Nobody likes having their privilege pointed out to them. It can be embarrassing. It can hurt. It’s possible, even, that we don’t even know we’re acting on our privilege, or how that even works.
Think about it like it’s oxygen.
Some people get all the oxygen they need, all day, every day. It makes them stronger and gives them a clear head. They breathe easily all the time. Maybe they even take it for granted. What happens when that oxygen gets taken away? It’s shocking and painful.
Not everyone has all the oxygen they need, though. Some people’s air is polluted. It’s hard to breath, and it makes it harder to live. Maybe they can adapt and overcome it but, even so, they’re already at a disadvantage to someone who’s air is always clean. Compared to the people who enjoy all the oxygen they need, people who suffer from a lack of oxygen could be considered oppressed.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. But, like privilege, you can’t really see oxygen. You only know it’s there based on the effect it has on you.
Robert’s Privilege Rule #1: Privilege and oppression can be measured in degrees. It’s possible to experience both.
I’m a cisgender, gay, white male.
Breaking that down, it means that I suffer from oppression as a result of being gay in a heteronormative environment. I’ve had people say terrible things to me because I’m gay. I’ve lost jobs because of it. I once had a bank deny me and my boyfriend a joint checking account because of it. I’m limited in the places I can live in and or visit without fear of being jailed, beaten, or murdered for being different. I see people with more privilege than me denigrating me and fighting against my rights to exist on a daily basis.
I’m cisgender, meaning that I benefit from the privilege of being assigned the appropriate gender at birth. I’ve never felt like my gender was incorrect. I’ve never had anyone question my gender based on my appearance. I’ve never had anyone tell me I don’t look like a man. I can use any public restroom designated to those assigned to the male gender with impunity. I never have to worry about being a target for violence simple because I was assigned the wrong gender at birth.
I’m white, meaning that I benefit from the privilege of having the skin tone that the society I live in assigns all sorts of benefits. People don’t think I look suspicious. I never get followed around by security guards when I’m shopping. I never get pulled over by the police when I’m not breaking the law. I can walk into just about any public building without being questioned. I can apply for any job I’m qualified for and be considered solely for my credentials and my experience. I’m more likely to get a loan, and less likely to go to jail. Or be murdered.
I’m male, meaning that I benefit from the privilege of having a gender that the society I live in assigns most of the power. I get paid more than non-males. I have more authority because people are conditioned to listen to what I have to say. I’m more likely to get a loan. I’m never told that I’m not capable of something because of my gender. There’s a whole segment of the pharmaceutical industry dedicated to making sure I can get an erection when I want one.
Robert’s Privilege Rule #2: When someone who has less privilege than you tells you that they’re suffering from oppression, or that you’re acting on privilege, listen to them and hear them.
Have you ever thought about the pronouns you use to refer to yourself? I’m male, and I use he/him pronouns. It’s easy for me, because most people assume I’m male based on my appearance and use he/him pronouns when referring to me without even asking if they’re correct. That’s privilege.
Have you ever though about asking people what pronouns you should use when referring to them? I was taught, both explicitly and implicitly, to judge people’s gender based on their appearance and use either he/him or she/her pronouns based on that judgment. I was taught–based on the consensus of a white, male, heteronormative society–that there are only two genders and, thus, only two sets of appropriate pronouns.
Of course, like most things in life, gender isn’t that simple. Making an assumption about someone’s gender based on their appearance opens up the possibility for oppression. Why should I get to decide what someone’s gender is? Why should I get to decide what pronouns they should be using? Doing so puts me in a position of power over them, and that’s not power that I need or deserve to have, even if it’s been given to me.
And don’t get me started about language rules. Language changes. We invented the rules and we can-and do-change them. It’s not like English speakers are walking around saying “Hark, what light through yonder window breaks?” anymore.
Robert’s Privilege Rule #3: Even with the best of intentions, people still get things wrong. That’s ok, as long as it becomes an opportunity to learn and grow from.
I first started learning about the idea of privilege around 6 years ago. That means I spent nearly 4 decades acting on my privilege without even realizing it. I would say things like: I earned everything I have through hard work, fair and square. Nobody gave me any handouts Or: If they don’t like their situation, why don’t they just change it? Why don’t they just move/get a different job/change their circumstances somehow?
While it’s true that I grew up in a family without a lot of money or means, and that I did work hard to learn the skills that I have and grow into the person that I am, I failed to recognize that all of those things were easier for me because I’m male, white, and cisgender. I was allowed to take more risks, allowed to fail and pick myself up again more easily because of those things. I was, and still am, allowed more opportunity because of characteristics I didn’t have to work for or earn at all.
I’ve since learned that I was wrong to think that way. I’m still learning about what privilege and oppression looks like. I still make mistakes or act on my privilege. It still makes me uncomfortable to think about it and hear about it. But I have the wherewithal now to stop, apologize, and do better next time.
Robert’s Privilege Rule #4: Recognizing privilege and oppression, and acting appropriately, is not something to be rewarded for. It’s pretty much the minimum that can be done to be a part of a healthy, functioning society.
My professional experience includes daily opportunities to learn more about privilege. I have ample opportunities to discover ways I can help reduce or eliminate the oppression that others suffer from because of my privilege, and ways I can use my privilege to help accomplish that. But it’s not something that should be lauded. It’s just the right thing to do. I’ve never committed genocide, either. If you’re looking to praise me for something, start with that.
Even writing this article skirts the boundaries of that last rule. But I know that, because of who I am and my position in society, the people who could learn something important about what I’m writing here are more likely to hear it and accept it from me.
This risk of taking on this topic, though, is that I’m also taking up space on an issue that should really be taken up by someone suffering from more oppression than me. It takes conscious action on my part to be sure that I’m allowing others who don’t regularly get space to share their experience the chance to do so. If we look at the number of male, white, cisgender opinions out there, it’s safe to say we’re well covered.
Still, what’s been said here needs to be said. It needs to be said over and over until it doesn’t anymore. But don’t praise me for it. It’s the least that I could do.