Check your privilege. It’s a neat catchphrase thrown around as reminder that some of us were born with advantages others are systematically denied. It’s easy to say, but keeping our privileges and biases in check requires constant vigilance.
To the end of fostering an environment where students, faculty and staff work toward developing this social consciousness, the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT), the Campus Life and Diversity Office and the Campus Activities office launched Vassar’s second-annual Privilege Campaign last week. The installation of photo portraits on the second floor of the College Center has participants’ privileges literally written across their faces.
“We decided to change the location and make the portraits more visible. The College Center second floor…is heavily traveled and we hope that the exposure leads people to engage,” wrote Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman in an emailed statement.
Though Pittman didn’t contribute a portrait this year, he emphasized the positive impact the campaign could have on campus. He continued, “I think that anytime the campus community can interact with questions of identity and one’s sense of who they are, it can be transformative.”
Last year, the Privilege Campaign was comprised solely of faculty and administrators, a focus that was meant to emphasize employees’ commitment to these initiatives which are typically student-driven. “Too often on campus, only students are asked to be vulnerable and think about their identities and what they mean in our community, so it was great that in year one, we had over 20 employees participate. In year two, the majority of participants were students, to start bringing student perspectives into the project,” commented Director for the LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center Judy Jarvis.
As a person in a position of power on campus, Carolina Gustafson ’15 thought it was particularly vital that she reckon with her privileges. “As VSA President I felt it was incredibly important that all VSA Council members participate in the project given the great amount of privilege that comes with our positions, as well as the need to understand the effects of privilege in the roles we hold,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
The words across her forehead read, “My cisgender privilege means I do not need to be worried that people will misgender me or use the wrong pronouns…”
In order to participate, students and faculty first had to complete a workshop. “It was incredibly well facilitated and I felt the internal introspection was nuanced and pushed all participants to truly look inside of themselves to examine what areas of their privilege they wanted to probe,” Gustafson wrote, noting it was her first time participating in the initiative. “I thought the whole process—from the workshop stage to the final product of producing the artist’s statement and statements to go on the picture—was very well thought-out and helped the participants really go deeper.”
VP for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16 said that part of the power of the photos and text lies in how they implicate viewers. “No one has just one dimension to their identity,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “Some identities cause us to be marginalized and some identities give us power. Remembering that makes for better discussion of power and privilege.”
Freshman President Rebecca Pober ’18 and VP for Operations Ramy Abbady ’16 were among other council members to participate in the campaign. While not everyone on the VSA submitted portraits, Gustafson reported that many attended the workshop. She said, “Many people shared with me that participating in the workshop has helped them to better understand the intersection of various forms of privilege and has hopefully helped them to be better leaders on campus.”
Tanenbaum Inter-Religious Fellow Adah Hetko said that participating in the Privilege Campaign for the last two years helped her situate her leadership position in a similar way. “Attending the campaign last year helped me to see those I work with differently (both through specific reflections that revealed details about their experiences and my appreciation for their openness), and, in turn, complicated how I see my role at Vassar,” she wrote in an emailed statement.”
Much of Hetko’s reflection on privilege dealt with her access to education. With parents and grandparents who have or have had prestigious careers, Hetko experience in academia is one that has been colored by this advantage. In her artist’s statement she writes, “Because of my education…I was privileged to have an easy transition to school, from kindergarten to college. And now, as a college graduate working in an academic context, I rarely have to adjust how I speak or write in order to fit in or make a particular impression.”
Hetko continued, “Through the campaign, understanding the role of privilege and lack of privilege in my life and in the lives of others at Vassar has become, very clearly, part of my job.”
Though Jarvis acknowledged that the campaign can be productive in spurring conversations and awareness surrounding issues of privilege and identity, it is in no way a cure-all. Vassar, she maintained, has a long way to go. “I certainly don’t think the Privilege Campaign is a panacea for the micro- and macroaggressions people experience on this campus,” Jarvis said, “but I think it’s one important step in supporting individuals’ self-reflection and increased awareness about their identities.”
She finished, “None of our identities are neutral, and the more we can see that, the more I think individuals’ behavior will change.”