When privilege is ‘alone’

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Education, Gender, Personal, Racism, Sexuality
Tags: , , , , , ,

It feels free to say things that it would never say otherwise. Things it wouldn’t say otherwise.

Trigger warning for excessive, unchecked privilege, heterosexism and cissexism, also discussion of racism and racist attitudes.

I have been in white-only spaces and heard racist attitudes espoused, and left unquestioned. Once, thinking he had a supportive, white audience, a male acquaintance defended slavery. He was right about the white part, wrong about the supportive. But not everyone who does not support those views will speak up, and not every time this happens is there anyone to speak up. And it’s not just racism. It’s all the -isms, all the kyriarchal bullshit; when the privileged get together away from the marginalised, there’s a good chance the kyriarchal attitudes will rise.

And being brought head-on into these situations is horrible. I am currently studying sociology. The person who teaches it is white, cis, heterosexual, male, relatively class privileged, able by the standards of our society – basically he’s got all the privilege except excessive wealth. He also doesn’t acknowledge it – sometimes actively denies it.

So we’re sitting there writing. He suddenly comes out with, ‘What I don’t understand is, in all these lesbian couples, there’s the one that dresses like a man and the one that dresses like a woman. I mean, they say they’re attracted to women, but…’ Cue the rest of the class – and him – airing their gay stereotypes.

Sample phrases; ‘If you’re attracted to someone who dresses like a man, you’re obviously not attracted to women, are you?’ ‘They’re dressing and behaving like a man, that’s not… you know.’ ‘Couple of gay men – took one look at them and said, ‘that one’s the giver, that’s the receiver.” ‘I always think, when you’ve got gay people having children, some day, that child is going to have to go to school, you know?’ And more of the same. I’m sitting there frozen in my seat, gripping my pen like I’m going to crush it and clenching my jaw. There have rarely been lessons I have wanted to escape from more.

Then the conversation shifts to Thomas Beatie. I manage to unfreeze my brain enough to start planning ways of getting out of the room to escape the inevitable transphobia and cissexism that’s coming. They make do with, ‘I don’t understand why anyone would do that,’ and ‘He used to be a woman,’ and a couple of other muttered comments, and then it stops. We start reading from the book again. I unclench my fist, slowly.

Thing is, none of them would see their behaviour as homophobic or transphobic. Because they didn’t say anything advocating negative outcomes for non-heterosexual or non-cis people, they’d say they were just talking. Well, when you’re privileged and the subject of discussion is marginalised, there’s no such thing as ‘just talking.’ Especially when you think only privileged people are present. Stereotypes harm. They generalise. They create an ‘us and them’ dichtonomy. That leads to the least and the worst prejudice, discrimination, oppression and brutality.

Again, I wish I’d spoken up. I seem to spend a lot of time in that class wishing I’d spoken up. But… I spoke up in support of feminism, the first time I had ever publicly done so, and I’ve been ‘token feminist’ since. I can’t say I fancy being ‘token queer’ in that environment. No – it’s not just that. It’s also just this numbing, barely-acknowledged fear that if I say something, the people who seem to be okay with me but who say these things will turn on me. Will turn those attitudes towards me. And that the guy who teaches the class will bring all his cis, male, heterosexual, age, position and education privilege to bear on me.

  1. I empathise. I far too often find myself in these kind of situations.

    My example for today, in a discussion of reasons to have sex I am told that the ONLY way to procure children is through sexual intercourse. When I react strongly as an infertile person, not only does another infertile person claim that I’m over-reacting because *she* isn’t offended, another person says that without modern technology I wouldn’t be able to have children and everyone dismisses adoption as an option.

    • JKBC says:

      Ouch; that’s some really bad reactions and a lot of ignorance there. People are so quick to dismiss adoption, which does no-one any favours and actively hurts many people. The discussion sounds like a pretty awful situation, and it’s bad that people feel the need to defend that kind of narrow viewpoint.

  2. nome says:

    I had a similar issue with a teacher once. I suggest printing this off and including it with your evaluation at the end of the semester. (If your school does those)

    • JKBC says:

      I don’t think the school does evaluations, although if something comes up I’ll definitely do so (thank you for suggesting it!); I’m still considering whether to complain to the management team, talk to the teacher in private or give him a last chance. Unfortunately I enjoy and want to continue with sociology and he’s the only person teaching it in the whole place, which means I can’t request a transfer to another class. (I’m also new, which doesn’t exactly work in my favour.)

  3. Anon says:

    I sympathise with you, I understand it’s hard having people discussing issues like this without thinking how they’re words may come across.

    But what I don’t get is why your teacher’s ‘privilege’ had anything to do with it?
    Surely you’re being stereotypical by saying that because he is white, educated and heterosexual that he is privileged.

    • JKBC says:

      Trigger warning for discussion of oppressive situations.

      [Note to others commenting on here; I know this person which is why I’m giving them a 101]

      We live in a kyriarchy. That means that certain things are privileged over others by our social system. White over non-white. Straight over non-straight. Cis over non-cis. Conventionally able over not conventionally able. ‘Educated’ by the standards of our system over not ‘educated’ by the standards of our system. Male over non-male. Binary over non-binary. Many others.

      Privilege means that you are able to ignore inequalities and ignore oppression. It means that you rarely have to face the negative consequences of your prejudiced words and actions. It means that you can walk away from an oppressive situation. It means that, sometimes unknowingly, you have benefitted from others’ oppression.

      Stereotypes have nothing to do it with it. The kyriarchy does stereotype people, even the privileged ones, but that has nothing to do with privilege. For example, heterosexual privilege means you will never have to come out, you will never have to hide your affection in public for fear of gay-bashing, etc.

      Here’s a feminism 101 article on male privilege, which is worth reading because it has better definitions of privilege than I can do. (http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/faq-what-is-male-privilege/)

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