How to Acknowledge Privilege

As I have stated from the start in this blog, I find myself in a position of tenuous balance between privilege and otherness. On the one hand I am white, cis-gendered, educated, and middle class. On the other, I am a woman, queer, and poly. This means that I frequently find myself contemplating what privilege really means, and how to appropriately acknowledge the ways in which I view the world from a privileged position.

A lot of folks balk at the idea of privilege, reacting as though acknowledging their personal privilege means abandoning the value of their opinions. This is a common view among the MRA (men’s rights activist) people: they reject the notion of their own privilege because they believe acknowledgment will require them to always be wrong. Thus, they insist they are not privileged, and rather trot out all their personal insecurities as weak arguments against it.

On the opposite side, which is where I sometimes find myself sliding, there is the overreaction to one’s own privilege that results in a fear of expressing opinions outside of my personal purview. I will sometimes completely avoid weighing in on any subject which I can’t address from experience, because I believe that my personal privilege colors my opinion enough to be not only invalid but potentially insensitive. For example, I would be happy to absorb, but resist ever engaging in, a conversation about trans* visibility, because I believe my cis-gendered perspective is incapable of presenting a valid statement on the subject.

That fear is not actually legitimate. I can educate myself and participate in discourse on subjects that I do not personally experience. And I can do so without disowning my experience of privilege. The how is a little tricky for me.

For those just tuning in to the world of useful life knowledge, when I talk about privilege I am referring to the ingrained perspective on the world which a person gains when they are in a normative position for their culture. For example, here in the US, and particularly in the Midwest where I make my home, the perspective on gender of a person who is cis-gendered is a privileged perspective. Sexuality for a heterosexual, race for a white person, religion for a Christian, etc.

My mind both rails against and shudders at my personal experience of privilege. Sometimes I feel like I should be allowed to relate to all oppressed groups, because I fall into several categories of otherness myself. The pride in me says, “I’m not normative, I’m alternative in all these ways, there’s no way I’m privileged.” Other times I see all the ways in which my privilege blinds me, and I just want to apologize to everyone, or find some way to eliminate my privilege, which of course isn’t possible without completely chucking out all cultural norms.

There is a balance to be struck. The experience of privilege can’t be eliminated or ignored. Most of us live with it in one way or another. At the same time, we shouldn’t hide from any subject on which we have a privileged perspective, because increasing our understanding will allow us to participate in important issues, even if they’re not ones we ourselves experience. I want to be a positive force for things like trans* issues, but I can’t do that if I believe my privileged position makes me incapable of it.

The fact is, privilege is ok. It’s not something I chose – I didn’t one day decide which normative molds I was going to fit and which ones I wasn’t. Privilege is not something to treat with shame or fear. It’s something to acknowledge openly, and factor into my daily experiences, seeing the ways in which it colors my opinions without feeling the compulsion to immediately negate those opinions.

I’m sure that for anyone with a background in women’s studies, queer theory, gender studies, etc, this whole post has been a 101-level snore. Personally, I have no academic background on these subjects. I gather my knowledge through blogs, articles, and experience. So sometimes my revelations are really a little bit basic. But I hope that for some folks, what I have to say can be as helpful as it is for me to get it written down.