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A Hot Button Topic: Privilege

April 3, 2013

This has been brewing in my head for ages, but I haven’t quite felt comfortable enough to tackle the topic. I feel comfortable enough today. Maybe it’s the cold meds. πŸ˜‰

I remember when I first saw the words ‘privilege’ and ‘agency’ thrown around. I also remember my first thought, ‘Really? Wow.’ My second thought? ‘If I never hear either word again, it will be too soon.’ But, the word ‘privilege’ with its modern meaning attached to it has dogged my heels since. I want to discuss three bullet points that have stuck with me, demanding to be voiced, for a long time.

1. Privilege itself isn’t bad.
The mere fact of having some form of privilege in some context is not, of itself, a bad thing. The problem comes when someone in a privileged group either does not recognize or simple doesn’t care that their actions and beliefs stem from their particular life experience as a result of being in a privileged class. That’s where the phrase ‘Check your privilege’ comes from. It doesn’t mean because you’re white/male/straight/cis that you automatically don’t have a right to an opinion. It just means that you need to be particularly aware of your thought process in subject matters dealing with groups that have a different level of privilege than you.

The flip side of that is that if you are a member of a group with reduced privilege or reduced agency, using the fact of another person’s privilege to immediately silence or discount their opinion is equally problematic. Which is not to say you can’t call people out on how their beliefs and actions show a blindness to their own privilege, but it does mean that the mere act of having some form of privilege does not immediately exclude one from a conversation. Too many times in these heated discussions, the jab will eventually be made that ‘Well, that’s your privilege talking, and I refuse to engage any further’. Privilege can’t talk. It’s not that a person has privilege that causes problems; it’s when a person refuses to recognize that their opinion is informed by that privilege, and that other people have different experiences that lead to different points of view.

2. You cannot tell someone’s privilege by talking to them.
Especially on the internet, guys. You don’t know me. πŸ™‚ I’m just words on a screen. You cannot tell from the opinions I hold what my life experience has been or what my particular intersection of privilege and marginalization is. You might find out that I’m white because I say I am and have posted pictures. You can see that I’m a cis female because I say I am and have posted pictures. Basically, that’s the extent of what you know. I don’t discuss my life experience or my medical issues or my religion or my economical conditions or my sexuality or identity or relationship status. You may find some of these things out through the course of conversation if I choose to make you aware of them, but until then, you can’t know simply by what I say on a particular topic what my life looks like. But this happens all the time. Assumptions leaped to based on an opinion held.

The second part of this is people playing the Oppression Olympics or seeing how many punches they can get on their punch card. ‘Oh, you were poor? Well, I was poor, but at least you were white.’ or ‘Oh, you’re a gay man? At least you’re a man.’ Privilege doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. Everyone has some form of privilege over another marginalized group. Pointing out that your discussion partner or yourself may possess or lack some form of privilege that you or they do or do not, but that is irrelevant to the current discussion, is a derailing tactic. Saying, ‘Yes, it’s bad for Hispanics, but when women are just as oppressed!’ is just a way to shift the focus of the conversation. It’s not always done maliciously, I know. In this instance, someone who is not Hispanic may have difficulty understanding that particular life experience and may try to relate it to something in their lives to help them engage. Problem is, they don’t compare. It’s basically like being told by your friend, ‘I really like apples,’ and you–who has never had an apple–say in return, ‘Well, I had an orange once, and it was pretty good.’ You’ve taken their topic and made it about you. Don’t do that. If you are in a discussion that involves a form of privilege you do not have, the most important thing you can do is listen. You don’t have to relate. They know you don’t relate, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be an ally while understanding your own personal brand of privilege.

3. Wheaton’s Law: Don’t Be A Dick.
On either side. Okay, great, you were in a discussion and someone pointed out your privilege, and you thought about it and realized, yeah, that was problematic of me. Don’t turn around start obsessively pointing out the same behavior in others to the point of being a dick about it. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind with that attitude. It isn’t necessary to hound every discussion and point out every instance you perceive to be privileged speech, especially if you’re not a member of the marginalized group being discussed. If you’re straight, don’t go into gay spaces and point out other people’s straight privilege… at least, not with a sledgehammer.

Yes, if someone is being a racist or homophobic or slamming a religion maliciously, by all means, step up and point it out. But if someone is discussing a book or a comic or a television show and says something that may or may not have been privileged speech, point out the problem you perceived and ask them to clarify. On the internet, there is no facial expression or body language or tone of voice to subconsciously tell you what that person is truly trying to say. Folks need to stop wanking on each other, assigning motivations and intentions without all the facts. Assumptions only lead to butthurt and wank. Neither is fun, and in the end, it just makes the place of discussion a volatile cesspool only the most staunch, vocal proponents and opponents venture. Personal slurs and shouting don’t make you right: they make you a trolling dick. Don’t be a trolling dick. πŸ˜‰

I’m from the school of respectful, if heated, debate. I think more can be accomplished when you use well thought out arguments and solid facts instead of screaming someone has white privilege or cis privilege or is wealthy. Accusations don’t change the world. Activism, education, and tolerance do. And… I think that’s all I have to say on that. Yep, it’s a heavy topic, but I’m glad I finally put that out there.

For the record? I grew up in decent neighborhoods, but was pretty economically underprivileged. Our homes were forclosed on. My parents didn’t always have money for groceries. I didn’t always have new clothes. Our bills went unpaid because, sometimes, it was either pay the electric bill or pay for a doctor’s visit. Both my parents worked, and they worked hard for what we had. When I got married, things were rough. I spent a good five or six years either dirt poor washing my clothes in my bathtub or living with my parents. I’m a bisexual poly pagan submissive. I’m cis gendered. I’ve been the victim of sexual assault, and I am a survivor of rape. I’m a fat girl in a skinny-obsessed world. I have my husband I’m deeply in love with, and I’m involved in an asexual relationship with an awesome and talented genderqueer woman. I am in a financial situation that allows me to have a home, food, pets, clothes, and my own business. I know my privilege. I also know where I came from. And now so do you… a little. πŸ™‚

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 3, 2013 7:59 pm

    I have to say this has been you’re most informative post so far. It really makes people think. Thanks for sharing.

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