I’ve thought of myself as a feminist for a long time, but I too went through the phases of “but I don’t hate men! I like bras and make-up! I don’t like the word feminist!” – and I’m thoroughly over it (internalised misogyny is a whole other post…) but I have, for the last couple of years, thought a lot more about the concept described by this word privilege.
I once tried (and failed) to articulate the fact that it is more difficult to be a woman in this world than a man, to a guy at university. He, hilariously, told me to go and make a sandwich. So I gave up, for a long time.
What does it mean to you, or are you new to the concept, and has this been enlightening or do you not recognise it at all? Let me know in the comments…
Analogies and understanding
This article that compares life to a video game (one of my favourite things, in fact) describes it well; it’s the idea of starting your game – your life – on a different difficulty setting. Straight, white, fully able-bodied man is ‘Easy’ and as you add characteristics that differ, you experience the world differently.
I highly recommend listening to Musa Okwonga read this poem he’s written on the subject, which begins:
They make you ashamed of your rage.
They call you the angry black man,
The hysterical woman,
The paranoid Jew.
They make you stand in fire,
Then complain when you yell about the heat.
It might be one of the worst words we could have chosen, in terms of engaging people who are already really awful at thinking about others, especially others who don’t seem to be like them. Those who lack empathy. Because telling those people they have some kind of advantage instantly puts them on the back foot – seeing this requires us to compare ourselves to other beings; the core of empathy.
So that’s unfortunate. But it’s just not about getting things.
Privilege isn’t about having extra stuff.
It’s about avoiding negative experiences, by default. There’s loads of stuff I avoid by not suffering racism, or ableism, because I’m white and don’t have visible disabilities.
Illustrated well, I think, by this cartoon:
Inevitably, people now dismiss this concept by talk of the “Oppression Olympics” – intersectional feminism exists to help people understand how privilege (and oppression) overlaps, intersects, to adjust these difficulty settings in life. Straight, white men can face problems, of course; there’s mental health, disability, class and wealth – we all have troubles in our lives.
It’s just about realising what kinds of things other people face, especially when they cannot change their lot and what or who they are presents difficulties to them, due to other people’s views, behaviours – cultural prejudices.
Isn’t it sad that we’ve come to think of not being subjected to awful speech and acts as something worthy of note – that human beings are so predisposed to judge and undermine and enslave and marginalise that we’re having to actually teach the people who typically avoid those things how lucky they are. And we resist this.
It doesn’t mean we can’t have conversations if we are privileged. It’s just about realising we don’t understand a lot of the problems that others must deal with and overcome just to get to similar positions we’ve taken for granted; the roadblocks people run into just trying to do life because of prejudices in culture, and how individuals act them out. You might not witness it – doesn’t mean it’s not there.
That’s privilege; not running up against barriers built on discrimination against personal characteristics.
That means it’s better to listen to people who do know what it’s like. Not because you can’t imagine, or sympathise, but if all you do is reject views, feelings and requests in favour of “but that sounds like an accusation and makes me feel bad” – how exactly does that help anyone?
It doesn’t, it’s selfish, it’s us wanting to feel comfortable. That’s not the point, when discussing how we’re treated badly by others because of prejudice. So be quiet, and learn.
This is hugely frustrating, when you’ve spent years reading around issues, a life living them, and someone comes to you demanding you explain it to them.
While I’m happy to try to educate in many ways, and try (I’m still here right? I hope I’ve said at least one helpful thing at some point, if not to people commenting then to some readers), what I will not do is drop everything to try to explain something very complex to someone who is openly hostile, demanding, and dismissive.
It’s happened to me on dating sites of all places. Men play a game – as in Musa’s poem – of having a laugh because it’s a debate. Apart from not knowing what a debate really is, they have the luxury of finding it fun to demand this of us, and it’s very, very tiring. Then becoming more hostile when you refuse.
Because it’s obvious they don’t actually care -they’re just playing with you. Trying to get a rise. Trying to waste your time, waiting to shoot you down with some golden argument they once saw in a meme.
Because it’s not just a game to us, it’s life – we’re trying to understand the unfairness, and to work on it so things don’t have to be so hard. They’re not. They’re just sitting there laughing. And it’s often obvious, and annoying. Then it’s “feminists don’t want to debate me, they have no arguments!”
Oh, we do. And they’re out there. You’ve just made up your mind, and you don’t care about people – you wouldn’t listen, so why should I bother? That’s where men can do the most good – by telling other men when they’re wrong, when they’re being unfair or insulting or unpleasant in any way – showing it’s not acceptable. Because receiving approval means prejudiced behaviour is normalised, whether it’s a laugh (sincere or not) or a permissive silence.
Speak up, it’s the least we can do. Use our privileges positively, to help those without to have easier lives.
Level the playing field.
“You are not being oppressed when another group gains rights you have always had”
- Robot Hugs – Just Because It Doesn’t Affect You Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Oppressive (Everyday Feminism)
- On losing privilege to gain equality
- The questions men don’t have to ask themselves
- On the backlash against over-sensitivity, Greek myths and trigger warnings
- Grayson Perry – Default Man
- “If I admit that hating men is a thing, will you stop turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy?” – Lindy West
- Straight white male – the lowest difficulty setting there is
- Robot Hugs – Harassment (not seeing it doesn’t mean it isn’t there)
- Toby Morris – On A Plate (how privilege can add up and self-perpetuate)