|Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on January 26, 2015 at 4:50 PM|
I posted an article to my personal Facebook page recently, called “6 Reasons Why Being Called a Cisperson is Not Offensive,” which spawned a heated discussion in the Comments section. I have repeatedly heard or seen people responding negatively to the concept or discussion of privilege.
Why is privilege so hard to understand? So hard to accept that it exists? Part of it, of course, is that it makes us uncomfortable. There’s some “privilege guilt” at work there. We don’t want to believe that we have succeeded at the expense of someone else. We don’t want to believe that some aspect of ourselves that we have little or no control over has somehow given us an advantage in life. We often can’t even see that we HAVE had any advantages, if our lives have been particularly difficult.
Part of the challenge is that it’s an invisible characteristic and you can only really see that you have privilege in relation to someone who doesn’t. Otherwise, it’s an embedded assumption - you don’t realize that some aspect of how you were born gives you an automatic advantage in the culture in which you live, which has made that aspect the most socially preferred one to have.
Having Privilege Does NOT Mean You Have It Easy
Another issue, one that hasn’t been mentioned yet in the national discourse that I’ve seen, is that the word that we’re using to describe this concept is one that is loaded with other meaning. “Privilege” is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people,” according to my Google search. And we say that people “enjoy” privilege, AS IF being of the dominant class (i.e., white, male, cisgender, monogamous, christian, able-bodied, etc.) means that you automatically enjoy life and you don’t have to work at it. And that’s what’s being misunderstood - privilege simply means that if you possess the dominant (or societally preferred) form of the trait simply by being born with it, you will unknowingly benefit in the culture that celebrates that form of the trait. For example, if you are a white male, you have a higher chance (statistically) of getting accepted into the college you want, of not being arrested for your drug use (if you’re a user), of succeeding in any career field. It gives you a slight advantage. All else being equal, if a white male and a white female apply for the same job, the white male is more likely to get it. That is the basis for the affirmative action policies. That is the reason people are talking so much about privilege today.
The American Dream can be a Harmful Myth
We, as a culture, believe in equality and individualism. We believe in the American Dream of being able to do anything you want if you work hard enough. We believe that anyone can achieve anything and that the only thing holding you back is yourself. The problem is that reality does not match this ideal. Some people, no matter how hard they work, still can’t quite make it as far as those who were born into the dominant classes. Women still experience, on average, lower pay for equal work and they hit their heads on glass ceilings that shouldn’t exist anymore.
For transgender people, the discussion is not about “putting sex at the center of one’s being” (as someone recently said in the above-referenced Facebook discussion about cisgender privilege), It's about claiming the gender that you feel you are inside regardless of what body you were born with -- and our gender IS at the center of our being, but those of us born cisgender don't think about it that way, it's not necessary --- and THAT is our privilege. We don't even have to think about which bathroom or changing room to use. We don't even think twice about what to mark down as "sex" on forms. We don't experience dysphoria every day when we look in the mirror. THIS is our privilege revealing itself.
It's Not All About You
This discussion reminds me of an unrelated one about setting boundaries in interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, when someone says, “No, I really don’t want to do that at this time,” the other person hears, “No, I reject you and your ideas.” The first person may really just be drawing a border around what they need to protect their limited stores of energy or their mental state. But the second person continues to feel butthurt about it because it still feels like a personal rejection to them. In sharing this with a fellow relationship counselor, she said that she has started including the phrase, “This is FOR me, not AGAINST you,” in similar situations in her personal life. And that’s what the author of the article referenced at the beginning of this post was trying to say. “...using the c-word is all about helping trans people and not at all about making cis people feel like shit.” And yet, that point seems to get completely ignored too often. Not everything is about YOU. And that’s hard for people to swallow.
The Importance of Validation
I found it fascinating that when I looked up the exact definition of “privilege” through a Google search, I found the UrbanDictionary.com page on “white privilege.” This page lists a number of people’s interpretations of the concept and most of them are ignorant and rude and incorrect. One person was able to convey the concept correctly and give examples, such as “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” So another aspect of the discussion, another reason to HAVE the discussion, is about validation. There’s an excellent article available on Transgender Identity Formation by Aaron H. Devor, in which s/he describes the intertwined processes of Witnessing and Mirroring, which combine in ways to help someone feel validated:
Each of us has a deep need to be witnessed by others for whom [sic] we are. Each of us wants to see ourselves mirrored in others’ eyes as we see ourselves. These interactive processes, witnessing and mirroring, are part of everyone’s lives. When they work well, we feel validated and confirmed—our sense of self is reinforced (Poland, 2000). When the messages which one receives back from others do not match how one feels inside, various kinds of psychological distress and maladaptive behaviours can result. When the situation is especially severe it can lead to psychotic and/or suicidal behaviours. (Devor, p. 4)
Will You Choose Compassion?
So what people are trying to do, when they suggest or encourage others to use a non-judgmental term to define themselves, is to find one that does not also by extension invalidate others. Our language and choice of terminology can make those who aren’t like us feel invisible and invalidated, or we can instead choose words that are more inclusive or at least less invalidating. Our language can paint a picture which honors all of us, if we work at increasing our awareness and working at changing habitual patterns that we didn’t even realize were hurtful before. Awareness grants the power of choice. May we all choose kindness and compassion.