Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Check Your Privilege!

Lots of people (including my boyfriend) don't like this phrase. Lots of other people (including me) like it a great deal. So we talked about it a bunch, and it quickly became clear that we had very different understandings of what the phrase means and, more importantly, what it implies. So I'm going to lay out my viewpoint on what "check your privilege" means and implies.

First off, what is "privilege"?
I'd make the claim that there are any number of properties that a person has that cause that person to be more or less favoured within society. Within my society (UK, midlands):
White - favoured; non-white - disfavoured
C of E - favoured; Catholic, generic "Christian", atheist, progressive or nonreligious Judaism and other "white" religions - less favoured; Islam and Sikhism - disfavoured
Currently able-bodied - favoured; Visibly and definitively disabled - less favoured; more invisibly, especially mentally or emotionally disabled - disfavoured
Gay vs Straight, Trans vs Cis (see ) - take a guess

And so on. I'd also make the specific claim that, while membership of either gender has some advantages and disadvantages, girls and women are more systematically disfavoured by society and its systems. This is called marginalisation - women are marginalised, as in "pushed to the margins" in a wide variety of scenarios. This is a Bad Thing. Men are not pushed to the margins so much, which I'd say is good, and are in many cases beneficiaries of these unfair systems (if women are kept out of a profession, then entry to that profession is easier for men than it would be in a fairer system), which is bad.

Now here's the thing. We have two separate issues here: (a) people in the non-marginalised populations having rights that all people should have, and (b) people in the non-marginalised populations having unfair advantages. Both of these are called "privilege".

From the point of view of a lot of the world, that I grew up with plentiful clean running water, with access to medical intervention as and when I needed it, and with free attendance of both primary and secondary education, are huge privileges that they're missing out on. It doesn't mean I shouldn't've had those things - I should. It doesn't mean that I've done any wrong to have had them, or that it makes me in any way a worse person that I did - I didn't and am not. But it does mean that people in the world have not had those things, and that's something I'm morally obliged to consider before I, for example, judge someone who didn't have access to education for not being able to read (I mean, that'd obviously be a dickish thing anyway, but stay with me).

So, from my point of view, references to "male privilege"(see ) are not necessarily criticisms of menfolk. In the majority of cases I use the term, it's not a criticism. Men getting away with misbehaviour because society excuses it are the exception, but that’s not my emphasis in this post.

And yes, a man can be marginalised by dint of his race, or social class, or financial background, or sexual orientation, or any number of other properties, or combinations thereof. But will, in the vast majority of cases, be in a better position than a woman who shares those various other properties.

And it's not a competition. What I'm looking for is not a way to silence others, but a way to be heard.
Men are more seldom silenced in our society, and women more often - especially when daring to talk about "Wimmins' Issues". But it's not a bad thing that men aren't silenced - that's an example of a privilege that men have which we should all be entitled to. On the other had, some men are so used to female conversational submission that they presume a right to a disproportionate quantity of the conversational airwaves. That is worthy of criticism. I think it's worthwhile men in general taking a bit of time and effort to try to listen more - women, in general, have been socialised into this behaviour already.

So. Say you're a man, and I'm talking about street harassment that I've experienced today, and you laugh it off, saying that if it'd happened to you, you'd be flattered (see ). And I respond "check your privilege".

It does not mean "you're a man so you have to STFU"
It does not mean "you're a man so you're oppressing me"
It does not mean "you're a man so you're wrong"

It means "you're a man, so I think you've had qualitatively different experiences in this area of life than I have. Try to bear that in mind, to listen to what I'm trying to describe and why it might've upset me, to take the time to empathise with the experiences that I've had that you haven't. Try to remember that your life experiences give you a differing perspective. Try to hear me".

I don't think that's an unreasonable thing to ask.

Oh and: prison rape of men, underprovision of mental health services to men, higher homelessness rates among men - these and other things are indeed serious issues. I take them seriously, as does every feminist I choose to associate with (I'm so not a second-wave rad fem). They're part of the patriarchy, the kyriarchy, and intersectional feminism is concerned about changing them. This particular post wasn't. Nothing's about everything.

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