On privilege and intersectionality
This was hard to write, and even harder to post. Harder still to post publicly. Still, here it is – after having sat in my drafts folder for about four months, but thrown to the world at last.
In an effort to help people understand privilege, its forms and complexities, I'm going to use myself as a case study. I'm going to examine a lot of the ways privilege affects my life, positively and negatively. So, while I will be pointing out ways in which I'm disadvantaged, I'm also going to try to own up to a lot of my own privilege, because it's really not a simple thing. You can be privileged in one way and disprivileged in another.
This isn't meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive. It's meant to provide a few glimpses into things people might not otherwise think about, especially with regards to the difference between who and what you are and what privilege you are accorded. It's beginning to unpack the invisible knapsack, but it's not finishing it.
It's a starting point, which will hopefully get people thinking.
So let's start.
Privilege I have
What I am: A US citizen by birth, residing in the United States.
For one, as an American citizen I have the option of ignoring the rest of the world.
As Michael Schwalbe notes in the CounterPunch article, "The Costs of American Privilege", "Not having to think about the experiences of people in subordinate groups is another form of privilege." He puts a few points much more saliently than I could, so I'll quote him here:
People in [Third World] countries must, as a matter of survival, pay attention to what the U.S. does. There is no equally compelling need for Americans to study what happens in the provinces. And so again the irony: people in Third World countries often know more about the U.S. than many Americans do.
We can thus put these at the top of the list of American privileges: not having to bother, unless one chooses, to learn about other countries; and not having to bother, unless one chooses, to learn about how U.S. foreign policy affects people in other countries. A corollary privilege is to imagine that if people in other countries study us, it's merely out of admiration for our way of life.
The list of American privileges can be extended. For example, Americans can buy cheap goods made by superexploited workers in Third World countries; Americans can take a glib attitude toward war, since it's likely to be a high-tech affair affecting distant strangers; and Americans can enjoy freedom at home, because U.S. capitalists are able to wring extraordinary profits out of Third World workers and therefore don't need to repress U.S. workers as harshly.
What I am: a native English-Language speaker.
Well, for one, the internet is written for me. A large and growing number of nations have English as an official language, and I can be assured that I can travel a majority of the world and likely find people who will understand me. Speaking Standard American English exempts me from stereotypes which follow people who speak with other English dialects - the stereotyping of Southern American English speakers as backwards rednecks, for example.
There's an immense amount of literature available and being written in my native language. News from many countries is available in my native language - I can read the China Daily or Pravda.ru or Al-Jazeera or the Korea Herald, all in English, at my convenience.
What I am: college-educated, with a BA degree from a four-year public university.
In job interviews, I will be taken more seriously than an equally competent applicant without a four-year degree. People will assume that because I've completed formal schooling, I am more intelligent than my peers who have not. And for five years, without the pressure of supporting myself 100%, I was in an environment whose purpose was to expose me to new ideas. Yes, people can educate themselves, and gain all the knowledge a university would provide. For me, it was made easy, and I was placed in an environment which made it more likely I would succeed. That's an advantage - a privilege.
What I am: Comfortably employed in a salaried job, having lived in a middle-class American family all my life.
I have always had a roof over my head, a refuge from the weather, a warm place to be in the winter. Even when times were tight, I have never been in serious danger of starving. I can pay for medical care, should I need it. I can save money for my future and as a hedge against bad times.
And those things aren't even touching on the benefits I reap like being able to afford fresh, healthy food; being able to afford new clothing and high-quality clothing; being able to afford computers and internet access, which have prepared me for a more technologically-fluent workforce; being able to afford vacations and extracurriculars; being able to afford education (even if I am in debt via student loans, I am not in debt in a way which cripples me); being able to afford a car...
There are a lot of manifestations.
What I am: 5'8" and usually in the vicinity of 120 pounds. (Or, for the metric-minded among you, about 1.52m and 55kg, if my converter isn't lying.)
People treat thin people differently than they treat heavier people. Having never experienced fatphobia myself, I can't set myself up as an expert (one of the things privilege does is to camouflage the ways in which it benefits you), but I do know that people tend to be less hostile to thin people. They tend to think more favorably on us, hold better opinions of our habits and even totally unrelated things like our morality and intelligence. There's a social meme that says that fat people are disgusting, which is not something I'm burdened by. This may all seem like little stuff, but having an entire society judge you on something you often don't have a great deal of control over does affect you. (For a discussion of the phenomena as it applies to racism - and please do point me toward any studies on this done regarding fatphobia, if they exist - see "Racism's Hidden Toll".)
If that doesn't convince you, here's one more, very important manifestation of thin privilege: I am more likely to be taken seriously by medical personnel. And, yeah, having the establishment responsible for keeping you alive if things go wrong take you seriously? That's something earnestly to be desired.
Privilege I sometimes have
What I am: ...I'm not diagnosed with anything, and I'm going to try to avoid a few cans of worms by not addressing this in terms of recognized disorders, which is what people often think of. See the following text.
This is a privilege that, when I've lost it, has made my life a living hell. When I've had it, it's smoothed the way for me more than almost any other kind of privilege in my life.
When I've lost it, it tends to be in the realm of emotions, because from everything I've observed, I do not process emotions normally. For my value of "normal" I'm using "what's expected in the American culture in which I grew up"; what is and isn't an appropriate way to experience/express these things has a lot more to do with culture than you'd think.
Dealing with my father's death is the most severe and hurtful example. During my father's sickness and after his death, the way in which I reacted to and displayed emotion (very low on the "expression" end, for one, as well as trying to avoid conflicts) was regarded as inappropriate; assumptions were made about what I was feeling and to what extent, and decisions were made based on those assumptions which, among other things, resulted in my not being informed of my father's funeral, and not being informed of his death until two days after the fact. Years later and I'm still hurting from that, though - again - you'd probably not know it to look at me.
And then there's the flip side, where I've reaped definite benefits. I was, though not exactly, very close to the neurotypical sort of person our public school systems seem to be designed for; I functioned well in a classroom setting, was able to adapt, adapt to, or employ the strategies which were mandated by the schools, and scored well above my peers on my SAT. Having a much more analytical than emotional brain served me incredibly well here, whereas school simply didn't work for a lot of the people I knew. Because I was able to perform well in school I got into a good university, I completed a four-year degree, and that's put me in a position of significant advantage both socially and economically. (See the educational privilege section above.)
What I am: asexual.
Asexuality tends to be a very quiet thing, unless you make a big deal of it. And because asexuality is not overtly marked, people tend to assume the default: that I'm heterosexual. I'm not subject to gay jokes, harassment, etc.
At the same time, as any decisions regarding something like marriage would take place on the basis of associational/affectional orientation rather than something sex- or gender-based, there is a chance that if I ever chose to marry, I would not be allowed to in certain parts of the country, my marriage would not be recognized in certain parts of the country, and I would be assumed to be homosexual despite the fact that I am not.
What I am: biofemale, identifying as agendered.
I'm relatively tall for a biofemale, on the thin and flat-chested side of things, and have fairly androgynous features. This means that, depending on length and type of interaction and what I happen to be wearing at the time, I can sometimes pass for male. Usually it's a young male - I get questions asking if I'm 18, or whatever - but it's still male. And let me tell you, as someone who was raised female? This privilege is palpable if you manage to invoke it.
And there are times when I will specifically invoke it. Walking home alone, for example, I have a much lower chance of being harassed or assaulted if I pass for male, in a town where sexually harassing female pedestrians seemed to be a fad for a couple of years. If I'm on the phone with places like tech support, they tend to take me more seriously if I can pass for male-voiced.
What I am: Transgendered, agendered, gender-spectrumed, genderqueer.
Cisgender privilege is easier, I think, for female-bodied people to get than male-bodied people, though "easier" is still a relative term. Not only are the permanent effects of testosterone hard to cover up for a male-bodied person passing as female, but female-bodied people can wear a much wider range of clothing without setting off alarm bells. The term "tomboy" may not always be positive, but it doesn't carry half the negative implications a slur like "tranny" might.
So if I pass for male, I'm read as male and this is socially acceptable. If I don't pass for male, I'm read as a tomboyish female and this is socially acceptable. People do not tend to look at me and see obvious markers that I am a transgendered person, and being a transgendered person is not socially acceptable. A big part of privilege comes from what status people accord you when they have to deal with you.
Another part of privilege comes from how you feel and are able to cope with the world around you, though, and I don't carry as much privilege in these areas. I still don't feel comfortable using public bathrooms, because my gender presentation is neutral/male but my coworkers, friends, casual acquaintances, etc. know that I'm biofemale. Sometimes, when I'm dressing comfortably, I walk a line where I seem to pass or not pass according to what five-minute stretch you catch me in, and that makes choosing what door to walk into difficult. I often find myself in situations where, if I'm using a women's restroom, I perform a slightly exaggerated form of femininity (which I do not enjoy) in order to head off any suspicious looks when I walk in.
Privilege I don't have
What I am: biracial, with my maternal family being of German descent and my paternal family being of Nigerian.
But that doesn't really matter in most of America, which is still operating under the one-drop rule. My heritage is exactly as white as it is black, but I have never worried about being accused of lying about my race if I select "black" on a form. If I select "white", I imagine there would be social and bureaucratic hell to pay.
Police officers have asked my friends if I can speak English when I'm in a car they've pulled over. This assumption about my linguistic abilities reflects assumptions about nationality which could cast suspicion on my in areas such as crossing borders. (Or Arizona. Saddest "Zing!" ever; though I'm unlikely to be taken for an illegal immigrant from Mexico, American-born Hispanics are probably facing much the same prejudice in Arizona now, and the palpable effects on their lives would be much more severe. But that's not about me specifically, and this post is.)
I am and have been uneasy about visiting other countries. Russia especially, for all that I deeply want to go back to school and finish my Russian major - Routine attacks by skinheads and gangs of youths on foreigners and people with non-Slavic features are a regular occurrence in Moscow and St. Petersburg, increasing sixfold in 2008. It gives me a lot of second thoughts about trying to study abroad.
What I am: biracial, with my maternal family being of German descent and my paternal family being of Nigerian.
When I went to get my driving learner's permit in Nebraska, circa 2001, one of the sections on the form I had to fill out was "race". At that time, there was no "multiracial/other" category, so I did what seemed sensible: I marked down both "white" and "black."
I was called back up to the desk with an explanation that I could only select one. I explained that I wasn't just one, and to her credit, the woman staffing the desk seemed to recognize that this was unfair, but few things in life are as rigid and inflexible as government bureaucracy. My learner's permit identified me as "black".
Even in places where a "multiracial/other" category exists, the message I can't ever help reading is that this is other, this is abnormal. No distinction exists between myself, as an African/European multiracial person, and people whose racial backgrounds might be Asian/Latino, Native American/Eastern European, Filipino/Inuit/Australian Aboriginal, Indian/European/Hispanic/Chinese/African, or any other possible permutation. The important thing to recognize, it seems, is that there are categories of races, and then there are those who have crossed them. There are the purebreds, and there are mutts. About the mutts, nothing need be said except that they are mutts.
Privilege is not universally desirable.
One of the things that seems to tag along with male privilege is the privilege to be intimidating. While this is useful in warding off some types of harassment, it can be very unsettling when invoked accidentally. When I used to walk home alone while my city was having its big, well-reported problem with people being sexually assaulted walking around after dark, I'd occasionally find myself walking down the same stretch of road, presenting as male, to all appearances following a solitary female pedestrian. As someone who doesn't want to come across as threatening to innocents, this was not a comfortable space to be in.
Privilege is not universally bad. In a lot of cases, the effects of privilege aren't things people should feel guilty for experiencing. The problem arises when they're privileges and not rights - the privilege to escape harassment, for example, is a privilege because it's a right which is denied to people like women, transgendered persons, poor persons. etc. The privilege to be taken seriously by doctors is a right which is often denied to fat people and people of color.
Passing is a way of accessing privilege.
If I pass for male, I access aspects of male privilege. If someone passes for white, they access aspects of white privilege. This can happen involuntarily as well as voluntarily, and someone can be passed as well as passing. One example of this is a person of color who's granted "honorary whiteness" by their friends - their friends will stop noticing that they're a person of color, even to the point where they'll have a moment of "Huh, they are" when it's brought up. Another example is a person with a mixed ethnic background who appears white enough that people assume they are white.
Privilege is multifaceted.
Even at its most simplistic, we can split it into two parts which have to be evaluated separately: the personal, what one experiences, and the social, what one is accorded. This is how someone with severe gender dysphoria who nonetheless passes for their assigned gender can both experience and lose cisgender privilege; feeling comfortable with one's own body and expected social roles is a cisgender privilege which they have lost, while the ability to exist and function in society without being harassed on the basis of their gender is one they maintain.
DATE ADDED: 2010-10-25 19:45:59
ITEM TYPE: Document
CITATION: Magistrate, "On privilege and intersectionality," in HACKGENDER, Item #84, http://hackgender.org/items/show/84 (accessed May 23, 2013).
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