I know how jazzed you are about the idea of reading a whole article on privilege. Probably as jazzed as I am to be writing it. And how jazzed is that? Enough to use the word “jazzed” four fucking times in the opening paragraph.
Yeah. It’s a shit show. Welcome one and all!
But I think this is something we need to talk about. And not just because of the protests and the riots and the general sense of unrest in our country right now. (Though that stuff does kinda bring this concept to mind.) I think we need to talk about it because we need to deal with it.
So, I’ve been thinking about privilege and how it affects us. Like, a lot. And I’ve come to some realizations—realizations shaped by experiencing privilege as a transgender woman. (More on that in a bit.)
I’m not sharing this stuff to beat anyone down. My hope is that sharing will … I don’t know … facilitate change? Maybe that’s shooting too high. At least encourage productive dialogue.
I know. I’m a dreamer. Still, here we are, so let’s get to it.
Here are 7 things about privilege that suck.
1. We talk about privilege a lot
The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot. I’m on point #1, and I’m already sick to death of typing it. (Due in no small part to the fact that my brain wants to type it as “priviledge” and I keep having to correct myself.)
It sucks that we talk about it so much because, like any concept we get stuck on, it starts to sound made up. Especially if it’s not something you deal with daily. It starts to sound like a myth—a conspiracy that isn’t even a real thing.
And if you’re able to stay grounded enough to remember that it is real, then it’s a serious downer.
But let’s not jump ahead.
2. Privilege is real
Okay, so if you’re one of those folks who feels like privilege is just a buzzword that doesn’t really mean anything, I have some bad news. It’s not. In fact, it’s the opposite of that. Privilege is real.
Really real. Super real. Real to the power of suck.
And if you think it’s not real, hang with me. I gotcha covered in point numero tres. But before I make my case, lemme say this. There are people out there who would crack down on you for saying privilege is a myth. They’d get all huffy and offended and snippy.
I’m not one of those people.
If you believe privilege isn’t real, I think that’s likely because you haven’t had the experiences to back up its realness. And that doesn’t make you evil or blind or biased or stupid. It just means your experiences aren’t identical to everyone else’s.
Which is, admittedly, a big part of the point.
But what I’m saying here is, please don’t be offended at the very fact that I think something’s real and you think it’s a myth. Please, for the love of all that’s sweet and sugary, gimme a chance to change your mind. If you hang with me through the rest of this article, I might be able to convince you.
3. If you have privilege, it’s easy to think it’s not real
I have a theory. I think most of the people who think privilege isn’t real can’t see it because they live in it. Here’s what I mean.
Privilege is a bit like air. If you have it, there’s no real reason to talk about it. It’s invisible, and it’s not like it’s constantly changing anything about your experience of life. It just … is.
But if you don’t have air, even for a few seconds, holy fuck, you know it. Your lungs will start screaming at you immediately.
Before I transitioned, I was seen as a white heterosexual male. (Two of those three descriptors were wrong, wrong, wrong, but whatever.) So, I benefited from privilege. White heterosexual males tend to do well in our culture.
But when I publicly transitioned, I went from white heterosexual male to white what-the-fuck-is-her-sexuality trans female. That dropped me a couple of rungs on the privilege ladder. And I knew it 5 minutes into my first outing.
I had to go to Target to buy toilet paper. It was terrifying. There were tons of people, and a shocking number of them openly gawked. I saw multiple people literally nudge the person they were with, point and snicker.
Bye-bye, privilege. Hello, social judgment.
In the time since that day, I’ve learned to ignore the judgemental looks, though I still get them from some folks. I’ve also been intentionally called by the wrong pronouns, I’ve been sneered at, I’ve had to learn to watch my back in public (because an alarming number of trans women are victims of violent attack), and I’ve experienced genuine harassment resulting in unfair treatment.
I stay positive and upbeat, but it’s work. And that’s the point. I know experientially that privilege is real because I had it and now I don’t. I fucking live the reality of it.
But if you have it and you’ve always had it, you have no experience to use to verify its existence. Like someone who’s never been without air, you (somewhat justifiably) wonder why everyone keeps talking about the problematic issue of suffocation.
“Just fucking breathe,” you wanna say. Because in your experience, air is literally everywhere.
For those of us who find ourselves sometimes in situations where air is in short supply, “just breathe” sounds like a callose response. I sincerely don’t think it’s meant to be. I think it’s a response born of differing experiences.
But if we’re going to deal with privilege, we’re going to have to stop insisting that our own individual experiences are the measure everyone else on the planet should use.
If the idea of privilege being real is new to you, I would ask you to dig deep and consider the reality of its existence, even though you don’t have experiences in your own life to back it up.
And if you’re well-acquainted with privilege, I would ask you to give the privileged a bit of time to digest all of this. There are well-meaning people out there who could easily become allies … provided we don’t preemptively attack because they don’t already see what we see.
4. Most of us have at least some privilege
Okay, so here’s a hard one to swallow. Most of us have some form of privilege.
Maybe that’s the color of your skin, or your gender, or your sexual preference. Maybe that’s your religious background, or your cultural heritage, or your wealth. Maybe that’s your education, or your literacy, or your social connections.
Whatever it is, there’s probably at least one area of your life where you have some kind of advantage that others don’t have. THAT’S PRIVILEGE.
Sure, somewhere in the world there’s bound to be someone with absolutely no privilege. But that person probably isn’t you.
5. Where there’s privilege, there’s oppression
And … here’s the downside to point #4. If you have an advantage, someone else has a disadvantage.
That’s the math, folks.
That doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty for having an advantage. Especially since privilege is typically something you didn’t go after. You were born a specific gender with a specific sexual preference and skin of a specific tone. You shouldn’t feel bad about that any more than you should treat someone else poorly because of their gender, sexual preference or skin tone.
But you SHOULD keep in mind that you have an advantage others don’t have. (We’ll get into why in #7.)
6. You can’t just ditch your privilege
Before we get to the only solution I know of, lemme give you the bad news. You can’t just shake off privilege, even if you wanna.
If you’re a white hetero male, guess what? That’s what you are. You can’t change it. So you’re going to keep the privilege that comes with that status for as long as our culture is broken and inclined to allow white hetero men to have an advantage.
And FUCK YES, that needs to change. But we’re talking about privilege right now, not discrimination, imbalance and overall social justice. Plus, we’re focused on what individuals can do on an individual level.
So we’re going to take that big ol’ can of worms and put in gently back on the shelf and leave it there for the rest of this conversation because, fuck me, I can’t tackle it all at the same time.
7. The only way to combat privilege is with empathy … and a lot of us suck at empathy
What can we do about privilege? Lean into empathy. Hardcore.
The shitty thing about that is that empathy is difficult for a lot of us. It requires a level of selflessness that just doesn’t tend to come naturally. And it’s work. Most of us don’t like work. It’s easier to … not work.
But if you believe privilege is real and you want to do something about it, you have to get out of your own head and try to see the world from another person’s point of view. And a lot of the time, that means trusting other people to accurately portray their experiences.
If you’re white, it’s arguably a little easier to think racial tension isn’t a big issue. For you, it isn’t. But if you’re empathetic and you’re willing to listen to the experiences of African Americans, for example, that point of view is likely to change. When you hear about how they’re treated differently, then it’s harder to deny the reality of racism—assuming you trust them and feel empathy for them.
The same thing applies to the experiences of other races, other genders, LGBTQ folks, and anyone else who finds themselves at a disadvantage because of things outside their control.
Cheesy as it may sound, a little kindness and empathy really does go a long, long way.
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So, yeah. There it is. All my thoughts (today … for now) on the concept of privilege.
But you know me. It’s all subject to change as I learn and grow. Because—get this—I’m a fucking mess, and I’m just plodding along doing the best I can and trying to be kind. If (and more likely when) I see that my perspective needs tweaking, I’ll tweak away.
In the meantime, if you have thoughts, feel free to share ‘em. You can even tell me I’m dead wrong. Please just be polite about it.