Skip This Portion if You’ve Read About Privilege Before
We all have privileges in our lives. We all have things that make things just a little easier for us, or nearly all of us do. Nearly all of us also have ways in which we’ve got it harder, obstacles that aren’t always even going to be seen by those who aren’t facing them. Privileged and marginalized are not mutually exclusive categories–most of us are in both, and we shift from one column to the other depending on our position relative to specific individual problems, systems, organizations, whatever.
So basically, what I am trying to say is that nobody is the bad guy and nobody is nothing but a victim. There are very few people who could ever be pointed at and accused of benefiting from oppression without being oppressed in any way themselves, which means that even if we were trying to make someone feel guilty, it’d be pretty fuckin’ hard to figure out who that should be, don’t you think?
For people who haven’t had these discussions a whole lot, here is a breakdown on some of the basic theories banging around in my head that not everybody has banging around in theirs. The other thing worth mentioning before I get into this is that people who are–in the context of a particular conversation–the person speaking from privilege? Nobody is saying you’ve got nothing to say.
What is important for you to be aware of, though, is that being the one in a position of privilege means that in the broader culture it’s easier for your voice to get heard as a rule. Consequently, it is a really nice thing for you to do to say, “You never get to talk, and we all know it. So… why don’t you go first? Let’s hear from you and I’ll chime in later.” Here is some information on how to make your good intentions clear, so that you don’t blend in with the assholes. It doesn’t require you to approach these conversations any differently than any other interaction, but a lot of people think that discussing marginalization and privilege is different.
I think these people are wrong.
Some of these people are dear allies in the interconnected fights against prejudice and marginalization, and even though I value their contributions and still have all kinds of love for them and would certainly not want them to shut up, I think they are explaining these issues incorrectly. Even I have been failing to make what might be the most important point of all when it comes to treating people who are speaking from marginalization with decency.
Being Decent About Privilege is Exactly Like Being Decent Everywhere Else
I am going to argue that speaking from a position of privilege–both in avoiding being a jerk and dealing with the consequences of inevitable jerkery–is exactly like every other social situation. The rules are the same. I can see you side-eyeing me through your screen, thinking, No way, these are really sensitive hot-button issues that are very different from all other topics of conversation.
I get really emotional in conversations about privilege, particularly if there is a person involved who is not taking seriously the other people around who are saying, “This thing you did/said is not cool because of (name your marginalization).” I get angry when people don’t extend the same social courtesies that we are taught are necessary to basic interaction and being a good friend to experiences of marginalization. To me, hearing “this thing you are doing hurts me” should be treated exactly the same whether I said or did some non-privileged nasty thing as with a privileged thing, and I get really really angry when people treat areas where they have privilege like they get a different and relaxed standard that means they can call people friends without caring how much they hurt them.
One thing that people like to bring up as a reason to treat conversations of privilege and marginalization like they’re a separate breed from all others is that people speaking from privilege typically cannot really fully comprehend in a deep and personal way what it’s like to live without that privilege, which means they just can’t understand. I think this is a bullshit excuse and here is why.
I shouldn’t have to be able to identify with a friend’s hurt in order to give it significance in my life just because they are my friend, or even if they’re not just because they are human.
I shouldn’t need to fully grok their pain. What I need to know is that someone I have a social connection with is hurting because of an action I took or didn’t take, and that makes it my business because of our connection and/or because their hurt is due to a thing I did.
I feel like a great definition of privilege is that having a particular privilege means that when it comes to people who don’t have that privilege, the normal rules of personal responsibility for one’s own behavior no longer apply because hurt from that source is invalid. Even in the odd case where we have to say it’s valid, the person with the privilege is never ever responsible for their part in that pain, because the normal rules of basic human decency have been suspended.
Just makes me angry. It doesn’t require new skills to be reasonable about one’s own privilege. It just requires that you not draw a line around certain people and say, “I can be a worse friend to you and you don’t get to complain. Be grateful for what little you get, and I’ll stand over here and be smug over my generosity.”
If you’re even capable of that, you are an asshole. You really are.
I mean, someone who even has the capacity to do that… nobody else should be friends with them, either, because apparently just because they’re a good friend to someone else doesn’t mean they see the consistent application of that standard as having anything to do with their own integrity, which means I don’t think anyone should trust them.
Privileged Friends: Not an Oxymoron
I’m not saying that privileged people make bad friends. Almost everyone has privilege and privilege makes people do and say dumb and hurtful shit. Law of the universe! But part of being a person among people is accepting that you will hurt people sometimes, and deciding that you have a standard for yourself for what is a good enough response to having hurt someone. Everybody’s gonna fuck up with someone in some kind of way. Everyone. What divides the assholes from the trustworthy is how they respond to the awareness of having done so.
And people who make exceptions to their own standards of human decency? That says something about them, about their integrity. I get angry at the implication that this is normal and expected and I am asking too much of them to simply expect that they not decide some people are unworthy of decent integrity, because fuck that forever.
If you can be a good friend to people who aren’t bringing their marginalization-flavored hurt to you, you can be a good friend to the people who are. If you can’t be a good friend to people bringing their marginalization-flavored hurt to you, though, you might want to think about what kind of friend that really makes you overall.