Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Wages of Privilege

I've started this entry about five times now, and I keep getting frustrated with the overly-strident tone and finger-pointingness of it. I know there have been lots of different blogs and various other things written about privilege, or lack thereof. But it hadn't yet reared its ugly head in my life. Until now.

A friend had made an incredibly cissexist and transphobic comment, which I felt certain was just thoughtlessness on hir part. Zie had been friendly to me since before my physical transition had even begun. When I mentioned to hir that comments like that hurt all transpeople, zie blew me off. The sentiment was basically "I don't feel that I have hurt anyone, so therefore I haven't." I wouldn't have brought something like that up, if nobody was hurt. I was hurt. And I felt like, somehow, my feelings had become a non-consideration for hir.

So a series of unfollowings and emails ensued, and it appears that we are no longer friends. Any chance of reconciliation any time soon is pretty close to zero. And that's a shame, because it didn't have to happen.

I won't lie: I'm angry at the way things went down. I'm angry that it had to happen in the first place. But I'm most angry that zie seemed quite unwilling to consider my position. It seemed like the core of the whole thing was an unwillingness to consider the positions of privilege that were at work.

I've radically changed positions in my life. I started out at the top of the privilege heap: male, white, heterosexual. And I didn't do a thing to get those privileges; they were mine simply by accident of birth. Now that I've shifted so many of those categories, it's hard to know where I stand. I'm still white, but I'm now a woman - a transgender woman at that - and a lesbian. I have never before had to consider the role of privilege. I was so disconnected from everyone and everything, I'm not sure what, if anything, it would have meant to me anyway. I always felt like I existed as something of a ghost on the very edge of the world. But now the clarity with which privilege is making itself known to me... it's a little overwhelming. And more than a little disgusting.

So in my previous role, it would have been inconsequential to have made the same comment as my friend did. I was above all those categories - sexism, cissexism, transphobia. But now, having started to experience some of those things first hand, I can say that privilege is a millstone around the neck of society as a whole. Privileged and non-privileged alike are burdened by it. It's laziness, pure and simple. It eliminates the need to actually get to know someone before making a judgement about who they are. I would suggest that those on the lower end of the privilege curve might even have the capacity to be worse in preserving the disparity than those on top; they're downtrodden, so rather than be content with everybody standing on their neck, they might seek to push somebody down, so they don't have to live at the bottom of that curve.

The problem is that this makes the problem worse, not better. Those at the top of the heap can just watch all those underneath fight it out to not be the worst. But all it does is preserves the status quo. Those on top remain, and those on the bottom remain, and none are truly benefitted.

The core of the whole thing is respect. Respect is a funny thing, though. It functions best when it is given, rather than when it is received. And rather than being in a limited supply, the more respect that is given, the more that comes back, and the more one has to give to others. Everyone is uplifted, and nobody is diminished. The trick is that it's a chain, and any weak or broken link can make the whole thing fall apart. It's a practical example of an iterated prisoner's dilemma, and there is no consequence for defecting, especially for those who already have the power of their privilege. Power they acquired by doing nothing more dramatic than drawing breath.

Ridiculous quote aside, it seems a bit crazy that the true solution is for everyone to "be excellent to each other", but it really is just that simple. First we need to form a chain of respect that encompasses everyone. Then we need to just not break it. I don't know if human nature would ever allow us to do that, but we could do far worse than to strive for such an ideal.


AutumnFell said...

I was recently told that after settling into my current quote unquote ROLE as a transwoman I have been picking apart people's words and comments more so than I was before.

I still have not found an answer to why I do this because I'm still hung over the choice of word that was used to represent me, and that word is "Role".

To me, a role is a set position. Nothing can change, if change is permissible it must follow a certain degree or a certain set path with very little distractions along it's way. Why must what I am be a role and just not who I am? Roles exist in schools and jobs. My life is definitely neither of these two. But it sure seems it might be because I will always be learning new knowledge and educating others on it!

I believe that I started to pick words apart because I feel what you feel, now more so than ever: A noticeable lack of understanding what we go through and what we see from our end of the world. And if they did, perhaps they would see that their privileges are not so much a privilege, but more so a burden to the rest of the world - for they cannot see what they have created in their shadows.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting line of thought, AutumnFell.

While words describe things, they also often have more than one meaning. Culture also adds loading to almost every word in the language: additional unspoken, but understood, ideas.

The dictionary tells us that role is, among other things, the "expected behaviour of an individual in society." Taken at face value, that definitely does describe a prescribed, well, role. I think we do what we do in large part because we feel that we are expected to play a role which is contrary to what is in our hearts. But to jump out of that role, and into another seems to remove a lot of the intention of our respective journeys.

I would even suggest that the word 'role' could be at the heart of many of the struggles of non-"WASP male" people: racial equality, feminism, gay rights, and now the one that hits right at home, the struggle for acceptance and fair treatment of transgender people. We are rejecting the roles which have been set out for us, and demanding something better, something more suited to our individual desires, and something which allows us to express our own unique identities.

Sometimes, probably rarely, the societally-prescribed role actually fits. But probably most of the time, it doesn't, at least not entirely. There are parts of any role which may work for someone, and other parts of the same role which don't. So I guess it's just up to each of us to decide which pieces and parts we do want.

You've definitely given me, given us all a very interesting thing to think about. I'll definitely be spending some time with those four letters over the next days. So thank you so very much for the comment!