On Using Privilege To Fight Inequality

Though I have openly written about and reflected on the ways in which I am privileged — as a male-bodied individual of a (presumably) middle-class status — there are numerous thoughts I have left unwritten.  Since I cannot find enough potential benefit to discussing my identity as a feminist that outweighs the risk of offending (some) women in doing so, I have decided to devote that energy to discussing sexism.  Sure, I might win the respect and approval of some feminist women, and signal to men that we, too, can hold feminist values.  But, the focus never needs to be on me.  Even for this post, I take seriously the suggestion to focus on listening to oppressed people in order to become a better ally.

As I consider the suggestions that have been proposed for privileged people — to listen (rather than talking) and to keep the focus on systems of oppression (rather than myself as a privileged individual) — I feel I am receiving little guidance for challenging oppression.

Step 1: become aware of my privileges as a middle-class US-born cisgender male-bodied person without disabilities.

Step 2: keep my focus on the ways that marginalized groups are systematically oppressed.

Step 3: …?  Relinquish the privilege that I am systematically afforded in every interaction and within every institution?  I, at times, try; but, as a (white heterosexual middle-class man) friend noted, privilege is like a boomerang that others throw back to us every time.  For, we are disrupting the status quo, which must be fiercely defended and protected at the interpersonal and institutional levels.

On Using Privilege

For most marginalized groups, one component of their minority status is their relatively small size.  So, just by sheer numbers, they cannot challenge inequality alone.  Allies are crucial.  But, this need is not merely a matter of numbers.  Allies, by virtue of their privilege, have access to interactions, conversations, and spaces that many/most/all oppressed people do not.  Allies, then, are needed to reach these spaces that are inaccessible to oppressed people.  Sometimes, these are the most critical spaces.  And, no matter the space, the work of allies may be more influential to changing the minds and behaviors of other privileged people because the oppressed are dismissed.

So, I feel an appropriate Step 3 — one that must begin immediately, even as I continue to evolve in my awareness and acceptance of my privileged statuses — is to use my privilege.  Everyday, I interact with trans* people and cisgender women as my equals (simply because we are all human), and trying to opt out of practices that reinforce or celebrate (cisgender) men’s privileged status.  But, trying not being sexist and transphobic is just that; these efforts are not the same as being anti-sexist and anti-transphobic.

As a cisgender male-bodied individual, I am regularly perceived and privileged as a man; I am given the keys to access (cis)men’s spaces.  With the freedoms that come with those privileges, I often raise questions about sexual violence prevention and the inclusion of trans* people.  Yesterday, I pestered my colleagues — in an effort to better capture gender diversity in the collection of demographic information — to work in the direction of infinite inclusion rather than reducing the number of “boxes” in which individuals would be placed.  But, being mindful not to speak on behalf of ciswomen and trans* people, I limit my comments to raising questions and complexities, and encouraging that we let the oppressed provide their own answers and visions.

Privilege Can Be Complicated

For some (myself included), becoming aware of one’s privilege can be a complicated matter.  Some forms of privilege are less understood.  For those who are disadvantaged in one way, it may be easy to focus just on one’s own oppressed status, while overlooking others‘.  And, individuals who are simultaneously of privileged and disadvantaged statuses (i.e., multiracial people) or who have transitioned from the latter to the former (i.e., trans men), reconciling this complex position can be challenging.

DFP SuitIn my own case, I am privileged as a cisgender person and as a man, despite my genderqueer identity, because my gender expression is generally masculine and presumed consistent with my sex.  This has to do, in part, with my fear of the potential consequences — violence and professional costs — that would result if I played with gender as I wished.  As a queer man, I struggled for some time to understand how I might be privileged as a man and contribute to the oppression of women.  The hardest lesson was that objectifying women is just that; that I am exclusively attracted to men does not “free” me from perpetrating sexual violence against women.  Unfortunately, much of what is written by men for men on feminism and gender tends to presume the readers are (white, middle-class) heterosexual (cis)men; so, I have had to think “outside” the box to define a role for myself as a queer man in feminist activism and scholarship.

At times, I am also privileged as a white person.  When I am with my mother, there seems to be little question that I am of color — usually (correctly assumed) Black.  When I am with my father, we are regularly presumed to be strangers to one another — and, I assume this is because my brownness is quite obvious juxtaposed with his (obvious) whiteness.  But, on a number of occasions when alone,  I have been (partly) mistaken as white.  As this usually comes as a surprise, I cannot assess how often I am presumed to be and, thus, privileged as white (a white man, at that!).  So, unfortunately, I do not have the same control over my white privilege (however extensive it may be).  (See an interesting example of someone who does.)

By virtue of my parents’ (current) middle-class status in education and income, and now holding a PhD myself, I am undeniably middle-class and privileged as such.  I suspect I have struggled with middle-class privileges more than those related to gender and race because I feel lumped with a class of people who were born into wealth and reflect little on their privilege.  My parents, including my mother who grew up in poverty, were poor when they had me.  They earned college and master’s degrees, and the subsequent career advancements, while raising me and working full-time.  So, I feel I belong to a 1.5 generation of middle-class people.  But, though not born into such wealth, I have still benefited from it greatly.  At the moment, I am still carrying debt that accrued while finishing my dissertation and then moving for my new faculty position — a job that will quickly pay off that debt, and solidify my middle-class status by education and income.  Now, an obligation falls on my shoulders to constantly raise questions about class inequality and the inclusion of poor and working-class people in the (middle-class) professional and academic spaces I will access.

I share all of this for a few reasons.  First, much of the talk to privileged folks, be it from oppressed groups or the privileged themselves, assumes one is privileged on every social hierarchy.  This misses the spirit of intersectionality, which, if considered, would call for more nuanced assessments of privilege (and disadvantage).  For example, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism should note that its intended audience is white heterosexual US-born cisgender men.  Ironically, in an effort to speak to men about gender and feminism, I felt erased as a brown queer man reader (also see #s 23 and 24).

Second, I also want to note the complexity of privilege to those who occupy these liminal spaces, or who have transitioned into privilege from a disadvantaged status.  Initially, this may be surprising — even difficult to believe, and a bit scary.  But, once we are aware that, in some ways, we are/have become privileged, we must be sure to use it effectively to challenge inequality (rather than reinforce it).  For example, I have found that my lighter skin color and (literal) familiarity with whites has afforded me a little more room to speak with whites about race — to even challenge them on racism — than darker-skinned people of color.  In fact, I would say we should see these complex statuses as a unique space to both learn about and challenge oppression.  This is a rare vantage point that offers a unique perspective that would be lost if we simply listen or ruminate in guilt over our (quasi-)privilege.

Concluding Thoughts

To be completely clear, I am write this post with the hopes of encouraging more people who are privileged in some way to use it for good (i.e., challenge inequality).  I am not certain that one can actually relinquish their privilege — well, short of changing your status, everyone’s memory of it, and how it has impacted your experiences, worldviews, relationships, and livelihood.  And, one less privileged person may not be moving us closer to eliminating oppression.  But, it can be quite powerful for privileged people to use their privilege to make change and make more room in exclusive spaces for the oppressed.  And, as a good sociologist (should), I see the responsibility of eliminating inequality in everyone‘s hands — oppressor and oppressed alike.

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