On privilege

I spend a good deal of time thinking about race.

I don’t ascribe to the liberal lie, “I don’t see race.” Because I do see race. We all see race. Our experiences are shaped by, among other things, our race. In a country where racism is so entrenched, the greatest divide between my experience and my students’ experience, the experience of some friends, is often a matter of race. So I think about this.

It’s not always (if ever) a comfortable thing to ruminate on. When I hear friends and students of color talk about white privilege, it’s not always easy for me (or them), and sometimes it makes us all feel kind of sad. But you know what? All my empathy, all my self-critique, does not mean I am magically without the privilege my whiteness has afforded me.  

I can challenge it, I can question it, but I cannot merely abandon it.

“Inherent,” unearned privilege is the birthright of people society deems superior – whites, men. Whether we admit it or not, we all know this.

I would never say to my African American students or friends, “Hey, I’m cool. I don’t even have white privilege.” 1) Because I’m not insane. 2) Because that is an insane comment.

But men feel perfectly comfortable telling women they are no longer in possession of male privilege because they “feel like” a woman. And as women, we’re expected to believe this. We’re not supposed to be insulted, or confused by this claim. We’re not supposed to laugh.

One of the screeds I commonly hear from the M2T community is, “But I don’t have male privilege, because I’m a woman now!” This is as fundamentally absurd as claiming, “I don’t have white privilege, because I have black friends!” It presumes that by aligning oneself with the “other,” one automatically becomes the other – replete with the other’s history, experience, struggle. To claim “I no longer have male privilege” because one “feels” like a woman (I’ll leave the hilarity of that claim alone for now), because one is gobbling estrogen, because one has embraced an affinity for pink and frills, is beyond nonsensical – it is an insulting lie that men tell themselves in order to avoid confronting and challenging the reality of their deeply engrained entitlement.  

By saying one can take a pill, wear a dress, or undergo surgery and no longer be possessed of former privilege is to assert that oppression is easily remedied, it is to posit that one is no longer complicit in oppressive systems because they have simply washed their hands of it. This is not how privilege works. Would that it were.

The irony, of course, is that the very men who claim to have “relinquished their male privilege” tend to embody the very behaviors that the male privilege has afforded them: they name women (cis), they attempt to silence women who do not instantly collude with their highly problematic ideology (you’re a bigot because you can think critically), they threaten violence (rape, beatings) against women who do not prioritize their thoughts and feelings, they claim womanhood (not unlike privilege) is nothing more than a garment one can purchase or pass on. And this is male privilege.  

When men tell the lie that they have simply discarded their privilege it attempts to discredit discourse around the very real existence of unearned privilege. Furthermore, claiming to simply have “gotten rid of” male privilege undermines the experience of women who have suffered, in very actual ways, from living in a society where they are not male. The message it sends is “your oppression is a fantasy.”

Now, to deflect from notions of male privilege, many M2T’s have invented fantasy privileges — like the notion of “female privilege” and “lesbian privilege.” To distance themselves from the reality of their own entitlement, many very vocal M2T “activists,” with an almost fetishistic determination, throw around statistics about M2T suicide, rape, et al in an effort to say – what, exactly? That no oppression exists because their oppression exists? That some oppression is worse than others? That no one can call them out on their privilege because statistics?

What I’d say to those men who run around wringing their hands over the fact that they’ve been accused of exerting male privilege — stop for a fucking second and check yourself. Listen, really listen, to what women are telling you, even if it doesn’t feel nice.  No matter how many hormones you take, no matter how many pairs of shoes or shades of lipstick you own, your privilege exists. If you don’t like this, then challenge it. Breathe. Think critically for a moment about your actions, your words, and the message they send to those who have not been handed male privilege. Engage these thoughts, even though they make you uncomfortable. 

3 thoughts on “On privilege

  1. wow. thank you. that was physically nourishing to read in a way that i have come to recognize as my body’s experience of self-liberation. my mind now feels that much more free of confusion and i more fully understand what is happening. thank you.

    i am writing this with great sincerity, and i say that to avoid any question about my intent. my intent is to express my gratitude.

  2. I’ve had this fight sooooooo many times with the trans* community. And it seems that I’m never met with any who get in anyway their privilege. Which seems strange to me, because how can you renounce something if you stick your fingers in your ears going “la la la la I can’t hear you! ” pretending it doesn’t exist!
    I was born male, and while it felt like a horrible mistake, I was not blind to the privilege I had that the “other girls” didn’t! In fact that was one of the hardest things for me to face in dealing with my sex dysphoria was that if was female, then at some point I’d have to renounce all the wonderful “rights” I had. It was clear even to a five year old me, that being female in a man’s world sucked!
    Needless to say, a day came when there was no way to continue without transitioning, and when that happened, I at long last had to begin the process I had invisioned at 5. I had to renounce my male privilege. And now, decades later it’s still an almost daily struggle. A struggle that will never end… how can it? How can I erase my not having that voice of self doubt instilled in me as it is with all the other females I know?
    I can’t!
    How can I learn what it feels like to have my future planned for me because it was assumed I’d be someone’s property.
    I can’t!
    How can I learn to fear sexual intercourse because it might end in my pregnancy?
    I can’t!
    I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! Try as I might, bite my tongue, sit on my hands, smile as I’m treated as a second class, having to put the needs of the men in my life before my own, having to inflate their egos, no matter how painful aware I am of the privilege I once had. There’s always going to be aspects of my past privilege that simply cannot be undone!
    Which is why I lurk the radical feminist blogs, sitting quietly, listening and learning and trying to understand… Because the patriarch is very very real. And as one who now lives under its boot heel I better Damn good and well understand it because there’s no slack cut for anyone who isn’t male… no matter what their ediology.

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