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.