Can we salvage the privilege debate?

Lately I have had my head spun round a few times on the subject of privilege. Quite a few people I respect have pointed out that the dominant narrative on privilege is toxic and shaming, and I have fought to rehabilitate it.

I have previously blogged about my own take on how we should handle the privilege debate with empathy and self-reflection. I do a lot of reflective work around privilege and I facilitate a unique take on difference and privilege training, which I speak about here:

In a recent discussion, someone made the statement that trans women always have less privilege than trans men and non-binary folks. This statement got me pondering. I am happy to own that I personally have a lot of privilege, but I felt uncertain that non-binary people are always and universally more privileged than trans women. The more I thought about it, the more my head started to spin.

I realised trans disprivilege, like gender disprivilege in general, is not one simple thing but many different individual circumstances that are hard to tally.

For instance, alongside all the other privileges I have (white, human, middle class, articulate and relatively able) I feel I have a certain amount of masculine privilege; I experience the world’s approval sometimes when I exhibit “masculine” traits. But something I experience the world’s disapproval that I am defying gender norms. However, I know that traditionally male qualities are valued more in society, and that if I was gender non-conforming in the opposite direction, that would be even harder – another advantage I have as long as I am read as female.

Of course, I also experience common-or-garden cis female disprivilege when I am read as cis female.

Being non-binary is another double-edged sword – on the one hand I currently do not feel the need to go through medical transition and for the most part I am cis-passing, because in my culture it is relatively acceptable for people assigned female to dress and express themselves in traditionally masculine ways. I appreciate someone who gets read as male displaying any kind of femininity is judged more harshly, because femininity is seen as inferior.

The other side of this is that my own experience being trans is invisible and little understood and therefore my individual needs are rarely met. My experience in the world is a unique and complex web of privileges and disadvantages.

It is far too easy to single out the area of disadvantage I have, and say “you don’t have this disadvantage therefore you hold privilege over me”. Lately, this has been extrapolated into “and therefore I can talk to you how I like and if anyone calls me on it they are “tone policing”. Although the “tone policing” trope has genuine validity, it has become an excuse to throw empathy out of the window and speak in a shitty way to people. Once we go to a place where we allow ourselves to be shitty with people based on their assumed privilege, we create a sense of entitlement from which all manner of abuse can then spring.

To illustrate my point, if I am having a discussion with a cis-het white man, I cannot assume he has more privilege than me, because these are not the only privileges that exist. I may have class, age, ability, and neurotypical privilege over him, and in the final tally I may be more advantaged in the world. I learned this lesson profoundly when working in schools in deprived areas with young white men who simply were not going to experience the advantages in life that I had – their glass ceiling was set even lower than mine, and that was hard for me to face up to.

Oppression is too complex a phenomenon for easy, lazy calculations. That does not mean we should ignore the overall effects of male, white, cis-het privilege but what it does mean is that it is dangerous to assume that a man, for instance, always has the advantage over a woman, even if he certainly does have male privilege. An elderly blind gay black African man living on a rubbish heap in Mumbai is probably not more advantaged than the Queen of England, but he does still have male privilege, it just doesn’t count for much amid all his disprivileges.

But what does all this mean? It means us owning that the need to set up a specific service or safe space might relate to our unique and individual needs but it can never legitimately be about creating a space for the “more oppressed people” because there will inevitably be people we are excluding who are individually more oppressed and disadvantaged.

Equally, I can never assume the person I am interacting with, especially on the internet, has more privilege than me. I can never assume I am entitled to exclude them based on their privilege. I can never assume I am entitled to yell at them based on their privilege. I can never assume anything, in fact, about their relative overall privilege.

Trying to work out the intricacies of who is more privileged than who, particularly within the intersecting oppressions of gender, gender identity and sexuality, is a road leading nowhere. We can call out sexism, cissexism, homophobia, biphobia and misogyny without the need for a hierarchy of oppression.

For me, reflecting on rather than dismissing my own privilege is key in all my activism and social justice work. By keeping my empathy switched on, and by inviting people to empathise with my concrete differences and disadvantages without drawing sweeping conclusions or jabbing my finger at them, I hope to communicate and understand the complexity of our lived experiences without competitiveness over who is the most oppressed.

2 thoughts on “Can we salvage the privilege debate?

  1. drjen

    You bring up a lot of great points here. Privilege is so complex and you never really know another person’s life experience. Your reflection and empathy are inspiring.

  2. Jet

    Yeah, the hierarchy of oppression is SO 80’s, it’s almost retro. LOL!

    Seriously though, whether we do it to ourselves or others, shaming and blaming is not how we will change things. Although if people knowingly abuse their privilege and actively oppress others by dint of privilege/disadvantage, then challenging or calling them on it is acceptable in my book, but that challenge is probably more effective if it is done without making assumptions and with empathy and compassion. For many of us, that call to empathise is a huge hurdle to overcome.

    One thing that strikes me and will help in overcoming that hurdle is that while there may be privilege in being white, male, cis, able, etc. there are also losses due to that privilege and it’s those losses that we seem unwilling/unable to acknowledge. The idea that comparison is violence and in my eyes, not useful, is gaining weight for me and gaining ground in social justice/philosophical thinking.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s