Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

How I think of “privilege”


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:

“What are you complaining about? We have to run the same distance as you, so it’s equal!” – @EmanuG

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.

This cartoon is excellent, and shows how the little things can add up. Have a quick look. Edit: see also this mini-rant (not mine), which links back to my post on the positives of offenceprivilegerant

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.

“Educate me”

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”



Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

10 thoughts on “How I think of “privilege”

  1. Privilege is an interesting topic and one much too complex to make sensible in broad strokes. I am privileged _in certain ways_ in that I am a straight white male.
    I have no privilege, in relation to others, in that I have always been sort of homely, not athletic and a member of a persecuted minority where I grew up (one of two Jewish males in a small New England town where everyone else was first generation immigrant Catholics or Mayflower-type Protestants.
    I am relatively old and suffer from chronic pain and semi-severe skeletal problems so I can’t run any more or play any sorts or lift weights, etc. and must be very careful what I actually do with my body.
    I am looking at the end of my life knowing that for me that is all there is and nothing more so when I hear talk about privilege, I think that if that person is able and young-ish and has some future just to be, they don’t realize just how much privilege that is and how much I would give just to be able to run again.

    • I understand what you’re saying. However, in the particular terms I was talking about (which is one reason the word is a bad one to have come into use, because it means something else and people automatically think of that), and while ageism is certainly an issue, I don’t think we can say there is cultural prejudice against someone with age-related mobility problems in a very similar way as other things we are born with (skin, sex, disabilities etc).

      The issues we deal with as we change in the natural course of our lives don’t impact our careers, don’t eat away at us because of people’s comments in the street – and older people are represented on television and in other forms of entertainment (though again, there is definitely ageism generally, especially against women – an intersection there).

      So yes, absolutely, some of the things you were privileged to (not) experience at some points in your life have changed – and will change for most of us. However, it’s not something you will always deal with. So it’s good for younger people to be mindful of that, and try to make things better for people with limited mobility. So it’s a good example in some ways, but not others 🙂

  2. “The issues we deal with as we change in the natural course of our lives don’t impact our careers,”

    Although you probably won’t remember saying this in thirty years, if you do, you will realize just how wrong you are.

    • I meant in terms of facing discrimination in hiring and while working. Diseases and problems of ageing come towards the end of our careers – and yes, can end them, but it’s irrelevant when we’re younger. That’s what I was getting at, if it makes sense.

    • Been thinking a bit more, and to reiterate – yes, ageism is a problem, people are discriminated against because they are old, in favour of younger people (particularly in work).

      However, I would liken that kind of prejudice to other things that can affect anyone – like mental health issues; the onset can be at any time in life, however, and it is invisible. Some age-related problems are, and some are very visible indeed.

      We all get old – unless we die young, and nothing is an issue for us any more at all!
      So, this would seem to be more a problem of temporal discounting (ignoring the fact it will happen to us because it’s in the future – much like people who don’t quit smoking, although they’ve at least got a 50% chance something else will kill them first) than of a cultural bias against a personal characteristic.

      That’s the kind of distinction I’m getting at, and I made it not because I don’t think ageism is a problem (it is – and against young people too, so it’s not a one-way system, unlike sexism and racism; I’ve linked before on that but can here if necessary) but because it’s not quite the kind of problem I was mainly referring to in this post.

      It’s like a big hurdle right at the end of that track – not the potholes and traps all the way through, like many people face. We all have hurdles placed in front of us at intervals (illness, accidents, money problems, all kinds of things) but I was trying to focus on the things we cannot change, that won’t get better or be behind us – until *society* changes.

      So I feel like you either didn’t read it fully, or I didn’t make the point well – maybe a bit of both.

      For a positive twist, I’d ask you these questions:
      – Now you are aware of the problems you experience because of age, how would you advise your younger self, and other people generally, to better deal with this?
      – What changes would you like to see in society to make things easier?
      – Can you better understand other people’s issues (for example, those who have lived with a disability or chronic illness their whole lives) now you have experienced this kind of resistance?

      I have a guest post brewing on the difficulties wheelchair users have in everyday life, so perhaps that will be of interest 🙂

  3. There is a sense that eliminating privilege and treating everyone equally based on their relevant merits would be good for everyone, but those with privilege might think it could also harm them to some extent. Not everyone can be rich. If some white men are rich partly because they are white men, then they might not have been so rich without the privilege. People who benefit from being privileged might not want to lose power. That can help explain why they might lack some empathy and want to fight to keep their power.

    • Bit there you’re assuming that ‘not being rich any more’ is a harm.
      Which I’d disagree with. Many have fulfilling lives without hoarding money – which they’d be committed for if it were any physical object.

      It’s also the caged bird issue in a way. You can never miss what you’ve never had – we fantasise about having millions, but have no idea what it’s like. So I don’t miss it. Having enough to be comfortable is the thing that’s of use, and not having enough is harmful. Not having too much? Don’t think that’s an actual negative – it’s a perceived harm for people who have so much, because the normalisation, the justice and the equality necessarily means people with so much have to lose some of it.

      But perceiving that as a harm is the core of that selfishness that prevents people being more fair, generous etc in the first place. As you said, the nepotism, the old boys’ clubs, the rich getting richer, and so on.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Thanks to Lewis for the mention of religion too – that’s something I didn’t mention.
    Also this:

    And I’ve got some ideas on travel brewing..!

    • Noodlemaz,

      In retrospect my resistance to ‘privilege’ arguments is because so many of the occasions when I see it used, the ‘check your privilege’ argument is used as an unfair weapon to diminish the opposing stance rather than to deal with the actual substance of the argument.

  5. Pingback: Charity Challenges | Purely a figment of your imagination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s