My process of developing an understanding of privilege, power and the social dynamics that go along with them has been mostly guided by my lived experiences, and by conversation, marked largely by individual moments that led to individual insights, or shifts in perspective.
I was fortunate enough to go to college, where I did get a chance to study things like that (actually, the very first text I was assigned in my very first week of college was called “Privilege, Power and Difference”), but the academic approach to them, in the insular and itself highly privileged, sheltered bubble of academia… it didn’t make much sense to me, and though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it in retrospect, it left me feeling frustrated and a bit resentful. Maybe I lacked the necessary reference points, maybe I was just young, maybe I was too sheltered at the time myself, maybe it’s just not the way I learn best, or maybe it’s just that the versions of these things one reads and discusses in that environment really don’t have the same substance that they do when lived and encountered and talked about in the worlds where they’re daily realities rather than topics for papers. I don’t know.
Though I hardly ever use my academic education as a touchstone in much of anything outside of literature, art, and linguistics. Certainly not in my understanding of the social dynamics of identity. Instead, though how I grew and learned was a long, incremental process, and one that is ongoing, what I find myself turning to as touchstones whenever I need to orient myself, remind myself of the reality of what I’m thinking about, find some perspective, are a number of significant moments. Moments that symbolized something, where I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, where I experienced something I hadn’t yet experienced, where I made a connection, where I looked at something from a certain perspective for the first time, where someone said something to me that allowed something to make sense… moments where, for the first time, I was somehow able to find new insight, or where an idea connected with reality.
I lived as a heroin addict for three years. During that time, I was poor, I was desperate, I was lost, I was every bit as messed up as the others around me, with whom I used, from whom I bought, who I talked to, who I’d help when I could, who’d help me when they could, etc. But I didn’t look the same, or talk the same, and the deeper I got into things, the more I went from being an idiot chipper playing with something far too dangerous to being an actual junkie living the life, the more that became apparent.
One of the things I heard a whole hell of a lot in my time in the Downtown Eastside was “you don’t look like you belong here”. I was frequently mistaken for a staff member at the safe injection site (by the clients, not the staff), and would often be approached as such. I had to be very careful who I bought from, and had to focus on my regulars, the guys I trusted and who trusted me, because people who didn’t know me would often peg me for some cocky student slumming it and take the opportunity to burn me, selling me little balls of wax or crumpled toilet paper folding up in the paper flaps rather than actual heroin, or sometimes they’d sell me $10 flap claiming it cost $20. Sometimes I could get them to realize I knew what was going on and that was enough to get them to treat me the way they’d treat the “real” customers, but sometimes I had to just go ahead and accept the situation, let them assume I was as novice as they took me for, just for the sake of avoiding a dangerous confrontation. After all, what was I going to do? Threaten them?
(This actually changed with transition. Even though at that point I was very rarely using, being read as trans meant I was read as an outsider, and therefore one of them. This often included them assuming I was a sex worker, and often led to a good deal of sexual harassment, but still… I was no longer taken for a “tourist”)
But what was more important than that, than how I was treated by the other addicts, was how I was treated by everyone else. The moment of realization I had was when I was having a coffee with one of the staff from the safe injection site, and he pointed out how exceptional I was in being a client who could be treated as welcome in a coffee shop. While occasionally the fact that I looked, talked, and carried myself like a “functional” member of a society, or more accurately, a “functional” member of the middle-class (even though I’ve never really been middle-class, even in my upbringing), had minor drawbacks like getting burned by a street dealer, over all it, combined with my race, and what was then my sex and gender, gave me enormous privileges and protections that other addicts didn’t have.
(why I learned so early in life to present myself like that despite coming from things like poverty, a broken home and an often-absent navy dad is a complicated question, probably connected to things like being labeled “gifted” and saddled with those expectations, being “sensitive”, “creative” and a bit “effeminate”, and seeking the approval of teachers and authority figures as protection from bullies and compensation for the absence of that approval elsewhere)
What my friend, the InSite staffer said, was true. As much as I took it for granted, and as much as I’m sure many of those of you reading this take it for granted, I could walk into any Starbuck’s and simply assume that I would welcomed as a paying customer. There would be no atmosphere of my not being welcome. Nobody working there would assume that I’m a potential threat or “disturbance”. Nobody would ever think I’m “disturbing the customers” or “making them uncomfortable”. Nobody would try to subtly encourage me to make my visit brief. Nobody would resent my hanging out for a bit to read or write. Nobody would assume anything if I spent a long time in the bathroom… even if I what I was doing in that bathroom really was shooting up. And honestly, sometimes I really did do exactly that, with a level of comfort and confidence that comes from knowing that everyone around me was giving me the benefit of the doubt. Not having to worry that someone had gone ahead and called security after noticing I’d been in a bit “too long”.
All of that and more, though, was the constant, daily reality of the vast majority of others living at the same level of addiction, being consistently treated as, at best, an unwelcome presence and, at worst, a threat, whenever they stepped into all but a few, specific businesses and parts of town. That makes an enormous difference in how one’s daily life operates, what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go, and how you’ll be treated when you get there. It makes an enormous difference in your opportunities, how people perceive you, and how you’ll be treated in the event that things go bad. It makes an enormous difference in how your life actually plays out, how you’ll be treated by the legal and medical systems, by potential employers, by potential housing, by the social services presumably in place to help you. And it makes an enormous difference in self-perception. One of the things I noticed about addiction is that most addicts carry a lot of shame and self-hatred, and being consistently treated as unwelcome and hated… that makes it worse, which in turn feeds the addiction itself. How are you going to build a life outside of addiction when that life treats you as repulsive and unwelcome? Where the ONLY place you’re treated as though you belong is the Downtown Eastside?
I was a heroin addict for three years. And for many, many years before that I also lived a life well to the margins of normal, functional society. Despite the hundreds, maybe thousands, of times I’ve broken the law, despite the pretty flippant attitude I’d maintained for a long time towards it, I never ended up with a criminal record. And a lot of that is because of how police and security trusted me. They saw me as a “good kid”. They didn’t suspect me. They didn’t follow me. They didn’t find excuses to search me. At least not back then.
Despite the fact that I was exactly who they were (ostensibly) looking for.
That, right there, that is what social justice activists mean when they say “privilege” in as pure a form as you can possibly get. In a strange, almost-paradoxical way, it took losing the privilege of actually being a “functional” member of society, becoming a very severely strung-out heroin addict, to notice how much I benefited from the privilege of being seen as such. A lot like how losing my male privilege and my cis privilege has allowed me to understand a whole lot more clearly the privileges I still possess… white, binary-identified, able-bodied and still, even though I’ve lost most of those advantages I used to lean on, being able to walk and talk middle-class. “Good kid”.
It seems like the question of being welcome, of how one negotiates space, is one of the defining features of privilege, one of the most telling and immediate facets that isn’t hidden in perceptions or complex social systems, but is right there on the face of our daily lives. There is only one small segment of our society who are permitted the feeling of being welcome and safe wherever they want to go, who get to consequently feel complete ownership of the world in which they live. That segment is white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, “functional” men. If any one of those boxes goes unticked, then you learn damn skippy where and when you are or are not welcome, and more intensely, where and when you are or are not safe. Negotiating the spaces where you “belong”, and where you’re risking your life just to be seen, and everything in-between, is a part of life… often so common, so much so, that it gets taken for granted and fades into the background to the same degree as does the privilege of not having to worry about it.
The sense of entitlement to space that emerges from that privilege can often become very evident, on a very immediate, surface level, like the indignation or even rage with which such men will often react to being explicitly excluded from a space or told they’re not welcome on account of their identity (such as being male, white, cis, straight, whatever), how they often call down fire from the heavens, exploding with fury at the “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” or whatever, the immense persecution, of for once in their lives not having the doorman pull aside the velvet rope on their behalf. Or how casually, non-chalantly, with no self-consciousness, they often walk into spaces that aren’t really “for” them, like , gay bars (trying to meet some chicks), trans support groups (trying to meet some chicks-with-dicks), black hair stylists (trying to meet some black chicks) or First Nations potlatches (trying to meet some first nations chicks). I have literally seen or directly heard firsthand accounts of every single one of those examples actually happening.
I have also seen cis guys get really pissed off for being told that only trans people are allowed in the trans support group, and have seen straight guys get violently pissed off for being hit on by a guy at a gay bar.
And yes, the idea that it’s some enormous affront to one’s personal dignity that there are spaces that are meant for people other than you is pretty hilarious for those of us who have to deal with that fact as a pretty basic, constant fact of our lives. Especially for those of us who have to deal with it as a pretty basic, constant fact that most of the whole world is meant for people other than us.
The issue of space that is welcoming, and to whom space belongs, is a lot deeper, subtler and complicated than the examples I’ve used would so far suggest. The kinds of spaces I mentioned above that belong to minority groups are far fewer, far smaller, far more specifically delineated, and far less pervasive, than those spaces that do not belong to them, that belong to the privileged.
One of the starkest aspects of sacrificing my male privilege and surface-level cis privilege was renegotiating my relationship to night. The sun going down now meant far more changes in what the outside world was then just being darker and cooler. It was now dangerous, potentially hostile, and even on the rare occasions where it felt safe, it most definitely wasn’t my own. It belonged to someone else. Night-space is men’s space. Explicitly or not, this is something probably every women knows, and learns to negotiate. And being trans definitely intensifies the feeling that I have no claim to the streets after dark. I’m Other, a potential target, and have to be very, very mindful of my surroundings, where men stride confidently, obliviously, down the road.
Often their body language will directly communicate their regard for me as a trespasser or tentatively permitted guest in their territory.
(The cops, by the way… they no longer assume I’m not doing anything criminal. Trans woman after dark with a cigarette = suspected sex worker)
One of the sad truths of this factor of privilege is how much we’ll often internalize these ideas where we do and do not belong, to the point of it becoming a very common factor in victim-blaming. “She was walking around after dark in that neighbourhood? She was asking for it, and if she didn’t want it, she should’ve known better”, etc.
The thing is, often the spaces where we’re told to “expect” being victimized or harrassed or treated as unwelcome, in contrast to the spaces where we’re supposedly safe and fine, is often a completely false conception that only really emerges when we want to find explanations for something shitty happening. I’ve noticed this is particularly often true in the idea of what is or isn’t “queer-friendly” space, and even more so, “trans-friendly” space. It’s often assumed that the latter will be true of anywhere that appears to be gay-friendly, or anywhere that’s middle or upper class, anywhere that’s “liberal” or “left wing”, anywhere expensive… but that just isn’t the actual reality.
A few months ago I ended up being very openly ridiculed and harassed in a McDonald’s (on Commercial Drive, one of the supposedly “liberal” and “queer-friendly” areas of Vancouver), an incident I wrote about a bit here on this blog. A friend of mine discussed the event on her Facebook, and it quickly became the subject of some pretty crass victim-blaming on the part of some pretty smug trans women. The idea was that that’s the kind of thing I should “expect” by going to McDonald’s for my coffee-and-a-muffin. There’s an obvious classist dimension there, of course… especially considering the fact that the reason I was at McDonald’s was because I literally only had $3 and that was the only place I could afford coffee and breakfast. Starbuck’s just wasn’t an option. But it wouldn’t have mattered. Starbuck’s is also cis space.
My friend, the one who originally mentioned the incident on Facebook, told me about an experience she’d had early in her transition, when she was playing music at a very upscale, very buddhist-hippy-good-karma-oriented, very “liberal”, very expensive Thai restaurant in the middle-class neighbourhood Kitsilano (where I now live… a neighbourhood where, quite tellingly, and quite on-topic, I consistently feel far less safe and less welcome than I did in the working-class, immigrant, and red-light neighbourhood, Collingwood, where I used to live). A waitress that evening repeatedly addressed her as “sir”, despite the fact that she was wearing a dress and quite clearly presenting female, despite the fact that she repeatedly requested she stop, despite the fact that her friends also asked her to stop… but the waitress, throughout the evening, kept “accidentally” misgendering her. My friend wrote up the incident on some website that does restaurant reviews, only to be met with an extremely long, hostile and patronizing letter from the restaurants owner and manager, the “liberal” buddhist, in which he misgendered her too, defended the waitress’ actions, and said that if she’s too “thin-skinned” to deal with being called “sir” she probably isn’t emotionally strong and mentally stable enough to deal with transitioning.
The spaces we regard as welcoming and safe, and the ideas we internalize about where we’re “supposed” to be, those ideas that keep us in our place, keep anyone from having to deal with the uncomfortable fact of our reality and thereby keep anyone’s perspectives from actually changing… even those ideas betray us. There’s a level of system justification in that. So long as we feel like if we’re good, if we stick to the places we’re “supposed” to be, if we don’t get out of line, then we’ll be just fine, we’ll be treated alright… that myth allows us to feel that much less angry with the fact that we feel excluded, unwelcome and unsafe in the first place, even in locations that are claim to be public, that should be public, that shouldn’t end up “belonging” to any particular social class. It’s exactly as dangerous a myth, with the exact same role of helping maintain the structures of privilege and having us police ourselves into compliance, as every other notion of the roles we’re “supposed” to play, the actions we’re “supposed” to take, the way we’re “supposed” to behave, as defined by the privileged, by those who already control the system.
And just like no matter how “good” we are by the standards of the privileged class we’ll never be “good” enough, they’ll just keep raising the bar, so to does it not really matter how much we stick to those spaces where it’s suggested we’ll be safe and belong. Those spaces will always shrink as much as they can around us.
It doesn’t help anything for us to simply ignore the realities of where we’re welcome and safe, and where we’re not. Self-care first, after all. None of us need to risk our lives to make a point. But we do need to remember what this is we’re dealing with and why it is, and as much as we can avoid it without risking ourselves, we shouldn’t simply cede ownership of pervasive space, space that should be for all of us, to privileged classes, and we shouldn’t uncritically buy into this system to the extent that we blame victims for transgressing the invisible fences built around us.
These fences are conceptual. They’re built of violence and force and money, partly, but mostly they’re built of fear of that violence and force, of shame, self-hatred, marginalization, of suspicious glances and terse waiters, of poor service, of harassment, of stares, of ridicule, of finding ways to make it clear we’re not welcome. As said, conceptual.
And that means they can be removed. First, though, we have to learn to see and understand them.