Check Your Privilege: When Privilege Conversations Participate in Oppression

“If you’re right-handed, how often do you benefit from a right-handed world?” The speaker looked around the room as a few half-hearted answers trickled up from the crowd.

“If you’re left-handed,” she continued, “how often do you tweak to fit into a right-handed world?”

The illustration, though simple, was obvious. Right-handers are privileged; left-handers struggle with a world designed without them in mind. And even though there wasn’t a particular disadvantage I could identify within this illustration, I sat there fuming.

Once again, dichotomy erased diversity.

It may not matter on a practical level that ambidextrous people were completely overlooked, but it did matter on a philosophical level. The speaker was attempting to highlight privilege with a relatively innocuous illustration, and she inadvertently succeeded in highlighting what I think is the biggest issue surrounding the conversation of privilege currently.

Time and time again, invisible minorities don’t even make it onto the table.

Someone I know recently remarked, “If diversity were the Olympics, invisible minorities wouldn’t even be a team.”

So often it seems that oppression and privilege are approached like a competition. Whoever has the most visible disadvantage wins.

Visible

What happens to the invisible? The ones who don’t fit neatly into the accepted, clearly drawn lines between dichotomies of white/black, gay/straight, male/female, rich/poor, disabled/abled, or…as with the silly example above, right-hand/left-hand?

They get lost, ignored, erased, and denied.

It comes from “both” sides.

This year I’ve heard more about privilege than ever before. Initially I was ecstatic because it’s a conversation we desperately need to have as a nation.

But now I’m just burnt out.

I’m so tired of responding to a privilege question with “but what about…” I’m tired of being told I benefit by being erased or that my version of oppression doesn’t matter because I didn’t experience it within the accepted categories.

Some will preface their privilege conversations with statements about how identity is complicated and no one is entirely privileged or entirely oppressed. Someone can be privileged in one area of their life and not be privileged in another.

Someone can also pass without necessarily belonging to the privileged.

But when it comes down to the carry-out, awareness of multiple facets of identity rarely remains, much less awareness of the multiple expressions that a single facet can take.

More often than not, I watch privilege discussions degenerate into people vying for perspective king-of-the-mountain, and if that requires pretending that only two opponents exist, all the better. It’s easier to categorically deny someone’s experience if your world is black and white.

However, I don’t believe it’s possible to make progress in the conversation about privilege and oppression while we are ignoring the experiences and realities of anyone. That just creates new oppressions, one in which “both sides” participate together. If we truly want to fight oppression, prejudice, and discrimination, we need to address the co-oppression of the invisible minorities. We have to stop erasing those who don’t fit into our dichotomies of identity.

I know it’s threatening to think that the lines of identity aren’t as clearly drawn as we would like to think. I know it’s terrifying to realize that we might have something in common with the “other”/”not you” or that our experiences might be shared on various levels. I even know it’s confusing to consider how identity works if there are so many people that fit in the middle.

It’s uncomfortable to think about trying to navigate a world in which we can’t visually pigeonhole someone and know whether we trust them or like them or belong with them.

But then again, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be breaking away from anyway?

 

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One thought on “Check Your Privilege: When Privilege Conversations Participate in Oppression

  1. Dani says:

    We are quite binary in our thinking, aren’t we? I often wonder if that’s a product of being socialized that way, or if it’s a natural propensity, or a mix of the two, or a wide variety of factors it hasn’t occurred to me to consider.

    It gets really frustrating to enter conversations where “both” sides have an opinion and be dismissed because my experience just “can’t be accounted for! It’s not like we can talk about EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME.” Which, I mean, in some ways that’s valid. Sometimes a conversation needs to be limited to a narrow topic. But it’s way too often that someone will say, “That’s not what we’re talking about here” and either a) it SHOULD be considered but they’d just rather not think that hard, or b) they never acknowledge a time when that aspect of things is touched on. It’s frustrating as hell.

    Anyway. I think I’m blathering now. I’ll keep thinking about this. Thank you!

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