Monday, May 5, 2014

Check Your Privilege (in which I annoy my friends.)

So there's a "Check Your Privilege" meme going around the gun blogs, and so far, I've only seen it approached from one direction: the idea that "privilege" is obviously a stupid and fictional concept created by silly people in universities to make white people and male people (especially gender normative cismale fascists) feel guilty. The idea seems to be that "check your privilege" doesn't make sense, because white people and men aren't all rich, and they often face real struggle in their lives.

Here's the thing: that's not how privilege has been explained to me in the past, nor is it how I use the term in my life. So I'm going to follow the instructions of the meme (I will "check my privilege" and tell my "story of privilege") but first, I'm going to lay a couple of ideas out here.

  • Checking your privilege is not generally intended to mean wallowing in guilt or self-hatred over the racism of your ancestors or your oppression of post-lesbian transwomen. The point of understanding privilege is mainly to remind myself that there are problems others face that I simply do not face, and may not completely understand. That wouldn't make me a bad person, just a human being--nobody can know everything, and nobody is capable of perfect empathy.
  • Check your privilege does not mean "shut up." There are certainly people who say the one when they mean the other, but they're using it wrong, and I'm not obligated to obey them. I'm also not entitled to use them to discredit people who simply want to make a genuine effort to see another person's point of view despite serious differences. Like the "shut up!" people, I can do that--I have the power to do it if I choose--but it would make me wrong.
  • Among reasonable people of good will, "check your privilege" is the equivalent of "your fly is open" or "did you mean to leave the house without pants today?" Taking my privilege into account is something I want to do for myself, because I want to understand other people and also myself. When someone points out that I've forgotten to do it this time, that's generally not because they're trying to be mean to me; they're reminding me of something that they know I prefer to do, like zipping my fly before I leave the bathroom. 
Now, given all that, what's it look like to check your privilege? Well, for me, it's not stories of how hard my immigrant great-grandparents had it, or tales of how poor we were when my dad's factory job was moved to another state, or how hard I had to work to get through college rustling drunks for the school and signing my paychecks directly to the school, even though those things happened. It's not the stories about detasseling corn or walking bean fields in the summer sun, though I did that. The thing about all my stories of hard work and lean times is that none of those actually change the fact that I was and am a privileged person.

Generally speaking, people don't tell others to be patient with me because I "tend to be emotional," as opposed to women, who "tend to be more logical in their thought patterns." I don't get treated that way because men don't generally get treated that way.  Yes, yes, I know, we hunted the mammoth and we dig the coal, etc., but that's a privilege nevertheless. I can also walk down the street without people shouting propositions at me, even if I decide to walk alone or late at night.* I read the "Everyday Sexism" Twitter feed when I can, and the women who post their experiences are going through things I never have--often things I would have said don't happen. Are they all liars? Or does my privilege hide these experiences from me and color the way I see the world? I think that's the most plausible explanation.

The last time I went through a "roadside check" was last fall, after midnight, on a main thoroughfare in Springfield, IL.  I was bringing my son back from the emergency room after he'd gotten a laceration on his head stapled closed. Normally, I avoid those checkpoints, but I stopped for this one. A cop shined a flashlight into my car, looking for anything "in plain sight" in the passenger compartment, inspected my license and insurance creeds, then asked me where I was coming from and where I was going. I was tired and cranky (my son had not been doing something smart when he hurt his head, and my patience was already strained.) I snapped at that cop a little bit; I demanded to know why he needed to know that information. Basically, I copped an attitude. He backed off and sent us on our way. Would that have worked for one of my black coworkers? I dunno, but we suspected it would at least have ended with them being put through a lot more hassle than I was.
That's a privilege.

I'm a man married to a woman. People don't generally demand that I pretend not to be married to her, or that I pretend not to love her, to spare their feelings. Nobody has ever demanded to know how they should explain my marriage to their children, and nobody's trying to outlaw it, either. That's a privilege.

And, yeah, I'll go there: I'm a "cis male." I was born with the body that matched up to my sense of self. I never had to justify my existence to anybody. My body hasn't been perfect, and it has its quirks, but I don't have to explain to people that I'm not trying to trick everyone I meet. No one accuses me of being a pervert for going to the bathroom. I don't get told that I'm just confused, that I don't know who I am, or that the all-powerful creator of the universe will make it all go away if I just pray and wish hard enough (meaning, of course, that if it doesn't "fix me," it must be because I'm doing it wrong.)

Those are privileges, and I have them. I didn't ask for them, and even if I were willing to give them up, I couldn't. They come with the deal. They don't make me a bad guy, and I don't feel guilt or shame for having them; I just keep them in mind, because they tend to lie to me.  They tell me what the world is like, what works and what doesn't, and they make it harder to see that the world isn't like that for everyone.

*Usually. There was that guy in Houston who wanted me to cross the street to tell him the time . . . 


Tam said...

You're a good man, Don.

Don said...

Aw . . . well . . . shucks.

Tam said...

Have fun with this:

Don said...

Liberals have a new word for what normal people call “success.” They call it “privilege,”
Opening sentence. Not looking good for our boy so far . . . this is like writing, "gun owners have a new word for what normal people call 'accidental shootings.' They call them 'freedom,'"

It seems possible that this guy might not have put a lot of thought into figuring out what people are talking about before he decided that it was dumb.