Monday, January 9, 2017

Intersectional Privilege: Check it (out), or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Diversity"

Okay, I know it's a buzzword. “Check your privilege!” The rallying cry of liberal arts students everywhere! Not to be disparaging…it’s my rallying cry, too. But I’m learning that not everyone has the same clear idea of what “check your privilege” even means. I know this because anytime the word privilege comes up in conversation or a Facebook debate, inevitably someone will eventually say something like, "But you don't know what I've been through!" So I want to define some things here.

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST. There are plenty of people who know much more about this stuff than I do. I relied heavily on two resources when writing this blog, and I encourage you to check them out: John Hopkins University Diversity Wheel, and "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. This blog just contains the thoughtful thoughts of a thinky thinker with a blog. Okay. Here goes.

Less Accurate: Boxes of Privilege
We tend to think of privilege like this:

Either you’re in the privileged box, or you’re not. And when your life has been really difficult, it can suck really badly to have someone say, "You're in the privileged box!" That hurts, and it feels like that person is ignoring everything about the challenges you've experienced. But the truth is that privilege is much more complicated than that. The truth is that privilege is "intersectional." That's another fancy buzzword that just means that there are entire categories of who we are that all intersect to create our identity. Each of us have some privilege in some areas, and not as much privilege in other areas.

More Accurate: The Mighty Wheel of Privilege
So it's probably actually better to think about privilege like this:

I came up with these categories based on a ton of articles on the topic, and on the input of a few other smart folks I know. In the center of the wheel are things that can be changed, but it takes some doing. And sometimes it takes privilege in one area to improve your privilege in another. (For example, you often need a higher income level in order to make changes to your appearance.) The outer ring of the wheel are things that can't be changed or controlled. (Note: chromosomal sex refers to male/female/intersex...what your DNA says. Gender identity is in the brain, and refers to being either cisgender, transgender, non-binary, or gendered in some other way.)

What is privilege? 
I guess we should get specific. In social terms, privilege is not something "extra" given to you by society. It's not something that lets you cut to the front of the line, or makes your life easier than it is, or means you have no struggles. No one is saying, "Oh! You are a straight, white, heterosexual male--you get 15% off at the register today!" Privilege is in the things you don't have to worry about. It's not in extra things you get because of your circumstances, it's the things you get because of your circumstances that other people don't get because of theirs. 

Think of it this way. Think of a group that you are part of, just because of your circumstances, whether it's race or sexual orientation or gender. Ask yourself the following questions:

If the answer to the majority of those questions is "yes," then you have privilege as a member of that group.

For example, let's take biological sex/gender and answer these questions. I'm a cisgender woman.
1. Are the majority of people in your area a part of your group? KIND OF--IT'S PRETTY EVEN.
2. Are the people portrayed in film, music, magazines, ads, and other media a part of your group? KIND OF. THERE ARE FEWER WOMEN, AND THEY ARE OFTEN OBJECTIFIED. 
4. Are public facilities set up to accommodate you? YES.
5. Are people in your group in positions of power? IN VERY SMALL PROPORTIONS.
6. Are you statistically less likely to be a victim of harassment from strangers or law enforcement? NO. WOMEN ARE MUCH MORE LIKELY TO BE HARASSED, ESPECIALLY SEXUALLY.
7. Are you statistically less likely to be targeted by laws of your land? NO. HEALTHCARE LAWS IN THE UNITED STATES, PAID LEAVE, AND OTHER EMPLOYMENT LAWS TEND TO HURT WOMEN.
8. Are issues specific to your group taken seriously? NOT ENOUGH.

So based on these questions, women have a little bit of privilege, but not very much. If we need a clean-cut answer, the answer is no, women don't have privilege.

But, hey! Wanna know who has privilege in each of the categories of the wheel? I did some of the leg-work for you! You may not agree with this, but based on my reading and talking with others, here's a handy kind of short-cut guide to who has privilege in the United States.

Targeted vs. Underprivileged
There's also the important idea of members of certain groups being "targeted." Often, these are groups that lack privilege. But sometimes it gets a little more complicated than that. Let's say you've got an American community that's 55% Christian, 5% Muslim, 20% atheist, 10% Hindu, and 10% Jewish. The Christians may have the most privilege in this community, since they're the majority. The sayings on our legal documents and money reflect their beliefs, for example. So on the surface, it looks like Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and Jews are all underprivileged. But in recent years, Muslims have been targeted as victims of hate crimes or harassment, more so than Hindus or Jews or atheists. So members of the Muslim community may need more protection, or at least more attention.

Privileged vs. Valued 
There are also some groups that are more highly valued than others, but that aren't necessarily "privileged." Being valued by society means that you'll get more respect for being in a certain group...and it may come with some of those "extras" that we mistake for "privilege." The questions listed above (the ones we used to measure privilege) don't quite apply, but life is easier for the people in these categories. Here are some examples of valued groups:

So what?! 
Here’s why I think this is important. Because it helps us get on the same page when we’re talking about social issues. It acknowledges the fact that even if you have gender privilege, you may lack economic privilege. It answers the point “But you don’t know how hard my life has been!” It’s true. I don’t. And sometime, we should talk about the ways that your lack of privilege in certain areas has affected you. But right now, we’re talking about this specific area of privilege where you have more than me, and I’m telling you how you can help. And then you can tell me how I can help in areas where I have more privilege than you do.

Because until we acknowledge these things, many of our conversations about social issues are going to devolve into “My life has been harder!” and “Privilege isn’t a real thing!” And that doesn't help anyone.

Let's look at an imaginary situation. We've got two people here: Imaginary Person A and Imaginary Person B. The X's represent areas where the person lacks privilege, and the checkmarks represent ares where the person HAS privilege.

Person A is a rich, college-educated, middle-Eastern, heterosexual, cisgender, Muslim woman, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call her Amira.

Person B is a poor, college-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian man, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call him John.

Let's say Amira posts an article on Facebook about discrimination against women wearing hijab in the workplace, and then this happens in the comments...

JOHN: Why don't you just pick somewhere else to work?
AMIRA: That's really unfair. I shouldn't be limited in where I work because of my religious beliefs.
JOHN: You're asking for special treatment! That's the definition of unfair!
AMIRA: Dude, how is it special treatment to want the exact same thing other people want--being able to work someplace?
JOHN: Look, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but it's WAY easier for you to find a job someplace than it is for me. I had to scrape my way through college, and I've got huge student loan debt. I can't afford to be picky, so you should just be grateful for any job you can find! Some of us don't have it that easy.
AMIRA: Just because my parents were rich doesn't mean my life was easy. My childhood was really difficult. You're a white, straight, Christian male, and I really don't want to hear you complain about your privilege.
JOHN: That's BS. I'm so sick of people telling me to "check my privilege" when they don't know anything about me. Did you go to school hungry? Did you have to buy all of your clothes second-hand? Did you have to take out huge loans to go to school? Did you get beat up every day of high school? So don't tell me to check my privilege.

Sound familiar? So here's where I think having a "Wheel of Privilege" paradigm would be helpful. At this point in the conversation, both Amira and John could take a step back and examine their own personal wheels of privilege. Then maybe, just maybe, something like this could happen:

AMIRA: John, I hear you. I know your life has not been easy. Being a white, straight, Christian male doesn't automatically equal an easy life. I shouldn't have implied that. But we're talking specifically about women wearing hijab in the workplace, and that's a game you don't really have skin in, if that makes sense. It feels crappy to have you dismiss my very real struggles when you don't know what it's like to experience them.
JOHN: Fair enough. But will you at least acknowledge that being rich does make things easier for you?
AMIRA: Fair enough.
(conversation continues, remaining focused on the issue at hand)

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I don't imagine (see what I did there?) that I can single-handedly shift the world's paradigm when it comes to thinking and talking about privilege. But maybe it will help a little. If anything, this gives me a handy link to paste into the comments section of the next Facebook debate about privilege. Feel free to do the same.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


We made it into 2017, everyone!

There’s been a lot of talk about how 2016 was kind of the worst year ever. And I know that’s purely subjective. There were definitely years in human history that were worse, and there were definitely really awesome things about 2016. I think the insanity of the U.S. election sort of colored everything else that happened—we were all seeing the world through these terrible red/blue-tinted glasses that made everything ELSE feel terrible. (I don’t think red/blue-tinted glasses are always terrible, but they sure felt that way this year.) There’s something to be said for a positive attitude, but even I have to admit that 2016 was a rough year.

But I want to talk specifically about the celebrity deaths of 2016. And why it’s 100% valid to mourn them in whatever way you need to.

During this past week, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

“I’m really sad about Carrie Fisher.”
“But you didn’t know Carrie Fisher.”
“But I’m still going to miss her.”
“But you didn’t know her!”

The general sentiment is that it doesn’t make sense to mourn the deaths of celebrities we don’t know. Other arguments against mourning celebrity deaths include the fact that we should be mourning the deaths of soldiers/civilians/children/animals/etc, that you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you’re not even a real fan, or that their contributions weren’t valuable.

I’m calling BS. On all of that.

Of course most of us didn’t personally know Carrie Fisher. Most of us don’t personally know any of the celebrities whose deaths we are mourning. But many of these people invited us in to know them by living a public life, or by creating works of music and writing. I know that a public life and a private life are often two very different things. But the public life can still be inspiring.

Regarding the deaths of soldiers and civilians and children and the many other thousands of humans that have died this year: OF COURSE THAT SUCKS. Death just sucks. It’s an unavoidable part of the human experience, but it still sucks. Each life lost should be mourned. But I think the difference is that my own personal life wasn’t as deeply or directly affected by the deaths of many of those others. Yes, I understand that a soldier giving up their life in the line of duty often helps maintain the freedom I sometimes take for granted. And I am grateful for the sacrifices made on my behalf. I ache for the families of those who have lost loved ones to war, to cancer, to poverty, to disease. I ache for that loss of life. But my mourning the death of a celebrity doesn’t have to diminish the meaning of someone else’s death.

And I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a horrible person, but the truth is that Edward Albee’s life and work personally and directly affected my life in a different way than the death of a nameless soldier. I mourn the loss of Edward Albee more than the loss of other strangers simply because I know exactly how he changed my life. I will feel it more personally and more often. It’s more measurable.

If we were to truly mourn every death, we’d all end up in padded rooms somewhere. It’s too much to process that much loss. The human psyche can only take so much. I think sometimes the sorrow we feel for celebrity deaths also includes sorrow for all of the nameless…like we channel some of the despair of the world into the black armbands we wear for the singers and actors and writers who leave us.

And the whole “you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you weren’t really a fan” thing? IT DOESN’T MATTER. Let people mourn, even if you think they’re faking. Let people connect over stuff. Your sorrow doesn’t have to be more legitimate than anyone else’s—this is not a competition. I didn't know much about Prince before he died. But I was deeply inspired by everything I learned about him in the aftermath of his death, and it made me sad we won't have more of him.

As for whether or not the contributions of a celebrity are valuable, that’s in the eye of the beholder. There were some celebrity deaths this year that didn’t affect me very deeply. But there were others that did. I think each human being brings something utterly unique to this earth, and sometimes their contributions get to be widely shared. And when those contributions are meaningful to you or me, their loss is something to mourn. I’m still sad about Ray Bradbury—there will never be another like him. There will never be another story written by that man, in his voice, from his imagination. That’s a loss I still ache to think of, and it’s been almost five years. His dedication and imagination have been a huge part of why I’ve done NaNoWriMo, why I’m doing an MFA in Creative Writing. His books and stories allowed me to escape when I needed to. I know I didn’t personally know Ray Bradbury, and I know he didn’t sacrifice his life for my freedom. But I mourn the fact that the world, and my own life, will no longer read new words penned by his hand.

Many of the celebrity deaths I have mourned this year have left lasting contributions. And I can thank them for those things even as I mourn the fact that they have left us—that there’s a cap on what they brought to the world. So I mourn them.

David Bowie and Prince, thank you for rejecting toxic masculinity. Thank you for being fiercely yourselves, for blazing trails in music. Bowie, thank you for your prolific and ever-shifting career. Prince, thank you for your musical mastery and for being a delightful and enigmatic human.

Alan Rickman and Gene Wilder, thank you for the honesty and humor with which you approached your work. Thank you for Galaxy Quest and Willy Wonka and Severus Snape and Young Frankenstein. Thank you for your passion and dedication.

John Glenn, thank you for being brave enough to put on that suit, climb into that metal contraption and allow yourself to be shot into space. Almost infinite horizons have opened to the entire human race because of your work.

Harper Lee, thank you for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and the simple lessons it has taught for generations. And thank you, too, for “Go Set A Watchman,” and the harsher, more complicated lessons it teaches. I hope we learn that it’s not as simple as Atticus made it seem.

Edward Albee, thank you for giving so much to the world of theatre—for your fierce and life-changing words. Leonard Cohen, thank you for the music. Debbie Reynolds, you have inspired generations of singers and dancers. I spent hours in my garage and in dance studios and in my living room, learning the steps you danced on that silver screen. You were the lucky star for so many.

And Carrie Fisher. You intelligent, talented, brave, funny, honest woman. Thank you for showing the world that a woman can be both a princess and a war general. Thank you for teaching Hollywood to make the women smarter. Thank you for your honesty in dealing with mental illness and addiction. Thank you for reminding us that good looks are happy accidents of time and genetics and nothing more. Thank you for not giving any f***s.

And there are others that I felt pangs about, even if their lives weren’t inspiring to me in the same ways. Kenny Baker. Muhammed Ali. Elie Wiesel. Ron Glass.

(Ugh, it was awful to make this list.)

I am so so so grateful that I get to live in a world where the works of talented and brave and smart individuals can be spread far and wide. I'm grateful for the lives these men and women led, and I am better for what they brought into the world. So mourn them with me, if you need to. Or don't, if you don't need to. But know that it's perfectly valid to be sad that their lives are over.

photo via