The Blindness of Privilege

Privilege is real, and it is a problem. This is a plea for us all to have better conversations about it.

I think I’m in a decent position to talk about this. After all, I am one of the most privileged people I know. I graduated from Hogwarts Harvard one year ago today. I’ve gotten sunburnt while skiing, which is probably the whitest sentence in the English language. I once got a concert grand harp for my birthday – my twelfth birthday. I’ve basically been deep-throating a silver spoon for 23 years.

In that time, I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations about race, class, power, and privilege. I used to dismiss the people who used these words because none of them made sense to me and my experience. But I’ve had my eyes and ears opened a lot in recent years. I came to college, I met different kinds of people, I studied different things from different angles – the usual liberal agenda. I have a lot left to learn, but I’ve come to take the issue of privilege very seriously.

It’s an issue that comes up a lot in the secular “movement” nowadays – Richard Dawkins is swimming in it yet oblivious to it, Jen McCreight tried to start a whole new movement to deal with it – but a lot of people are still sort of staring blankly and wondering what is going on and when they can go back to debating the atheology of Firefly.

So as somebody who can relate both to the people who see privilege everywhere and to those who don’t get what everybody’s whining about, I want to help translate so we can communicate more clearly. First, everybody’s going to need to sit down and stop yelling and actually listen for a while, so go ahead and emotionally prepare yourself for that and come back when you’re ready to be an adult about this.

Good? Good.

Let’s start with something we all agree on: Facebook comment threads can be frustrating. Some extra-frustrating recent incidents pushed me over some kind of edge, which is why I’m here blogging after basically giving up on the Internet as a concept.

The other day, I posted a status update about how I’m planning on getting a second tattoo soon. An acquaintance of mine, a middle-aged man, shared some very well-meaning advice about how I should think about my future and remember that ink is permanent, and mentioned how glad he is that his 20s self had the foresight to remain unadorned. I retorted that I’d been wishing more men would tell me how my body should look, and pointed out that I know plenty of people of all ages who are satisfied with their choices of whether and how to modify their bodies. He then sent me a hurt and defensive message calling my “unfair” response a “cheap shot” and insisting that “gender has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

A couple weeks earlier, I shared an article about the enshrinement of slut-shaming in school dress codes. It got some comments, including a lot of agreement as well as some respectful and thoughtful alternative opinions; all good so far. But it also evoked a lot of outright dismissal. Here follow some excerpts from real comments by real men – men whom Facebook labels my “friends,” no less.

“I’m not seeing it.” “I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be offended by.” “That anyone thinks that schools are out of line for outlawing clothes that are, in most cases, made with the explicit purpose of looking sexy is laughable.” “And don’t tell me that an extra 3 inches off of a skirt helps you keep cool.” “What a bunch of nonsense.” “Not to be condescending, but [condescending rant].” “This whole thing is so silly.” “I don’t think it’s symptomatic of the ‘rape culture.’” “It’s just a damn dress code.”

Here’s the deal. If somebody of a different gender than yours says gender matters in a situation, it probably matters. Just because you don’t see something (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and all your condescending, laughing, and scare-quoting will neither help you see it nor make what I see disappear. If lots of people with some common experience that you lack – a gender, an ethnicity, whatever – are all upset by something you don’t even see, chances are better that you’re facing the wrong way than that it simply doesn’t exist.

You need to be open to the possibility that your experience of the world as a male/straight/white/cisgendered/abled/documented/educated/etc./etc. person might miss out on some of the struggles experienced by your less privileged planetmates. You need to admit that this might mean they know some things you don’t and put up with some shit you don’t. You need to respect them and listen to them and take them seriously, not mansplain to them that their subjective experiences are incorrect.

One of the main problems with privilege is that usually the people who have it are nearly blind to it. I believe that this blindness exists not because privileged people are stupid or careless, but because its effects are nearly invisible to them by the very nature of the systems that make those people privileged in the first place. I think the majority of privileged people are smart, well-meaning, and compassionate, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not trying to ruin everything. They just don’t know any better (yet).

As I said at the beginning, I know from experience that these kinds of ideas can be startling and disorienting to those of us lucky enough to be shielded from a lot of what goes on in the world. It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s not okay to use that as an excuse to abandon the conversation. When it comes to privilege, out of sight cannot mean out of mind.

So how are we going to get people to care about a phenomenon that doesn’t even seem real to them? I think the biggest thing here is that calling someone out for privilege can’t be a criminal accusation or a public shaming. Allow me to cast the first stone at myself: I should have found a less snarky way to point out the problematic aspects of the tattoo comment. I don’t think my response was “unfair” or unduly harsh, but it was less helpful than it could have been. Yes, privilege is upsetting, but if we start by hurling epithets, people won’t want to stick around to hear what else we have to say. When communication begins with an attack, the automatic response is to be defensive, not to listen. (See: all of atheism ever.)

Finally, one other comment on the dress code thread wasn’t overtly offensive but did illustrate a mistake that perfectly nice smart privileged people tend to make: “I maintain that one could craft a similar or identical policy divorced from history, and thus the policy itself is not sexist.”

That might be true, but last I checked, history was still waiting for its Henry VIII to come; for the foreseeable future, divorce isn’t an option. This issue of inescapable histories of oppression is discussed in an excellent blog post on Brute Reason called “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot.” This is a really fantastically good article and you should definitely read the entire thing, plus as many of the outlinks as you have time for. For now we’ll focus on this part:

In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millennia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.

But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.

The fact is that there is no way to magically remove yourself from history; you are embedded in oppressive systems no matter what. Just because you don’t see how a comment or action or policy relates to power dynamics and histories of oppression, that does not somehow make it officially neutral and vindicate you from any responsibility for perpetuating those systems. This means that there is no such thing as a neutral comment about a woman’s body, about race, about same-sex attractions, about non-conforming genders, etc.

There is no neutral way for a school board to police the sexualities of its female students. There is no neutral way for a man to comment on an unknown woman’s appearance. There is no neutral way for an older man to give me advice about my body modifications.

You are a part of the system whether or not you like it and whether or not you believe in it, so either you can join the resistance or you can sell your soul to The Man. Your choice.

Darwin tattooChelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard. She has left a trail of abandoned blog detritus in her wake, ranging from Sewage & Syphilis to Blogging Biblically. Before graduating from Harvard, she studied History & Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and served as both the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare.

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