Privilege Gives Us Bad Instincts, By Design

[Content Note: Privilege; auditing.]

Here is something that has never happened to me: I've said or written something about some piece of misogyny, either directed at me or elsewhere, had a man tell me, "I don't see it," been 'splained at by that man about how I'm wrong, and then changed my mind because I am so wowed by his insight.

That has never happened. I don't believe it ever will.

And yet, on a nearly daily basis, I am confronted by men who are keen to tell me that they don't view something as misogyny, that there is some other explanation, that I am mistaken. They talk to me like I am very stupid, and very naive, and they will Occam's Big Paisley Tie at me with reason after absurd reason why something isn't misogyny. Why I am wrong.

Many times, these men purport to be my ally.

And the men who purport to be my ally will readily concede they have male privilege, even as they fail utterly to understand or examine how that privilege acts on them, and how much work it really takes to work through it; how much vigilance not wielding it demands.

We cannot merely be aware of having privilege; we have to understand how it works, and what it does to our humanity.

Resocializing ourselves out of the toxic oppressions with which we were indoctrinated is work. It doesn't happen by magic, and it sure doesn't happen merely by declaring ourselves aware of our privilege.

Human beings are designed to be sponges, and we sponges are socialized every day of our entire lives by a bombardment of messaging exhorting us to privilege some people and treat others as less than. It is absurd to imagine that we can overcome this aggressive socialization without serious effort.

A socialization that tells people of privilege: You are superior. You are worth more than the people who lack your privilege. You are a better person.

It's not true. In every way, privilege erodes our ability to connect to other people. It subverts our empathy, and diminishes our humanity.

Privilege gives us bad instincts, by design.

It tells us lies. So many lies.

And the most harmful lie it tells us is that we are objective, by virtue of our privilege.

What I mean is: It assures us that our perception of the world is right. That we understand how the world works, and why things happen, better than marginalized people, who naturally benefit from our insightful explanations. Ahem.

Every time you hear a white person explain at a black woman that some other white person didn't touch her hair because of racist entitlement, but because of innocent curiosity; every time you hear a straight person explain at a gay person that some other straight person didn't mean gay like that, heavens no; every time you hear a man defend another man to a woman by proclaiming he's no misogynist, for god's sake, he loves women! (which means: "he loves fucking women"); every time you hear a cis person tell a trans* person that they weren't overlooked for a promotion for the third time in a row because of transphobia, they couldnt' have been, it must've been something else, there's got to be some other explanation...

Every time you hear these tortured explanations, that's privilege. Privilege telling us that we have the right—and the responsibility!—to audit marginalized people's reports of harm and tell them that they're wrong.

Privilege tells us the lie that being oppressed by prejudice makes a person an unreliable witness to hir own life, but benefiting from prejudice makes a person an objective observer of that life.

That's a nifty little trick, isn't it? Being victimized compromises you. Only people in a position to victimize can be trusted to define what constitutes harm.

As if people in a position to victimize don't have a vested interest in explaining away harm.

When I talk publicly about my lived experiences as a fat woman—the harassment, the body shaming, the food policing, the armchair diagnosing, the hostility of healthcare providers, the jokes, the sneers, the looks, the shouts from passing cars—there are always thin people who will jump in to tell me that this or that didn't happen because I am fat, but because…insert here any other rationale, no matter how ludicrous.

And a thin person's voice, auditing my lived experience, telling me that my oppression is not what I think it is, is valued more highly than my own. A lifetime of living in a fat body, experiencing the world as a fat person, learning—by necessity—the patterns and practices of systemic fat hatred, still does not qualify me to be an expert on my own life.

That's how privilege works. That is the lie that it tells—I can't know my own life as well as any thin person who decides they want to comment on it.

This happens to people from all marginalized classes. Every woman can probably think of countless examples of having reported some instance of sexism, only to have a man try to explain it away. Every person of color can think of examples of white people trying to explain racism away. Every person with a disability can think of examples of able-bodied people (or people with a different disability) trying to explain disablism away as some other reason one just didn't see.

Or perhaps by simply saying: "I don't see it."

"I don't see it" is a favorite rhetorical flourish of privileged people, relying on the objectivity and authority that privilege assures us we have. On the right we believe we have to haughtily sniff at another human being who's been harmed by prejudice, "I don't see it." With an implied, "Then it can't be so."

And this is only one manner in which privileged people act as arbiters on the lives and choices of marginalized people. We deny marginalized people the right of authority on even their own lives in any number of even crueler ways.

Like accusing someone of being too sensitive, instead of examining how privilege erodes our capacity to be sensitive enough.

Privilege tells us the lie that we know other people's lives better than they know their own, that they couldn't possibly understand their own lives without the benefit of our superior objectivity. Privilege assures us that our role is to audit; rather than to empathize.

Privilege tells us the lie that everyone else is just like us, or should be. That universalizing our own experiences—and preferences and needs and choices—is not only okay, but the "Golden Rule." That kindness is projecting one's own perspective onto everyone else, rather than listening to individual people about how they would like to be treated, and then treating them that way.

Privilege tells us the lie that we shouldn't challenge this sort of conventional wisdom—or challenge anything, really, instead endeavoring to maintain the status quo. That we should not bother to challenge the way things are, because this is the natural order of things and thus the way they will ever be. That we should not expect more—of the world, of one another, of ourselves. That expecting more is an unreasonable expectation.

Privilege lulls us into easy complacency, and entrains us to behave in ways that burn bridges, rather than build them.

A crucial part of understanding how privilege works is understanding that privileged voices are louder, carry further, can drown out other voices. The presence of a privileged person can change the dynamic in a room, or an online space, otherwise filled with people who don't share that privilege.

We need to just be okay with the radical notion, contrary to everything that privilege teaches us, that sometimes we have nothing to add.

We have to just get okay with the radical idea, contrary to everything that privilege teaches us, that sometimes the only thing we have of value to offer to marginalized people is LISTENING, VALIDATING, and BELIEVING.

Sometimes, there just isn't anything we can do except mitigate harm. Which is not a small thing.

Sometimes, the only thing we can offer is just not behaving like every other white person, or man, or cis person, or any other person of privilege, who has failed to LISTEN, VALIDATE, and BELIEVE.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just shut the fuck up.

Privilege gives us bad instincts. One of those instincts is to talk and talk and talk. To explain at marginalized people about their own lives. To "educate" them.

That is not helpful. That is harmful. Just shut the fuck up.

I promise you: If you stop acting like you have nothing to learn from marginalized people, you will start "seeing it."

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