Thinking about privilege

Privilege has been on my mind more and more lately. For one thing, a new colleague has a background in that area and it comes up in conversations. For another, there have been a lot of issues in the past year that highlight the issue. Ferguson, Emma Watson’s speech inaugurating the UN He for She campaign, GamerGate. The most recent was a controversy/discussion begun by a blog comment about privilege and white male nerds (comment 171). I found it through the Chronicle and was able to read a few surrounding articles pretty quickly. I didn’t learn of it until it had already brought Scott Aaronson to a new place in his thinking.

I read Laurie Penny’s response and it resonated. It definitely resonated. I was a (white) nerdy female teen and I was bullied. Including by one (white) nerdy male teen. Because how else do you prove you are not at the bottom of the hierarchy? Join in the bullying of someone else who is obviously more disliked than you.

I watch what has happened with GamerGate and I can see some of the worst expression of what Aaronson himself expressed well and with genuine empathy and pain. Pete Warden expressed some of it also. Privilege is not just about a single axis of identity. I identify as a whole lot of things as most people do. I recognize that as a woman, I am going to be at a disadvantage in a lot of ways. As white, middle class, highly educated, nominally Christian, heterosexual, cis-gendered, I’m pretty darn privileged. So one single axis that isn’t privileged. Well, as a teen there was also nerdy/geeky. Not really a disadvantage anymore.

So why are there so many people (males especially) trying to defend themselves against the past or against the fact that they used to be bullied for who they were, used to be at a disadvantage? Because it is darn hard to see that one’s life has changed, especially when it used to be a big struggle, used to be a “really awful thing” to have someone discover who you really are. That doesn’t negate the fact that the situation has changed. Many of these people have positions of authority. No one is telling them their voices don’t count. Actually, they are busy telling women that their voices don’t count. Again, when you need to feel better and you experienced bullying, you may repeat the cycle by doing it to someone else. Except now it is even easier. Now you can tell the entire world someone’s address and recommend they send nasty things to that person. Like rape threats. Because it isn’t real if you type it. Of course not.

What scares me just as much is the fact that feminism has been facing a huge backlash lately. More and more blog posts and videos and articles come out with famous people being asked if they are feminists and some of them saying no for a variety of reasons. It bothers me that feminism is still a bad or scary term or has even become more so. I have met some of the people who contributed to that and most of them I found unpleasant.

To be clear, for me feminism is about recognizing inequality and wanting to rectify it, especially in cases where society has historically said that there isn’t a problem, there is no inequality, or that inequality is right. Sexism, racism, homophobia, all of those are fought by the kind of feminism that I believe in. Feminism is for men because the current treatment of women also means that our treatment of men is harmful. I want the freedom to be human first. I want the same freedom for the men in my life. I want to be told I have more in common with a human man than with a female dog. Because it is true. I want to fight the patriarchy, and also colonialism, orientalism, racism. I want to change the norm. I want to live in a world that sees different colours but doesn’t value one more than the others. For me, feminism is about everyone.

Yes, many of the problems vocalized by first world feminists feel like first world problems. Oh no, you get 30% less pay than your male colleagues. Well, at least you aren’t having your genitals mutilated. At least you can go to school.

Yes, all this is true. There are awful things happening and there are a lot of women who have it worse than I do. There are a lot of people in general who have it worse than I do. That is actually the point. Feminism is about the ability to recognize when someone is being treated badly because of their sex or gender (or race or sexual orientation, religion, appearance, ability, etc). If you can’t recognize that making a rape joke is inappropriate, that it is hurtful, then can you be sure you are recognizing ways you and those around you harm others? I am talking about the unintentional things, the ones that are systemic that you never notice. Those little things add up easily and lead to some pretty awful things like rape seeming like a great YouTube video or doxxing someone because they said something you don’t agree with being an acceptable reaction.

That includes a lot of the ways women buy into the patriarchal system too. I have caught myself using phrases that imply my husband’s behaviour is less than manly. Really? He is a man and thus any behaviour he exhibits is manly. But that isn’t what society tells us. I struggle to remember to compliment little girls on something other than being cute or pretty. In so many ways I have been socialized and I struggle with it.

If we want to change the world, we need to start with how we treat other people. We need to start with recognizing when we, by default, are considered normal or better and thinking about who that then excludes. So yes. If someone is trans-gendered, hispanic, poor, gay, that person is going to be struggling on those various identities. They have it harder than I do. I get that my life is easy. What that means, however, is that I need to recognize why and how my life is pretty darn easy. That means I need to recognize my privilege. I’m not bad or evil just because I lucked out and happene to be born into the life I have. And if I have it easy, then I should be recognizing that other people don’t. That my privilege is what makes it easy. That others struggle. I need to give them an opportunity to have a voice. I need to speak out when they can’t. I need to find ways to make this world more respectful and thoughtful.

And I happen to be in academia so I have the privilege to do that.

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