The other morning at work, a group of my coworkers congregated around one of the windows (we’re on the 17th floor), where we could see the AT&T building. Employees were picketing for better health care or benefits or contracts of some kind. I didn’t know all the details, but I knew it was healthcare-related. I went to lunch with imnotme and we walked past them, scowling and irritable, because imnotme had worked for AT&T in the past and knew their union’s benefits; neither of us can afford the benefits offered to us at the national bank that we work for. How irritating and privileged of them, we thought, to complain about their benefits, when I work 40 hours a week for a large corporation and earn a reasonable hourly wage, and still can’t afford medical insurance with their plan? I can’t go to the doctor without severely taking from my money available for monthly bills, because I cannot afford the $120/month plan my employer offers.
Then I realized that I have been in their position, in regards to a number of different issues, a million different times. I’m privileged, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to complain if conditions aren’t ideal. If my $3,000 poodle pooped on my $10,000 rug, that might be a more desirable problem than potentially starving to death, but don’t I still have the right to be upset about my ruined rug?
I realize that was a shallow example, and I certainly can’t afford a $3,000 dog or a $10,000 rug. But the point remains: do I not have a right to complain if someone else could ever, in any possibility, have things a bit worse off than I do?
Each one of us has certain privileges, and each one of us suffers from oppression. The degree to which each of us experience these vary, of course, but we can’t very well argue that there are some people with zero privilege, or zero oppression.
As someone who is very privileged in comparison to a great number of people and/or groups, I can say that I’ve been both accepting of my privilege and try to take necessary steps to make sure that that doesn’t negatively or unfairly affect others, and also that I’ve been simply resentful of any implication by anyone that I don’t have the right to complain, to feel oppressed, or to feel hurt by accusations that I abuse my privileges, when it’s not my fault that I have them.
People who feel “more” oppressed than others will often call people out on their privilege, which often yields a defensive and knee-jerk response from the alleged oppressor, which often makes the alleged oppressor shut down any openness to understanding. The alleged oppressors then anger the less privileged by making angry statements declaring that they, too, have rights, stop reversing the oppression/various “-isms.”
Where do we come to a common ground here? I think much of the problem lies in what we collectively consider to be privilege, and what we consider to be oppression. When engaged in a discussion about privilege/oppression, people often play what many refer to as the Oppression Olympics, comparing various ways that people are oppressed, how it’s worse than certain other groups’ oppression, how one is more deserving of attention than the other.
I’m privileged in a number of ways, and while I am very aware of that, I feel a biting resentment toward anyone who would say or imply that my experiences as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied female are less valid or deserving of consideration than others that come from someone less privileged than I am (in a general sense; who ultimately decides?). My knee-jerk reaction is to declare that the “more” privileged person is being silenced, being shoved aside and told they don’t matter. The response of the accuser is that people with less privilege are often shoved aside and made to believe that their experiences, perspectives, etc., don’t matter, and that that should be enough to make me shut up. To stop being so expectant of privileged treatment all the time, and let others have a turn.
I was raised by a single mother who was on welfare for a while, and that affected my perspective in a number of ways. Another female with an identical upbringing, but who happens to be a person of color, may be more oppressed than I was because of her race, but her presence (on the internet? in the room? On the planet?) doesn’t negate my experiences. If you want to follow the logic that it does, you’d have to follow it to the only one, solitary person who is the very most oppressed in the world, and it certainly isn’t you, so you’d better shut your mouth.
That doesn’t make sense. Do you think you should just shut your mouth? I don’t. I don’t think I need to complain every time I think something “sucks,” but I don’t think that I just need to shut up, either. I resent the implication that I need to be all-inclusive in my speech and behavior at all times, when the same isn’t required (or even expected) of everyone else. I resent the fact that, while it is a good idea to be all-inclusive as much as you can be, I’m a member of what seems to be the only group who is held accountable for that.
For example: mainstream feminists blogs won’t even touch the fact that the vast majority of black voters are against gay marriage. Mainstream feminist bloggers are nearly all officially in support of gay rights and effectively anti-racist, but for some reason they all shy away from criticizing any non-white person who behaves in a oppressing way toward other minority or disadvantaged groups. When someone else brings it up, they sarcastically and dismissively brush it off, saying something about not silencing oppressed peoples voices or how white people, both men and women, should be entirely responsible for changing everything, and everyone else is off the hook for helping to change our society, and even volunteers are suspect.
In a similar vein, a group of women talking about how all men are ass holes, violent pricks, rapists, etc., isn’t any better than a group of men speaking derogatorily about women as a whole. Just because they are understood to be part of an oppressed class should in no way exempt them from basic rules of respect when it comes to other human beings. It is unfair to hold only those who have relative privilege responsible for their infractions. The blatant hypocrisy ruins anyone’s credibility, for one.
The point I’m ultimately trying to come back to (believe it or not) is that, while privilege is confusing to deal with, oppression is uncomfortable to admit to being a part of, and no one knows what terminology to use anymore, we really do all have to try.
If I find myself noticing, for example, that 8 out of 10 people that I know and see every day claim to be bipolar, and I roll my eyes and think at least half of them are just being dramatic, that’s when I have to stop myself and remember that I’m not bipolar. I couldn’t possibly be so arrogant to assume that I know better than they do what is going on inside of their head. I think this applies to many other ways that privileged people can forget their privilege and effectively blame oppressed people for their oppressions, and not acknowledge how they, as a privileged class, are helping to oppress those other people, no matter how indirectly.
There’s no real attempt at understanding where anyone is coming from, there are accusations and declarations that the privileged just “know better” about what the oppressed individual or group is going through, or what they need to do.
It’s really as basic as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand what it is that someone goes through on a daily basis, and how you would feel and how your perspective would change it it were you. And remembering that, and acting accordingly.
I catch myself violating these rules, and I keep trying to eliminate that from my behavior and change my perspective when I find myself acting or thinking in a very privileged manner. Everyone should do this. It’s not a defeat or a concession. Think of the different ways that your voice isn’t heard, and respect the voice of others, because you know how it feels.
One thing that is hard for me, and many other people, is calling out racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic behavior when a member of my peer group expresses it, and it’s easily one of the most important and influential things that you can do to help raise awareness. Instead of rolling your eyes and chuckling at your friend’s “tranny” joke, even when you don’t think it’s funny, because you don’t want to start an argument or cause a scene, you actually say something about how it’s disrespectful and ask them to stop using that language, or think about what it is that they’re really saying.
All that said, acknowledging your own privilege doesn’t mean being quiet and letting people who are less privileged walk all over you, simply because they themselves get walked on all the time. That’s not productive and it furthers the problem.
I’m not even sure that I am comfortable with the current privilege/oppression model anymore, but it’s just the easiest to use at this point.