I’ve written a bit about privilege here, and I’ve written my own privilege lists, inspired by Peggy McIntosh (blame her!), which have received a lot of hullabaloo on my site. There seems to be a bit of a backlash growing, where privileged people (like this super privileged Princeton student) are “denouncing their privilege” and “finally standing up for straight white guys” (HAHAHA). Well, I wrote this (originally a Facebook status) for you, Tal, as well as the rest of us:
This is for all the white, straight, cisgender men out there who’re sick of having your privilege checked. Who are sick of being “discriminated against.” Who are — and let’s just say it — sick of being identified as white, straight, cisgender, and man, because that’s not what you identify as.
Wasn’t it awesome back before we were seen as white, straight, cisgender, and man? “I don’t see race,” you might have said. “I’m colorblind. I have tons of gay friends. I’ve been to gay bars. And I wasn’t even freaked out then. I got into Yale solely on my own merit,” you kid.
We don’t see ourselves as white, straight, cisgender, and man. “I’m Sam,” you know. “Just Sam. So don’t you dare try and assume you know who I am.”
We don’t see ourselves in the protagonists of Worlds Not So Greatest Hits, from the Crusades to the Slave Trade. “The Holocaust was us, but that wasn’t me. It was just a bunch of horrible people who happen to share almost all the same identities. Why are you all trying to make me feel so guilty?”
I get it. It bites. We used to just be people, then suffrage made us men and civil rights made us white and Harvey Milk made us straight and now “Janet Mock, what is this, you’re telling me I’m cis? I’m more than just a bunch of checked off boxes.”
It’s a bummer to get called out for getting something you didn’t ask for.
But being bummed out doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged. Having a rough day, or a rough life, doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged. Only you can truly know your narrative, and I can’t tell you what it is, but “my great grand parents” this, or “my dad worked so hard” that, and all this “I had a tough childhood” shit doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged.
Because of who you were born to be — because of who we were born to be — we are handed a lot of things. Among them, we can live openly, in safety, be employed and be ourselves and nobody can ever legally tell us not to be. There are a few ways we can react to this. We can feel guilty. We can feel lucky. We can ignore it all and and pretend it’s a liberal conspiracy and continue living blissfully.
Or we can engage with our identities.
We can have conversations that will expose us and make us vulnerable, make us question ourselves and find answers, help us better understand ourselves and others. You have a race, you have a gender, you have a sexuality. Stop thinking of yourself as the default, an unmarked canvas, and start thinking about what these things mean to you critically. Learn, challenge, grow. Develop empathy.
And hopefully, once you do, you’ll realize your role in all this stuff isn’t to be taken lightly. I know you didn’t make the mess. It’s wrong to blame you for what other people did throughout history. Adding shame to the conversation doesn’t lead to productivity. But allowing yourself to continue uncritically experiencing unearned privileges in your life is perpetuating oppression complicitly. A decision to do nothing is action in support of bigotry.
If you don’t want that, change it. If you don’t know how, ask. And if you’re feeling freaked out, worried, nervous, scared, dazed, or confused, welcome to a new normal: that of a conscious life.
And to all of my social justice warriors, kings, queens, quings, keens, and everything else and in between: I got your back.