Do You Know About Yours?
Many of us carry around at least some form of privilege. Some have many forms of privilege. Of course, we often didn't ask for this privilege, and we often didn't do anything to gain the privilege, but that doesn't mean we're not responsible for it. Privilege is essentially an unfair advantage afforded to some group, for no "good" reason, due to social structures. Examples include: White privilege, heteronormative privilege, cis privilege, class privilege, male privilege, and so on. This post is about some of mine. The first step to taking responsibility for one's privilege is recognizing that one has it.
First, you should all go read Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" if you already haven't. And if you have, go read it again! It's a brilliant metaphor to explain white privilege. White people have a long list of advantages that (western) society affords them, for no other reason than their being of a certain skin pigmintation. They didn't "earn" it, they don't "deserve" it. But that doesn't make it any less real, and it doesn't make white people any less responsible for their privilege (and their role in systems that perpetuate that privilege). One problem is that privilege is almost always invisible, and it's only visible upon very close, honest reflection and inspection. So I challenge you to consider your own privileges, and how they manifest in your daily lives. Then think about what it might be like for others to live without that (or those) privilege(s). This latter task may be rather difficult, so you may have to do some research. I suggest checking out some blogs like Black Girl Dangerous, or tumblr pages like the Academic Mansplaining tumblr.
Here are a couple examples of white privilege, from the article:
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
Along the lines of the last one, and transitioning to male privilege, I'd add that one doesn't feel like one is "Doing it for all the women," if one is competing in a male-dominated event, for example. Or that one is "Doing it for all the [insert one's racial category]." I was watching Season 1 of Top Chef Canada. Connie, the lone female finalist, felt horrible when things didn't go well at the end, because she felt like she was letting down all the women. She felt that she had to be a good example for women, since they're so heavily underrepresented in professional kitchens as chefs. Male privilege is not having that feeling, that added stress.
Another feature of privilege is that one's group is always thought of as the "default" exemplar. The default for "person" is heterosexual, cisgender, white, middle-class, and male, for example.
So here are some of my privileges: I'm white, middle-class, highly educated…and one that wasn't on that list: I have "passing" privilege.
It's really the latter that I want to discuss in this post. I'm trans*, so I don't have cis privilege. (I'm also lesbian, not hetero.) Cis privilege involves things like being able to have identification documents that match your sex/gender. Most trans* people don't have that right. Here's a nice list of 30+ Examples of Cisgender Privileges.
Here are a few examples:
Use public restrooms without fear of verbal abuse, physical intimidation, or arrest. (To be fair, some cis people get harassed when they don't meet societal gender presentation norms — butch women, for example. Also, there are intersectionality issues: black butch women tend to be harassed far more often than white butch women. Here's an amazing little comic on intersectionality.)
You can reasonably assume that your ability to acquire a job, rent an apartment, or secure a loan will not be denied on the basis of your gender identity/expression.
If you end up in the emergency room, you do not have to worry that your gender will keep you from receiving appropriate treatment, or that all of your medical issues will be seen as a result of your gender.
You are not required to undergo an extensive psychological evaluation in order to receive basic medical care.
And so on. The thing is, though, trans* people can have cis privilege. I have some, and it's due to "passing" privilege. Passing privilege comes from my "looking," "behaving," and "sounding" cis female. People can't tell from looking at me or talking to me that I'm trans*, so I get treated as though I'm cis. I chose the picture for this post as a "Can you spot the trans* person?" exercise.
(Don't bother: first, trying to figure out if someone is trans* is a generally horrible thing to do; second, I have no idea if anyone is trans* in that photo, or who might be trans* if anyone is. That's the thing about passing privilege: it renders one somewhat invisible. I so often hear people say, "I've never met a trans* person." How the fuck do you know?! For all you know, you've met lots of trans* people, you just had no idea they were trans*: in many cases, you just can't tell.)
I've never had an issue using a women's bathroom (this is literally from day 1, too). I've never had an issue using clothing change rooms (including places like Victoria's Secret). I've never had someone utter a transphobic slur to me (in person, at least). I still managed to navigate a difficult job market and find employment. And so on.
It doesn't mean my life is totally rosy, of course, and if you've been following the blog, you'll know some of the struggles that remain. I also still face potential discrimination when renting apartments (background checks will likely produce the wrong sex marker, though that will soon change), and I had a hell of a time finding a family physician (there's a possibility that physicians wouldn't take me as a patient because I'm trans* — something that's evident when I had to list my medications, though that's also something that's changed).
The thing is, though, I'm out about being trans*. Sure, this blog is (semi) anonymous, for very good reasons, but I have published some very public articles on being trans*. (But I've also written how that does NOT give anyone permission to out me to people.) However, being out, and relatively publicly, doesn't mean that people know I'm trans*.
I was starkly reminded of my passing privilege while reading a student's reflective essay recently. They were writing about my lecture (in a large, 3-hour night class in business ethics) on transgender issues. I came to the lecture room a little early (as usual) to set up. I put up my slides and cycled through the first one to see that my presenter and everything was working. Usually, I have the projector image on 'mute' so students don't see this, but that night I skipped that step. Apparently a student also in the room early was watching and saw something shocking: the second slide (the first after the title slide) is an iClicker question asking whether, other than me, the students know any trans* people. Of course, this is a very subtle way for me to come out to my class in order to get the lecture rolling, but this was an utter shock to the student: they had no idea I'm trans*, and this was week 10 of 12 of the course!
You see, I know that many students these days typically google their professors to learn something about them. And if you know my name (it's not "Philosochick", obviously), then if you google me, within the top 5 hits, you'll find my very public coming out article (and an additional one). The articles are also listed on my website, but they're a little buried. So I always enter a classroom assuming that most (if not all) of the students know I'm trans*.
Reading this student's essay reminded me that it's not true. During the lecture, I eventually asked them how many of them knew I was trans*, and about half raised their hands.
Passing privilege is sometimes an odd thing, since how we perceive ourselves is often very different from how others perceive us. I see something different in the mirror and photos from what others see: I still see the "before" me, not me now. So I'm still a little bit surprised when I'm reminded of my passing privilege (or when someone makes it manifest, as this student did in their essay).
It's an enormous source of day-to-day privilege for me. It's undoubtedly what allows me to avoid so much discrimination and harassment that's terribly common for trans* people. Some of my trans* friends have experienced things I simply haven't, merely due to my having this privilege. It's totally unfair that they experience harassment and discrimination, and that I just "get away with it."
I agree! And it's why I fight so hard for those that are underprivileged. But the problem is that it's sometimes a source of jealousy. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'm not an integrated part of the "trans* community." (It's obviously complicated, since there's also a default distrust of academics, and I guess I just rub some people the wrong way.)
And that's the thing about privilege: we often forget we have it — it's the invisible knapsack.
So, what's in yours?