Friday, February 26, 2010


In my bookmarks menu, I have a category called "You Are A Privileged Asshole (And Don't You Forget It)". It's where I keep bookmarks to pages like Derailing For Dummies and various blog posts and "checklists" relating to various types of privilege. Call it an example of my somewhat bizarre sense of humour; it's intended to make me chuckle and remind me of something at the same time—while its name may be tongue-in-cheek, I think it's good advice. I do have privilege, and although I'm doing my best to not forget it so I don't rub it in the faces of those who don't have the privilege I do, I sometimes do forget and that makes me a jerk (at best) when it happens, so I do my best not to forget it, misuse it or otherwise be obnoxious about it. It doesn't always work out that well, of course—I'm human, after all, and we tend to be rather good at making mistakes—but I like to think that maybe I'm not making as many mistakes as I used to because I'm aware of the problem now. But perhaps I'm not the best judge of my own actions in this matter.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about privilege lately, to the point where it was actually a central idea in a research project I did for a course I took to add a qualification to my teaching certificate.

Among other things, I am a white, straight-leaning bisexual, fat, mostly able-bodied* cis woman with all the privileges and disadvantages that such a definition invites. What this basically boils down to is that some people will treat me kindly, but other people will want to murder me for one aspect or another of who I am. Most people will be somewhere in between. That doesn't make me special, but it doesn't make the existence of such privileges and hindrances right.

All this bellyaching about "but that privilege doesn't apply to me!" might partially come from the fact that we think of privilege as something to be ashamed of. Something that REALLY BAD PEOPLE have and not only do they enjoy it, but they flaunt it, too. The instinctive reaction of people who don't see themselves as REALLY BAD PEOPLE, especially when they see a privilege on the list that they don't actually enjoy, seems to be to try to defend themselves against a perceived attack. "REALLY BAD PEOPLE have these privileges and don't even bother to think about them. Yeah, I have a lot of these, but look, I'm not really such a REALLY BAD PERSON. Not all these privileges apply to me, so I must be OK on some level, right?" It's a bizarre form of insecurity, but it's there. It's like the reactions I sometimes see (or have, for that matter) when white people are told that we're innately racist because we're white. Like many people of my generation, while I was growing up I was taught that racism is an evil thing, something to be hated and scorned. Since most people tend to think of themselves as basically decent human beings, the assertion that we're born racist because we're white is at best a slap in the face—to many of us, it's akin to saying that we're innately and irredeemably evil.

Perhaps some of this is a reflection of the very concept of lists of privileges that are enjoyed by separate groups. It assumes that people can only belong to one group, have only one set of concerns, experience discrimination and privilege in only one way. People aren't like that. Now, I'm going to use myself as an example because I'm the only person I can really talk about with any real authority, not because I want to claim that I am not a REALLY BAD PERSON—there's always a chance that I'd be wrong if I claimed that, in any case. ;) Anyway, personally I have some aspects of privilege as a white cis person with no real disabilities.* Other factors in my life, however—being a woman, being fat, being bisexual, being Christo-Pagan—lead to kinds of discrimination that, while not being equivalent to the discrimination encountered by gay people, trans people, people of colour and people with visible disabilities (just to name a few), can sometimes resemble some of the forms of discrimination that they encounter. The reason for the discrimination may be different, but the end result is the same—at best, a hurting human being. And let's face it, unless you're a straight white temporarily able-bodied middle-aged Christian man with huge heaps of money which was either inherited from outrageously wealthy ancestors or generated by a huge corporation, chances are you'll encounter discrimination of some kind, and it'll probably be extremely harmful to you and others like you in one way or another.

This whole discussion about privilege bothers me because it treats people as categories that can't blend with other categories and that encounter set types of discrimination, not people who suffer because other people do something that hurts them. I understand the need to tackle specific types of discrimination, and it would be profoundly hurtful for me to say otherwise. But I do think that when privilege is talked about in terms of "if you're [X], you have this kind of privilege" and that privilege is talked about as if it was never cancelled out by anything, it's almost as harmful as denying that privilege exists in the first place. Invalidating other people's pain because they have privilege of one kind or another does not do anything to help the people who do not have that privilege. And you know, I just think that it's very sad that treating other people with respect and kindness, and expecting the same in return, is rare enough that it's not considered common decency—it's a luxury enjoyed by a privileged few. It shouldn't be that way.

--,--'--@ --,--'--@ --,--'--@

*I consider myself to be "mostly able-bodied" because most of the time, I'm fine. Occasionally, however, the sites of various former injuries I've endured over the years see fit to turn walking, playing musical instruments, and lifting objects heavier than a large housecat into painful pursuits. However, considering what people with real physical and mental disabilities have to deal with, this is at most an annoyance.

1 comment:

  1. I'm liking this post, I pretty much agree with everything here. I'll start off saying I'm a black/white biracial, pagan, upper lower class/lower middle class, cis women. I worked for a social justice org for a few years, and have become familiar with the idea of privilege. While I agree that exist, I often have issues with the way it's presented.

    Like you said, many people tend to treat it like you can only exist in one group. I can't help but mentally shake my head when I see something like, lets say, a formally educated, middle class, person of color, screaming at a white person about their privilege. It's like they refuse to be aware of their own privilege, when they're pointing out another's. I really do think it's stuff like this that makes social justices movements unattractive to your average non-political American.

    There's many levels to privilege, and many different demographics that a person can fall into that either gives or takes away privilege. It's not as simple as POC always have it hard, white people always have it easy. Or heterosexuals always have it easy, homosexuals always have it hard. Etc...