This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness. Many of you are familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.
Privilege, oppression and marginalisation are concepts we talk a lot about in the social justice blogosphere (and beyond). There’s a lot to talk about and many nuances, intersectionality and so much more. But there’s also a creeping habit to, by intent or accident, use the language of privilege and oppression in a way that denies our own privilege, centres our own marginalisation as more vital (or universal), or gives our own marginalised group a pass on the badness. It’s a common reaction – after all, we all want to think of our people as “the good ones” and, despite it being easier to live as the oppressor, it’s certainly more sympathetic to identity with the oppressee. But it’s still not all good – because it does come down to denying privilege, denying marginalisation or dismissing marginalised people’s issues.
The most common thing I see is us just taking a rather scattershot approach to privilege – including every privilege the offender has – even the ones that are not relevant to the situation.
Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke in a grossly misogynist way because of her testimony on birth control. And, thankfully, people describe what a privileged arsehat he is. This is good – but I also saw many people cursing him for his straight, white male privilege. Sounds right – after all he is a straight white male (and he’s also a homophobic racist as well as a misogynist). Except, he didn’t use straight, white privilege to (though those privileges add to his power and position, certainly) to attack Ms. Fluke; his male privilege was the relevant one. And this matters – because by adding the straight and white privileges there we’re implying that if Limbaugh were gay or POC (or both) then he would not be oppressing Ms. Fluke, he would not have privileged over her – or, he simply wouldn’t do such a thing. We know that’s not true. Being gay or being POC is no defence against being a misogynist.
It’s not that he doesn’t have these privileges – it’s that they’re not relevant to the current discussion – or the relevance they have is fraught since it also implies a pass for those groups.
Another example – in my many many fraught discussions of the problems of slash and m/m genres many people have joined me in objecting. But some of the objections are of the appropriating writers using straight, white privilege. Except I’ve a whole shed load of homophobic fail in my inbox from straight POC writers, slash, m/m and yaoi defenders, declaring their natural ally-dom to all gay men since they’re man-sex fetishisers. It is by their straightness and othering that they are oppressing – and, again, we’re giving a pass to some of the privilege offenders by bringing in these other privileges. Some of the homophobic bullshit is given a pass.
Another common tactic I see is to distort or change the meaning of words in a way that magically includes you in the oppression (something I’ve mentioned before). I’ve read a blog that has a handy little lexicon that describes “heteronormative” as a “white, middle-class, straight lens”. Which isn’t what it means – if you have a large group of straight, working class, POC then you have a heteronormative situation. This reduces diversity to racial and class lines alone, by co-opting a word used to criticise the erasure and ignoring of GBLT people and giving the show/book/culture a pass if it is seen from a racially inclusive lens even if it completely denies the existence of GBLT people.
“Diversity” is another word that often gets bandied about without qualification when the writer usually means only diverse along one axis – I’m amazed at how many utterly erased books I’ve read or TV shows I’ve watched that were praised for their supposedly vast inclusion.
Similarly to expanding the definition of oppressions, there’s also the stretching of definition of social justice movements. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said to someone “y’know that was kind of homophobic” and received a reply of “I’m not homophobic, I’m a feminist!” And this is relevant, why? Being anti-homophobia doesn’t make you anti-racist or anti-misogynist. Being feminist doesn’t make you anti-racist or anti-homophobia etc. Don’t assume an inherent intersectionality – and, by all that is holy, do not play the “no true Scotsman” fallacy for your preferred movement either. It’s another way to deny privilege and oppression by absorbing another’s oppression into your movement. That doesn’t mean that people can’t identify as part of X movement AND be against all the other isms – but it’s an AND not an INCLUDED – it requires more than just assuming a label – especially when that label never included said oppression in the first place.
Which brings me to the next one – centering your own personal oppression as the be-all and end-all of oppression and implying (or outright saying) that other oppressions are more minor or a sub-set of your One True Oppression. There was a post up here earlier about how discussions about racism are derailed by the classism distraction. But we see it elsewhere as well – there was the twitter meme that keep raises its ugly head that said “Homophobia: The fear that another man will treat you like you treat women.” Get that clever wording? Homophobia – just a subset of sexism, not a REAL oppression (which is a really common and offensive reduction we see in a lot of places). With added bonuses for completely ignoring Lesbians and Bisexual women AND defining all homophobes as male – sexism is the REAL oppression and straight women totally cannot be homophobic.
Finally, there’s another that keeps raising its ugly head – Solve My Oppression, Save the World (hereby known as the “Cheerleader” oppression). This assumes that the world will be magical and fluffy for all people if we finally manage to defeat white supremacy, or patriarchy or heteronormativity or the class system or whatever. All other oppressions will magically end and there will be bunnies and unicorns and fluffy clouds everywhere.
This, of course, is useful in, again, centering your movement as the One True Movement and all other anti-ism fights to be mere distractions or lesser cousins. It also gives members of the movement or people facing that oppression a huge pass – the implication is that if THEY were the ones in power then there would be no oppression, because they are so utterly free from prejudice and would never, ever encourage an –ism, precious!
It’s not true. We KNOW it’s not true. A world without the patriarchy would still be as racist, ableist and homophobic as ever. A world without homophobia would still be racist, ableist, misogynist et al. A world without white supremacy would still be misogynist, homophobic etc etc. We know this, it’s self-deception to claim otherwise.
All in all, every anti-oppression movement needs to be given the respect it deserves, every oppression needs to be seen as severe as it is and every privilege needs to be acknowledged – no matter who holds it. We cannot achieve justice while giving passes for unexamined privilege and overlooking oppressive behaviour – and we can’t achieve justice without it being for everyone. And that will never happen if we wear blinkers or gloss things over.