Some Things to Think About When Discussing Privilege

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.

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4 Responses to Some Things to Think About When Discussing Privilege

  1. Marty says:


    As a dude who is clearly on the lowest difficulty setting, I find myself trying to explain and discuss privilege. You and Scalzi gave my incoherent thoughts a bit of structure.

    And one other thing: There is no winning the fight on social justice. The best we can hope for is a plateau.

  2. Jake says:

    The reason you see it so often is because so many of those online feel like they’re barely getting by. The reason it becomes about you, is because you either had very few successes, or very little self confidence- you’re starving for it to be about you, because of that craving for any non-negative attention.

    To then be told that your few accomplishments, that you barely scraped by to get, probably wouldn’t have happened if you were a minority- that if you were black, gay, a woman, or any other- is like your accomplishments are taken away.

    Is it derailing? Most definitely, no doubt there. Just explaining some background behind it, as someone who just barely started accomplishing things not long ago.

  3. falconesse says:

    Craving non-negative attention doesn’t give anyone a valid excuse to turn a conversation that’s not specifically about them into one that is. It simply doesn’t.

    Part of being an ally is to learn when to sit back and listen, and when to know and respect that it’s not about you. That’s both “about you,” as in, “this post does not point a finger directly at me, as an individual; I am not called out by name,” and “about you” as in, “other people are having a discussion that is meaningful to them, and I should listen to what they have to say.”

    “To then be told that your few accomplishments, that you barely scraped by to get, probably wouldn’t have happened if you were a minority- that if you were black, gay, a woman, or any other- is like your accomplishments are taken away.”

    That’s not what’s being said. At all.

    Scalzi and others are pointing out that, all other things being equal, people who aren’t straight white males will very likely have a few extra obstacles to overcome to attain the same level of success as people who are straight white males. That’s not at all the same as “you only accomplished what you did because you’re a straight white dude.”

    Take two people. Give them the same social and economic backgrounds, the same level of education, the same family life, the same everything, except that one is a straight white male and the other is not. They can still accomplish the same things, but there are still going to be steps along the way that are easier for the SWM. It doesn’t mean he’ll ride through life on a rocketship powered by unicorns and starlight. But some doors will still open more quickly for him than for his counterpart. He might not ask for those doors to be opened for them. Sometimes — a LOT of times — it’s the person holding the door open for him who makes that call.

    Then, once the SWM’s through, the door-holder slams it closed in his counterpart’s face, or maybe pretends not to hear the knocking so they have to find another way in. Or maybe the door-holder will let them in, but not until the other person proves their worth.

    It happens. Saying it didn’t happen to you, specifically, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen all over the place to other people, every single day.

  4. Aggrokitty says:

    “I can’t even point to an instance where someone is saying “You have this privilege, therefore you are a horrible, terrible person.””

    I dunno, I quit watching many online communities because I got tired of seeing one poorly-chosen word trigger a hundred-comment “you privileged asshole” thread. Pretty much any large community on Livejournal and the Hathor Legacy (back when I followed it) seemed to me to have major hostility coming across to anyone who didn’t toe the social-justice line with absolute perfection.

    I dislike the social-justice conversations I’ve seen. Maybe it’s different for more serious discussions, but the stuff that creeps in around the edges of the places I go for fun…not so much. There is no room for divergence of opinion; say one word wrong and you will always, *always* be That Person Who Said That Thing and Can Be Shunned At Will. Reminds me of the less pleasant parts of middle school.

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