Privilege -- Your Own Silent Super-Hero


If you're reading this on the internet, chances are you have it, in some respect.

Your privilege may be based on your (perceived) skin color, sexual orientation, class-status, gender, wealth, nationality, or a myriad of other factors. Your privilege may be based on your actual race, creed, or color -- or on your gender, cultural placement, or the happy "accident" of your country of birth.

The problem is that, until you actually interact with people who don't share your privilege-basis, any privileged status you may hold may be completely invisible to you.

Think of it as your own stealthy, invisible super-hero. By virtue of something you don't even notice, you may possess powers that other humans lust after, work for, attempt to purchase, or cannot even imagine.

Today I was reading a post at Shakespeare's Sister. Melissa McEwan closed the post with the line: "That's the difference between being a man and a woman. That's privilege."

I was amazed to find, in some of the comments to the post, that commenters that I usually find astute, aware, and intelligent actually seemed surprised by the findings cited in the study that spurred the post (yes, yes -- the post was about women and sexual harassment/assault -- one of "my" issues -- but lest you think I'm just being all whack-a-doodle feminista here, please try to stay focused -- my subject is "Privilege"). I was very disheartened that some of them seemed shocked to find that they possessed privilege that other people did not share.

I possess privilege. I'm white. I live in the USA. I am a university graduate.

And -- it took me a long time to understand that my foot-steps were constantly dogged by my unacknowledged privilege.

I was down-trodden, dontcha know! -- I was, after all, a lesbian, a woman, raised working-class -- there was always someone "above and beyond" me who was keeping me down. It was easy to focus on "Them" -- those privileged, lucky bastards/bitches -- rather than take a look at the ways in which I, simply by the seeming serendipity of my skin color or nationality, might also be unconsciously utilizing my privilege, or filtering experience through it -- and, consequently, playing deaf, dumb, and blind to the fact that my privilege exists, and that I rely on it every day to pave a smoother way for me in life.

There it is (my privilege) in that last sentence -- see? -- I can say "deaf, dumb, and blind" and pretend that this is just "an accepted phrase", and that everyone, including people who are actually deaf/hard-of-hearing, or dumb/speech-impeded, or blind/sight-impaired will "get" what I'm saying, and that I mean no offense. In truth, I mean no offense -- but this does not erase my privilege as a person who still possesses "normal" hearing in both ears, "normal" speech abilities, and "normal" sight.

So it is that one of my staunchest male allies might not have any idea that I deal with misogyny every day, --that, portly and dyke-ly as I may be at this point (which ostensibly would make me "unattractive" and "sexually undesirable"), I still board a bus with a sense of being "prepared" for possible harassment in a way that my ally does not.

So it is that I, a confirmed liberal, civil-rights advocate, and activist, might not have any real idea of what my liberal/advocate/activist sister or brother (whose skin color doesn't qualify them as "white") face as they do something as mundane as shopping in the grocery store of a small, mostly-white rural town (or a suburban "Whole Foods", for that matter).

This post was not just stimulated by a single read-of-the-day for me. It was augmented by reports that there is now a "dress-code" for White House touring groups, which prohibits, amongst other things, dreaded "sneakers", tank-tops, and mini-skirts (which we all know are a danger to our nation, right?), that anti-abortion activist haven't actually thought about what would happen to the women who have abortions if abortion were illegal, and that a huge number of politicians seem to think that they do not have to maintain any ethical standards, so we need to spend time and money legislating on that.

All of these reports, to me, reek of privilege, privilege, and more privilege. I'm going to stay with these "little" stories -- at this point, I don't even want to begin to touch on the effects of privilege on the incredibly dissociative and destructive wars that our privileged nation is carrying out or facilitating around the world.

I'll take what I think is the most mundane example: The White House Dress Code.

I honestly think that many people in my country -- the good old USofA -- land of opportunity -- could easily dismiss the dress code story as something insignificant. I think that many would simply say: "Well, big deal -- so you can't wear jeans to the White House? So, just dress up! Everyone has a pair of dress shoes and a pair of pants that aren't jeans."

Well, actually -- No.

There are real people in this country who own one pair of shoes. Many of them are poor children of poor working parents. When your choice at the thrift-store is between tough sneakers or jeans that are going to be daily wear until your kids outgrow them or dress shoes and pants that they're going to wear just in case they get invited to the White House, what do you think you would choose?

Yet being faced with this kind of choice is something that many, many, many people in our culture can't even imagine.

That's privilege.

It's the "can't even imagine" part that gives the hushed hero of privilege so much energy.

I can't imagine the oppression that I don't face. I can only ask people who endure that oppression about their experiences, and listen to their answers. Which means that I have to get up close with them, and open my fucking ears, rather than argue with them, or compare their situation with mine, or the situation of someone I know, or expound on some thesis or theory that makes me feel better as a person of privilege.

It's not always been easy for me -- because I wasn't able to see that damnable transparent crusader until someone pointed it out to me, and even then, I kicked and screamed and flailed and thrashed -- because I WAS AN ALLY, DAMMIT!

A long time ago, I asked a black friend what she thought was the best way for me to deal with my inculturated racism. She said: "This isn't just about racism. It's about everything-ism -- invite people who are different from you into your life -- not just invite them to dinner, or a party -- have them in your life, and be in their lives. If you want to deal with your racism, hon, there's one real quick way to do that -- hang around in real time with people of color often enough that you get called "n-lover" at least three times in public. You're going to see that your white privilege can be stripped from you mighty quick if you really involve yourself with people who are not white."

She then laughed and said: "When I started hanging out with you long enough that someone accused me of being a dyke, I knew I was starting to work some shit out."

IMO, there's only one way to fire your silent super-hero -- move into places and spaces where he shows up for you -- so that you can turn to that slippery mother-fucker, and say: "Look -- I realize you've protected me, and helped me down the line sometimes, but I really don't want your help anymore."

Of course, you can't fire someone you can't see. So start looking.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 1:00 AM  


Emily said... August 1, 2007 at 10:33 PM  

As always, a thought-provking and excellent post.

My thoughts are provoked and I'll sit and think about them for some time.

Brian said... August 3, 2007 at 10:41 AM  

I had a disturbing moment just a week or so ago--my daughter posted that horrible "I'm not a racist" list of "advantages" that black people have on her myspace page. I want to think that she hadn't really thought it through, that she had no perception of just how much privilege she enjoys simply by being white and living in the south, and I told her so. I pointed out that black men with clean records are less likely to be called back for a job interview than white men with criminal records, that one black history month doesn't make up for the rest of the white euro-centric curriculum, etc. I told her that taking pride in the color of your skin makes about as much sense as being proud of your eye color, and I think it got through. I hope it did, anyway.

I remember when privilege really slapped me in the face for the first time. I was at work, at a restaurant, and when I answered the phone, the guy on the other end asked for my boss--but he didn't know she was my boss. It was her son's football coach, and since he was calling a restaurant, and the kid was black, well, he had to assume she was one of the cooks and not the general manager of the place. To top it off, he'd assumed that I was the manager, because my voice sounded white and male. That was all it took for him to make the assumption.

I'm convinced that empathy is the most difficult of human abilities to develop, because it requires a degree of self-inspection that most of us are never forced to undergo, and it's rare that we do it on our own.

Anonymous said... August 4, 2007 at 6:53 AM  

Hi PD, this is completely OT, but totally connected to today's pub at Shakes' place. Do please tell, WHAT are you teaching on Fri. eve.????

You've caught my interest with the little explanation you left over at the virtual pub!

- oddjob

Jennifer said... August 6, 2007 at 8:11 PM  

As a white US citizen living in Latin America, I have had occasion to ponder the whole issue of privilege.

One compelling example has to do with a particular variety of racism that is almost perfectly reproduced in a different setting:

Here in Costa Rica many people look down on Nicaraguans in almost exactly the same way a lot of people in the US look at Mexicans: they're browner, poorer, less educated, speak with an accent, and are just here for the jobs. They should head back across the border where they came from.

It makes me crazy when people treat me as "equal or greater than," and at the same time--and often right in front of me--talk down about Nicaraguans.

Hello! I'm as much a foreigner as they are - more so, in fact.

But somehow, pointing out that simple fact has never seemed to make any kind of an impression on people intent on being superior to the immigrants.

Those same people also don't seem to know what I'm getting at (or maybe just don't believe me) when I explain that they could easily be subject to that exact same attitude, and be called "Mexican" to boot if they were to go to the US.

ouyangdan said... May 15, 2008 at 7:53 PM  

Hey, PD!

I began contributing at The Privilege Project recently, and am wondering if you would mind me quoting and linking to this post there. You really hit the nail on the fucking head w/ this. I know it's an older post, but really, WOW!

if it's OK w/ you, and you have time, contact me at randombabble at mac dot com.

hope to see you round the pub or the phyre soon!

PortlyDyke said... May 16, 2008 at 9:11 AM  

Link away, ouyangdan!

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