Posts Tagged ‘privilege’


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…)

So, in between perusing listicles of cats that have gotten stuck in things and of the worst things about being a person who sweats all the time during summer, I came across a list of the worst things about being an extrovert. Know which item they missed? The regular bullying of introverts about their energy orientation, telling them to “get a life”, that they’re loners, nerds, that they’ll die alone, or frigid, or any number of similarly dumb things. Because that’s definitely far and away the worst thing about extraversion.

The author of that article, while I’m sure they have many valid points about the downsides of extraversion and the childishness or at least over-simplification of counter-stereotypes about extraverts, could have easily left off their passive-aggressive closer about how “introverts aren’t better, it’s about celebrating your personality type”. (protip: introversion and extraversion aren’t personality types. They’re orientations for the gathering of mental energy, which is one of five dimensions of personality) The author seems to miss the whole reason for the recent spate of articles, comics, books, blogs, and so forth explaining introversion and how it can be great: That introverts are a minority of the population, (around 25%) are not well-understood by extroverts, who rarely even know what an extrovert is or identify with the word, and their energy orientation is maligned by many common attitudes.

Introverts post this content not to dig at extroverts, but because we want people to understand us better, and we occasionally need reminding how who we are is a good thing amongst the put-downs and misunderstanding. I’m not claiming introversion has it anywhere near as bad as any other oppressed group, but there are major awareness issues for those of us with more than a mild orientation towards introversion.

That’s why you’re now seeing pictures explaining the concept of personal space, and how letting you into it is a bigger deal for introverts, the methaphor that introverts run on batteries during social occasions and extroverts run on batteries during intellectual occasions, and the explanations of what it feels like to us to be over-stimulated. (A phenomenon that’s probably a lot rarer for extroverts, who have a wide variety of ways to function in society that allow them to avoid the deeper introspective thought that exhausts and overloads them, as opposed to the broader, social type that’s everywhere and frequently overloads even comparatively moderate introverts) Think of these as the equivalents of infographics for men about how not to behave like a stalker: they’re not attacks. They’re PSAs about how to behave in a way that is respectful of people with different problems than yourself, and a peaceful nudge towards behaviour that will allow us to be friends.

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.