July 27th, 2015


feminism 101: Why privilege isn't something you apologize for

Marc and I got married when gay marriage was IMPOSSIBLE in Kansas. Being gay rights activists, I mentioned to our friends that we were contemplating whether it was really right to get a legal marriage when not everyone could do it - maybe we should have just have the ceremony but sign no Kansas papers, as a symbol that the government should not be allowed to define what marriage is.

But my gay friends told me to get legally married. "Own it," said the guy next to me, "Whatever you can get in this world, and use it for good." It was brought up that if Marc and I saved on taxes by being married, that was more money I could donate to the cause of marriage equality! And really that's the story I think of when people get defensive about privilege. Yes I definitely did/still have straight privilege and that was an obvious case where I was about to benefit from it. I had the right to get married, whether I took it or not. I had the choice - that's a huge privilege, and there was no way for me to not have that choice, and there was no way for me to exchange it and give that privilege to my friends Tom & Mike even though they'd been together 20 years and Marc and I had stuck it out for barely two.

Sometimes when you point out privilege people get really defensive about it. It usually happens when they're saying something wrong. There's this conversation:

Person A: "I don't think black people get followed around in stores like criminals, and if they do what's the big deal they can still shop, I haven't seen it being a problem. I don't think it's worth talking about."

Person B: "Well you're white, you might not notice it as easily because it doesn't happen to you. You can easily choose not to see it, or you could be in a store with no black people. When a black person goes shopping, they have no choice but to be in that minority situation every time and deal with the stereotypes that come along with it, they experience what it's like for black people buying groceries 100% of the time they go out. They don't have the privilege of ignoring it. You do."

Person A: "Oh, so I don't matter? I should just shut up? Well EXCUSE ME for being white! I didn't choose this you know. And I'm not privileged! My life was hard, I grew up poor, I got beat up too, every day bad things happen to everybody! Why are you saying I have it so EASY, am I just supposed to go live under a bridge to even this all out? Here, take my shoes, I wouldn't want the PRIVILEGE of my feet staying warm to offend anybody!"

You get the idea. But the point is, person B wasn't calling person A a "bad person", they only thing they're mentioning is that person A might not be the authority on racism because they aren't in a place to experience it.

That blind spot, that lack of first person experience, is bound to happen. And it'll happen whether the white person A is shoeless, poor, gay, or female... circumstances are not apples and apples, they don't add up or cancel each other out. You can't return the fact that you were born white. And it's true you didn't chose it. Everyone knows this. They're not looking for an apology for being white and it's really dismissive to act like that's what the issue is.

When someone says you might be wrong because you're privileged, the thing to do is step back and start taking your own experiences with a grain of salt. Thank them for their perspective. Be a good listener. If you've said something offensive, apologize for what you said and try to do better. And not in the non-apology, "I'm sorry if you were offended" kind of way that puts it back on them. Try the "I'm sorry I spoke without considering all sides of this story. I'm glad others were here to share their viewpoints and help me learn."

You can't be everybody. It doesn't matter if you're discussing life or car maintenance - someone in the world knows something you don't. You can't make up for it, deny it or feel sorry about it, at least not in a way that helps. All you can do is respect the stories that are the most different from yours, because those are the ones that will lend perspective, and get you out of the isolation that keeps you from understanding whole situations.

Don't apologize for who you are, apologize for the mistakes you make. Then be an ally - someone who is appreciative of being called out, who owns their privilege, and uses it for good.

Is that so hard?