Take, for example, this story over at Pam's House Blend. It seems that there was a topless coffee shop up in Maine, one that a (deranged, angry, spiteful) local resident decided it was OK to burn to the ground. Nobody was hurt, but they could have been--the owner and his wife and children were sleeping inside. In addition to the destruction of his uninsured building, the owner lost the lobster pots and carpenter's equipment he used to make a living.
Why am I bringing this up? Because of the dizzying intersections of forces, privileges and theories in this one case. When I first read the story, my thinking went something like this:
- A topless coffee shop? That's got to be some sexist exploitation going on.
- Didn't deserve to burn down, though. That's not right.
- Wait, they had a topless waiter too?
- The family nearly died?
- Still, I think a topless anything is probably exploitative.
- The townsfolk didn't like the place.
- But they didn't like it, it seems, because they thought it was sexist: they didn't like it because they thought it was "dirty."
- Well, sex isn't dirty. I like sex. People, such as me, should have more sex and feel less guilty about it.
- Wait, one of the waitresses was using the money to put herself through college?
- But it's still exploitative, right?
- Sure, because it's sexist that being a topless waitress was the best way for her to make money. Whew. I almost had to think for a second.
- My head hurts. I can't figure out if I should write a post condemning the place, or write them a check. Or both.
And that's a relatively benign example. Things can get far more complicated than that.
For example, there's me.
Being trans opens you up to a wonderful world of intersecting under- and overprivileging. On the one hand, I'm a woman--I identify as one, I look like one, I am in general treated like one, with all that entails. Moreover, I'm a trans woman, which means that if/when people find out/are told/Google me that their attitudes about me will very likely change. Some will stop thinking of me as a woman. Some will think of me as a woman with an asterisk. Sometimes I'll be expected to be the mystical tranny, here to tell everyone about what it's like to be trans. (And, of course, almost everyone will want to know what my genitals look like, something not an ordinary area of discourse, at least not at lunch.) Not to mention that there are people who will react violently towards me, who will single me out, who will make me a special target--that over and beyond the targeted/othered status I bear as a woman, as a trans woman I'm at risk for even greater degrees of violence.
But wait. There's also no denying that I have and have had privileges simply not available to most women. As a very, very simple example: it is highly unlikely that a woman who had my editorial assistant job 14 years ago would have been given the license to teach herself how to program computers that I received. (Especially not at that company--the boss was a right old chauvinist.) In fact, just about everything about my career in IT, which is my bread and butter, was aided by being male at the time. I had instant credibility; it was considered proper for me to be in the field; and I never had to vouchsafe my identity as a programmer the way many women in IT have to. (Though many women don't have to vouchsafe their gender the way I often have to; like I said, it gets dizzying.)
And of course I'm white, not overweight, college-educated, not disabled. A ton of privileges. Do my underprivileged characteristics--not cisgendered, not straight, not chromosomally female--outweigh my privileges?
One of the reasons I began writing this blog was the gradual awakening I had about the iniquities of privilege. It's the passion that drives me, even as I struggle to understand and expose my own privileges. It's why I am an opponent of kyriarchy, why I so staunchly oppose all the various petty divisions within the different communities of underprivilege.
But as it turns out, checking your privilege is very hard to do.
Which leads me to Shakesville. I've only been a recent reader there, but the community there had a profound influence on me; indeed, Shakesville and Tiger Beatdown are the two sites that inspired me to start blogging again after a four-year hiatus.
I'm mentioning Shakesville because--as you may have noticed in my little blogroll widget--the site is in stasis right now. You can read about it at Shakesville, but what it breaks down to is: Melissa McEwan, the founder and webmistress of the site, had to take a break from posting. On her own blog. Because people wouldn't listen to her when she said that a lot of the comments were bothering her, and that people needed to be more civil.
I'll repeat that. She stopped posting. To her own blog.
Even though I've only been a recent Shaker, the safe space that Liss has created and worked so hard to maintain is something I cherish. And even as I get mad that things came to this head, I feel bad for my own failings, sins of commission and omission, there.
The idea that Shakesville has reached a crossroads, that there could really not be a Shakesville anymore, is chilling.
Sady at Tiger Beatdown as usual is all over this, far better than I can add with my poor powers. But I will say: this is an issue of privilege, of flaunting it and most of all of not examining your own privilege. But just so we all understand:
And when somebody writes an incensed blog post about privilege, you can bet she has some privilege too. We all do. So what are you going to do about that?
When somebody tells you something you said hurt them, and you don't take it
seriously, that's privilege.
When somebody tells you your conduct is against the simple rules she created
for her own space, that's privilege.
When you repeatedly ignore complaints except to occasionally apologize and
then go right back to doing what you were doing, that's privilege.
If you think that somebody is supposed to do something for you, something
that you value and treasure, and you don't listen to what they say, you in fact
act like you were owed something--you better believe that's
privilege with a capital-fuckin' P.