Wednesday, March 3, 2021

An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy about Privilege Through the Looking-Glass

October 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Body Image

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author, formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chairperson of the Sociology & Criminology Department, and Founding Director of the Gender Studies Program at Stonehill College. She has published twenty-four books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction. Many of her books have been translated into foreign languages and put out in new and anniversary editions. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill/Sense Publishers, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and in 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” She is also a humanitarian and social justice advocate, for example, supporting organizations that assist survivors of sexual violence and requiring universities in states with “bathroom bills” to provide a unisex bathroom in the building in which she speaks. We’ve spoken with Patricia several times over the years and weren’t surprised to hear she tackled privilege, power, and status characteristics in her latest book. We recently had a chance to chat about her stunning new edited collection, Privilege Through the Looking-Glass.

Congratulations on the release of Privilege Through the Looking-Glass. The book is being heralded as “powerful,” “important,” “poignant,” and “unflinching.

Thank you. The credit belongs to the contributors. Their writing is brave and honest. I think that’s why it is resonating.

Please describe this book.

Privilege Through the Looking-Glass is a collection of original essays grounded in personal experiences that explore privilege, oppression, power, and status characteristics in daily life. Our environments become taken-for-granted and difficult to perceive when we’re immersed in them. This book seeks to make visible our environments and subsequent effects on individuals. The book teases out connections between the personal and the public.

Why did you opt for personal essays?

Privilege and oppression are difficult subjects to tackle. The book is intended to inspire self-reflection in readers and I don’t think lecturing at people is the best way to accomplish that. When people share their personal experiences, we have to take that seriously. Personal stories well told are highly engaging. The contributors in this volume are exceptional. I think readers will be riveted. For a scholar, or anyone really, to write about their own experiences requires enormous courage; it makes them vulnerable. I think readers can feel and appreciate that vulnerability, and in turn, perhaps open themselves up to thinking about these issues in new ways. I also knew these contributors were skilled at placing their experiences within a context, to crystallize how the personal and public are connected. The looking-glass metaphor is at play here—the idea being that authors would take a look in the mirror and what is reflected back might be quite different than what is expected, and then in turn, point that mirror outward for readers to do the same.

The writing is incredibly powerful. What guidelines did you provide authors?

Other than a rough page estimate and request for pedagogical or book club features such as discussion questions or suggested resources, there really weren’t guidelines. When I approached authors I shared the purpose of the book and asked for a personal essay about status characteristics in their lives, as they saw fit. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to get out of the way and trust in the expertise and talent of those you’re working with. I didn’t want the authors to be constrained in any way. Honesty is powerful and that requires freedom.

In the introduction you explain the book applies an inter-sectional perspective. Can you please explain what that means?

Identities are not one dimensional or unitary. One simultaneously inhabits a body that carries race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ableness. Intersectionality theory looks at how status characteristics intersect or overlap to create avenues of privilege and oppression.

Intersectionality developed in the context of Black feminist activism and thought. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is credited with coining the term in 1991 but the principles of intersectionality were a collective creation– some of which developed during the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Combahee River Collective (CRC), a collective of Black feminists that formed in 1973, was particularly instrumental in elaborating intersectionality. I recommend checking out their website and reading their famous 1977 statement. For folks who want to delve deep into the history and practice of intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge wrote a wonderful book called Intersectionality that a colleague recommended to me, and I happily recommend it to others.

Why did you take this project on?

Privilege is an important topic, and one I think we can never talk enough about, yet for many it goes completely under the radar. I wanted to create a collection that makes visible that which is often invisible. I want to sensitize the fish to the water they take for granted. Privilege is a social injustice that permeates our entire society, impacting people’s lives in different ways. We have individual and collective responsibilities to understand the role of status characteristics in daily life so we can engage with others in healthier ways and reconstruct our world for social good. An educational shift has to happen in more people’s minds. For example, as a White woman I’m horrified when I hear White people dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement, saying things like, “All lives matter.” These folks are immune to their privilege. They don’t understand the point is that all lives should matter but Black people have been systematically excluded from that. They’re missing the point and choosing to “react” instead of mindfully investigating what it’s about, which requires taking in the viewpoints of others. Or take the trans-phobic “Bathroom Bills” seeking to equate gender with genitalia, and to discriminate against anyone with a non-binary gender identity. In our society there’s enormous unearned privilege conferred on those with a cisgender identity. We need to be sensitized to that privilege and its underside, the subjugation of those with other gender identities. There’s a deep need in contemporary America to address privilege, and that’s why I took this on. This isn’t an off-putting, knee jerk “check your privilege” kind of comment like we often see online (and I myself might make online). It’s an attempt to thoughtfully illustrate, expose, and explain so that readers may begin to understand privilege in their own lives.

You mention this in your last response, but to make it explicit, given what is happening right now in this country and abroad, the book seems urgently needed. How do you feel about the timing of the release?

In this political landscape we all need to use our voices more than ever. From travel bans that discriminate on the basis of religion to bathroom bills that discriminate on the basis of gender identity, it’s an ugly time for anyone on the margins and anyone concerned with social justice. This is not a democratic/republican thing at all. This is about social injustice. This is about who we are as a people. It’s about human rights and humanity. But how did we get here? How did we let this happen? Why are some people only now beginning to see how dangerous it is? The flowers may be blossoming now, but the seeds have been planted for a long time. Herein we see the need to engage seriously with the subject of privilege. For those who have long been facing discrimination and prejudice, what’s happening now is a new permutation. It’s those who think this hate is all brand new who I desperately hope to reach. I’m glad to release this book at this historical moment. At times it’s tough to read, but it’s also quite hopeful. We need hope. We need a path forward and the authors have offered one.

Who should read this book?

Dr. Ivory Toldson, a scholar I greatly admire, offered a generous endorsement, saying in part that the book “has lessons for anyone with the spirit to explore better ways to be themselves and relate to others.” There’s a deep humanness the authors have tapped into. It’s a book for everyone. I hope professors adopt it for undergraduate classes, which is why each chapter includes pedagogical features written by the chapter author. I can see it fitting into a range of sociology courses, for example, although it’s interdisciplinary. I also hope people outside of academia read it and that it inspires self-reflection or food for thought at the family dinner table.

What do you hope readers take from this book?

We can each do better, and we can and should do more collectively. I hope the book promotes empathy, compassion, and understanding across differences. I’d be gratified if the book prompted self and social reflection in readers. But definitely beginning with the self, which is where change begins.

What’s next for you?

I have a coauthored book on feminist research praxis coming out next summer with Guilford Press. I think it’s a valuable contribution for those looking to teach or learn about feminist approaches to research at this historical time and within a global context. That book is written so I’m mostly focusing on other things at this point. I have a few ongoing editing projects but primarily I’ll be crawling into a creative writing hole. I go back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. I’ve recently completed several nonfiction books. Now I feel like it’s a time in the world, and in my own life, to create art. I’m about halfway through a draft of one novel. It’s a new genre for me, sort of an adventure, so it’s been challenging. The novel tackles some big questions about how we work and learn together and how things might be different. I have a couple of other works of fiction outlined, one that revisits my favorite protagonist from earlier work, so that’s next. I expect most of what I do as an author to be fiction for at least a few years, maybe longer.


Privilege Through the Looking Glass on Amazon:

Privilege Through the Looking Glass at Sense Publishers:

Learn more about Patricia here:

Follow Patricia on Facebook here:

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