Straddling the Privilege Line: Thoughts on Intersectionality

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of various kinds of discrimination in the entry and probably the comments as well..

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and in the wake of the Rolling Stone journalistic debacle concerning the rape culture at UVA, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which I benefit from privilege, and the ways in which I do not, and the ways in which those things intersect. There are a number of ways in which I personally have benefited greatly from the cultures of power that come with my race and financial background and education, but at the same time have suffered for my gender, disability, and religion. As I consider these items individually, I also realize the ways in which they intersect with one another. Intersectionality is taking center stage in more discussions of privilege, which is great, but there is one type of intersectionality which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere, which I will be attempting to discuss at least somewhat here: the intersection of privilege and lack of privilege, in the same person. This is sufficiently complicated that a single blog entry, even the full biography of a single person far more complex than I, can’t even begin to cover it, but I’m hoping to at least get some readers thinking, maybe get some discussion rolling.

I have to begin by listing some of the ways in which I am, and am not, privileged in my own life. Compiling this list took some serious soul-searching, and some careful thinking about detail, and some research. Some of these items were obvious; others, not so much.

Ways in which I am privileged:
I am white.
I am cisgendered.
I am straight.
I am monosexual.
I am a native speaker of the local vernacular.
I am monoracial.
I can read and write.
I speak without impediment.
I can use all five senses to a societally functional degree.
I have a fixed address.
I have a driver’s license and a personal vehicle.
I am married.
I am in a monogamous relationship.
I am in a same-race relationship.
My age is between 18 and 50.
I have a college education, and an advanced degree.
I was raised by my biological parents.
I am a natural-born citizen of the nation in which I live.

Ways in which I am not privileged:
I am female.
I am physically disabled.
I have a mild learning disability.
I have a mild mental illness.
I have no children, either biologically or by adoption.
I am unable to have children biologically.
I wear glasses, and am unable to wear corrective lenses that are not visible.
I am non-Christian.
My spirituality is hybrid – meaning, I identify with more than one faith.
I am in a multifaith marriage.
I do not own a residential property.
I am a teacher, an occupation which is under constant political attack.
I am a union member, a position which is under constant political attack.
I am unemployed.
My field of study is outside the STEM fields, the “core” curriculum fields, and the vocational fields.
My Southern heritage is identifiable by my accent.
I am overweight.
I have obvious Russian heritage.

I am sure that if I took months, years longer to write this list, I could continue to add to both parts of it. I am sure that some readers are looking at some items on it and wondering, why does this item afford privilege, or why does that item imply a lack of privilege. If so, feel free to ask.

I’m also sure that there are some of you out there who are bristling because you share some of the traits on the “privileged” list, or who do not share some trait on the “not privileged” list. Let me make something clear to you: I do not apologize for any of the traits on either list. These are simply descriptors of who I am. For example, I do not feel that I need to apologize for being either white or straight. Neither makes me a bad person. But both make me a person who inherently befits from systems created for the benefit of people like me, at the expense of people who do not share those specific traits. I do not have to feel shame at being white in order to acknowledge my white privilege; I do not have to feel guilt at being straight in order to acknowledge my straight privilege. You don’t either. I don’t think you have anything to apologize for by virtue of your gender, or race, or sexual orientation. Your actions and attitudes are what matter, and the same goes for me. For a great reference on this, see John Scalzi’s article “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” here. The article misses some complexities of privilege, and many, many types thereof (there are many types of privilege besides sexual orientation, race, and gender) but it’s just meant to be a starting point, and it’s a great one.

Having traits that fall on both sides of the privilege line gives me a very important obligation when dealing with issues in my life: I have to figure out which issues are at play. It is important, in order to make sure that I don’t take a passive (or even an active) role in institutional racism, that I take care not to appropriate issues of race as issues of gender, or disability, when supporting a friend who is targeted with discrimination. It is also important that I be careful not to misinform others, lest I put them in a position of inadvertently doing the same for some other issue, when I speak of discrimination of which I have myself been the target.

I believe it is also vital that society begin to acknowledge the ways in which items of privilege can actually intensify the ways in which lack of privilege affects certain individuals. A high-profile example in recent news has been the scapegoating of union workers in the aftermath of the Eric Garner case. The generalized anger at the miscarriage of justice has been directed at unions, which are already the target of a significant amount of rhetoric aimed at reducing their power and staining the reputation of all those associated with them, placing those who participate in any form of organized labor, particularly those in any part of the public sector, in a position of lack of privilege. Law enforcement, as authority figures, are also given a form of privilege, and as such, this intensifies the anger at the role of the unions in such problematic cases.

A more common situation of combined privilege and lack, where the latter is intensified by the former, is one I find myself in. I benefit from the privilege of my age. Being between the ages of 18 and 50, I am part of the age bracket which is the target of most marketing. Television ratings focus on my age group. Political advertising and polling look more closely at my opinions than at the opinions of those outside my group (though this is changing – more on this shortly). At the same time, because I am unable to have children, the fact that I am in the age when I am constantly asked when I will be bringing the next generation into the world, when, as a woman, I am seen as failing to fulfill my obligations to society on some level because I am unable to have children, my age actually makes that part of my lack of privilege more intense. I have actually seen this come up in a professional scenario: for various reasons, I had to reveal to one of my superiors exactly why I had been absent from work and in the hospital, and when the reason turned out to be related to gynecology and miscarriage, my right to confidentiality was in fact completely disregarded. For months, I was treated differently by everyone who knew, as if my failure to have children meant that I was less competent at everything else I might do; once I was even told to my face, in public, that perhaps, if I couldn’t have children of my own, I shouldn’t be supervising other people’s kids, because there was no way I would ever fully understand them. If my age were not within the bracket when I am “expected” to produce children, this would not have been an issue. I know many other women who have gone through similar experiences.

Another aspect of the privilege discussion which I feel has gone woefully unremarked, is the degree to which some of these categories are in flux. The degree to which it matters that I am obviously Russian changes with global culture and politics. Overall, age is gradually becoming less of an issue, though nowhere near quickly enough. Particularly in the marketing arena, companies and campaigns are realizing that focusing exclusively on the 18-50 bracket is self-defeating, and are branching out. Unfortunately, workplace discrimination and other forms of abuse against both children and older citizens are still far too rampant. It is my hope that the pervasiveness of marketing will actually be a force for good in this particular case, and that marketers’ realization that people of other ages are also people with their own needs and desires and complex lives, will push the same realization on the rest of the public.

One of the most interesting parts of the realization of the divided issues of privilege and lack, is the visibility of different kinds of progress. So many different campaigns, with different degrees of success, at different stages of development, are available for observation, study, and, of course, participation and support. It’s delightful to watch new groups emerge as their issues are finally acknowledged by enough people to from a widely visible activist community, and it’s exciting to learn those new perspectives. All of these groups are doing things differently, and we all have things we can learn from each other – but only if we maintain a clear awareness of what is really going on with all of our lives, even when that involves some unpleasant mirror-gazing.

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Some Notes on Disability and Body-Positivity

Disclaimer: The following is based upon my own experiences as woman with recent experience of physical disability. Please do not assume that my experience is exactly representative of all disabled women. If there is a disabled woman in your life, the best care you can give her is to be discovered by listening to what she has to say about her own experiences.

One of the most important strategies for coping with disability and illness is maintaining a positive attitude. This is not only fairly obvious to most observers, but also conforms to standard medical wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also a hell of a lot easier said than done, in part because people with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, are constantly bombarded with messages of varying levels of subtlety that tell us our bodies are less valuable than those of people with perfect health, and that our accomplishments will always matter less, and that our relationships will always rest on a fragile foundation because of conditions that may be out of our control.

Unless you live under a virtual rock and just emerge occasionally to read blogs on WordPress (which might be a really healthy lifestyle, given the net these days), you probably use some service on the internet which tracks information about you: an online retailer, an email service, social media, online news sources, or any one of a variety of other websites that keep track of who reads what and what interests might overlap. The ads you see and the links with which you are presented are often selected to match specific data about you (sometimes with hilariously wrong assumptions – Facebook in particular is known for this). If you have a disability, chances are this information has made it into some kind of data aggregator and affects the messages you see.

These messages are crafted primarily for the groups in the world who possess privilege: white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, prevalent-religion-following (Christian, in the USA), vernacular-speaking (English, in the USA), wealthy, employed, non-single men. Some messages are specifically crafted for a group that changes one of these categories; the easiest example to find is advertisements targeted to a female audience – though even those usually contain messages that point women in the direction of pleasing men in some form or other, and conforming to male-dictated standards. Racial diversity is becoming more common in advertising and promotion, but still has a tremendously long way to go. It’s still a huge deal when a homosexual couple or family, particularly one raising children, is shown in advertising.

And here’s where intersectionality becomes important. When advertisers only have 30 seconds to get their message across, they don’t prioritize positivity toward not just women, but transgender women of color with disabilities, just to give one very complex possible example. Even simpler examples, combining only two of these categories, are hard to find in commercials in ways that really matter beyond basic representation (which is a vital step, but not the be-all and end-all).

As a disabled woman, I am constantly presented with “feminist” and “body-positive” ads that show women’s bodies being “amazing,” doing things that I can’t do. I see an ad of a woman running a race or climbing a mountain, and I’m told, “see, your body is incredible.” And the message underlying that, to a disabled woman, is “your body would be incredible, if it could do this; as is, sorry, that kinda sucks.” I am presented with “reasons you know your marriage will last forever,” that consist of “because you do X thing,” that… I haven’t been able to really do in years.

People around me see these messages as well, and it affects their attitude toward me and my body. This contributes to the fact that, when I use a wheelchair, employees at a grocery store tend to talk very! Slowly! And! Loudly! In! Small! Words! As if, because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t understand their speech.

It is very hard to maintain a body-positive attitude about my own body when I am constantly told by society that my body is lesser than other bodies.

Disabled bodies are not lesser than other bodies, any more than darker-skinned bodies are lesser than lighter-skinned bodies, or than female bodies are lesser than male bodies, or transgender bodies are lesser than cisgender bodies, etc.

I’ve seen this discussed in many an article, and most of them stop there. I’m going to continue by giving some positive examples of attitudes and expressions toward a disabled person’s body.

The degree to which I am currently disabled is a relatively recent development, and so it’s something that I’m still getting used to, both as a concept in my head and as a practical living situation. It hasn’t been easy, and I know I haven’t always made it easy for those around me. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive family, both family of blood and family of choice. These people have helped me maintain something of a positive attitude, though it is still a daily struggle for me.

I have friends who tell me I look great when I show up wearing the new outfit I’m excited about, or when I’m dressed up for Renaissance Faire. They don’t focus on what today’s mobility situation might be. They tell me I’m fun to be around, to do things with, and reassure me when I wonder aloud whether my lack of mobility sometimes holds them back from doing things.

I have parents who tell me they’re proud of me, and who are proud to point out ways I look like them.

On the front lines of this fight with me, every day, is my husband. He tells me I’m beautiful, and when I sometimes stare at him incredulously, he insists, “Even though you may not feel it right now, you are beautiful.” He doesn’t let me get away with hating my body. Hating my body is a bad habit that I can fall into easily, and he knows it. His response: “Your body is amazing. I don’t like that it hurts you the way it does, but you have to remember, that’s not all that your body is.” And the best part about hearing this from my husband? It’s not rehearsed or planned. It’s part of his attitude, and I work every day to make it part of mine.

This is such an important insight, that there’s more to our bodies than our health problems, and I believe we don’t hear it enough. Sometimes our bodies screw us over, whether we’re disabled or not. Most of us will, at some point, go through a serious illness or injury of some kind. It feels like a betrayal by our own flesh, and it’s easy to lose the trust that we once had in our bodies, and to lose a sense of ownership, and that positive attitude that can keep us healthy. But those failures of our bodies are just a fraction of what our bodies do. The human body is incredible, and science continues to explore it because we don’t really even know how incredible.

This is true whether or not we’re disabled. I’d like to see this message explored with real inclusivity, in advertisements and articles focused on something other than yoga equipment and New Age enlightenment practices.