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Why Labeling People “Privileged” Isn’t Helping

PrivilegeBack in October I tabled a Trans Health Initiative conference here in Buffalo. It was a great day and we actually appeared to have more cisgender folks there than trans for a change. This was fantastic because first hand, in person exposure to a trans person is the very best way to create understanding and a desire to be supportive. Usually anyway, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The keynote speaker was CeCe McDonald, and I was pretty excited we got her to come on down to Western New York and spread an inspirational message.

For the most part, her talk was very good, and I was glad I was there to see it. Her message was one of struggle, overcoming overwhelming adversity, and her personal courage. From my vantage point at the Spectrum table I could see that she was resonating with the audience and was overjoyed that she was reaching the cis folks as well. Then she went into privilege and one by one, I could see her losing them. From there she transitioned into white trans privilege and she started to even lose some of the trans folk. Nothing she said about this was the least bit untrue by the way, but nevertheless, the message was building up the very walls she so effectively knocked down moments before.

We speak of white privilege, male privilege, socio-economic privilege, cis privilege and so on. These are all true things, do really exist every day in the real world, and do impact everyone on the basis of whether or not they have these things. There is no denying it. Privilege exists and it has the power to profoundly impact, through opportunity or repression, what a person might achieve in this life. I can see very clearly what a huge advantage I had living as a white male and how far I have fallen as a white transgender woman. I can also see that where I am now is a far, far more advantageous position than if I was a black transgender woman who came from impoverished circumstances. There is no comparison. Here’s the thing though. People, particularly American people, absolutely despise the notion that they have been granted huge competitive advantages simply through the accident of birth.

American culture is funny that way. We admire and celebrate achievement, fame, and fortune. We hate the idea of these things, however, though any means other than overcoming great obstacles. We believe in the underdog, and nearly all of us secretly believes that we fall into that category. We are a nation who worships rugged individual achievement and abhors the concept of aristocratic entitlement by birth. One of our favorite pastimes is comparing how hard we had it growing up, and the guy who brags about his posh school or family’s wealth is generally labeled a complete schmuck. We all know this is true here. Accusations of advantage are overwhelmingly met with defensiveness. Understanding this about our culture, does it really seem like a smart strategy to start shaming the very people we want to support us?

I will reiterate again; privilege does exist, it is pervasive, and it has a huge impact. We can agree on this amongst ourselves and know that it is true. Some of us can also agree that not all trans begin the race at the same starting point, and that many of our sisters and brothers have many more hurdles to clear before even approaching the much cushier spot we drew. If you can, and want to use the knowledge to make a difference, great. If you can’t and the idea makes you pissy and contentious, just try not to think about it. When it comes to the cisgender population, it’s far better that we stop continuously pointing this out.

I can feel many of  you bristling from here. It’s OK. What I’m proposing sounds akin to staying silent in the face of racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’ out there. I can also hear someone loading up the “… and there was no one left to say anything when they came  for me” quote. We need to recognize, however, that this isn’t about them, it’s about us. Calling out privilege will not take it away nor bestow it on the trans community, but it will create divisions. It’s not about being right, but being heard, recognized,  and embraced as equals. Emphasizing differences in a “j’accuse!” kind of way puts up walls and dulls the edge of empathy. It’s also good to remember that for all the privilege we assume someone enjoys, they may be facing their own struggles that we have no conception of.

Our true inroad to the hearts of the cis folk is our humanity. It is by living our lives, working, and struggling against inequity are the best tools to gain sympathy, solidarity, and general acceptance. Simply harping on how we are owed on the basis of cis advantage and cis privilege brings none of those things. Those capable of the self-awareness it requires to own their advantages and have clarity about the inequity are can understand this without our pointing it out. Those who are not can easily move from positions of support or even ambivalence to adverse, and that is not good for anyone. We get farther and faster fighting the good fight and inspiring the cheers of those who support us than railing against them for their comfortable seats outside the ring.

About michellelianna

I'm a transgender woman now in the maintenance stages of transition having all the electrolysis and surgery one can reasonably be expected to undertake. While busy exploring my new world, I took to blogging about it with dubiously popular results. I don't have quite as much to say as I used to, but I'm not quite done yet either.

6 responses »

  1. Good points. THe ginned up attack on so called white privilege seems to be part of the left wing agenda to create divisions and to solidify voting blocks. It is a similar tactic of the community organizer to divide along racial and gender lines for political support. The attack on white pirvilge is in line with the attacks on so-called income inequality and the so called war on women. These are very effective left wing political stratagies in the Alinsky school of thought.

    • Hi Pat,

      Thank you for commenting! I think we are looking at this from different angles. I have to disagree with you on the point of the privilege discussion being nothing more than a tactic used to further an agenda. I believe privilege is a valid concept that is both measurable and verifiable. Discussing this is not inherently wrong. Quite the opposite, it is a good discussion tool for highlighting inequity and helping to bring about change. I don’t believe the left is attempting to use the concept as a club to further some agenda of establishing a socialist society. If a race is being run, and the runners are not lined up at the same starting line, it’s OK to acknowledge that this is the case. It doesn’t mean hobbling those in front, but recognizing the existence of inherent advantage. Socio-economic, cultural, and racial differences do cause disparity in advantage and it simply makes sense to understand that this is the case and create mindfulness. Understanding across these lines makes a difference.

      My whole point is that the privilege discussion relating to trans seems to be coming too early. Many, or even most, are not fully familiar as to what trans even is. Until a level of awareness is reached where trans people are viewed by society at large as a real, human, and valid demographic, it doesn’t make sense to make the bigger argument of privilege. It makes more sense to promote understanding that we are actually in the race before jumping in the discussion of where we line up to start. The reaction I’m seeing when we do is along the lines of, “Starting line? Are you even supposed to be here?” One step at a time.

      Finally, yes, I acknowledge that there are misleading political strategies used by both the right and left. I don’t believe maintaining an “us and them and them” philosophy is inherently good for society, however, it is used because it is effective. In this case, I believe attacking someone for their privilege is the wrong tactic, but calling attention to and highlighting the disparity is very necessary. We are not saying slow down, but please look behind you and understand that we are back here. From there it is up to society and individuals to decide what to do with that knowledge.

  2. Great article Michelle.

  3. Pingback: Op-ed: Why Labeling Others As 'Privileged' Isn't Helping Trans Activists | TKG News

  4. Glad you are back and spitting nails again.

  5. Brief and poignant. Thank you.


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