Power and privilege

Much has been written on the topics of power and privilege, some of it in the academic fields of feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory. Some people find those theories to be useful tools for explaining our lives; others are content to just live their lives. If you're a bit fuzzy on the concept of "power" that doesn't involve someone holding a baseball bat above your head, or "privilege" that doesn't involve being Donald Trump, there are resources for you. Here's just one of them.

Rather than delving into abstractions that others have explained better anyway, I'll just list a few of my own privileges. I'm white, which is to say, even though I have no knowledge of half my genetic makeup, I have never knowingly been perceived as a member of any racial grouping other than "white". I'm perceived as male by anyone who doesn't know anything about me and isn't looking at my birth certificate. I don't have visible disabilities. I have a graduate degree in a STEM field. My income and access to credit mean I've never had to choose between food and refilling my prescriptions while an adult (though I've been close a few times); while I'm not the 1%, I am the 20%. Mostly by coincidence, I happen to have trained in a field that's absurdly overvalued in the economy right now, and I happen to have some combination of innate talent in that field (if there is such a thing) and having been in a few of the right places at the right times. I've never been unemployed for an extended period except by choice. I benefit from white supremacy: while it hasn't been easy for me to get where I am in life, it would have been harder if I had been socially placed as a person of color. Similarly, all other things being equal, it would have been harder for me if I'd been born a girl who was coercively assigned male at birth instead of the other way around, or if I had a visible disability, or if my passions and talents aligned with something that wasn't so socially valued.

There are other ways I'm not privileged. I'm a survivor of childhood abuse, and one of the things that means is that I can never have the trust and faith in authority figures that makes it easier for some people to get by in the corporate and academic worlds. I have disabilities and chronic health conditions that make my life more difficult, even though they're not always visible. I have a diagnosis of bipolar II in my medical records, which means that when I hear people call ideas "crazy" it doesn't mean "misguided" or "nonsensical" to me but, rather, "just like Tim, and therefore bad by association." I'm pansexual, though in practice, the oppression I experience around my sexuality is a function of how visible my romantic relationships with men are at a particular moment. I'm a cisgender man with a transsexual body ("cisgender" means that while I only know how to articulate a masculine dialect of gender, and "transsexual" as applied to my body means that my neurological sex diverges from the sex I was coercively assigned at birth), though aside from health insurance companies telling me I don't deserve to get treated when I go to the ER bleeding uncontrollably, I actually experience more issues these days because my gender presentation is sometimes non-conforming to masculinity than because I was coercively assigned female at birth. I'm fat, so I'm on the receiving end of a lot of cultural desexualization and belittling for that, though I would experience that more severely if I were being perceived as a woman.

Note: you may want to read "The meaning of oppression" before reading further.

It may seem paradoxical that the same person can be privileged in some ways while not privileged in other ways; that the same person can be oppressed in some contexts in their life, and act as an oppressor in other contexts. The theoretical concept of intersectionality helps us understand this apparent contradiction. Again, plenty has been written about intersectionality, and I won't attempt to summarize it. I mention it briefly just to address, and rebut, the argument that my grievances are irrelevant because I'm a programmer in Silicon Valley who has a higher income than most people in the world (or even my country or state) do. That argument erases the fact that I grew up poor and was solely reliant on government benefits until I was 16. But more broadly, it sets an incredibly low standard for "minimal expectations for quality of life that all people should be able to rely on". It's saying that as long as you're not in a prison camp, you have to shut up. And I think we should all be able to expect more than that from life. Everyone should have enough food, shelter, and access to the same standard of medical care that you (you personally) would want for yourself or your parents, children, or significant other(s); I also think that everyone should be able to expect respect and dignity, and the freedom to contribute to society without having to face arbitrary barriers that relate to who you are rather than what you can do. To say the latter things don't matter because some people don't have enough food is not to do anything to help ameliorate poverty or lack of health care access. It's really just a way of defending one's own privilege: like a businessperson who makes millions of dollars a year scolding me for being greedy because I'd like to have health care access that's not contingent on employment.

If you understand intersectionality, it's easier to hear a request to be more aware of your privilege without dismissing that request as an "ad hominem attack". Almost everybody has privilege along some axis, so acknowledging you have privilege doesn't make you a bad person. Such a request starts a conversation; it shouldn't end it, and only ends it when the person being asked expresses their desire to prioritize their own comfort ahead of others' safety by declining to think about the ways in which unearned privileges have made their life easier at others' expense.

Some people say things like "I'm white, but not every white person has white privilege; I don't." I can only conclude they don't understand what "privilege" means. Privilege, like oxygen, is something that you don't have to think about if you have it. Entire books have been written about the process of learning to see the unearned advantages you enjoy. I can't summarize them here. The important thing is that being asked to check your privilege isn't an attack and doesn't mean you're a bad person. Having privilege is, often, not a choice: for example, I could quit my job, become a janitor, and give up my economic privilege, but there isn't a direct and immediate way for me to give up the privilege brought about by my placement as a white person (except maybe by moving to a culture that isn't affected by white supremacy; I'm not sure whether there are any of those left). And I don't think anyone in the world expects me to do that. Rather, my responsibility if I want to feel good about who I am is to acknowledge, as much as I can, when what I have received is partly due to my privilege rather than my inherent level of awesome. Because when I don't acknowledge that -- when I attribute what I have solely to my sheer force of will rather than to a combination of that, and the advantages that accrued to me early in life -- I'm implicitly blaming people who don't have as much as I do for their relative lack of material success. I'm saying that they could have had it all too, if only they tried harder. And that reasoning is what leads to all kinds of violence against people who are ill-equipped to defend themselves against it.

A word on the differences between different kinds of privilege: unlike being white, neither my pansexuality nor the fact of my body's transsexuality is always visible, so I might have more or less privilege in different situations. But I am a person who is queer, who stands in solidarity as much as I can with people in gender and sexual minorities, who counts most of my chosen family as people in gender and sexual minorities. That means there are places I can't go. For me, most of the time, it's pretty awesome -- except for those times when someone reminds me that I'm different, which is wrong, and that I'm not wanted and don't belong.

At work, the last few months have been one of those times.

This collection of essays is not an academic paper, and I'm not going to present a lot of citations or facts. If you're okay with not necessarily agreeing with every detail, but being willing to read on and see what I have to say, then read on. I know I'm not defining every term; I hope that if you've read so far, you have the initiative needed to search for definitions of unfamiliar terms on your own.

Go back to the top or read about systems and individuals
Last modified: Sun Aug 26 19:00:05 PDT 2012