For the Uninformed: Privilege, Perspective and The Little Things That Jab
This post was originally published August 17, 2009 here.
I also guest posted this one on Deeply Problematic. Much thanks to RMJ for letting me rant in her space. XD
I thought I was going to wait on this one till tomorrow, but then I read through one of the most clear, beautifully written posts I have ever seen on how even caring, completely loving, well intentioned men act towards women in general at Shakesville by Melissa (Please read here: “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck”). After that, I realized that this post can’t wait.
I truly suggest that if you have ever heard the word privilege and didn’t understand it or was offended by it, you read that blog post. I truly suggest that if you feel that feminists or trans folk or any marginalized group are angry, oversensitive or dislike you because you are white, cisgendered or a man or whatever, you read that post.
Like all For The Uninformed posts, these words are built for an audience that does not have the experiences I do. For the cisgendered folk. For the guys out there. For people without a background in the science and theory that these rights and acceptance movements are built on. As always I will do my best to make those experiences comprehensible and explain the terms I am used to that you may not be.
Imagine, if you will, that you are denied things for something inherent to you. Something not only not really changeable but something you don’t want to change. It isn’t just big things, like housing or jobs or access to certain rights. It’s little things too. Respect for your needs, not hearing words used for or related to you used as insults, and like in Melissa’s post, not having the very unhelpful “those people are so and so, but not you, you’re different” when you know that the so and so claim is bullshit. But responding as such will just get you slid back into the group thought to be so and so.
There are, literally, thousands and thousands of small little attacks, jabs and pokes built into our very language against women, trans folk, gay people, black folk, hispanic folk, the Rroma and countless other groups that do not possess a majority and do not possess power. Imagine if every time you spoke to people who cared for you, family, friends, even lovers, these subtle jabs showed up. Not on purpose. Not maliciously. They are just there. A joke about a stereotype that hits you hard because that stereotype has been used as reason to beat you up. A half joking/half serious claim about “those people” when those loved ones forget that you are one of “those people”.
For me (on the trans side of it), it’s the people making the jokes about those “ugly trannies” and then saying, “oh but not you.” Yes me. That’s been used against me before. It’s the guys who knew me before transition and still call me “bro” and then when I complain they say, “bro is a gender neutral term, I use it for girls too” when actually, they’ve never once used it for girls. It’s the people asking really personal questions, questions they would never ask anyone else, about my genitals, about how I have sex. It’s the people who speculate on things like that when I’m around, forgetting that hey, maybe I don’t like to hear about that kind of thing.
For me (on the woman side of it), it’s the people using the word “rape” as a word for crushing someone in a video game or getting trounced on a test. “Man, that test totally raped me”. As a person who was fed drinks by someone I trusted and then sexually assaulted by them, hearing something like that is intensely painful. But the moment I bring it up I get the arguments, the perspective lacking arguments about how it’s just a word and he didn’t mean it that way. It’s the guys that joke about how all girls are so shallow or so pissy and then wonder why I get irritated. It’s the guys that stare at my tits, eyes glazed over, listening to not a word I’m saying. Yeah, I’m attracted to girls too. I don’t do that. I have self control.
These things add up. One or two of them alone? I could see how that wouldn’t be a problem. And from your perspective, there’s only been one joke, one stare, one problematic stereotype exploiting comment. Nothing to worry about right? Except that it isn’t one comment. It isn’t one joke. It is one out of thousands a day, embedded in regular language, seen as completely normal. Why is it normal for rape jokes to be funny? Why is it normal for stereotypes to be slung around about women? Or trans folk?
That’s where perspective comes in. See, a lot of people get huffy with me (or other folks who say, wtf? to this kind of behavior) because they’re only aware of their one comment. They don’t put up with this constant stream, this wearing away of patience, defense and sanity. The erosion of self esteem, safety, and control that is created by this is awful. And you don’t experience it. So you don’t have perspective. You don’t know why we get upset because you aren’t exposed to what is upsetting us. But what really upsets me (and many others I can see) is the fact that you just don’t trust us (the people you love, care about, claim to trust, want to help and/or are close with) to comprehend our own experiences and know what we need. Because you don’t listen. You don’t hear. You don’t believe that we are hurt for a valid reason. Or at the very least, you assume your hurt is exactly the same, of the same intensity. But, it isn’t. If you aren’t being subjected to thousands of things in language alone every day eroding your sense of safety and control over your life, attacking your self esteem, from people you trust, then you aren’t hurting the same as us. And you don’t have the perspective to say that we’re wrong. And when you dismiss our complaints, or requests to not make a certain joke, or call me “bro”, it shows your lack of trust, your dismissal. And that’s even worse.
There’s a concept used to describe being in a position in which one is not exposed to or is protected from things like this. It is based on the English word describing the possession of an advantage not afforded to others. Privilege. This concept describes this complete lack of constant attack, an acceptance of one’s form, structure, an actions as fine, as default, as unchallenged. It can be a component of bigotry, but it is not bigotry in and of itself. Privilege is a sparing from this constant challenging of one’s existence and place in society, a sparing of the challenging of one’s validity. One may have privilege in one area but lack it in another. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that a person will be able to see past their privilege in the former area just because they comprehend it in the latter. Because privilege is invisible and it is a component of a self propagating system.
Those are who not prejudiced or bigoted still defend their privilege because a lack of perspective that is so immense that those who respond to marginalization seem unreasonable, even hateful and bigoted towards them. When Melissa above says she doesn’t trust men, many men would think to themselves, “but that’s so bigoted! There are lots of trustworthy men!” and that would arise from their privilege of not having to be subjected to the awfulness that she is every day by people who profess to love her and care for her.
If the people you love constantly attacked who you were, without even realizing they were hurting you and were surprised or disbelieving when you said they were hurting you, would you be surprised if you stopped trusting them? And if all of those people were of a particular group, would you be surprised if you took a cautious wary tact with them from now on?
When I say that I’m wary of cisgendered guys, it may seem bigoted to a guy, but that guy lacks the perspective of hearing all sorts of awful jokes targeted directly at his group. Or of having his very existence challenged by the very language used in day to day talk. “Oh yeah, she’s a trans woman. Oh I know, she looks so normal too! You’d never have guessed!”
What if that was this instead, “Oh yeah, he’s white. Oh I know, he acts so normal too! You’d never have guessed!” And what if that was every day? Among thousands of other little comments that cut you from your friends. Said by people you cared for, valued the opinions of? Even a supposedly innocuous sentence like that paints me as a freak, an aberration, something to joke and express surprise over.
Another component of the self propagation of privilege is the fact that it is built into culture. You see it on television. You see it in the news. Children are taught it, if not by parents then by peers. Even the people who have kept themselves as separate as possible from the troublesome views espoused within a bigoted power system are still swimming in a sea of cultural connotations and impressions. They still use the language, with the bigoted words built in, and still operate under certain assumptions without realizing it. We all do. This is why ALL apparent white people are privileged. Why ALL apparent cisgendered people are privileged. Because these social elements are ubiquitous. They are everywhere in mass quantities. So if you are perceived as white by society, you are spared every inch of the things people of other races are exposed to by society and are denied that perspective. I have this problem too. I’m white. There are little references, jokes and things I say and do that are a part of that privilege. I guess the difference here is when that instinct comes up in my head to go, “oh come on” to a person of color who tells me to check my privilege, I push that reflex aside and go, “okay, gimme a sec to look over this and try to comprehend where I’m losing perspective”
One of the best ways to get a firm handle on privilege as a concept is to talk to someone who has shifted from privileged to unprivileged in a given area. It won’t necessarily help you see past your specific privilege but it will make it easier overall to attempt to assess and comprehend privilege when you speak to the marginalized people who lack the privilege you have.
I am mtf trans (obviously from the blog title XD). I was born male bodied and I transitioned to female bodied. Unlike a lot of trans folk (who viewed things through the lens of their identities as a different gender and therefore wouldn’t have had problems with how they were treated for the same reasons as others would) my identity hasn’t really played a huge role in the lens I apply my own experiences. This was mostly because I came to the realization about why I hated the male structure I had very late in the game (I actually assumed it was normal to hate having a penis XD) So I consider myself formerly a guy who figured out that he needed a female body (due to dysphoria) and therefore was better off as a girl (identity and sociologically wise) for practicality sake. This is atypical, so don’t expect all trans folk to have the perspective I do on gender.
Which means I experienced male privilege as male privilege (instead of being transformed into transphobia by the lens of identity) and I experienced the loss of male privilege (as I myself transformed from hormones and whatnot.)
It was a shock, I will tell you. As a person perceived as a guy by society, I was not constantly challenged, stereotyped, joked about and pushed down. There were some small things. Depictions of guys in tv were sometimes irritating. Occasionally there were jokes about the dumb guy stereotype. And there were constraints on self expression for guys that were a bit irritating. But even if I violated those rules, I usually could tell opposition to piss off or criticize my criticizers right back and everyone thought that was an utterly natural thing for me to fight the silly claims from people, even if they didn’t agree.
Post sociological and HRT transition. What was an occasional flow of jokes, jabs and attacks became a torrent. I was bombarded. Television was filled with all sorts of stereotypes, attacks, mockeries of women. Pressure to conform was harsher and more persistent (instead of just guys calling me a fag for having long hair and wearing toe socks it was now everyone calling me a weird dyke or telling me that I need to femme out more for wearing guys cargos and t-shirts with a faux military jacket). And my attempts to dispute that pressure, my responses at all really (even the nice ones) were now regarded as me being a bitch, a harpy, a “feminazi” or being unreasonable. Whereas before, people disagreed and discussed with me, now, they simply dismiss it completely.
I was shown, completely (and perhaps embarrassingly) how little perspective I had on what society does to women. And that is why I understand how insidious privilege is. It is silent, it is crafty, it sneaks up on you, latches on and makes it impossible to even question it without seeming nuts. And there’s the problem. We aren’t nuts.
This shit is real.
Go here to read the comments on the original post.
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Tags: cis, feminism, for the uninformed, patriarchy, privilege, society, transgender