What Happens When We Try To Map Our Privilege?
By Crystal B. Shepeard
‘I think the root of it is understanding that we all have different lenses.’
If someone were to ask you how you identify, what would your answer be? Does that match how others see you? How does it feel if it doesn’t?
These are questions diversity and inclusion educator — and comedian, actress, and writer — Luna Malbroux asks at the beginning of each of the group sessions she conducts. The reason, she says, is because you can’t understand where others are coming from until you know where you are.
And though she has helped companies, organizations, and schools navigate the challenges of having diverse people and perspectives work together, these days, Malbroux is taking these questions on the road. She’s asking total strangers across the United States to understand who they are, the world they live in, and how they see it. Her multimedia project Mapping Privilege is about changing the focus from how we’re talking about social issues to how we’re listening.
The catalyst for the idea came from a moment in Malbroux’s own life where her perception conflicted with how others perceived one of her projects.
In February 2016, Malbroux was selected to participate in Cultivated Wit’s Comedy Hack Day. The annual hackathon brings together comedians, developers, and designers to build “hilarious tech” to make complicated ideas easier to understand and, well, fun.
She and her team created EquiTable, then called Equipay: an app that explained income inequality in terms of gender and racial pay disparity. As the app’s Chief Equality Office, Malbroux explained in a presentation to the crowd that the app uses real data from the U.S. Department of Labor to calculate “affirmative fractions,” allowing users to split restaurant meal costs based on gender and racial disparity. It is, as the tagline says, “Reparations, one meal at a time.”
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To her surprise, not everyone got the joke.
“When EquiTable happened, it was the first time I had experienced getting national press. There were publications that wrote about it in a positive way, but there were a lot of naysayers. It was the first time I became aware of the different kinds of media, like the more ‘alt-right’ media. I read a lot of stuff like ‘EquiTable is about causing white genocide,’” Malbroux recalls with a laugh. “Or, ‘This thing calculates privilege to make white men pay more, to use white guilt.’ I was like, nope, I wouldn’t describe it like that either.”
The reactions to her app left her questioning her own view of the world.
“I became very aware that a lot of people were talking about privilege, but definitely not coming from the same understanding or even using the same language. Even in something that I did, seeing it being interpreted in different ways, helped me realize we’re trying to have a conversation online, but we’re not on the same page. We haven’t really agreed on the operationalized term of what we’re talking about.”
This was Malbroux’s state of mind as she traveled on a writing assignment to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to cover the Alton Sterling shooting. She became more aware of how much she had been living in her own bubble, and, in many ways, preaching to a choir of like-minded people who were simply getting confirmation of their own worldview, both online and in conversations. So Malbroux decided to change the conversation, and the people with whom she engaged.
“I really felt the need to go back to my roots as diversity inclusion trainer and bring conversations to people,” she says. “It hit me that unless you’re in school or at a job that places investment in your learning and understanding and having opportunities to kind of check your biases, you won’t really have access to that.”
She once again relied on her professional experience to create Mapping Privilege, which aims to unpack the messiness of the “isms” in society by expanding on individual stories, perspectives, and voices in a series of web episodes, a book, and a play.
When we spoke, she had just completed a leg of her journey that began in the Bay Area. Her travels have taken her to Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colorado; Wichita, Kansas; Dallas and Houston, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Her Midwest stops included Cincinnati, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Forsyth and Billings, Montana. She also spent a few days in Standing Rock with the water protectors fighting the North Dakota oil pipeline. She met people where they were, figuratively and literally, in places like churches or other public gatherings.
“Being in person with someone allows you to have that conversation,” Malbroux continues. “It allows you to lead a person to kind of explore what their own lens is. That’s different than reading an article online, [saying] this is how you should think about something. It comes from a very persuasive place. I think when we’re talking about ‘isms,’ when we’re talking about biases, it’s not necessarily a logical argument. It has to be personal, it has to start with self-awareness.”
The diversity of locations is a crucial element of the project. “Privilege is so contextual and we all need to be aware of the lenses that we have and the blind spots that we have,” Malbroux explains. “Every time I have a conversation I think of a completely different aspect of privilege that I didn’t really think about.”
It is through this extensive travel that Malbroux has discovered how one’s privilege is often tied to physical location. “In New Orleans a lot of the conversation was around being a New Orleans native or not being a native. If I asked how do you identify, in New Orleans, ‘I’m a native of New Orleans’ would often be one of the first things someone would say. When I was in Utah, no one would say I’m a Salt Lake City native; that wasn’t the primary thing that was coming up.”
Instead, in Utah, religion was the lens through which folks viewed their identity, as well as their privilege. “Mormonism kept on coming up again and again. People were talking about how they felt like they either weren’t being accepted at their job or faced obstacles because they weren’t Mormon,” Malbroux explained. “They felt being Mormon gave other people more advantages, or they felt like a lot of times being a Mormon was their primary identifier.”
But even among communities of like-minded people, othering still occurs. Colorism and the advantages, or disadvantages, of certain skin tones, for example, have haunted the African-American community since slavery. And for multigenerational immigrant families there can be differing forms of “othering.” Speaking with people in these and other marginalized communities helped Malbroux realize our conversations about race and privilege aren’t going deep enough.
“Right now so much of the conversation on privilege is around white privilege, or not having white privilege. I think privilege shows up in a lot of different ways,” she reflected. “People of color are going to be needing their own spaces to kind of explore how privilege is showing up in their own communities. There are differently abled, marginalized people in every group that need to get pulled in and [their] stories need to get highlighted.”
No matter the geography, however, there was one common theme. “Again and again, people see privilege as the process of one’s humanity being accepted and acknowledged without questions, based on how they identify,” Malbroux pointed out. “I see again and again, in talking to different people, everyone’s just really struggling to have their humanity be accepted, to be seen as a person who has needs, who’s valid. A person who matters.”
It was in Standing Rock, North Dakota that Luna experienced firsthand what the world would be like if everyone was treated as a person who matters and was able to shed their individual biases in favor of a larger goal. Having arrived on Indigenous People Day, she spent three days with the hundreds of people who were showing solidarity with the Sioux tribe as they fought to protect their water source and prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from going through their tribal lands.
“It was one of the most powerful places that I’ve had the opportunity to go and really just be a part of that community for a few days,” she said. “It was almost utopian in how food was shared and what was for one was for all. There was a unity and solidarity and a community that was there that I don’t really see in other places.
“Many people [that] had come there to stand and protect the water had given up other aspects of their life, other identities that they had. That was eye opening to see that when you shed those identities of a place or profession you just come to be a community. It felt really raw . . . really organic. People could just care about each other.”
Malbroux is currently planning the next leg of her travels, and she eventually plans to share her experience with Mapping Privilege as a multimedia project. If nothing else, this experience has already profoundly changed her own perception of privilege, and Malbroux also has some tips on how we can change the conversation in our own lives, to be able to speak more deeply with one another about the ways in which privilege and race have an impact on our society.
“I think the root of it is understanding that we all have different lenses. It’s really important to [be] able to hold space for people. More self-awareness conversations need to become more a part of our school system as well as our workplace,” Malbroux explained. “Leading with that, starting with that. It always starts with self.”
So, how do you identify? Do you feel others see you in the same way? How does it feel when they don’t?