by Pauline Seppey
Setting out to write my first contribution to Feminist Voices, I decided to explore a topic that I have been thinking about quite a bit: privilege. I put myself to the task, enthusiastically typing out what I understand privilege to be, and why I think it matters. It is only after a frenetic redaction process that I realised the Graduate Press had recently been talking about a very similar topic: Privilege in the Age of Coronavirus. This piece articulates privilege much in the same way that mine did. rather than producing an involuntary rechewing of the same argument, I have therefore decided to reshape my article in order to continue the discussion.
You may know what privilege is about, especially if you have read the piece on Covid-19 I just mentioned. However, a quick recap rarely hurts. Privilege is not a personal attack, nor the implication that your life is miraculously effortless. When someone talks about your white privilege, or your male privilege, they don’t mean that everything in your life is easy and rose-tinted and that you shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion about anything ever. Rather, what they’re expressing is this: your life circumstances — whatever they may be — are not made more difficult by your gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, non-disabled-ness, any other category that has been historically and politically hierarchised in our societies. It in no way diminishes your life experiences; it just points to the additional hardships you’re not being burdened with.
Recognizing your privilege is a first step, and as my colleagues illustrated, it is already challenging enough for a lot of us. Being called privileged feels somehow unfair. When you hear it, something in you protests, “But it’s not my fault! There’s nothing I can do about it!” True, the patriarchy is not your own personal doing. However, by refusing to recognise that this system exists and it benefits you, you allow for the unchallenged perpetuation of its existence. That is why it is crucial not to cover your ears when someone says that you’re “privileged”. Rather, take it as an opportunity to listen, learn, and process the information and experiences being presented to you. Hearing about the privilege you are being “accused” of, you will be in the position to recognise its existence. As I said, it is an important, difficult first step — essential for the rest of the journey, but a first step only.
What do you do next? Sit in the dark feeling guilty about your newfound privilege? I would not recommend that. Rather, I suggest you try to learn more. My colleagues have mentioned that class privilege enters into play in the coronavirus epidemic, notably in terms of health care access. Once you have processed that information, dig deeper. What are the class inequalities present in your healthcare system? How do they manifest themselves, and what do they mean for the people affected? How is that being exacerbated in times of corona? Seek out the news articles, the blog posts, the podcasts. Identify the people affected who are being vocal about this. Read what they write. Follow them on social media. Listen to the debates they engage in.
Educating yourself on your privileges helps you realise that the reality as you experience it is not universal, but contingent on a wide range of social factors. Listen to the experiences of those who feel every day that our realities are patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, classist, ableist. Learn how the system benefits you, and this will put you on the right way to change it.
You may have noticed my recommendations are largely based on individual research, rather than on asking questions to activists. Here is why: while some people in oppressed categories are willing to engage in educational conversations, others have grown tired of having to explain their realities again and again, sometimes to openly sceptical interlocutors. This may feel unfair if you genuinely want to learn. Although, when you think about it, is it really the role of women* to educate men on patriarchal oppression? It is understandable some consider it as an additional, undue burden. What does that mean for your learning process? As with all things, I think the answer is balanced. I believe it is ok to ask questions, but if your feminist friend recommends you read Un féminisme décolonial to understand her revendications, do not ask her for a summary. Go read the book. In other words, the guideline is: you can ask for tips, but ultimately, you should be the one doing the work.
There are also a lot of discussions out there on the concept of ally-ship. Though it goes beyond the scope of this article to engage with this in detail, I highly recommend you document yourself about it, as there are great insights out there on how (not) to support those who do not have your privileges. Finally, it is important that I note here that my views are not original, but rather have been made possible by the work and words of marginalised people who have raised awareness on those issues. There is a lot of effort from countless people that go into making us recognise our privileges, and it should not go uncredited.
Ignoring our privileges is what holds in place a status-quo that benefits only some. We need to do better. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s recognise the ways in which we benefit from being “the norm”. Let’s be proactive, willing to learn, and most of all, humble. Friends, let’s do the work.
*Any person who is not a cisgender man (a man who recognizes himself in the gender assigned to him at birth).
If you’d like to read more on ally-ship, here are some resources we’ve collected:
Photo by @jontyson on Unsplash
For still far too many people in the world, personal sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics can negatively affect families’ ties, friendships and/ or professional prospects. While every individual’s experience is unique, many have wandered through most of their lives with the stigma of feeling insecure or even ashamed of who they are. Silence continues to shroud many identities, (self-)censored and muted by gender roles forced upon us and perpetuated by patriarchy.
On 17 May, we will be observing the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) to break some of that silence and to make noise for all those who cannot! Even within our IHEID community, several do not enjoy the freedom to express their identities and feel at ease, which is why QISA fights for a safe space for LGBTIQA+ people and allies in and around the Institute.
Feminist Voices is a fortnightly column curated for the Graduate Press by the Feminist Collective in collaboration with QISA. It aims to be an open and eclectic forum of discussion on issues concerning institutional and lived inequalities due to hierarchical power relations amongst people of different sex, gender and sexual orientation, regardless of whether they identify monolithically with their perceived categories. Why is it necessary? Well, give a look at our first article.