Over the past two years, I have spent a great deal talking about (and even more time learning about) the way that group privilege operates on our evaluations of people, of events, of ourselves. It’s almost like an evaluation of ‘room temperature’ – where we sit on various latitude lines will influence what we think of as ‘normal’, and whatever our perceptions, they are filtered by our ‘set point’. And while your neighbour is shivering and complaining about how ze’s freezing to death, you’re throwing on a t-shirt and left baffled as to how anyone can call 15 degrees ‘cold’.
Another thing I have noticed is the yawning diversity in people’s willingness to recognize their own privilege. Some are ready, even eager in some cases, to accept that their own judgments are the product of a particular perspective that may not be shared by other people. Many others, with frustrating frequency, look into the face of the existence of privilege with the stony, reluctant resolve that is usually reserved for sexual requests involving drop cloths and rubber hoses. Any and all possible excuses are found to escape rather than simply accept the possibility that the sails of their ‘rational’ argument might have a gaping hole that they just cannot see.
Now my experience here at FTB has been… let’s just say it surprised me. I thought that I would have a much rougher ride toward acceptance than I did. People seemed to be familiar with the concept of privilege, and willing to at least listen when the topic is discussed. I credit the feminist skeptics with breaking this ground and bringing the idea of male privilege into the mainstream. To my perhaps greater surprise, many readers have been the one schooling me when my own privilege pokes its head through. It is that latter phenomenon I want to explore today, because it’s been on my mind for a while.
The reason for my surprise at my reception isn’t because I blindly assume that nobody before me has ever thought about these topics before. I contrast my experience here with what I have seen in the world and in other spaces where privilege is raised as a topic. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, I bought into the stereotype that the majority of my readers would be white males (and who knows, maybe y’all are). Like the hypothetical temperature example above, I rather assumed that, like in other spaces where the topic has arisen, I’d see significant pushback when discussing issues of race because people would see it as an attack rather than a neutral description of behaviour. It is notoriously difficult to see reason when your back is against a wall and you feel like someone’s gunning for you – especially when that gun is aimed at your race.
Thinking about that got me thinking about my own experiences where I’ve had to acknowledge how my own privilege has filtered my judgment. These days it’s no problem – I live in a world of privilege dissection, and recognizing that I’m not perfect is something that has become much easier as I’ve gotten older. If I work at it real hard though, I can still remember those many years ago (read: my early 20s, like 4 years ago maybe?) when I was so woefully blind and ignorant of the power that my being male carried, and still carries. I used to be almost as bad as the MRA set when it came to things like mansplaining and finding the “real reasons” for things*. Just because the people I was arguing with lived sexism and misogyny didn’t mean that I couldn’t just armchair philosoph my way into propping up the status quo, right?
I am sad to say that it wasn’t my female friends that eventually turned me around on the whole ‘feminism’ thing. As much as I would love to be able to claim that a persuasive, rational argument opened my eyes, it was in fact my exploration of race issues. Understanding white privilege was easy – I’d seen it a million times in others. Understanding my own colour privilege was a bit tougher, but because it aligned so closely with the colour-based privilege I’d seen before it wasn’t too much of a stretch. Understanding that, by being a man, everything I knew might be draped in falsehood and misperception was a tough thing to accept. The consequences of such recognition meant that I was going to have to say “I’m wrong” a lot.
Of course, the upshot of actually learning to do that – to admit that I just didn’t get it – is that other things in my life got a whole lot better. I no longer feared losing arguments or exposing my own ignorance. After all, it was just another opportunity to learn – who wouldn’t love that? And yes, I would look weak in the eyes of people who equate strength with inflexibility, but was that really important? I realized that the path to truth is paved with stones of honesty, and that self-delusion is the worst kind.
All that to say this: I may have been situated in a ‘sweet spot’ for privilege recognition. Because I’ve seen privilege from both sides – being on the wrong side of white privilege, being on the ‘right’ side of male privilege (not to mention colour privilege, able-body privilege, cis gender privilege, first world privilege, insert your favourite here) – it is a trivial task for me to recognize and admit that there are things I don’t get simply by virtue of never being on the receiving end. It would be far more difficult for me to understand if I were white, and I dare say if I were… I dunno… a paraplegic trans lesbian living in Somalia or something. Being able to see ‘both sides’ puts me in an advantageous position to not only recognize privilege, but explain it to others.
Or maybe it’s easy for everyone and I’m just an asshole.
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*Seriously. Ask the people I went to grad school with. I used to ‘cheers’ friends at the bar with the opening line from Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. It even made it into my MSc thesis. I thought it was a really funny joke, and that the women in my program were just being uptight. If I could go back in time, I’d kick my own ass. For a lot of things.