Unchecked privilege, or the problem with Glen

This is a guest post by Elisa, who blogs here.

 I know a man called Glen. Glen is straight, white, cis-gendered, not disabled, speaks native English with no regional accent, and holds a graduate degree. Glen is a very privileged man. Glen is also a very gentle man, he considers himself progressive, a hippy even, he has an open mind, he likes to engage in political and philosophical discussions over wine. Glen recently started one such discussion with me (a lesbian), using the following opener: ‘But the thing about homosexuality is, it’s like, too sexual’.

This is offensive none the less for being tautological, and all the more for being proclaimed from the hegemonic position of heterosexuality. But when told this second part, gentle Glen counters that it is not more offensive, or that, at best, the argument that it is more offensive is ‘shaky’. It just is, not because he’s looked into power structures or knows what it’s like to be spoken to and about from a position of dominance, but just because. Glen doesn’t see power structures, because he’s sitting on top of them.

Now before I’m accused of (straight, white, not disabled, highly educated, cis) man hating, let me reassure everyone that Some of My Best Friends Are Men. That’s how I know ignorance of power structures is not inherent in the people they privilege. Lots of straight white not disabled highly educated cis men manage not to be ignorant about homophobia, racism, disablism, classism, transphobia and sexism, all the time.

BUT, just to prove that it really is possible to imagine yourself in a different position to your usual one within a power structure, let me put myself in Glen’s shoes. If someone said to Glen ‘the thing about heterosexuality is…’, followed by a criticism (which I really think they should), Glen would be able to think to himself ‘well, you say that, but all world religions and civilisations tell me that my sexuality in fact merits a special sacrament and legal contract, no legal codes criminalise it – unlike yours – and it’s considered so wonderful that even children’s stories glorify it’.

Completely unthreatened by the criticism, Glen might well feel comfortable engaging in an open minded, abstract (and, of course, novel) discussion of his sexuality. So why would Glen appreciate that abstract, open minded discussion of someone else’s sexuality – or other identity – might feel, very really, threatening? Because when that identity is not so hegemonic, such discussions do feel that way. ‘Abstract’ criticisms form part of real structures which harm people who identify with minority, oppressed positions such as homosexuality.

Those structures – for example unequal access to legal protection and recognition for your family – are the reason why, even if he wouldn’t know how it feels to be criticised from a dominant position, Glen should be able to imagine it; structural, systemic inequality is all around us. If you can’t see it, you’re not looking properly. You need to get off your oppressive seat of privilege and look under it, no matter how comfortable that seat is. Otherwise you’re going to pose a threat to people lower down the power hierarchy than you, by providing arguments to fuel the fire of those who consciously want to do us harm.

This, obviously, does not just go for heterosexual people talking about people of other sexualities. It goes, say, for men talking about women, too. Who can claim they haven’t heard some men hypothesising abstractly that maybe women are less well adapted for authority, don’t women enjoy dedicating themselves to their family, doesn’t abortion seem like the easy way out? Even though these men would never describe themselves as misogynists (and who would?), there’s a reason why these are still called misogynistic arguments: their effect, if not their intention, is the same as the effect which confessed hatred would have, except maybe more insidious.

If you’re a misogynist, you are not progressive; misogyny is one of the oldest traditions in the world, just like homophobia, and if you’re progressive, tradition is far from its own defence. Ask your ‘abstract’ questions as gently as you like, replace your tie with a dreadlock for all I care; if you can’t stretch yourself to think beyond the platitude of ‘How would I feel if someone talked like this about me?’, to the slightly more complicated ‘How would I feel if someone talked like this about me, but with a whole history of support for their ‘hypothetical’ position behind them, and no counter history of support behind me to reassure me that what they’re saying has never been – and will probably therefore never be – the dominant position?‘, then you’re not being open minded. What you are being is simply privileged, and refusing to acknowledge it. You should check that, before you hurt someone.

Yes, even though that someone is unlikely to be you.

Image of a privilege denying dude (a smarmy-looking white American guy in a blazer and bow tie) against a blue and pink background featuring the words “I have the privilege of being totally unaware of my own privilege” by jonathan mcintosh, based on the original privilege denying dude meme by Diana Lopez and shared under a Creative Commons licence.