as I have been reading so much (see last post!) for the class I am enrolled in this summer, I of course have been thinking a lot about the issues that I am studying. The class is a philosophical look at issues raised by and about the feminist movement. The things I have been spending mental time and energy on are mainly surrounding one theme that is central and prevalent in feminist literature: the concept of the Other. (No, not the Nicole Kidman creepy movie with the kids in the dark.) Our society is constructed in such a way that you cannot think of one thing without thinking of another part of a dichotomous relationship – man/woman, body/mind, right/wrong, black/white, strong/weak, healthy/sick, (dead/alive – hee hee) etc. The problem is, one half of the dichotomy is considered standard in a social sense, and the "Others" are cast as opposites, not preferable, negative, substandard. In fact, each half is equally different from the other: men are as different from women as women are from men. Either side of the relationship could be held up as the standard, and the other considered not preferable.
We have a problem in our society, of a mythical norm. It is prevalent in everyday life, from reading the newspaper to conversations with friends, to media representations. What is considered the norm is not even the majority. The mythical norm is white, male, christian, able-bodied, thin, young, heterosexual, and financially stable. He is able to take advantage of all kinds of unearned privelege, just by being lucky enough to be born in the body and family and social group that he was. Everyone else is Other, marginalized to varying degrees. Most of us have multiple factors that work against us in this society, combinations of race, sex, religion, sexuality, disability, class stratification etc. and too often, these intersections are lost in the shuffle as those with only one category of Other try to fight their way to the top of the heap: "Look at me – I'm white, christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, thin, young, and financially stable! I'm almost the norm except for this one little thing about my sex… I deserve to participate fully in society!" These "pure" claims of discrimination – based on only one of sex, class, sexuality, race, religion, disability, etc. leave multiply disadvantaged people out of the picture.
I find it irritating as I go about in the world that I have been given certain priveleges that I haven't earned. I am lucky, to be sure, that I never had to know the pain of being poor, or having to figure out my sexual identity, or having a physical or mental disability. I am lucky to be exactly who I am. But that's just the point – it's all luck. The wheel of luck spun when I was born, and landed me in the family I grew up in, with the physical and mental characteristics I have. So many others are not so lucky… and so many others are much more lucky, and neither have done anything to deserve it! That society rewards and punishes everyone according to the luck of the draw is so cruel and unnecessary.
So here I am, both Other and priveleged. How do I reconcile these things in my life? How do I go about in the world, knowing that only my birth makes my voice heard more than that of another? How do I go about knowing that if only I had been born a male, I would have so much more privelege?
It is humbling, to be sure, to think of the world in this way. I am better able to perceive of myself as being lucky, and nothing more. I am better able to understand how my skin colour gives me unearned advantages, and how my sisters of other races have to be that much smarter, work that much harder, be that much more persistent, act that much more "good" in order to not have her race reflect badly on her (in some circumstances). I am better able to understand how the world is built for me, and how those who are physically disabled are at a serious disadvantage. I am better able to understand that if the wheel of luck had spun differently at my birth, I could have the complex emotional burden of telling all my friends and family that I am gay, and have to live in a world where same-sex unions are not as widely accepted and represented as are hetero unions, and have to explain to my children that she has two mommies and not everyone is going to like that. I am better able to understand that the opportunities I have in my life are not the same as everyone else's, that because of my socio-economic class I do not have to break free of a number of financial, emotional, physical and psychological constraints in order to practice academia.
It's not as if I didn't think of myself as lucky, but I truly am lucky in so many regards that I did not realize, and at the expense of those who are not as lucky as I am, whether I intend it or not. It's not as though I have been running around in the world being a jackass to those less advantaged than I. But I have considered that the differences between myself and other people did not matter, that the differences were unimportant – what mattered was a shared humanity. I now think this could not be further from the truth – it is our differences that are important; our differences make us unique, make us who we are, give us struggles that build our characters. My differences are important to me! It is an important part of my identity that I am a woman, that I am healthy, that I am heterosexual, that I am quirky, that I am an atheist, that I love to sing and dance and bake and write philosophy.
It has been an eye-opening experience to look at the world through these lenses. I now can actively commit to a widened world-view that includes recognizing my privelege, and being careful to both listen to the voices of others and not to take advantage of the privelege I do not deserve. I am also in a better place to be more considerate and thankful for all the lucky bits that make me who I am.
How priveleged are you?