Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Spirit of the Stairs


It's an important, and critical idea, and one I have been dancing around trying to parse out how I want to talk about for days now. I have written and re-written this entry, and have given up on it a few times. However, as far as the intent behind this space, an understanding of privilege and how it works is needed.

The need for this was touched off by several things, some in my own life, and some in the rest of the US.

One of the personal: a gentleman who was otherwise quite nice, who felt privileged enough to say some "well-intentioned" (scare quotes intended) but profoundly homophobic things to me while I was working. It was enough to send me running for a large Americano with an extra espresso shot (for those playing the home game, that would come to four shots of espresso, with the rest of the 18oz. cup filled with steamed water) which I am now sipping and feeling the caffeine tingle to the ends of my extremities.

Another is one friend of mine who repeatedly claims that I go too far on the "female" stuff, and that he feels that I am being unbalanced because I never talk about the problems that men face, and conversely never talk about women as "being at fault" for anything. According to him, I blame men for everything, and let women coast by regardless of whether they deserve to or not. When I call him on the fact that inequalities for women outnumber inequalities for men, he hedges with "well, we should all just be good to each other, but it has to be FAIR," or if I point out that the system that hurts women also hurts men, he moves the goalposts "well some people are just LIKE THAT" or "Some women bring it on themselves."

In the rest of my country, there are simultaneous issues that are encased in layers of problematic privilege with regards to how they are addressed and with regards to the fact that they have even occurred.

One is the passing of Proposition 8 in California, which is problematic on its own. It doesn't help that it's passing is being blamed on POC voters in CA, which is exposing the latent racism of the mainstream, assimilationist GLBTQI movement (which tends to exclude all but the white, able-bodied, cis-gendered men anyway)

In combination with the utter outrage at Prop 8 is the lack of outrage from the same exclusionary GLBTQI community at the murder of yet another trans-woman of color, Duanna Johnson, a woman who had previously been harrassed and assaulted by Memphis police officers, purely because of her gender and her color, who has subsequently been found dead.

For my situation, and how it relates to privilege as well as everything I have mentioned thus far, to make sense, some things about me need to be understood.

1- Yes, I am queer.

2- Yes, I am married.

3- No, my marriage, despite current appearances, is not heterosexual.

4- I am also female-identified, white, able-bodied, poor by Western standards, and feminist without apology.

The problem here is privilege.

What is privilege, you ask?

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.
-Betty, A primer on privilege.

The man who talked to me this morning was privileged. He assumed when he saw my wedding ring, that since I was married, then I must be straight. His privilege is the ability to assume that marriage is for straight people only, to assume that every person he talks to is most likely not queer, and to assume that I am going to agree with him, because only straight people can be married.

My friend is privileged. His privilege is to be able to assume that he will be included in all things, since most things in our culture tend to be geared towards straight white cis-males like himself. He assumes that his experience is universal, that all men think as he does, and that anything that goes against that is prejudiced against him. His experience must be addressed or he is oppressed. He assumes that fair looks like he wants it to without accounting for the perspective of others. He feels entitled to attention, and to care from activists that don't address his needs, despite the fact that the issues that impact them the most have little to nothing to do with him.

The racist element of the GLBTQI movement is privileged. They can assume that another minority group will support them on the basis of some assumed shared oppression without ever explicitly asking that group for support, they can pretend like there is no intersection of identities, and therefore "erase" POC who are also queer. In cases like Duanna Johnson, they are more than willing to throw our trans* brothers and sister under the bus, as well as anyone else who is not easily assimilate-able in order to further their own quest for rights, regardless if those rights are what the rest of the community actually needs.

I am privileged. I live in the West, where my standard of living as a poor person is at least three times as good as women in developing countries. I can eat food that is out of season, I have access to medicine, media, and computers. I have a job and don't have to ask my family for permission to live my life. I am also white, and can be sure, when walking down the street, that no one is assuming I am a "welfare queen" or that I am a drug addict, or a thief, or a sex-worker. My gender identity, for the most part, matches my gender presentation, so I do not get intrusive stares and speculations about what I "really" am.

My point is, despite these groups and myself all being privileged, there is one major resounding difference.

I am aware of the ways in which I am privileged and have made it a personal quest to minimize my privilege as much as possible. It's a technique that I call, "How to not be a total fucking asshole." This is not to say that I don't fuck up, I do. I will act privileged, partially because the nature of privilege is to be invisible to those who benefit most from it.

Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.
-Feminism 101 blog What is male privilege

However, I am open to being called on it, and I am willing to self-examine at any time to make sure that my words and actions match with a progressive attitude towards ending oppression. It's the least I can do to make up for the benefits I get because of my privilege.

I do not call myself an ally, I don't need to be put on a pedestal as a paragon of progressiveness. I am just a person, a privileged person, who has chosen not to be an asshole.


  1. So many walk through life either unaware of their privilege or determined to deny it at every turn. Owning it would mean that you are obligated to do something and most have developed such a sense of entitlement that they are unwilling to believe for one moment that we are deserving of basic human rights and respect.

  2. I am a bit more offended at people who deny privilege.

    ignorance can be fixed. willful ignorance, not so much.