provide books that reflect the world they don't see?

All of this is largely academic for now, because one of the problems of working in a small-town library is that we have virtually no money for new books. But believe you me, when we get that cheddar, all these musings will bear fruit.

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