Lately I have been struggling with the fact that people I otherwise like and respect are driving me to the brink of sanity by just not getting it. By “it,” I mean understanding the power dynamics of a situation involving them – a member of a majority group – and those with marginalized group status. Finally, the word privilege emerged from my subconscious. Now I am obsessed with the concept because it made insanity into sense.
Privilege is unearned power or advantage bestowed upon a member of the majority. It exists because of the systematic disadvantages the societal structure imposes upon members of a marginalize group. Rather than being about one instance or even type of prejudice, privilege is related to how the world tends to work. Whether earned or not, whether wanted or not, privilege is a de facto power granted solely because of majority group membership.
Thus, male privilege exists because of insidious aspects of our society that disadvantage women thereby bestowing advantages upon men. For example, when I become emotional, I am in danger of being considered a “hysterical female” whereas men can display the same emotionality without risking stigmatization. They have the “privilege” of showing whatever emotions they experience and in fact, are often lauded for “being in touch with their feelings.”
No matter the privilege – white, male, TAB, heterosexual, sisgendered, class, religious, economic, and the list goes on – the crucial element involves a majority group having advantages denied the members of a marginalized group. In this way, though I might be disabled, bisexual, female, and poor, I still enjoy white privilege on a daily basis. (Nobody walks quickly past me standing on a deserted street because they fear being mugged.)
Hand in hand with the concept of privilege is the idea of “othering.” Characterized by using a system of social markers to segregate people into neat categories, it results in “us” and “them.” The methodology highlights difference and assigns meaning to that distinction. To use a favorite example, “Wow, I’m amazed you could do that well especially since you’re blind.” My difference (blindness) was highlighted separating me from the group and then that category was evaluated by a separate set of standards. I became the “other” who can’t do as well at a given task.
Using the tool of othering, it is possible to secure and perpetuate privilege. Because people expect less from me, they also assess me as less capable. Clearly, I am at a disadvantage saddled with such assumptions, but it also means another group (sighted people) are seen as more capable, which is advantageous. Over time, lower expectations shape educational opportunities and job options so that a blind person in fact attains less, reinforcing the devaluation. Expect less. Achieve less. Be perceived as less. Vicious cycle.
The problem with privilege and othering is that they are so entrenched in our social structure that we don’t even perceive their existence. How can you fight against a form of oppression that nobody can perceive?
The first step is to identify your personal privilege, which is known as “owning your privilege.” I shall leave you with some forms of TAB privilege to ponder.
*In day to day life, a TAB knows they can meet their own needs and handle most emerging eventualities.
*A TAB knows the preponderance of strangers encountered will treat them as a competent adult.
*A TAB will be able to avail themselves of whatever facilities needed such as bathrooms, busses, post office, courthouse, and hotels.
*Should a TAB appear in public disheveled, unkempt, or badly dressed, nobody will assume it’s because they lack the ability to do better.
*Nobody will assume a person with a TAB is their caregiver.
*A TAB will not be called inspirational for accomplishing a typical daily activity.
*If a TAB is in a building that catches fire, they have the same chances as every other person to get out unscathed.
*If a TAB needs emergency medical care, they can trust nobody will assess their life to determine if it’s worthwhile enough to save.
*A TAB will not be subjected to questions about how they accomplish tasks such as bathing, eating, using the bathroom, or dressing and be expected to answer in detail.
*A TAB is not expected to thank people who offend them.
*When a TAB does not get what they want or need, they can express displeasure without risking being called ungrateful, overly demanding, or too sensitive.
*A TAB can walk into a yoga studio and take a class without relinquishing independence or being obligated to do more than anyone else to get the same things out of class. More about this last one next week!