I’m about to embark on a series of posts that are going to be written with the best of intentions, and the best research I can perform. However, I realize that my particular voice and perspective are going to be tinged by who I am and what I experience of the world. I’ll be writing articles on class, education, race, gender, sex, etc. And of course, I have all of those things in my own life.
Rather than quake in the silent shame of Imposter Syndrome, I have decided to face my own privilege directly. Clarify it, speak on it, and where I am aware of it (as well as where my blind spots may be.)
This post will necessarily get a little more biographical than I usually prefer to put on the internet. But as I start to say uncomfortable things, I don’t want there to be any question of “Who does she think she is?”
What is Privilege?
Privilege is what you have when your self-description is the surrounding culture’s “default” setting. When the systems and structures surrounding you are set up in your favor, this is largely invisible to you unless you actively look for it. When you find yourself reflected positively in art all around you, it’s invisible that others don’t.
For those of you who have 4 minutes, and like visuals, this video is powerful. It’s only the very beginning of all of the things that speak to privilege, but I do find it a solid starting place.
A great metaphor is trying to bike or walk on a road that is designed for cars. The cars have the privilege. The road was designed for them. Without sidewalks or bike lanes, the road is dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. Maybe intersections have the right kind of stop sign or signal for car traffic, but there’s no crosswalk. The pedestrian on this road will be in danger, and the structure of the road clearly does nothing to help ensure their survival.
Do you notice this, as a driver of a car? Only if you look.
And I don’t know about you, but I only look when either (a) I have been a pedestrian in that situation myself, or (b) someone else who has been there tells me to look.
The cyclist, on the other hand, may feel a little uneasy without a shoulder. May be in danger of being side-swiped, but they can go much faster than a pedestrian. They aren’t quite as exposed. The cyclist is actually where the vast majority of us reside – we have some privileges, and we lack others. Motorcyclists, say, could also fit in this spectrum. Also exposed and less likely to be seen than cars. But they also have advantages of speed and noisy pipes to get drivers’ attention.
We have to “check our privilege” or “unpack our privilege” not for reasons of shame or guilt, but to have our eyes opened to the experiences of the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists around us. We become better drivers as a result.
What are the “default” settings?
My very next post is going to be about what’s not in the cultural shadow, it ties closely to what is the “default” setting for American culture. I’ll get into way more detail about why I included these things on this list in that subsequent post.
What is default for American culture:
- aged 18-50
- upper middle class
- moderately attractive
- has health insurance (but doesn’t need it)
- has a car/truck
- Natural born US citizen
- Your first language is English, and so was your parents’
- Grew up in a family that was well-employed, had health insurance, had a car
- Lives in a neighborhood that reflects those same things
There is nothing wrong with checking off every thing on this list. I can tell you that my stepson and husband fall on this list most of the way. That’s great for them! It also makes them have more responsibility for seeing and hearing the experiences of people around them. In my metaphor above, they are both driving cars on the road, and may or may not be aware of the cyclists or pedestrians.
Why “unpack” or “check” Privilege?
The neat thing about privilege is that it’s actually an opportunity. If my husband or stepson were to speak up on behalf of someone who doesn’t share their privilege, it helps the people around them see things differently. Their voices – from a place of the “default” settings – are more powerful, and more easily heard by people in power.
Unpacking privilege, for the privileged, is an exercise in realizing where our power and responsibility lies.
Unpacking privilege, for someone like me who is somewhere in the middle, both shows me my places of power and avenues for creating change, but also helps me experience empathy. Because I know what it feels like in my own situation, I am better able to understand how others must feel.
In this case, I’m going to be talking a lot about these issues, and where my particular privilege lies will likely matter.
How Privileged Am I?
I’m white, adult, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. I’m a natural born US citizen, and so are my parents. English is all of our first languages. I’m college-educated, moderately attractive, and well-employed. I have health insurance. My husband and I combine incomes to land in the upper middle class.
I’m an obese, non-Christian woman who is not neurotypical. (I have anxiety and am on the autism spectrum). I do need to use my health insurance for a number of chronic conditions (like celiac and prediabetes). I work in a technical field that is largely masculine. These things are without subtlety – I’m not privileged in those ways.
Those are the easy ones. It gets more nuanced after that. Here are some of the nuances.
We have a shared family car that my husband drives, and I primarily take transit. So I’m privileged enough to have access to a car, and I choose not to do so. I experience most of my feelings of lack of safety and exposure on my commutes to and from work without a car. My experiences of street harassment all happen here. The act of taking public transit every day is also an interesting one in terms of privilege. How people take up space, talk to each other, interact, is clearly based on who they are and what they expect from the world around them.
We don’t live in the suburbs. I bought this house so I could get to transit, and it was an “up and coming” area that never really did anything. It’s a quiet, residential neighborhood, for the most part. However, I’ve come close to being mugged twice, my house has been burglarized once, and our car was stolen from our driveway. It’s quiet enough you can hear crickets chirping most of the time, and I can tell fireworks from gunfire and know when to call the police. I’ve seen the SWAT team bust into someone’s house (on my block) and heard them set the flash-bangs. The town I live in is crumbling enough that our roads are sometimes blocked off for filming scenes of The Walking Dead.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my neighborhood. I love the diversity of residents, the kids playing on the streets, the camaraderie among neighbors. I call the police more often than anyone I know outside of my neighborhood. And I know more of my neighbors than anyone else I know. It’s a mixed blessing.
I didn’t grow up from a place of privilege. We lived in a trailer in a rural area. My parents worked hard. I was one of the first in my family to graduate from college. I know what government cheese tastes like. I remember not having as much money as my friends, even out in the middle of nowhere. I also remember being taught to give away toys every Christmas and wanting to give things to my friend when her house burned down. This childhood – my back yard was a state park – was idyllic in a lot of ways. But it is not the cultural default. The reason why where I grew up and where I live now matter is because the default is suburban not rural or urban. I’ll get into that more later.
This last one is harder to talk about than any of the others. On the face of things, I’m married monogamously in a straight relationship. In reality, I came out as bisexual nearly 25 years ago. I lived with and loved a woman for most of my twenties. We faced the legal questions of living wills and powers of attorney and all of the other ways we didn’t have rights. I worried about being fired. We were evicted twice. We didn’t hold hands in public, and couldn’t dance together at our friends’ weddings. While none of that is my reality now, it’s still very much part of my identity.
To further complicate matters, it was an abusive single-sex relationship. My experiences of emotional abuse and domestic violence are from that same relationship. Do you know how few resources there are for people who are abused by women? Domestic violence is in the shadow of the lesbian community. They don’t want to know about it. They want to hold their hands over their ears and say lalalalalalalala. At least they did when I was going through it and needing support.
In case you’re interested, my narrative essay about that relationship was recently published in the LGBT issue of MayDay Magazine.
Now, I’m facing more the questions of bi-erasure. There are lots of documents around the depression, anxiety and health risks associated with not being able to be who you are. Because I’m married to a man, coming out is difficult to damned near impossible. How do I accept this part of my identity and never identify with it? I feel almost closeted most of the time these days. Of all of the places I feel the sting of stigma and a deep lack of privilege, it’s here. This is where I feel silenced. Who am I to complain? I’m in a cis-het marriage, for crying out loud.
I’m flat out terrified to press publish on this post. I feel like there needs to be some closure. Some words of wisdom. But looking at the paragraphs above, my hands are shaking. I don’t have anything else to say.