Some time ago I had a showdown with my cisgender, heterosexual, able, white male university professor because I felt he lacked awareness of his personal power. His response was somewhat surprising – he spoke of his hidden ethnicity, and his oppressed cultural heritage as an Irish man. I became acutely aware that as an English person I was to him the oppressor rather than the oppressed, and I don’t deny the centuries of oppression the English heaped upon the Irish.
It did not really change my mind about his obliviousness to his own personal power, not even, strangely enough, when he started his “you students have the real power here, you have no clue how insecure my position is!” speech. But it did give me a clue as to why he was oblivious to his own power, a clue that helps me understand why, for example, rich white lawyers persecute young, vulnerable transgender people and still delude themselves they are the ones being victimised.
Dare I say it? Perhaps the root of abuse is not simply privilege, perhaps it is more than that. People like this are driven by fear; fear of lack of privilege, fear of loss of privilege. Once we allow our brains to believe we are in deficit in humanity’s equity balance, we can start to believe that no amount of power, no amount of making up for that loss, will ever compensate. That fear-driven “it’s never enough” notion is insidious; it lets us believe we are powerless and therefore unable to affect others – it legitimises our thefts, our aggressions and microagressions, our fortifications, and our accumulations. We develop a notion of a small, vulnerable self versus an oppressive society, oblivious to the fact that we are both vulnerable individuals and a part of the oppressing collective.
Whoever we are, it is likely we are participating in some structure of oppression or other. We are oppressors and oppressed, and we are more likely to recognise ourselves as oppressed, even when we are powerful and notable cis, het, able, white male professors.
When we have obvious signs of oppression – when we are women or transgender, or both, for instance, folks will falsely tell us we have privilege because of our minority status. This is, of course, easily debunked. But who is talking about the fact we have privilege in spite of our clear and unequivocal disprivilege? Deep down, I had always understood that being born with a vagina automatically placed me in the special category of “most oppressed”, and that no amount of fighting or compensating would ever garner me enough real power in a perpetually unbalanced world. I have lately come to realise what a dangerous notion that is.
This professor of mine, this powerless-feeling middle aged little boy for whom no amount of success and status would ever feel enough was a mirror to my own insecurity. For there I was, chip on my shoulder about my lack of education and social status, but oblivious to the power of my fierce mind, my masculine verbal confidence, and my white, middle class, English sense of entitlement. I realised, looking at this man, that I, too could get myself into a mindset where no amount of power and success and acknowledgement and acceptance would ever feel enough to wash away my vulnerabilities.
I could dwell a great deal on my status as a genderqueer lesbian raised as female, my survival of abuse, my trauma and my minor disabilities, but none of these things erases my power. We all have it, and we all have a responsibility to be aware of our potential to abuse. And sure, we all come from a vulnerable, powerless place – even lofty white males were once babies. And we are all headed to an equally powerless place as our bodies and minds decay and even the most powerful among us lose their grip and get sidelined. Power and privilege are not fixed things for any of us.
The reality is, I have power in this world and so do many others who do not realise it.