101: (Re)Defining privilege.

By | October 21, 2009

There are so many wonderful existing resources for folks who are new to the concept of privilege–which I will define myself momentarily–that I am often hesitant to throw my own hat into the ring. Occasional Fatshionista contributor Julia has a lovingly-tended collection of links here, and I really wonder if whatever I say is just going to be a poor approximation of what others have said better before me.

That said, that list of links can be a bit overwhelming at first, to the reader to whom “privilege” isn’t a word with a specific definition, so here’s a general explanation for starters, produced especially for my beloved Fatshionista audience.

To begin, let’s differentiate the type of privilege I’ll be discussing by giving it a capital P. Privilege! This isn’t the broad dictionary-defined privilege you might immediately think of, which is colloquially associated with the special rights or advantages of a select few, and is typically applied to folks who are very rich or very powerful or both at the same time. The Privilege I’m bequeathing with a capital P, on the other hand, is a very specific concept originally deployed by folks working in academia, law, and social justice, and refers to the Privileges which members of non-oppressed or majority groups have, and which members of oppressed or minority groups do not. For context, one example might be the reality that a person who is born White in the US has certain built-in advantages over a person who is born Black. A White person convicted of murder is statistically less likely to receive the death penalty, for example, than a Black person. This doesn’t imply that the White person’s life is automatically all wine and roses, as is often assumed by many people new to the Privilege idea, but that owing to institutionalized systems of racism and oppression, the White person simply will not have to deal with some of the obstacles and injustices that are posed to the Black person. Nor is this meant to suggest that the White person is individually responsible (or “guilty”) for his or her Privilege, any more than anyone can control the circumstances of their birth. (For more of my own thoughts on White Privilege specifically, head back in time to this post.)

A more controversial (or–to put it more optimistically–advanced!) use of the Privilege concept is found in size-acceptance circles as it speaks to relative body size. One can argue that people who live on the smaller end of the fat spectrum enjoy certain Privileges over those who live on the fatter end. Smaller fat folks have a broader array of clothing options to choose from, for example, or may have less anxiety when flying since they’re not as likely to be identified as fat enough to have to buy a second seat, or they may be less likely to be routinely harassed by their doctor to consider weight loss surgery.

Now, this is not to imply that smaller fat folks are not still subject to cultural fat hatred. Indeed they are. Privilege and oppression exist on a spectrum, and are also intersectional, and having one privilege does not render one immune to oppression on other fronts. A slender Black woman may not have to deal with being discriminated against or attacked for being fat, but she’s still subject to pressure from racist and misogynist forces. A fat White disabled woman may not face racism in her daily life, but will indeed still be confronted with prejudice based on her size and mobility.

As a general rule, the people who most notice Privilege are the ones who don’t have it. Privilege is invisible to those of us who possess it, unless we push ourselves to see it, like peering forcefully at an optical illusion–do you see the young lady, or the old woman? Once you do manage to see both sides, they become impossible to ignore. You can try to forget, but you can’t unsee them. They’ll pop out at you, unbidden.

So why care? And why care whether other folks care? If we can’t undo our Privilege, whatever Privilege we may have, why bother? Well, I care because, as I’ve said above, once I became aware of Capital-P privilege, it started jumping out at me everywhere I looked, and is even now always hovering around the edges, like some shadowy intangible figure I’ll never get a handle on. And when other folks are dismissive of Privilege, it feels like they’re being terribly insensitive and cavalier about something that I take incredibly seriously.

I argue that increasing one’s awareness of Privilege is important not because one has to atone for one’s Privilege, and not because one is somehow personally responsible for the system under which we live, and under which the Privileged benefit; it’s important because acknowledging Privilege is about recognizing the forces that create our culture and our opportunities in life. Recognizing privilege is about understanding the silent systems that create inequality and injustice, whether they take the form of a fat baby being denied health insurance or a transgender person being targeted for their difference and beaten in the street. In its simplest form, understanding Privilege is about trying to understand people, trying to grasp why some folks have a harder time of it than others. It’s about making efforts to connect on a real, honest level with people who’ve had very different backgrounds and experiences than my own. It’s essentially about deeply and profoundly giving a shit about injustice and the forces that divide us.

That said, Privilege is one of the most difficult social justice concepts to communicate effectively, because people inevitably respond to it by becoming defensive and indignant. And friends, I understand. Hell’s bells, do I ever understand. Imagine if you will, Lil’ Lesley, newly arrived in grad school, taking a class in Whiteness (the very idea of which was boggling, as prior to that it hadn’t even occurred to me that race was something that affected me) and anti-racism. The course instructor, an older Black woman, was relentless and ferocious in pointing out the privilege and the general lack of critical thinking around race amongst my overwhelmingly-White classmates. But I’m not a racist, I inwardly protested, like so many before me, completely missing the point. I was defensive! I was indignant! I was insulted!

I was wrong.

Years later, I would repeat this process in a very personal context, with my husband, only this time I was the relentless Privilege-pusher and my husband was the defensive, indignant, insulted resister. I have since seen, from a distance, this process taking place in countless members of the Fatshionista LiveJournal community, sometimes over months and years. I’ve seen it begin, in some cases seen it come through in a huge flood, in some cases seen it slow to a trickle, seen it ebb and flow, roll in and out like an endless tide.

You don’t have to care about Privilege, nor do you have to care about social inequality, nor do you have to challenge yourself to broaden your understanding of culture and social forces. But I do. I have to, because I can’t unsee what I’ve seen or unlearn what I’ve learned, because for me, talking about size and bodies is inexorably interwoven with broader issues of social justice. I care about building a culture and a movement that is honest, in which these things are acknowledged and hashed out and battled over and not swept under the carpet, in which the infinite diversity of voices and experiences are heard and appreciated and recognized.

You don’t have to be a part of that movement. You can choose to only take from it the aspects that suit you, and walk away from the rest. But I think you’re missing out if you do.

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