Professional Privilege: A Response to the 2013 SAA Presidential Address
UPDATE: A pre-publication transcript of Jackie Dooley’s 2013 SAA Presidential Address is now available on the SAA website. The final version will be published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the American Archivist.
Shortly after the SAA 2013 Presidential Address, I tweeted the following: “Dear #saa13 professionals in positions of power: you have inherent privilege. It must be recognized for us to have productive convos.”
The tweet grabbed a bit of attention in the Twitter world, and I have been asked to expand upon it. Obviously, this is not a topic which can be fully explored 140 characters at a time. Even this blog, frankly, only scratches the surface. So, first the disclaimers: these are my opinions alone, and they do not represent the opinions of my employer, my school, my roundtables within SAA, or any other affiliation real or imagined.
To begin, I should operationalize my terms. When I say “positions of power”, I specifically mean leadership positions which make policies and/or those with representative authority (the power to speak on behalf of others). When I say “privilege”, I use it in the academic sense that a privileged person has certain rights, autonomy, and power that do not extend to more marginalized groups. Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” provides an excellent operational definition of privilege. It is an especially wonderful exploration of privilege because it is written from the perspective of the empowered (a white woman exploring her own unconscious privilege in the women’s studies community). McIntosh also provides many useful examples which challenge our typical perceptions of privilege. As she writes, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.
In that sense, when I ask archivists in prominent leadership positions to examine how they benefit from (or at least are not actively harmed by) certain aspects of the professional status quo, I am not accusing anyone of being intentionally mean or oppressive. What I am saying is look deeper. If a member of a marginalized group tells you that “circumstance x is harmful to me”, you are coming from a position of privilege if you say “well, circumstance x has never been a problem for me” or “that’s the way it is, deal with”. This is especially true if you have the power to do something about circumstance x.
The concept of privilege in this sense has no bearing on how hard someone has worked, or whether they do or do not deserve the position they hold. In my own short professional life, I worked multiple part-time jobs (above 50 hrs per week) without insurance while pursuing internships, presenting at local/regional conferences, and pursuing two undergraduate degrees and a minor. In other words, I worked REALLY HARD to get to where I am.
I can examine my own privilege, of which the following is a small sample: for part of my undergraduate career, I was supported by a second income which made it possible for me to quit part-time jobs in favor of unpaid internships. I had a mother who was college educated, making me significantly more likely to succeed in higher education. I am a white woman in East Texas, who has a much easier time obtaining employment or internships for small cultural heritage organizations and government agencies. I received limited financial assistance to attend graduate school. I am a legal resident and citizen with full access to financial aid. I live in a country where I, as a woman, am entitled and allowed to pursue higher education.
In my tweet, I was specifically referring to individual attitudes of SAA leaders (who are on, but not necessarily intending to represent, the Council) towards the issue of unpaid internships and volunteer labor. I believe (and a number of SAA members in and beyond the SNAP roundtable, including advocates in higher education and SAA leadership roles) that the proliferation of unpaid internships at the expense of even part-time temporary positions is directly harmful to my professional interests. While I recognize that they exist, and in many cases it may be necessary under current norms to take them, I believe they undermine the professionalization of archives and archivists. I believe SAA has a responsibility to articulate the value of and defend our profession at all levels.
Now, here is the crux of my frustration: when seasoned archives professionals enter conversations among new archives professionals and demand to be treated as “equals”. This is a perfect manifestation of the disconnect between equal membership and equitable membership. I am not equal to an SAA Council member, nor is the Council member equal to a student paraprofessional. We should have equitable rights and representation within our professional organization, however. The denial of privilege relates to individuals who refuse to recognize that they have disproportionate power in our interactions.
Jackie Dooley articulated in her address today that she felt at times excluded or marginalized from student/new professional discussions on Twitter. The truth is that it is not the responsibility of a marginalized or minority group to empower a member of the majority group (in this case, experienced white archives professionals). In other words, it is not the responsibility of brand new archivists who have concerns about our professional worth to mollify SAA Council members with whom we fundamentally disagree (on this particular issue).
Furthermore, all parties involved simply cannot pretend that we are speaking from equal ground. Students and new archivists are speaking up, archivists in leadership positions are speaking down. As they say in stand-up comedy, joking “up” is comedy, joking “down” is cruelty. (Patton Oswalt’s recent op-ed on “Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes” provides an interesting examination of this dynamic). When Council members and other SAA leaders talk down to less empowered members – dismissing their concerns, calling them out in otherwise safe spaces, or even engaging in ad hominem attacks – this fundamentally undermines our ability to engage in product professional discourse.
We (new archives professionals and students) really do want to engage with you (experienced/established archivists), learn from you, work with you, hear from you, even wrestle (figuratively speaking) with you on professional issues. It is completely inappropriate, however, to leverage your privilege from a position of power to “win” arguments about issues that directly affect us (but do not affect you). Specifically: I was shocked that Jackie Dooley used the platform of the SAA presidential pulpit to “respond” to Twitter, listserv, and blog conversations among SNAP members about our frustrations with volunteer labor, the lackluster job market, and unpaid internships. At one point, she minimized our collective frustration by lamenting “… if only life were fair”. The upside is that she made some very fair and laudable points about this population’s future in SAA and she brought profession wide attention to a number of social justice issues I care deeply about.
I have had the opportunity this week to meet a number of self-declared advocates among LIS faculty and SAA leadership. Every single one I have engaged with has been gracious, welcoming, and incredibly generous with their time and expertise. So, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to demonize people or mitigate the incredible accomplishments of these seasoned professionals. However – and this is the take away- BEING NICE IS NOT ENOUGH. Considering oneself an advocate for students and new professionals does not exempt one from marginalizing or disempowering that very same group.
In closing, here is another great quote from Peggy McIntosh’s article:
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
Oswalt, P. (2013). “Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jakes”. Slate Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/06/patton_oswalt_on_rape_jokes_joke_stealing_and_heckling.html
McIntosh, P. (1989) “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In Peace and Freedom. http://www.library.wisc.edu/edvrc/docs/public/pdfs/LIReadings/InvisibleKnapsack.pdf