You’ve probably heard the term ‘privilege’ used to describe an advantage some people have over others. I actually prefer the word ‘advantage’ because I think it accurately describes the impact of privilege, which is generally what we are looking at as social activists and allies.
I’ve posted about privilege before, but like an infinitely big onion, there always seems to be a new layer to peel back and more insights to examine.
There are advantages I have always had as a white person, as a person with a particular kind of education, and as a person who grew up in a stable home, with healthy and abundant food. More recently, I have become the recipient of advantages due to masculinity, and then to being perceived as male. And with my male passing privilege, and a lack of obvious stereotypical signs of queerness, people often assume I am straight.
Straight, white men are at the top of the privilege pile in this country. By virtue of how I am perceived by the outside world, I am one of those guys. I didn’t ask for it, additional advantage was not the goal of my transition, but I have it regardless. Trying to deny it on the basis of who I know myself to be would be disingenuous and hurtful to those who do not receive those advantages for equally unearned reasons.
I bring this up because in a recent thread on Facebook, someone I perceive to be a white male was trying to argue a point about not writing people off because of their choice of who to vote for. Specifically, someone had posted that they weren’t going to respect people choices if they chose to vote in a way that endangered them, their families and loved ones. The specific subject was Trump, but this applies to many candidates and measures. The poster further said that those who crossed the line would be written off, excommunicated.
A counter point brought by the man was that if your response to oppressive comments and actions was always to build walls and shut people out, there was no way to open a dialogue and possibly change minds. He argued against self-segregation and further asserted that if he wanted to be part of a better future, his duty as a citizen was to engage people he disagreed with.
On the one hand, this makes sense and other the other hand this assertion chock full of privilege.
I agree that someone needs to listen to and engage in people with opposing viewpoints. Much can be learned and sometimes that learning is mutual and potentially this discourse helps to change minds for the better. It is also true that not everyone can engage in that discourse without doing harm to themselves. So I nominate the guy who is white and straight and full of privilege to be the one who steps forward to engage in dialogue.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate my point: let’s say you and some other people are in a firefight. The other side is heavily armed and your group is hunkered down behind cover while bullets spray the area. Within your group, you’re having a discussion about what to do about your situation. You advocate advancing toward the other side to listen to their viewpoint and share yours. The rest of your group looks at you in horror and flatly refuses to move from behind the cover. You don’t understand why, after all, how will the fight ever stop if you can’t engage them in a conversation. Meanwhile the bullets are punching holes all around you. Finally, someone in the group points out what has been obvious to them but that you’ve overlooked: you’re dressed in head-to-toe Kevlar and are virtually bullet-proof. You can afford to stand up and walk toward the opposition without concern about your bodily safety. The others in your group don’t have that advantage, they’re all in regular clothing and some have been hit by bullets in previous fights and are struggling with PTSD.
Privilege is having bullet-proof clothing in a firefight. Privilege is having a shield that others don’t have. Privilege comes in the form of advantages you have that you take for granted and don’t even realize other people don’t have. Allyship is about leveraging your privilege in a way that helps those who have less advantages without further oppressing them. If your allyship includes making assumptions about what others can do based on your own capabilities, you are not being an ally, you are part of the problem.
The Kevlar analogy is just one way to communicate this concept. Some people respond to sports metaphors. If you are in a position of trying to bridge the gap of understanding about privilege, I think it’s useful to find out what that person’s interests are and design your metaphor accordingly.
I have come to this place where I am someone who does attempt to bridge the gap, though there are times when I will close ranks and refuse contact with opposing views for my own emotional safety. I may look like a straight white guy, but inside I still bear the scars of being shit on by society. Sometimes you just have to pull back into your shell for safety.
Regardless of my past, my transition has resulted in me gaining a layer of protection and advantage. It has also moved some of my social activism from that of a member of an oppressed group to that of an ally. This element of social transition has been a difficult one. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with shit because I was a recognizably queer woman, and later as a butch queer woman. I added my stories about experiencing oppression through homophobia and misogyny to the chorus of others. I was part of the group, I was recognized and welcomed into those circles and my opinion and ideas mattered.
Now, I’m the guy with the Kevlar suit. Even though I can still remember how it feels to be disrespected because of my sex and taking abuse because of my sexual orientation, my reality has changed. It has changed not because my past has been erased or my experiences have less validity, but because of external perception. That’s all it takes. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t ask for it. No one asks for oppression, and the privileged don’t need to ask for their advantages. The reality of privilege and oppression is that each is determined by other people based on what they see and perceive.
I have the Kevlar now, but I didn’t always. That perspective allows me to speak from my lived experience about oppression and disadvantage. As I continue to unpack my privilege, I recognize more and more the assumptions I make from my position of advantage and recognize those assumptions in others. I can enter men’s spaces and areas of privilege and that means I have a platform from which to educate. Increasingly, that’s the form that my social activism is taking.
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