Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality member Pamela Zappardino will be one of the panel members during a "What's All This Talk About Privilege" discussion Friday, May 5. The discussion will be held 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster.
The Times recently caught up with Zappardino to learn more about the discussion.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the work you do with Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality?
A: Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality (CCRE) was founded more than 20 years ago to raise awareness about issues related to equality and diversity in Carroll County, and to engage with others in honest and respectful dialogue about issues related to the diversity that exists in Carroll County. We also work to build positive, collaborative relationships with and among other organizations in the community. A 501(c)3 nonprofit, we are a fund of the Community Foundation of Carroll County. A nonpartisan, all-volunteer group, we receive no government monies, funding our programs through small community donations. I have been a member of CCRE for about 10 years.
Throughout its history CCRE has worked to help community members learn about the diversity around us. We publish a semi-annual e-newsletter and provide opportunities for people to develop both the knowledge and skills to really learn about each other and work together to build cross cultural relationships.
As part of these efforts we ... have convened annual conferences that have provided forums to learn from our neighbors who are Native American, Latino, LGBTQ+, and Muslim. Our conferences have also addressed workplace diversity in Carroll County and the realities of poverty that affect so many in our community. We encourage questions and open discussion of issues at these conferences.
Q: Why is it important to have a discussion about privilege?
A: Every society struggles with inequity. In the U.S., we are somewhat unique in stating that "liberty and justice for all" is our goal and that we attempt to build our society on that ideal. But this does not mean we have achieved our goal. We have made a lot of progress, but inequity and discrimination still exist, sometimes in overt ways, but also in ways that are much subtler. We find these sources of inequity in the systems and structures that have developed in our society over time, as a result of norms that were acceptable in our culture in a past time, and that persist in the expectations, behavior patterns, and scripts that our societal structure has us play out every day. As such they affect all of us – regardless of our own behaviors and efforts.
Privilege derives from these structures. It is both subtle and complex. It is both unsought and unearned. It is often invisible to those who have it. And, importantly, it is misunderstood. Author Michael Kimmel says, "privilege is what you don't see when you look in the mirror." It is about the things we can take for granted and the things we can't. If you can walk down the street without getting catcalls from those you pass, you may not understand the impact of those cat-calls on those who have that experience. If the sound of your name makes it more likely that you will get a job interview, you may not consider that other qualified people were rejected because they didn't have such a name.
Privilege comes in many forms, as advantages and disadvantages take many forms. Privilege is often misunderstood as only deriving from race, but religion, color, gender, gender identity, gender expression, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, and other characteristics of an individual can determine how advantaged or disadvantaged a person may be in a given society. And, in our society, some of these characteristics have a greater influence on those advantages/disadvantages than others.
Our own cultural backgrounds come into play here as well. Those backgrounds give us the lens through which we view and think about others, especially those who are different from us. Some of these perspectives are reinforced more by the structures in our society than others.
Privilege is also misunderstood in terms of how it is earned and what it means about work. Privilege is unearned advantage, advantage that comes from who are and the circumstances surrounding our birth. These are things totally out of our control. Privilege entails no need for guilt on the part of those who are more advantaged. This discussion is not about guilt.
Having advantages does not mean that anyone with privilege does not have to work hard to succeed. Folks with privilege generally work very hard to achieve their goals. It is often easy to overlook that a disadvantaged person can work just as hard and not reach the same level of achievement. Think of a race where the finish line is the same, but the starting line varies for different people. The goal is the same, but working really hard to get there is not equally effective for different people.
These are many of the reasons why we need to have an open discussion of privilege, of advantage and disadvantage, of discrimination — intended or not, conscious or not — of structures and systems that promote inequity. There are so many misunderstandings about the concept of privilege that we need to have a forthright discussion of what it means and what it doesn't, so we, as a community, can talk with each other about its impact.
Q: What is one thing people can do to be better allies?
A: As noted above, in order to move forward, it is critical to understand that privilege has nothing to do with guilt. No one chooses the conditions of their birth. It is not about hard work. It is about the way our societal structure provides us with relative levels of advantage.
Those who would like to see a more equitable society, one that keeps us moving toward our goal of "liberty and justice" for all, regardless of where they might stand on the privilege continuum can make a difference by recognizing that privilege exists. This is often easier for those with a relatively lower level of advantage. Talking about privilege can bring up defensiveness, guilt, blame, etc. We need to steer clear of those things, we must truly listen to each other and understand our different perspectives. This is critical to being able to talk about how our differences are viewed in our society.
This is hard at first, but once the conversations get honest, we often find that we have a lot in common and can learn a lot about how to make things better from each other. Note that this doesn't mean we should be color-blind (or religion blind, or gender blind, etc.). This is a luxury only available to those with privilege. Those without privilege can be blind to differences only at their own risk. We have often asked those with the most disadvantages to be the ones to make the changes that move us all towards equity. But those with privilege in each arena have the greatest power to begin to make the changes that will create a more equitable society for all of us. The work can be subtle or direct, and it will surely be complicated, but it is critical that we begin. "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it" (Goethe).
Q: What are you hoping listeners will learn from or get out of the discussion?
A: We expect that we will have more than listeners, that this conference will be an active process for those who attend. We hope that participants will gain an understanding of the subtleties of structural/systemic inequality, and that we will all better understand the intersectionality, the ways different forms of advantage and disadvantage interact in U.S. society. Participants will be given an opportunity to develop a personal understanding of the ways in which they are advantaged and or disadvantaged and how the interplay of these affects their own lives and the lives of those around them. And critically, we hope that we will discover ways, without blame, in which we can work together to move toward a more equitable society. A few action plans to get the process moving would be good, too.