Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there

Today’s PiA post comes from the Girl Wonder forums. It is, in part, a reaction to my privilege list, which the poster in question was linked to among other posts.

I have lived my life bullied and dismissed and marginalized and aloof; if there’s a “white male heterosexual privilege”, no one ever told me how to cash it in.

[From Untitled post comment on page 3 by Patrick Gerard]

Gerard’s statement clearly illustrates that privilege isn’t a binary thing. A person does not either have privilege or not, but rather that we all simultaneously benefit from privilege and are the victims of it because of our various circumstances. Gerard here benefits from privileges such as being white, male, and heterosexual (you can add to that ones like being cisgendered and able-bodied), but one of the ways in which he is non-privileged is class. He is neither rich nor middle-class, but rather makes it known that he has never been able to get above the poverty line.

He clearly has seen the discrimination he has faced because of power imbalances such as the one in his class status. In this way I think he’s like most of us: it’s much easier to see the imbalance when we’re the ones getting the short end of the stick. I think it seems so obvious because we’re the ones who are hurt, we’re the ones who are having to overcome hurdles others don’t, and we’re the ones who see others dismiss us without a thought.

And, you know what? That’s exactly what his post did to me. I mean, he may have done it on the Girl Wonder forums and not on this blog, but he basically dismissed the real experiences of myself and many, many others like me (not just women, but all varieties of anti-oppression workers) by calling concepts that I tried very hard to carefully and non-offensively explain “delusional”. I have another comment waiting in moderation that won’t be published because it breaks the golden rule of politeness, not to mention condescension. So, yeah, it really frigging hurts to be dismissed when all it would take is an extra two minutes of thought on how your criticism is worded to change your argument from being a high-class flame to being a critical one that may open up discussion and broaden the knowledge of both parties. You’d better believe that I remember almost all of these instances — everything from, “this chick needs some dick” to long rebuttals which engage with certain points while using turns of phrase that diminish me as an equal member in the discussion — because, well, being dismissed really hurts.

But instances where I benefit from privilege are much harder for me to remember, mostly because I count these things as normal. I am not excluded, therefore I am not hurt or unsatisfied. I will never, say, have a problem going to a public restroom if they are gender segregated. “But,” you may be thinking, “that’s not benefiting from privilege, that’s just using common sense. I mean, you wouldn’t want to share a bathroom with a man, right?” Therein lies the rub: it’s common sense to you and me because we’re cisgendered — meaning our gender identity (our belief that we are male or female) is the same as our expressed sex. What about a transwoman who looks too feminine to go into the man’s washroom without fear of having violence done to her, but looks too masculine to go into the women’s washroom without fear of having security called on her? Such incidents happen, but cisgendered people like you or I take it for granted that we’ll never be barred access or otherwise given trouble for using the bathroom of the gender we identify with.

And that’s just one example of how I, personally, benefit from something in society being made to fit my situation that is exclusive and hurtful to another kind of person. Going back to the original example of Patrick Gerard’s post, Gerard hasn’t ever “cash[ed] in” on privilege because that’s not how privilege works. Cashing in implies that the benefits are waiting there for the right people to take them, but the reality is that privilege is being the beneficiary of unseen benefits that are obscured because they are portrayed as common sense and/or just the way things are done.

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5 thoughts on “Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there

  1. I remember being in a bar or club once about ten, twelve years ago (in a larger city, I don’t remember which one exactly), and that club had one, unisex bathroom. I remember being really uncomfortable with that at the time.

    In conjunction with this article, however, I can see now that what I saw then was possibly an establishment being completely inclusive.

  2. nice post Tekanji,

    the issue of privilege has come up recently at my blog with a number of guys who just refuse to acknowledge male privilege, and who refuse to acknowledge that patriarchy is a pervasive and ubiquitous force in society. It’s frustrating, being ganged up on by a bunch of commenters who all insist that I’m playing victim politics and spending all my time whining about oppression that doesn’t really exist in the way I think it does, yet who refuse to examine the way they benefit from what I’m talking about. Dismissive indeed. And it’s hard to know how to respond sometimes when someone tries to negate your experiences by some relativist argument. What it comes down to is that privilege blinds people, but they see that as me saying it’s because they’re men that they can’t understand my point. exasperating, I tell ya! I feel like closing down comments on that thread altogether, but I’m sure it would just transfer itself onto another one.

    Anyway, sorry for the “whining”, but it seemed in line with what your post was all about! Keep up the great blogging!

  3. This was an excellent post, in both directions (privileged and non-privileged).

    What about a transwoman who looks too feminine to go into the man’s washroom without fear of having violence done to her, but looks too masculine to go into the women’s washroom without fear of having security called on her?

    That would be me, exactly. It’s to the point that I rarely travel outside of the city (Philadelphia, Pa) because it’s not safe for me to use most public bathrooms.

    On the other hand, my white middle class mouth has uttered “$50 bucks a month is not a lot of money for Spironolactone [a commonly-used anti-androgen that many transwomen take along with estrogen] at a trans drop-in, while I was sitting right next to a transwoman of color who was below the poverty line and had no health insurance. As soon as I saw her look of disgust and heard her (way too polite than it had to be) response to me, I realized what an ass I was.

    One issue I think about in regards to being a transwoman, is the fact that I transitioned late (age 45) and lived as male up until that point – gay, to be sure, but male nonetheless. I can’t speak for other transwomen, but I worry that I am still blinded by male privilege that I picked up before transitioning. I don’t believe that one day I woke up and that privilege-induced blindness just disappeared. And being gay doesn’t inure a man from male privilege – I’ve had too many gay men call me a bitch when I call them out on a sexist or transphobic remark to believe that gay men don’t have male privilege.

    So, at a certain level, I can understand why some cisgendered women are uncomfortable with transwomen – not that I give them a pass to do so, but I understand the fear. On the other hand, I experience sexual / transphobic street harrassement several times a week. It’s a wierd position to be in, and probably one that those who transition very young (while still children) don’t experience so much.

    BTW, here’s an online resource for finding bathrooms that are safe, or at least safer, for trans / genderqueer people – Safe To Pee. It lists both gender-neutral bathrooms and single-stall gendered bathrooms with locking doors (these are safer than most multistall bathrooms).

    I came upon your site only a few days ago, and already thoroughly enjoy it, including the challenging parts. And I thank you for taking a strong stand against transphobia and cisgenderism.

  4. I sympathize with Gerald, but I hope he’s able to see the lack of privilege he has IN COMMON WITH others rather than instead of others, if that makes any sense. I grew up poor, rural “white trash”. I lacked all sorts of advantages that many other white girls had. For me, being white is a double edged sword: I “pass” for the “default” group, and yet I usually don’t fit in. I don’t see the world like they do because I’ve been poor. I know how hard it is to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. I also know how responsible you still are for your actions. And so on.

    I’ve given up trying to assess my own privilege or lack thereof. I’m trying to learn more about what other people go through. I mean, in some ways my background helps me connect with people who aren’t white and middle class, but I don’t for a second delude myself that I’m in a position to say what other disenfranchised groups are experiencing. Maybe the more I learn about others, the better perspective I’ll have on my privilege.

    Hmm, maybe that’s it. Maybe the trick is to stop focusing on your own privilege or lack thereof – get your mind off yourself and onto the whole world. Get the big picture. Then see where you fit.

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