Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Thoughts on Privilege
A lot of different ideas are swirling around in my head right now and I’m going to try to link them together in one giant mess of a post.
I’ve been thinking about privilege and its relationship with violence. I am hilariously bad at domestic tasks. I can only barely figure out how to do laundry, most of my socks need to be retired, and it’s a damn good thing I have a dishwasher in my apartment because I am unkind to dishware when I wash it. This weekend I was up in Burlington, Vermont to see my cousin graduate from UVM (congrats, man!), and I was rocking my usual casual gear for the commencement itself (which was about six hours long), but for our family dinner I brought nice, reasonable-person clothes: slacks and a button-down shirt and decent leather shoes. I’m not a fan of dressing up, but I do clean up nice and this was a quasi-formal occasion.
Problem was, I got to Vermont via the B line, commuter rail, and two different cars. My overnight bag was an environment hostile to nice clothes. When we finally got back to the hotel after the commencement ceremony, I had about an hour to make myself look presentable, but my pants and shirt were wrinkled like the Crypt Keeper. They needed an application of IRON. This was going to be a problem. I think I spent 50 minutes of my hour trying to get these stupid wrinkles out. I didn’t know what I was doing. I almost burned a hole in my sleeve because the iron didn’t have fabrics listed on its heat dial, so I completely guessed at random and I chose…poorly. Thankfully, I did eventually get (most) of the wrinkles out, and my clothing survived more or less OK. I don’t think anyone in my family recognized the ineptitude, although my uncle did compliment me on my choice of shirt color.
One of the small ways I started to understand privilege was through my domestic failures - things like ironing. I have to wear a button-down shirt to work every day, but my employer is lucky if I’ve taken an iron to any of my shirts in the last six months. Part of it is laziness on my part - I hate ironing, I don’t own an ironing board, and I barely wake up with enough time to make it to the bus every morning as it is. I won’t iron unless I have to, and I’m very creative in finding ways to not have to iron. This only works, though, because I can get away with it. I can look kind of dumpy at work, and every now and again someone will make a joke at my expense and ask if I had a late night or something along those lines, but I’ve never been told I didn’t look professional, or that I really needed to be more attentive to my shirt-wrinkles or there would be disciplinary action. This is male privilege - this is what society lets me get away with for visibly complying with what men are supposed to be. I have it good. Cuppy has a much better post about this in general over at her place, on account of she is, in fact, female.
Privilege extends a lot farther than not having to spend money and time on my appearance, though. It’s a privilege to not get hit-on when I ride the T in the morning. It’s a privilege not to get harassed on the street at night when I’m walking home. It’s a privilege that, generally, people don’t bother me, threaten me with violence, harass me, make fun of me, or make sexual comments about me. When something like that does happen, it’s strange enough that I don’t consider it a part of my every day life, and I don’t have to modify my behavior to plan for that harassment’s inevitability. Not having to think about violence is one of the biggest privileges I get as a man. Holly takes this one on perfectly at her place.
The big unifying idea with privilege is that it isn’t something I have to actively use. It’s just there. The rest of the world in which I exist makes exercising my privilege difficult to separate from just the way I live my life. This makes it different from, say, a right, because we exercise our rights - we make conscious choices to apply them. I don’t have to do that with my privilege, I just have to be a lazy bastard and the privilege keeps me from getting in trouble for it.
Amanda over at Pandagon has a really good piece on privilege, and defines these things really well:
I thought about it really hard and decided there’s three categories of privilege that I perceive:
- Advantages that one person has over another that they don’t deserve and will lose in a just society.
- Basic human rights that everyone deserves, but only some people have, making those both a right and a privilege.
- Advantages that can’t be distributed fairly in a practical sense, and can’t be taken from the person who holds them without violating human rights.
This is in my head because of the new bill that Massachusetts passed, 258E, that allows for survivors of harassment and sexual assault to get restraining orders against with whom they do not have a prior relationship. While the restraining order is not gendered (which is a very good thing), I would hazard a guess that the majority of the survivors who end up getting one will end up being female-identified. Women and non-gender conforming people are the recipients of the vast majority of street harassment, and still (as far as we know), the majority of survivors of rape and sexual assault. Walking on the street, riding the train - existing in the world as a human - without being harassed should be one of those second category privileges and rights. It should be something everyone gets to do without having to think about it.
I’m as…excited, I guess you could say, about the new bill as I can be for bills that help make people safer, but I’m also depressed. Restraining orders are a stop-gap measure. They don’t change our culture alone. They can help keep individual people safe, and this new bill shows that our leaders in Massachusetts recognize that violence occurs in many contexts, often outside of relationships, but the bill itself isn’t going to keep violence and abuse from happening in the first place. If we’re lucky, and the bill works and we actually get to see it in action, then we might be in for a small cultural shift here in Massachusetts where potential perpetrators of violence are at least aware that they can get into serious trouble. But we need more. We need to fight, in this case, for something that shouldn’t have to be a right - it should be a privilege.