The Opt-Out Privilege Card

Again, I find that I’ve been thinking about the challenges to having any kind of discussion on dismantling oppression and privilege. And just when I found something clicking in my brain as a way to describe the concept to male friends of mine who bristle against it, I find that, as usual, someone else has been saying it first and better.

The way I’ve been expressing it lately is to say that the basic definition of male privilege is to not be reminded that you have a body, and that it is male. Privilege is what it means to walk down the street oblivious to what people think of the sexual value of your body, positive or negative. Privilege is what it means not to think, on a daily basis, about your human fragility, your vulnerability to violence and not to be given instructions on where and with whom you should walk/talk in order to minimize the threat. Privilege is what it means not to have your sex lexicalized as an adjective (except in very specific contexts) in phrases like “woman leaders”, “female boss”, or even “chick flick”. And on and on and so forth. Privilege is not to be reminded.

And sometimes the most progressive men are the ones who get that least. The linked post goes through the process of how liberals unpack the old invisible knapsack, check it out, say “Wow. That’s a lot of knapsack” and pack it all right back up again. (I was trying to find a good quote, but following the thought process really requires the whole thing.) Not having privilege means there’s no knapsack, and all of that stuff is all around you, with no place to put it if you get tired of it.

I referred above to male privilege, because of course it’s easiest to start seeing this using the locus of privilege that I don’t have, but the principle applies to each of the checklists. My white privilege means I’m rarely made aware of my body as a white body. People don’t highlight my whiteness, my straightness, my gender identity. I can take any given day of my life, chances are, nothing has happened to force my attention back onto those features of my body. If I thought about it, it’s because I chose to, probably because I was talking to/reading something by someone who does not share all of those features (and even then, I was probably more aware of how the lack of knapsack was affecting the other individual than I was of the presence of my own knapsack-holding body). On the other hand, it would be the very rare day indeed when I could say that nothing happened to remind me that my body is female.

In comments to the linked post, michelle says (emphasis mine):

I’ve been thinking about the difference between stuff I have been/am involved with because I have a CHOICE about it, and stuff that I have no choice about. For me, the second thing, what I have no choice about, isn’t in any of the categories, even areas where I am oppressed like gender or sexual orientation. But it’s there and real and it is fucking INVOLUNTARY. I don’t get a choice about whether to be affected or not, I just AM and I can’t ever just choose to opt out and go back to being protected, because — I can’t.

IMO where people have these choices we are by definition untrustworthy. It’s great if or when we do the right thing, but it’s an action-by-action kind of situation, because at any moment we have the choice to step away, to choose to not notice because we do have a choice. Clearly we in that position are NOT the people who should be defining anything where we hae this disconnect.

That’s a powerful point. I will always be untrustworthy when it comes to any kind of work for change against the system with respect to oppressions I don’t experience not because of any moral inferiority on my part, but because of my moral equality with everybody else on the freaking planet. Because the planet gives me the choice, at any given moment, to forget those features. At literally any moment in time, I can flip the switch back to forgetting, walking away from the people who bother to point out my privilege, choosing not to notice the impact of those body-aspects. And since it’s tiring to notice all the time, and since I’m human, and since humans react to being tired by stopping to take a rest, and since sometimes those rests are short, sometimes they’re long and sometimes they’re permanent, why the hell would I be trusted to help in any way with what is the constant, life or death experience of somebody else, even if I say I want to, even if I helped last time, even if I’m really really nice?

I find it more than a little bit humbling that so much of that just clicked into place enough to allow me to articulate it. But it also makes me extra angry at these conversations where the non-privileged participants have to constantly assuage defensiveness from the privileged. Of course it’s not my fault that I’ve been handed a couple of versions of the opt-out card. But literally anyone would and will at some points choose to exercise that card, sometimes temporarily, sometimes subconsciously, and asking anyone else not to point out when I’ve done that, or asking them to look at my intent, or asking them to look at my history of being a super nice and supportive person is telling them to think of me like some sort of superhuman.

And, in sum, that’s bullshit.

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10 thoughts on “The Opt-Out Privilege Card

  1. Jay says:

    comment deleted, then reinstated (Purtek)
    Okay, here goes, and I already know this is going to sound hella defensive, but something inside me clicks when I read these kinds of things.

    What am I supposed to do about this?

    I’m willing to “unpack my knapsack”, as it were (I had to google that term, and read an interesting if maddening article on it by Peggy McIntosh), and look at all the “free shit” society has given me by having the good fortune to be born a white heterosexual male. Now my question is…what do I do with this stuff? Other than pack it back up?

    I had no more choice about my birth, color, or gender than anyone else. I didn’t ask for society to treat me differently, and half the time, I can’t even know if/when society is treating me differently. A lot of the stuff I’ve seen mentioned is privelege that I literally have no control over. I can’t just throw away my knapsack…it’s kinda glued to me, along with my white skin and the bits I keep in my trousers. And while I can try to make sure other people have all these goodies too, it’s not like I can give them mine.

    There’s something frustrating to me, as an individual, when people remind you about something over which you have no real control…is there an advantage to pointing out my white maleness other than to make me feel guilty about having it? Should I wake up every morning and remind myself, “remember Jay, you’ve got it so much better than all these other people, so you better work extra-hard to pay off the way they’ve been shafted for centuries”?

    Yeesh…I try to be a nice person. But just as you point out (or was it Beta?) just as being a nice person means more than “not raping or oppressing anyone”, doesn’t it mean less than “paying off a big debt you never personally incurred”?

    That’s why I prefer to work on the personal level…because the societal level drives me crazy. I think the ol’ “one candle lighting the dark” situation CAN work, given enough grassroots work. But maybe that’s my privelege blinding me to the necessity of top-down societal change. Who knows? Not me!

    (sorry to rant on your blog. delete this if necessary)

    An honest question: what’s a white, heterosexual male to do to feel good about himself in a racist, sexist world…other than try not to be a racist or a sexist, and discouraging that behavior in others?

  2. purtek says:

    I’m going to try to respond to this, but I’m really tired so forgive me if I express myself poorly, especially since you’re already on the defensive.

    The thing is that the point is *not* to make you defensive. But read back exactly what you wrote about how frustrating it is to have people remind you of features you have no control over, and then read my original post again.

    Because that’s exactly what I’m saying in my post. People without privilege are reminded of those features on an everyday basis, and you’re only reminded of them when you step into a space (virtual or actual) that talks about it. And it’s jarring. I get that, because I’m straight and white and a whole whack of other privileged categories as well.

    The reason being aware of privilege is important is because it helps us understand the extent that living in a racist world has an impact upon us as individuals. It matters a lot *more* on an individual level than it does on a societal one–it’s designed to help expand the discourse so that we’re *not* constantly taking white, heterosexual male as the default, unmarked category. This is a huge part of what we’re trying to do on Hathor, for instance, and your recent posts are actively contributing to a group of people trying to rethink what we define as normative and what can be dismissed (eg. cardboard cutout female “characters”).

    What is a white, heterosexual male to do to feel good about himself? I don’t know. I like you a lot, and I hope ultimately you do feel good about yourself in general in your life, and I hope that includes being reasonably satisfied with your moral choices. But from the perspective of a white, heterosexual female, being aware of my privilege and trying to keep myself aware enough that I *notice* the oppression going on all around me, and that I give enough of a damn to speak up about it when I see it…has nothing to do with feeling good about myself. Feeling good about myself can come from other stuff I do, other accomplishments, friendships and relationships I have, whatever…

    I hope this doesn’t up the defensiveness, because this isn’t accusatory. But I think we’ve hit something of a communication breakdown, because I see this as a lot more “one candle lighting another” than as “top down”. I’m sure as hell pretty far from the top, if you ask me. 🙂

  3. Jay says:

    Oh wow…um, I feel like kind of a tool. Can you delete my comment above, so I can start again with a clean slate? There are still some things I want to discuss on this issue, but my earlier crap is kind of an unnecessary knee-jerk.

    Okay, fresh start (both to your OP and later comment):

    I guess part of me doesn’t fully understand the nature of privelege and how we want to eliminate it. The article I read (by McIntosh) stated that some parts of privelege are just “having things everyone should have”, and some parts are “having things that no one should have, ’cause they work against others”. And while I’m clear on the former, I don’t understand/recognize any examples of the latter…save as conscious, personal racism (which I naturally detest). Can you give me some help/insight here?

    The reason the “realization of privelege” is jarring (to me) is not because I’m suddenly reminded (by myself) that I’m a white hetero male…it’s because I’m usually reminded (by someone else) that “you’re a white hetero male, and I’m not, and you’ve got it so much better than me”. Does that make any sense? I get the feeling I can’t be reminded of my priveleged state without a sense of disapproval…not of the system which as benefited me, but of me for belonging to it/profiting by it. Why is that a good thing? Is it just a “put yourself in our shoes” sort of exercise? Because while I can see the value of those exercises, I don’t think the answer to privelege is to make everybody feel as uncomfortable as the non-priveleged are forced to…I’d prefer that we raise everybody up to my comfort level.

    I guess I’m getting a sort of “in order to change the system, you need to make yourself feel the pain so you can be motivated enough to change it…otherwise, you’re probably just going to be lazy about it, since hey, it doesn’t affect you one way or the other”. Is that accurate? Am I way off base?

    “The reason being aware of privilege is important is because it helps us understand the extent that living in a racist world has an impact upon us as individuals.”

    But that’s the problem…I can already see how it has an impact on the non-priveleged…denial of certain things I take for granted. I can’t see how it has an impact on me, save by letting me have those things I think all humans have a right to simply by existing.

    “it’s designed to help expand the discourse so that we’re *not* constantly taking white, heterosexual male as the default, unmarked category.”

    All right, this one I don’t get at all…can you expound? What do you mean by the “default category”?

    “I like you a lot…”

    Well thanks…feeling’s mutual. 🙂

    “…and I hope ultimately you do feel good about yourself in general in your life, and I hope that includes being reasonably satisfied with your moral choices.”

    Generally, yes.

    “But from the perspective of a white, heterosexual female, being aware of my privilege and trying to keep myself aware enough that I *notice* the oppression going on all around me, and that I give enough of a damn to speak up about it when I see it…has nothing to do with feeling good about myself.”

    Does for me…I don’t feel good about myself unless I feel as if I’m living my own moral standard. And once I place “supporting equal rights for everyone” as part of my moral code, I don’t feel good about myself unless I’m upholding that. So when someone makes me feel (intentionally or not) that I’m “laying down on the job”, not doing my part to support equality, it makes me feel bad. I don’t know, maybe I should feel bad?

    But that’s part of it…I have no objection to reminding MYSELF of my priveleged status, and I’ve been trying hard to do it more and more often. What bothers me (offends me a little, really) is to be reminded of this by someone else, who feels I’m not (for whatever reason) going to do it myself.
    Now I agree with what you said, that anybody’s going to use that opt-out card sometimes if they can. But I’m not seeing what’s wrong with that, or how that prevents me from being aware of the necessity of change, and even working toward that change.
    I like what luck of the draw has given me. I think it sucks terribly that everyone else doesn’t have it, and I want them to. In the meantime, I’m not going necessarily reject what fate has given me out of a sense of solidarity. I’m not one of those “until everyone has a blanket, I’m going to sleep cold” kind of people.
    Crap…when I put it like that, I do sound kind of selfish. But I’m trying to be honest here. As long as my use of privelege doesn’t screw other people over, I don’t see the harm in having what I feel all human beings should have.

    It’s not so much a sense that being reminded of living in a racist, sexist world keeps me from feeling good about myself (though it keeps me from feeling good about the world, to a large extent). It’s that I (for whatever reason…innate defensiveness?) feel that external reminders of my privelege are an attempt to STOP me from feeling good about myself, or say, “Must be nice to feel good…of course, it’s easy for you as a white, hetero male”. Or to use the analogy above, “man, must be nice to have a nice warm blanket, you smug asshole”. As if I don’t deserve to feel good, since I get so much help at it? I don’t know…now I’m doing some sort of half-assed self-psychoanalysis…

    “I hope this doesn’t up the defensiveness, because this isn’t accusatory.”

    No, not at all…you’ve been tremendously helpful, and patient, considering who you’re working with (I think this is one of those things you mentioned earlier…”where the non-priveleged have to constantly assuage the defensiveness of the priveleged…”?). 🙂

    “But I think we’ve hit something of a communication breakdown…”

    Oh, I hit them all the time. Shall we go around? 🙂

    “…because I see this as a lot more “one candle lighting another” than as “top down”. I’m sure as hell pretty far from the top, if you ask me.”

    Oh, not at all! What you’re doing here (at your blog, and at Hathor and other places, for that matter) is an excellent way of bringing about social change…and believe me, I appreciate it. No, you’re definitely the candle lighter. 🙂

    No, when I referred to grassroots vs. top-down…I get this message (intentional or not) sometimes from the “equality crowd” (not intended as a derogatory):

    “It doesn’t matter if you are (or think you are) a ‘good’ member of the priveleged, who tries to help others and not be a racist/sexist/whatever-ist…since the whole system is weighted in your favor anyway, your personal actions don’t mean much unless we can change the overarching system. Your own contributions don’t mean crap, because you’re still willing to benefit from a biased system. Until you’re willing to throw away the system that benefits you unfairly, you’re not making enough effort.”

    I see the system as screwed up…but not because it gives me anything I shouldn’t have, but because it denies what I have to everyone else. I want to force the system to accept/embrace everyone…make the “priveleged” class not white hetero males but “homo sapiens”. Is that wrong? Do you think it’s an unrealistic goal?

    Man, that’s a lot of dreck that just flowed out of me. Thank you for the catharsis/self-examination. I hope some of it was useful/interesting to read, and I hope maybe you can help me answer some questions. At the least, maybe I gave you a good sample of what you need to work with/against. 🙂

  4. purtek says:

    dammit, there’s a ton in there to respond to, and i ended up having far (far, far) less time than i wanted to have tonight, but rest assured that i will post a response as soon as i can…because i really don’t think any of what you’re saying is dreck.

    i’ve deleted your comment above as you requested, but i genuinely don’t think a clean slate is necessary here, and if you’re willing, i’d like to reinstate it, because i think it shows a thinking process (still in progress for both of us).

  5. purtek says:

    Okay, so: I’ve found this framework of understanding oppression helpful because (as I’m trying to be in my OP) it’s *not* accusatory. It gets us out of that stuff I was writing about a few months ago in which people refuse the label of “racist/sexist” because that just sounds *so evil*. Which means they stick their fingers in their ears and go “lalalala I’m not listening when you tell me that racism/sexism etc is bigger than me“.

    When I talk about the problem with the idea of the white, heterosexual male as “default” in our society, the impact of this concept is to
    -marginalize the political concerns of women, poc, queer people and anyone else as “special interests”, which makes it a lot harder to get a productive conversation going on, say, parental leave or equal pay for equal work (esp in the context of multiple parental leaves)
    -make the (mostly) straight, white men in positions of power think of their experiences as normative/applicable to most of society, which means they don’t have to bother listening to anyone else (on the Privilege checklist, this would be part of “I can choose to only spend time with people of my race”, for example)
    -make the effects of those categories on his daily life invisible, and therefore lead him (generalized ‘him’) to see himself as having a neutral perspective on issues

    Etc. But as to this: I’m not one of those “until everyone has a blanket, I’m going to sleep cold” kind of people.

    I think you’re right, because you not having a blanket (unless you’ve given away all your blankets directly to people with none) hasn’t helped anybody else get warm. But what does it mean to take the knapsack and try to reference it more often? It means that you’re not just trying *not* to be racist. It means you’re trying to be *unracist*, to un-do the stuff that takes away from others…and one of the ways understanding privilege matters in that is you change conversation tactics when talking about/to people who are not.

    So when you find yourself saying “I didn’t earn this, that person has no right to point out that it’s easier for white people”, part of knowing is just pushing that thought aside and saying “If I get caught up in that, I’m going to miss what the person is actually saying”. For me, it’s not entirely about “easier”, just about “this person’s experience is different from mine” and about not letting that difference continue to be invisible, to their harm. Thinking politically in ways that respect that rarely hurts me.

    Now, when I said that this moral issue isn’t about you feeling good about yourself, I phrased that poorly. Because yes, I, too, judge my self-worth to a large extent on moral issues (including this one, duh). But I have to recognize that the world sucks, and that I doubt I’m going to feel perfectly great until it doesn’t suck anymore. I can feel good about where I’ve taken steps to challenge the status quo, or whatever, but I don’t get to feel good or bad just by virtue of being a straight white woman. That would be the opt-out card–yes, the world is racist, but it makes me feel guilty to think about it, so I’m going to not, and now I feel better. I tend to find that ineffective in terms of my self-worth as well. Yes, the world is racist, and it’s horrible to think about, but I’m only going to be able to assess myself as a morally worthy individual if I can genuinely say that I have kept my eyes open to all instances of oppression, big and small, around me today, and if I have done what I could to speak against them.

    I want to link a couple of articles here, but I’m running out of time and wanted to respond to your LJ post from last week. You should know I don’t find this nearly as frustrating as what I normally describe as “hand-holding” or assuaging defensiveness, or whatever, because though it’s part of it, you’ve come here and made it clear that you’re listening and that you’re trying to find the way to make this not entirely about you. What’s frustrating about it most of the time is that it feels so goddamn useless.

  6. Jay says:

    More to come…need to think some more, and find some time. In the meanwhile, yes, by all means reinstate the earlier post if you think it’s worthwhile.

    Thanks for the discussion. 🙂

  7. BetaCandy says:

    Okay, I may be way off, but:

    Jay. I like your top post in this thread. It’s what we all go through. It’s exactly how I felt when I realized that when I decided Hathor would be about feminism and not racism or other -isms, I was not thinking, “Oh, wait – a lot of women/feminists are not white and not straight and not able-bodied, etc. Shit!”

    You keep asking what you should “do” about it. I wish I knew. I asked for bloggers who weren’t white and/or straight to join us, and a couple did. I think we need more and maybe we should have another shout-out about that. I’ve tried to write a bit more about representation of WoC in the shows and films I talk about, but every time I do I break out in a sweat with the fear the show is invoking a stereotype I’m unaware of.

    Maybe all we can do initially is be conscious of privilege. Be open to others when they say, “I don’t have as much as you have.” And even THAT gets frustrating, because – for one example – I am constantly hearing from men that THEY are the underprivileged ones in dating because we ladies get to do the rejecting and not pay for anything, and that’s bullshit. Dating is hell on both genders. I wouldn’t know where to start sorting out who has it worse. And in any case, I’d guess people who aren’t heterosexual might have it a lot worse than any of us who are.

    I don’t seem to have a point other than to say that privilege is SO complex and SO frustrating that we all just want to give up and ignore it. But if you refuse to do that, then even if it’s NOT immediately apparent what actions you can take to save the world, at least you’re not making yourself part of the problem. It’s a good start (and I say that thinking of myself with my white privilege and all that).

    I do think the personal level is very important. If you generally respect all people and teach your kids to do the same, that’s a contribution right there. I view Hathor as an endeavor on the personal level: we’re not campaigning for new law or trying to force good behavior on unwilling hearts and minds. We’re inviting people to look at things in a new way so maybe a few hearts and minds will BECOME willing on their own. That’s all. It’s not enough, but it’s all I know to do right now.

  8. BetaCandy says:

    I just came across this:

    http://crimitism.wordpress.com/2007/12/12/this-isnt-very-interesting-but-if-you-skip-to-the-end-theres-some-amusingly-shit-voice-acting/

    Toward the end, he starts talking about this very thing. I’m not familiar with the original incidents, but it sounds like he gave up playing with misogynists he’d formerly wanted to impress and started blogging about gender and misogynistic bullshit – as his contribution to fixing privilege.

    Which is pretty much my story – gave up screenwriting when absolutely NO ONE could see any way in hell I would be allowed to write decent women characters, and everyone around me accepted that it just wasn’t allowed. Took up Hathor instead.

    I mean, stuff like that may be the best any individual can do, and anything is better than nothing.

  9. purtek says:

    Betacandy–I really like the way you put that, about this being what all of us go through at some point. That’s why I wanted Jay not to be embarrassed about the comment and why I think having this conversation is fundamentally different from the bullshit involved in coddling the privileged. And, obviously, why I wanted to reinstate the comment.

    This kind of conversation–and Hathor, and everything else that any of us talk about–is the counterpoint to that dude who showed up at Hathor and told us he didn’t trust our intellectual integrity because at some point we’d been convinced to become feminists. Um, what? And yet–so common.

  10. Jay says:

    1.) Thank you. Both of you. For…well, an ass-ton of things, really. But mostly, for irritating me enough to keep talking and learning crap and finally realize “hey, maybe this is something you should be concerned with”.

    2.) Man, I hate dating…who the hell invented that? I consider myself lucky as fuck to have found someone as frustrated by it as I was (am) and to have gotten to know (and love) her without that physical/awkwardness aspect being a major factor. Serious, I fell in love with my wife before I even saw her face. That’s how I wish it could be for everyone.

    3.) Thanks for the link…I’ll check it out.

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