The Subtleties of Privilege

I was reading through my LJ list this morning, and came across a post by a friend of mine, a man whose name reflects his South Asian heritage, and not one which is often encountered here in Canada.
I don't normally think about having to deal with telling strangers my name as being a big hassle, but I was just thinking about the fact that I'm apt to give out another name of someone in the party to avoid it or just make up a name. Still, it was surprising to me how much of a difference it made calling up an Indian restaurant to make reservations today and realizing that I could just give them my name and then having them just accept it without asking me to repeat myself or spell it or anything. It was downright soothing, like letting out a tensely-held breath.
And it occurred to me that this, here, is a teeny, tiny little piece of the unearned privilege many, many white people - me definitely included - receive on a daily basis.

As you might all guess (see? that's it at work again!), my name (Caitie, or Cait) is short for the Gaelic version of Kathleen: Caitlin. It's a good name for me, though few people ever call me the full version, and none of us pronounce it properly if it were being used among Gaelic-speakers (where it'd be closer to "Kathleen" in pronunciation). But it suits me. It's a name people tend to assume belongs to a white woman, which is good, cause that's who I am.

What's the privilege? Well, having a name that comes from a background which is shared with that of Whiteness on this continent, I never have to spell it for people. Oh, I might have to let them know that I spell it with a "C" and two "I", rather than with a "K" and/or some "Y" in place of the I. But no one looks at me oddly, or makes me repeat it a few times, or requires me to spell it all out.

How is it a privilege? Well, I refer you back to my friend's comment, above, which started me off. It's never occurred to me how many times that difference plays to my advantage, until I read his last line:
It was downright soothing, like letting out a tensely-held breath.
I've never had to feel that way, that tensely-held breath, about my name.

Now, yes, I'm aware, many people with white skin have names which require spelling out to strangers, and many with brown skin bear names that don't require it. But that doesn't take away that those white folk could, if they wanted, take a name which wouldn't seem the least bit odd for their ethnicity/background, and take advantage of that tiny privilege.

I imagine the difficulties members of the Black communities face, when they bear names which don't come from the European heritage we associate with whiteness: of applying for a white-collar job with a name that speaks proudly of its owner's Black culture.*

I consider the difficulties East or South Asian, or African, or Latin@ people face, with their names from a thousand places, by far the majority of them outside the little privileged world of "white-appropriate" names.

I think about politicians who introduce bills requiring people to take "American" names.

I ponder the pressure on people with names outside that core group to take names from within the core group.

Privilege. You may not want it, but you're almost certainly soaking in it, over someone, somewhere. Someone's holding their breath tensely, over something you breeze through like a dancing zephyr.

* This section, and the three after it, have been edited, and I wanted to acknowledge that here. The way I wrote it originally spoke from an assumption that my readership shares the privilege I have, which is an othering practice I'm trying to shake: the four paras all started "Think of the...", which of course makes a clear suggestion that my readers can't come up with those possibilities for themselves, quite possibly because they're their lived experience.

As is my wont, I will edit to remove the offensive assumption, but I don't want to hide my mistake, nor the privilege from which I was speaking; if I'm going to hold myself up as someone whose opinion on this deserves being heard, I think it's important to recognize that I'm a long way from perfect on these issues myself. My thanks to Liss for pointing out the error, and my apologies for it.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus