First of all, this post stems from John Scalzi’s post, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” Go read it if you haven’t. Put on your hip-waders if you delve into the comments. While the readers do a good job of keeping the discussion on track and civil (helped enormously by Scalzi’s Mallet of Loving Correction), there are some doozies in there, filled with (straight, white, male) posters insisting that I had to overcome obstacles, TOO, and So everything I do means less because I’m straight and white and male? No faaaaair.
Which was about where I boiled over and climbed up on the twitter soapbox yesterday, and said the following:
When discussing privilege, insisting that the people you’re conversing with stop and acknowledge you as an exception is derailing.
It takes the focus off of the original topic and puts it squarely on you. That’s not being an ally; that’s demanding a cookie.
Cookies: If you have to demand them, you probably don’t deserve one.
This isn’t to say you DON’T experience any -isms in your life. There’s such a thing as relative privilege.
But when the subject is about one kind of privilege & you won’t let it continue until you’re exonerated for having it, you’re not helping.
I wanted to touch a little more on that here, because it’s something I see happening a lot.
Privilege exists. It just flat-out does. When you have it, it’s not because you asked for it. No one is a bad person for having it. I can’t even point to an instance where someone is saying “You have this privilege, therefore you are a horrible, terrible person.”
Unfortunately, that’s what many people seem to hear when they’er called out on their privilege.
That’s about when the needle skips, there’s that awful record-scratch, and the song gets stuck on one line, over and over: But I’m not like that. I don’t do those things. I’ve had it hard, too.
The conversation isn’t allowed to continue until that’s acknowledged: Of course you don’t. You’re one of the good guys.
Thing is, when you have to stop and restart the conversation multiple times to reassure multiple people, it’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. A lot of times, the topic never gets back on track. At the end, the focus gets switched from addressing the concerns of those who don’t have a certain privilege to shoring up the egos of those who do.
See how that’s counterproductive? And derailing? And even, truthfully, silencing?
No one asks for the privileges they have. That doesn’t make those privileges go away. You have them. There’s no giving them back, no way to say “oh, hey, I don’t need this, let’s get rid of it.” The tough thing about privilege is, sometimes other people will confer it upon you whether you know it or not. That’s not your fault; it’s simply an inherent part of privilege.
Saying, “But I don’t want the privilege I have! I’d gladly give it up!” doesn’t make it go away. Really, it’s nice that you feel that way, but it doesn’t fix anything. And, besides, the point of all this isn’t to take advantages away from a group of people, but to make sure instead that everyone can have those same advantages.
Saying, “But I’m disadvantaged in this other way!” doesn’t negate the original privilege. This is not to say those disadvantages don’t count. However, they might not be relevant in a particular context. Hint: if you’re using one disadvantage to minimize the existence of/receive a pass for having another, it’s derailing. Ask yourself, “Am I empathizing or justifying? Does my disadvantage help me to understand how another person is hurting because of theirs, or am I mainly calling attention to mine to shout someone else down?”
For example: I’m straight. If I go into a thread where people are talking about GLBTQ issues, I might, because of things I’ve gone through as a woman, be able to relate to some of the concepts expressed there. Not that my experiences are cognates, but I could be sitting at my keyboard and thinking, “It hurt when someone treated me poorly because of my gender. I can understand why that poster was hurt when someone treated him poorly because of his sexual orientation.”
(It’s probably not the place for me to share my particular anecdote, by the way, unless I’ve been invited to do so, or can talk about it in a way that’s truly relevant to the current topic.)
HOWEVER. If someone on the thread says “Straight people don’t have to deal with <this situation>,” I should not be jumping in and hollering “But I’m female, so I have to deal with <this other situation>, so you can’t say you have it worse than me!”
In that instance, I’m derailing. I’m calling attention to myself when really, if I want to be an ally, I should be listening.
Often, hand-in-hand with the above comes a healthy dose of So the good things I’ve done, my accomplishments, count for less because I’m a straight white male?
Again with the record scratch.
Listen. It’s not a tally. It’s not a race or a game or a contest where whoever can name the most disadvantages wins (and if you think having to fight against injustice on a daily basis is “winning,” maybe you need to sit down and seriously rethink things.). It’s not about comparing your accomplishments to someone else’s and assigning merit based on what you or they had to overcome to get there. If you’ve done good things, THOSE THINGS ARE STILL GOOD. Those things still have value, and still matter.
Remember five or six paragraphs ago where I said I’m straight? Yeah, that means I could get married wherever the hell I pleased, and my marriage is recognized pretty much everywhere in the world.
I got married in Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, same-sex marriage became legal here in the Commonwealth. Does that mean that the people who finally had the ability to do a thing I took for granted — a thing I was able to do because of my straight privilege — have more worthy marriages than mine? That their weddings count more than mine, or that mine was somehow diminished?
Fuck no. It means that other people finally got to enjoy the same rights as me. That the playing field leveled out a bit. If anything, it makes my marriage even more awesome because hooray for being able to love whoever you want!
“What are they taking away from me?” is the wrong question here. (Also, the “they” there is problematic. That’s called othering, and it’s a whole different post. But clicky if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) It’s not about one person taking something from another. Life isn’t, as others far smarter than me have pointed out, a zero-sum game. I can win and you can win and he can win and she can win and it’s all okay. That, in fact, is what we ought to be working towards.
What I’m saying is, if you think that lifting others up somehow pulls you down, you’re doing it wrong.