I am a deeply privileged person. I am a transgender (genderqueer) lesbian in a relationship with a trans* man. I was assigned female at birth and have lived most of my life as a girl and woman. I have a minor disability. I have hidden minority ethnic heritage (Romany). I am a survivor of severe abuse and trauma. And yet my initial statement was made without irony – although none of the things I just mentioned are indicators of privilege, I am still a deeply privileged person.
This past year I have been on a journey of self-reflection to discover the difficulty and obstacles we face in examining our own privilege. I did this because as a feminist activist I believe we cannot possibly dismantle the structures that perpetuate oppression without such self-reflection. I’m coming from the more radical end of feminism – as in, I don’t believe it’s enough for women to be given equal access to our current systems and structures; we need to be looking at dismantling the structures themselves.
It has not been easy examining my privilege, and I have realised that humans all have this in common – it is far easier for us to notice the slice of cake we’re getting is too small than too big. Our concept of fairness and justice means that when we are confronted with our unearned, undeserved benefits we may feel so much shame we are unable to face the truth.
One of the oppressive structures we live under is one of blame and shame. This means that if something is wrong, then someone must be at fault, and they should be made to feel bad. This is useless when you need people to take responsibility for their actions and their participation in maintaining an oppressive structure – in order to evade toxic blaming and shaming, we disown or defend our privilege as much as possible, and this gets us nowhere. Finding my way out of this blame/shame trap was imperative.
Examining my privilege taught me empathy and compassion
In my escape from this inherently oppressive structure in which I too was participating, I went straight for the biggest oppression I help perpetrate – the subjugation and slaughter of other species. I went vegan, and this act allowed me to open my mind to my own power and the vulnerability of other beings. It taught me compassion, but it also helped me to be open to my own vulnerability and thus be compassionate towards myself.
Now, going vegan may be too radical an idea for others, and I’m not going to give anyone a hard time about this, it was an epic struggle for me to confront my human privilege and my own ability to dissociate from the harm I was causing to other beings. If others had not led the way in this, I would probably not have come to the conclusions I did. And I know that I still participate in many activities that, directly and indirectly, cause disproportionate harm to other species as well as other humans. It is still too easy for me to subconsciously decide that an animal in a cage, or for that matter a clothing worker in Bangladesh, does not matter quite as much as I do. My white, western, human, middle aged and middle class sense of entitlement is sadly still far too intact.
The point of this self-reflection was to recognise how very powerful I am; to own my personal power, to not be ashamed of it or to hide the fact that I have it. When I buy food or clothes or turn on the heating I try to hold in awareness the systems of oppression I am participating in for my own comfort. Such awareness drives change, as it is painful to carry on a damaging course with full consciousness. I might not be able to all at once fully eliminate the suffering of others but I can at the very least not block my eyes and ears to its existence.
In realising what a difficult process this was to undertake, I was also able to develop understanding and empathy for people in other privileged groups, and face the reality of the common processes of denial and minimisation that most humans seem to share in relation to their own power and position. I also learned that while I will absolutely continue to fight for the recognition of the vulnerability of various minorities, including those I belong to, we can also use our minority status to abdicate our own responsibility for other structures of oppression. This led to a shocking, and controversial, realisation.
As a woman I can’t assume all men hold more privilege than I do
In my day job, I have had to reflect hard on my assumptions about holding myself in a universal class of people called “woman” and how I can use this to evade my responsibility for other oppressive social structures. If we could do something so complicated as tallying up the sum of somebody’s privilege, perhaps I hold the social advantage over a black or disabled male client; I certainly cannot assume I do not.
In my work with young clients from profoundly disadvantaged, traumatic and deprived backgrounds, I realised I was putting the young white males into a more advantaged class than myself, despite the severe trauma and violence they were exposed to in their lives, despite their lack of access to the advantages I have been afforded. It was still easier for me to think that “people like them” are oppressing “people like me” than to see that people like me are oppressing them – I benefit from a class system that affords me better career prospects, a better education, relative freedom from violence and trauma, and access to social and economic opportunities these particular young white men do not have.
I am not suggesting, as some might, that this means that white male privilege does not exist – it does, as women or people of colour in the same environment fare even worse. I am saying that there are many intersecting structures of power and oppression in this world, and if we single out one and ignore others we get a false picture, particularly if we do so in such a way as to ignore our own advantages. I am not going to single out any group of people for doing this, because as far as I can see it happens in all groups, but I do believe ethical, intersectional feminism needs to be aware of this trap. Fighting for our own group’s needs and ignoring those of others is a form of me-ism; a scramble for privilege that is an aspect of the very system we need to dismantle.
I truly believe there isn’t a human on this planet that does not hold some form of privilege. There certainly won’t be such a human reading this blog, given access to the internet is a privilege most human beings simply do not have.
So this is the challenge I am left with, to extend my concept of intersectionality to the point that I never assume another person holds the upper hand, and therefore never exonerate myself from respect and compassion for the people I interact with, because a sense of entitlement towards my own anger, indignation, hostility or redress might lead me to abuse. The white male I am shouting at may have a learning disability, the “straight” woman I’m tussling with may be struggling with her own sexuality. My age and social status in this situation might just trump the other person’s membership of an apparently more privileged group.
Much as I can be aware of the sources and structures of oppression in this world, and much as I have a duty to name them and oppose them, I do not have an accurate calculation of where to even position myself in the global hierarchy, let alone anyone else. The only data I have is that as a human I am naturally inclined to position myself lower than I should, and the other person higher. This is why we tend to hear “I am part of the world’s poorest 99%” more than we hear “I am part of the world’s richest 20%” – even though I and most of the people reading this are likely to belong in that second statement as much as the first.
I will continue to call out all people for their privileged statements and behaviours, but I now commit to doing this with the respectful and compassionate assumption that I have the power to harm others, that we are all capable of being abusive and oppressive, and we are all a complex, indecipherable mixture of powerfulness and vulnerability.