Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Being “privileged” doesn’t mean your life is rosy

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

I generally avoid 101 conversations on Womanist Musings, or for that matter, on sparkindarkness. I’ve never really thought of WM as a 101 space – not that it’s not a good place to learn, but because it tends not to be so basic and I generally get the impression that most readers already have at least some of the 101 on. Apart from anything else, I do tend to think that 101 learning is something you do with a Google search after reading something you don’t understand rather than something you need to be actively taught. I even think of it, sometimes, as an early test if you like – is this person willing to spend the minutes Googling their 101? If not, then what is the point of talking to them at all? Call it harsh, I tend to think of it as triage.

But something keeps coming up and over and over – both in comments that get through and the fun stuff behind the scenes as well. It’s the constant denial of privilege, of what privilege means and denial that one has privilege when, clearly, they very much do.

Can we be clear on something? Being “privileged” doesn’t mean your life is rosy and fun and involves you lounging around on a solid gold chaise lounge eating caviar covered truffles, washing your feet in Bollinger and having your every whim catered to by a large staff of peons (including your back rubbed because a solid gold seat is very very uncomfortable). 

You can have a privilege and still have a life that is not all fun and rosy. Part of this is obviously because you can have a privilege and still be marginalised. And, unless you’re Dora, the Black, Muslim, poor, trans, disabled, immigrant lesbian, you probably do have some (and Dora at least is first in line to be everyone’s friend. I mean, think of it, you just need one hangers on and you’ve got an excuse against every bigoted thing you ever say ever again!) privilege lurking there somewhere.

So if you’re white, you have white privilege. Now you could be any number of marginalisations – sexuality, religion, class, disability and many more – but that white privilege doesn’t go away. 

You may also face ethnic or national prejudices, you may face xenophobia (and don’t confuse xenophobia for racism) or other anti-immigrant, historical prejudices, religious prejudices, prejudice against you not speaking the local language or speaking with an accent – all true. And all of that can suck mightily. It can be wretched and rotten and unpleasant and dangerous and generally awful. But you’re still white and still have white privilege. 

And the same applies to all privileged and marginalised states. If you are straight, you have straight privilege. No matter whether you are marginalised because of race, gender, class etc, you’re still privileged. If you are male you have male privilege. If you are cis you have cis privilege. If you adhere to the dominant religion, you have that privilege. So on and so forth. Your marginalisation doesn’t make the privilege go away. The Marginalisation doesn’t make the Privilege vanish. And that works both ways – no matter how supremely privilege someone is in some areas (say, huge amounts of class privilege), that doesn’t make them any less marginalised in other areas.

But recognise that even if you don’t have any marginalisation at all, if you are as privileged as privileged can be you can still be picked on, insulted, attacked and maligned. You can have a privilege and even face unfair attacks and assumptions. You can be disliked, hated and unfairly treated. And yes, it sucks – but it is not the same as a marginalisation. It is not. It may be annoying that people call you names because of your red hair, but it’s not the same as an ism. It’s wrong, it’s cruel. It shouldn’t happen and it isn’t acceptable, but it doesn’t disappear your privilege. Blond jokes are very annoying but, (except where they include misogyny as well) they’re not the same as a sexist, racist or homophobic joke. And I know beyond doubt how annoying it is to be stereotyped by what area of the country your from or your accent, but (except where it coincides with classism) that’s not the same as stereotypes based on historical prejudice.

It’s like the difference between an insult and a slur. Neither are good things, neither should be praised (well, usually) but a slur carries a weight of oppression (both past and current) behind it that a mere insult can never carry. 

I say again, when we say you’re privileged, even lacking any marginalisation at all, doesn’t mean we think you live a life of utter decadent indulgence – life can still throw rocks at you. But it’s not the same as being marginalised. And part of the problem with being privileged is that you often don’t see the many many ways your privilege is catered to; you don’t see the many many ways and instances you benefit from your privilege. 

This is why there are those invisible knapsack posts (and no, I’m not going to link to them – go pass that triage test and Google them) I’ve said it before that being privileged means inherently not understanding and also that you should sympathise and not empathise – because, being privileged, we do not truly understand the impact of what it is to live with a marginalisation we do not share.

Bottom line is, if you are privilege, you are still part of the great privileged force, you cannot not benefit from the ways our societies are set up to benefit the privileged and you can’t separate yourself from that privilege no matter what your marginalised “creds” are. (And yes, I am utterly bemused by the feeling that some people desperately, desperately WANT to claim marginalisation, like it’s a cool club. It perhaps shows, more than anything, how much the blinkers of privilege can hide from you).