Archive for the ‘queer’ Category

Hi.

As those of you who will likely be reading this post don’t know me or my writing, my name is Matt and I’m a white cisgendered man. I like to provide male backup to feminists so they can use me as a resource for people who want to ask about some more basic things like “what about men?” or “what is privilege?” or “what does FBM mean?”.  I’m also bisexual and have a history of mental illness. (and yes, also in the sense that I’m not entirely “neurotypical”, which some of you will jokingly refer to in terms like “not being entirely sane/normal.” You may want to reconsider that.)

As someone who is very white, who comes from a reasonably well-off family, and who hasn’t had to deal with being transgender, and who is culturally Christian1, I have a lot of privilege. If you’ve been linked here because you took issue with the word privilege, don’t worry: almost everyone who hears this term addressed at them has a lot of difficulty coming to terms with the idea, you’re allowed to be upset in dealing with it, (although I would suggest you don’t direct your feelings or questions at the person who used this term, as it generally starts fights that nobody wants or needs!) but it’s almost never used as a personal insult or accusation.

What privilege refers to is essentially all of the advantages you get, that you can’t help getting, just by being a particular type of person who doesn’t have to deal with a particular oppression- ie. white people don’t have to deal with racism2, men don’t directly have to deal with sexism, straight people don’t have to directly deal with heteronormativity and homophobia, cispeople don’t have to etc…

Privilege happens regardless of what else is going on in your life. Sure, it’s more noticable that you have for instance white privilege if you’re also wealthy and have class privilege, but you still benefit from being perceived as white even if you’re really poor, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay or transgender, or if you’re a minority religion where you live, or if you’re not christian in general in terms of discussing things on the internet. How do you benefit? Well, if you’re of any other race, or if you ARE white but not perceived as white, people will start viewing you as one of a number of different stereotypes. Asian people get classed as nerds and people place an expectation to fit in and excel on them, regardless of who they are as a person. Black people in the USA, and pacific people in New Zealand, often get stereotyped as either criminals or culture leaders, depending on whether that person’s opinion of them is negative or positive. As a white person, I don’t usually have to deal with people crossing the street to get away from me in case I attack them. (Apart from women doing it at night because I’m a man, which I totally understand)

Intersectionality is an expansion on this idea of privilege. It’s the idea that oppressions and privileges compound together for different experiences as you add them together, and that the whole of these social experiences is more than the sum of its parts. Being a lesbian means you deal with different things than what you’d expect adding up what gay men deal with, and what straight women deal with. The reverse is also true- being more privileged means your privileges add up more and are harder to seperate and you may have been less likely to have been educated about them. This isn’t your fault. All anyone who throws around this word “privilege” is expecting of you is two things:

  1. To listen to people with other experiences than yours, and to take on board that in some ways, because of who you are, your different experiences in life may have been easier for you. (And in other ways your experiences might have been harder- it’s not intended as a contest)
  2. To not side-track these discussions by “talking from privilege”. This means that sometimes you are best not to engage in a conversation until you understand it, and that even when you do engage, you should be content with a supporting role if it isn’t your issue, and if it is your issue, you should be okay with engaging in food faith and supporting people with different views or issues than you because they sit at a different intersectionality than you do. (eg. if a gay black man and a white transwoman were talking, they might have very different views on the importance of marriage equality either due to her white trans perspective, or his black cis perspective, or due to being different genders. And it might not all be solvable just them putting themselves into each other’s shoes- they might need to educate themselves about what’s going on in each other’s communities a bit to understand their differences before they can work together productively)

Intersectionality is often brought up when privileged people are making a call for everyone to work together on their particular type of oppression. So white feminists, gay men, atheists, etc… often need reminding or informing about intersectionality when they’re advocating change, so that we don’t just stop at equal rights for white women, we get equal rights for transwomen, and women of all races and sexualities. So that we don’t stop at gay marriage, we also unpack cissexism, protect the rights of transpeople, and help break down the gender binary before moving on to more niche LGB issues. And so that we don’t stop by having a secular society, but we also consider the needs of women in various faith communities, and that we ensure our discussions about religion aren’t masking an racism. (more…)

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The view from privilege

Posted: May 29, 2012 in feminism, queer, race

Often are minority groups presented with the little canard I like to call “the view from privilege”. It’s a simple ditty, really, that anyone can learn:

But you can’t be objective on this topic, you’re a(n) [queer/ethnic or cultural minority/woman/disabled person].

The hidden assumption here is that the view from privilege is the one that’s objective, not the view from under oppression. The view from privilege isn’t what happens when privileged people make observations, rather, it’s the assumption that privilege is objective, the same way that the view from nowhere in the press is the assumption that no view is ever objective. Sometimes the view from privilege is jaw-droppingly obvious, at least to most of the world: consider complaints that a gay judge couldn’t overturn California’s proposition eight forbidding same-sex marriage because as he was gay, he was biased. Are they proposing that a straight judge couldn’t have upheld it either? No, of course not, straight people are always unbiased. Wink. Welcome to the view from privilege.

But it isn’t always so obvious. The view from privilege can manifest in odd ways- for instance, it’s often internalised even in equal rights advocates, so they can doubt that their own experiences are valid until someone of privilege agrees. When I say that privileged people often need to be in a supporting role in fighting against oppression, this is the kind of sad reality I’m talking about- oppressed people may often require validation that their views and criticism are reasonable and real.

In some ways the phenomenon of gaslighting, a term used to describe when men manipulate the environment around their partner and say they don’t notice any change, is a prime example of people buying into the view from privilege- it can feel easier for women exposed to this sort of manipulation to ‘acknowledge’ their own insanity than question their partners.

There are two really simple steps to fighting this idea: Listening to people who aren’t privileged, and validating them when you honestly feel they have a point. It sounds simple and easy, but in a media culture where increasingly people have to doggedly search for minority viewpoints, we can dismiss those people we actually meet and know as outliers instead of the reality.

Profanity warning: The upcoming post will contain synonyms for the word “excrement.” Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to clutch your pearls.

As always, I’ve been listening to the Best of the Left podcast. Recently, they’ve had a series of voicemails about how to discuss privilege, (despite barely escaping the depths of incredible privilege and probably still being a net “beneficiary” of it) and because I want to comment, but BotL doesn’t offer a skypeline so that people like me can avoid international calling fees, here is my response to the current episode:

Yes, all the comments are correctly understanding what privilege is to some degree, but they’re far too academic about it and don’t seem to be anywhere near annoyed enough.

One voicemail says that he “guesses you can do that” when he talks about people who want it to be acknowledged that they didn’t personally contribute to oppression of minorities. I’m going to disagree. Demanding that oppressed people – in this specific conversation, queers, women, and racial minorities – recognise that you did not cause their oppression directly is like a child demanding a gold star for not shitting in their cereal. Yes, it is a good thing to have an intact breakfast, but it’s only good relative to the alternative. It is in fact a normal thing to have an intact and fecal-free breakfast, at least in countries and families when you can afford one- we can perhaps say it should always be a normal thing, because we recognise it’s a standard all societies should aspire to. Likewise, justice and equality, the aims of all civil rights and social reform movements like feminism, queer rights, and racial rights movements, is a norm that we should aspire to.

Anyone who needs a gold star to start being our ally in that fight probably isn’t ready to be an ally in that fight, and I personally at least, would rather they sit on the sidelines and learn a bit from activists before they try to help.

Beyond that, most of us haven’t even earned our gold stars on equality and justice. We unwittingly stereotype oppressed communities- we see the disabled as either heroes or cripples, we see women as virgins or whores, we see queers as fabulous or freakish. We accidentally say insentitive or problematic things. There is a lot to unlearn and re-learn from a different perspective, and the good point made was that this is not your fault. Privilege is something you were born into. You live in a culture of injustice and it’s expected that even people with the best of intentions will absorb some unjust perspectives, even if they believe in justice.

Another says that it’s terrible to feel attacked for not earning what you have. And I have to say, I completely disagree with this framing of privilege. You should not feel attacked by equality advocates, you should feel insulted by proponents and inadvertent perpetuators of injustice and inequality. You can compete on an equal playing field- you’re a man, you’re white, you’re straight- if you really have so little faith in what those things mean to you or the communities they represent, then I don’t see why you’d even want to identify with them. The idea that people will suck up to us because of social narratives we don’t have any part in creating should be annoying, insincere, and just wrong to you. That is the only extent to which this injustice effects you: it demeans you, telling you that you need its help to be good. You don’t. You’re better than that.

With backlash becoming such a strong counter-force to all sorts of anti-discrimination movements, I feel it’s time to talk about various types of actions which feed into discriminatory narratives- that is, things we’d usually discuss as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on.

There seems to me to be four essential levels of discrimination:

  1. Insensitive – casual ignorance, poorly phrased statements, or minor dismissal, devaluing, or trifling objectification is insensitive.
  2. Insulting – gross mischaracterisation or stereotying, heavy dismissal, devaluing, or objectification is the sort of thing that’s likely to insult minorities- the difference between insensitivity and insultingness is a matter of degree or frequency.
  3. Problematic – a narrative or psychological bias, especially one which people aren’t conscious of, is problematic. Unlike being insensitive or insulting, being problematic is more a matter of how wrong what you’re saying is and how badly it needs correcting, rather than the sort of reaction it might provoke.
  4. Open – discrimination to the point that even if it isn’t necessarily open and deliberate, it’s so problematic and ignorant that it can’t be regarded as innocent.

Obviously as you climb this ladder, elements from below may also be present in several different frustrating combinations. Things that are problematic are often also insensitive, for example.

The problem we’re running into is that when we say words like “racist”, people automatically escalate that word to level #4- even if you hedge a bit more and say “you did or said something homophobic”, they read that as them having accidentally engaged in fourth-degree discrimination. Feminism has been a bit more successful in gradating misogyny, but it still suffers from this problem sometimes. Likewise “problematic” is an adjective that’s already caught on in communities, and we need to expand on that.

We need to start using those other three words- what you’re saying has (or creates) problems. What you’re doing? That’s insulting to me. The way you’re acting around me? That’s not sensitive to who I am, or these other people in our community. Describing discrimination by degree or type is really important, as it reinforces that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types aren’t just a binary, with a person being intrinsically a bigot, but rather a continuum that people fall on based on how much privilege they’ve assimilated.