Well, they aren't going to. The people who have the greatest difficulty with privilege are indeed the ones who are making arguments using it, not realizing how they are furthering the marginalization of people because, in the end, they do not realize that they have privilege, and therefore do not know what questions to ask. They are also typically hostile to the idea -- which is fairly common. Most people who are called on their privilege are hostile to it.
So rather than tell them to go somewhere and find out something they can't even see, I am going to take the time to give them a bit of information on it.
And to start off, I'm going to explain privilege very simply, and very directly.
Privilege is not about who has it worse. It is not about being a bad person or a good person. Privilege is simply a set of expectations that one person has that another person does not have. That's all it is.
Let's look into it in more depth.
The Invisible Knapsack
The kind of privilege being talked about here is not the sort that one commonly thinks of. It is not a visible privilege, and not something granted by some governmental authority. It is not being born to a wealthy family or the lap of luxury in the common sense that we speak about normally when we talk about someone coming from privilege in most uses.
The sort of privilege we are talking about is related to those things, but not in the same way. It is still a form of entitlement and immunity to stigma, but not the sort that people are commonly familiar with. This kind of privilege can be earned, and often is earned.
No, the kind of privilege we are talking about is more formally known as Dominant Privilege, and is an unearned thing. You do not have to do anything to get it, and you receive it whether you want it or not.
There are many forms of Dominant Privilege. The form that led to the visibility of it all came from the observations of Peggy McIntosh, as outlined in her essay titled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" based on her paper: McIntosh, 1988. Working Paper #189, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley, MA 02181.. It deals directly in white privilege, which is readily and easily apparent to a person who puts effort into learning about their privilege in a society that is as institutionally racist as the US culture is. The paper, though, gave rise over the last 20 years to a much greater understanding in multiple fields and areas, including those surrounding sex and gender.
Forms Of Dominant Privilege
Another form of Dominant Privilege is Male Privilege. The US is a very severe patriarchal society. Men occupy a higher status and have more culturally supplied entitlements and immunities than women do (historically speaking). An example of this is the wage gap -- women earn less than men. Over a lifetime in the same positions and with the same skill sets and same basic value, a woman will more often be expected to take time off to bear and raise children, to bend her schedule to that of her spouse's, and earn less than a man simply because she is a woman.
If she chooses not to have children, she is looked down on -- she is subjected to stigma. Men do not face such a stigma. If a woman fails to adapt her life to her man, she is afflicted with a stigma as well. Men, again, do not suffer from that. A woman is considered of less value than a man, economically -- and it holds even when a substantial number of people say that they are for equal pay for equal work. Most people today feel that's fair and reasonable. And yet, the culture we live in, as a whole, still does not live up to that expectation.
Another form, and one that's of particular importance to the target audience for this column, is heterosexual privilege. In my commentary on male privilege, I use a certain set of statements. At first, when I introduce the idea of a woman adapting, I said spouse. The second time I referenced it and in relation to that, I used "her man." The Dominant Privilege contained in that second statement is heterosexual privilege -- the expectation that the normative pattern for society is a heterosexual relationship, and that it has primacy.
How many of my G & L friends have a regular expectation of turning on the television and seeing the lives of gay couples depicted? How many of you have heard the statement "two men kissing is just gross"?
Those are examples of heterosexual privilege. They are an unearned entitlement or immunity to stigma. They are merely one form of normative, not the only one.
Another form, of course, is Cis privilege. I won't talk about that one directly now, because if I do, people will bitch.
Additional forms of dominant privilege are found in all areas of oppression: Class, Ethnicity, Education, and so forth.
Privilege is very subtle, and one of its greatest powers is that those who have privilege do not see it until and unless it is pointed out to them. And, when it is pointed out, they are quite uniformly hostile to it. This is most readily apparent in the reactions to it. It is so predictable, that it has become a trope in and of itself. Even people who are otherwise aware of their unearned privilege will react with defensiveness at the very least, often taking the form of a spike in aggression.
Dog Whistles And Subtlety
People speak of "dog whistles": words and statements that are seemingly innocuous, but are intentionally phrased so as to suggest something other than the seeming innocence. A good example of a more blatant dog whistle is the Bathroom Meme "They will allow men into the women's restroom!" On the surface, this is fairly innocuous. Men go into the women's room surprisingly often (I walked in on a guy waiting for his daughter yesterday at the grocery store and he was far more embarrassed than I was). But the idea that was dog whistled there is that letting men go into bathrooms is dangerous for women. And I did indeed feel some concern about having a man in the bathroom there -- because as a part of society, I am expected to see men as predatory culturally, and therefore I should fear this man helping his daughter learn how to use the toilet. Not because of what he was doing, but because of what he was and therefore what he represented.
Privilege is like that. It's subtle, it exists under the awareness level. It is, to an oppressed person, a screaming siren, and to those with privilege -- that unearned Dominant Privilege -- it is a silent agreement, a tacit understanding, and unspoken agreement that they are not even aware of having made.
Privilege has three aspects:
- Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
- Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group's trust and wealth.
- Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.
All of those are things we all think about ourselves in general. Indeed, all three of those are things that LGBT+ people are fighting to achieve in the social group that is the culture of the United States.
Two really good examples of privilege as it's been used by gay men against trans people recently include :
I don't have privilege. This one is an assertion of innocence. When one says this, one is saying that they are not the cause of the problem, when, in fact, it is rather useful at pointing out that they are, in fact, a part of the problem.
I can't be oppressing you if I'm pro trans. This one deals in the worthiness of the individual. When something like this is said, it is staking a claim to being worthy of that trust and wealth (and, in this case, that wealth is a metaphorical sort, such as information, esteem, knowledge, etc. linking it as well to the question of their own competence). It denies the unearned privilege the writer has not on the basis of the unearned privilege, but on the basis of their unrelated stance. This is similar to the argument "well, I have gay friends and they think you shouldn't get married too", or the "I know a lot of trans people and they like that movie." In both cases, the individual is asserting their privilege -- you should listen to them because they are more worthy than you are and they support it by citing people that they know in the oppressed class as evidence that they aren't part of oppression.
These are, for the most part, trans specific examples of privilege in action, stripped of something important to understand, and that's context. We'll get to that in a few moments.
These are examples, as well, of the defensive posture that is taken when people are confronted with their privilege.
Loss Of Privilege
That unearned privilege is very hard to lose. To lose it, you have to suddenly be stripped of your status. You have to affected by some form of stigma that reduces your ability to do this.
Closeted gay folks are often perceived as heterosexual, and as a result gain the unearned privileges of heterosexual privilege. When they come out, they lose that unearned privilege.
There are arguments surrounding the concept of how they gained that privilege in the first place, and readers are free to enter into those in the comments, but I'm not going to go there right now.
One of the most glaring experiences of a trans woman, however, happens frequently enough that's it's also a trope -- a sort of fully expected and normal experience that's very, very common. And that is the loss of male privilege.
The most subtle form of it is often described as how when they were perceived as men they would be in a meeting and if they spoke, people stopped and listened to them. They gave their attention, and often would even stop what they were doing to allow the person to speak. Then they encounter a similar situation as a woman and are ignored.
Their ideas -- even if it is the same idea they may have expressed when perceived as a man -- are suddenly less valuable, and have less merit and are lacking in worthiness.
This is the effect of privilege when it is used: it puts someone in their place. It is, in and of itself, a form of oppression, and people are typically utterly unaware that they are doing so. Even a very supportive and dedicated person working on behalf of a particular oppressed group will do this and not realize it until they have it pointed out to them.
The most common way of demonstrating someone's privilege in simple and reducible form is via a checklist. This is derived from the short form of the paper cited earlier.
Privilege checklists are often interpreted as being "individual specific," and as having a uniformity to them. That is, when people see a privilege checklist, they often expect all of those things to apply to them.
This is an incorrect reading and a lack of understanding. Checklists can apply only partially. A checklist also can intersections -- there are things on a Cis Privilege checklist that can also apply on a Straight Privilege checklist. Those commonalities do not reduce the truth of the particular point, they are simply an intersection. And, just because you as an individual may not have experienced a particular form of privilege used to further your marginalization that does not mean that it is not an actual aspect of privilege.
Conversely, just because a given person does not have a particular privilege described in a list (for example, a cis person looking at a cis privilege list), that does not mean that the particular privilege is not such.
One checklist that helped me, personally, come to see a great deal of my personal privilege was one that has an opening thusly:
Daily effects of straight privilege
This article is based on Peggy McIntosh's article on white privilege and was written by a number of straight-identified students at Earlham College who got together to look at some examples of straight privilege. These dynamics are but a few examples of the privilege which straight people have. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer-identified folk have a range of different experiences, but cannot count on most of these conditions in their lives.
That is also a link to the checklist itself.
I mention it because my understanding of myself for a long time was that of a straight person -- a heterosexual. As I've grown as a person, I've noted that I have some interesting variances that actually make me bisexual, and I'm still in the process of coming to terms with that and what it means. I'm not particularly happy about joining another oppressed class that is subject to extreme erasure, but if that's what I get, well...
I will discuss the particulars of privilege as it plays out in discourse and what things mean and why it is that people call others out for privilege in the next column. There I will also discuss how you can address being called on your privilege, and how you can call others on their privilege.
That part is important, because if you cannot discuss your own privilege, then "the privilege card," when played, can effectively end discussion and thus shut down learning, and, ultimately, means that we aren't going to achieve our goals of equity and equality.