I want to share a deep, dark, secret with you guys: I am privileged. Another deep dark secret? You are very likely privileged too.
I am also oppressed and non-privileged in more than one way, and probably so are you.
I want to address a couple of conversations I have had and comments I have received (thanks you guys! you make me love my blog and feel obligated to write in here even though I have finals coming up, and I like the feeling), most of them relating, directly or indirectly, to privilege. I have mentioned it but, true enough, haven’t really explained it or said too much about it. The point of this blog (or part of it) is making information accessible, and I haven’t been doing that all too well.
So, first of all, what is meant by privilege?
For those not too familiar with social justice or feminist blogs or literature in general, privilege is a set of unearned benefits society bestows you due solely to one fraction of your identity, whether it be race, gender, sex, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. What does this mean, in reality? That there are things that I don’t have to think about, daily nuissances that I will not be target of, worries that I will not have, and disadvantages that I do not need to consider because I am a person with no physical disability or impairment of any kind, for example. Privilege makes our lives easier in ways that we tend to take for granted, and so checking our privilege is, for one, realising how good we have it in many ways. Privilege also makes us think, say and do things that may offend others simply because, in our position of privilege, we do not “have to” think about others, as the default way of thinking in that area in which we are privileged supports our own.
This is too broad and abstract though, I believe. Most talk about privilege is fairly abstract because it intends to apply to as many people as possible. I will talk about it in more concrete terms. Big, huge, monumental disclaimer, though: I am not speaking for anyone other than myself. I do not know or pretend to know everything. That is another thing about privilege: even if you’re oppressed in some other way, no two oppressions are the same, so do not pretend you empathize, because you cannot possibly know what anything other than your own experience is like. That said, here is an attempt to further explain what privilege is.
For example, I am a ciswoman (as in, my gender identity happens to match the sex assigned to me at birth; this, as opposed to transgender, which is when the gender identity you’re comfortable with does not match the sex assigned to you at birth). Based on that one little fraction among all the complexities of human beings, I have certain benefits – ranging from relatively small nuissances that I don’t have to deal with, to relatively big ones like not having to choose between a birth certificate that reflects my identity (and save myself from more nuissances, confusion and harassment) and having children. I am not harassed and stared at and whispered about when I go to public restrooms, I am not constantly asked really invasive and STRAIGHT UP NONE-OF-THEIR-BUSINESS questions like what my genitals look like or how I have sex, my gender identity is plenty represented in mainstream media (without it being only as the punchline of a joke). If I am in need of medical care, my gender identity will not grant me an unnecessary psychological examination; if I am in need of a shelter I do not have to fear for physical abuse in there. People don’t ask what my real sex is, as if I was lying or as if my gender identity was not valid, as if they were entitled to decide who I am for me. [I am taking these examples from this blog post, but the list goes on and on.]
Now, another thing I have heard and have read is pretty common (and fairly understandable) is that whole defensive ‘ttude of “but I am not like that!” or, “what do you mean I am privileged? I have had it bad in life!”
Here’s the thing, when someone (for example me, through this blog) tells you to check your privilege, they (or we) are not blaming you. Privilege is not about individual behavior or douche-baggery. It is not about you.
Privilege is not about blame, but it is about responsibility. Of course I know you cannot help but being white, or male, or cisgender, or able-bodied, or economically well-off, or heterosexual. I know, also, that you are probably a nice, well-intentioned fella. Most people are, I truly believe that. Thing is, we are part of a patriarchal society which values and reinforces and benefits some groups of people while oppressing, discriminating against, dehumanizing and invalidating the experiences and identities of other groups of people. That is a fact [If you are unwilling to accept this fact, I am sorry we’ve wasted each other’s time. Go about your business now].
Furthermore, society is built in such a way that dominant discourse, mainstream media, formal education, law, medical discourse is meant to represent and reinfornce the views and interests and needs of the privileged and ignore or reject or misrepresent those of the non-privileged. For a quick example, see what is meant by “flesh-tone” in most products: whose flesh tone is that? It sure as hell is not mine, it sure as hell is not the majority of my hometown’s flesh tone, it sure as hell is not the majority of most countries’ flesh tone. And YET…
Now, as I was saying, privilege IS about responsibility. Sure, as much as you read a checklist on male privilege and you think to yourself “yes, that’s right, how have I never thought about this”, you’re still a guy. And that is okay. Don’t do like I did the first time I read that I was privileged in so and so ways and be paralized by liberal guilt and by “omg I have been such an asshole!” thoughts. I mean yes, reflect on the fact that you may have been an asshole enough time so that you try not to be an asshole ever again, but accept that you probably will. Move on, though: we all make mistakes and will continue making them, just hopefully not the same ones.
A friend, reasonably, asked me, what the hell do I do with that, though? What do we do with that privilege?
Be extra aware of it. Be aware that you are already over-represented everywhere else, so you should allow non-privileged groups to have the chance and the space and the voice: help them create those spaces, those times.
Be humble. The rest of the world thinks you are more entitled to talk on behalf of others already, so don’t. No matter how much you read about their history, their needs, their interests, their concerns, their oppression (which you should, by all means); no matter how active of an ally you are. You are not them, you cannot explain their suffering for them, you cannot answer for them. So shut up, listen, and learn.
Learn their terms. They should not be the ones teaching you how not to be offensive, you should be able to do that yourself. It is valid to ask questions, of course (RESPECTFUL questions). Just do not feel like you can correct us on how you can refer to us (if I personally find you calling me ‘baby’ offensive, dude, drop it). Short confession: I once thought I was entitled to judge if I were to call a transwoman a woman or a man based on how much she “passed” as a woman. I cannot even begin to say how ashamed I am of that mentality right now, how sorry I am for it. Completely unacceptable.
Learn their history, their oppression, their concerns. We learn the white, heterosexual, able-bodied male history since we are kids, even if it does not represent most of us or OUR history. Now it is time for you to do the same.
Be an active ally. Do not try to lead the way, but try to walk with them, supporting their struggles. Call bullshit on the guys for catcalling, intervene when someone is bullying a person on a wheelchair, correct a person who you know got your friend’s pronoun wrong [See: Trans Etiquette for Non-Trans People | Matt Kailey]. To be an active ally you have to be an active listener, willing to accept your own mistakes, willing to take the heat of being an ally of an oppressed group, willing to shut up when you have to and speak up when you must.
And, honestly, why not? Use your privilege for good. Respectfully, carefully, checking yourself closely.
While cismen speaking up against violence against women might be seen as problematic because it should not take a cisman’s voice for other men to listen to it and pay attention (a woman saying “stop raping us” should be just as effective and respected of a claim as a man saying “let’s stop raping women”), today’s world works in such a way, unfortunately. Cismen speaking up against violence against women or against sexism in general, provide men with a role model they can relate to (on the basis of genitalia similarity, which I find quite odd and arbitrary), and they can listen up. They cannot say the guy is speaking to his own benefit or personal interest, and human brains work in such a way that we think that fact makes their claim more valid – whereas, as Tim Wise speaks about in his ‘Pathology of White Privilege’, who is more of an expert on oppression than the victim of that same oppression?! – and it may be more effective. An ally is an ally. If I am talking to a friend about sex work, about transgender issues, about disability, I will use my privilege in those categories to speak of what I know, with as much care and tact and humility as possible, and I will try to change someone’s prejudices and misunderstandings. I will point out when they say something offensive, even if it is not specifically offensive to me.
Why? Firstly, because I would like a guy to do the same thing about rape culture and about slut shaming and about wage gaps, I in fact love it when I see it happening. It does not make them or me a better person, or more entitled to friendship, a relationship, sex or ANYTHING with the group we are an ally of, needless to say. But I love it. Secondly, because part of knowing you’re privileged in some way is knowing that people are more likely to listen to you (unfortunately, and we must of course fight to change that fact as well: referencing non-privileged authors or sources of knowledge, explicitly noting that your word is not any more valid, etc). People are less likely to dismiss you, or get defensive, or offend you with their denial. It sucks, but it is true, and an ally is an ally (again, a respectful, non-entitled, humble one). I don’t know about you, but I’d take it as it is.
So yeah, that sums it up I think. Checking your privilege is 1) realizing you haven’t got it so bad after all, so stop bitchin’, 2) taking into account that what you say might come from that place of privilege and ignorance and you may need to apologize, correct yourself, do your homework, etc, 3) taking responsibility for your words and actions, and owning that privilege by becoming an active and supportive ally, 4) realizing some spaces are not for you to take over with your privilege-splaining (I think I just made that up, but see mansplaining to check out what I mean) or your over-representativeness: you have the rest of the world to have role models, topics relevant to your needs and interests, categories and terms that are consistent with how you see and like the world, etc., so back off when, for once, it isn’t about you.
That is all, for now. If you have any thoughts or things to add, please tell me. I love knowing more and more and more. And sharing it all 🙂
If you feel like talking about privilege to others and are not sure how to start, or are not all convinced by what I said just now, check out How To Talk To Someone About Privilege Who Doesn’t Know What That Is, and An Anthology of Privilege Checklists.