The Problem of Privilege

This is a brief entry but I have to get it out all the same.

Privilege is a thorny subject. Bringing it up tends to lead to a denial of it by all involved. Nobody ever wants to admit that they have it. After all, if they have privilege, they have to admit their position in life isn’t entirely due to their own merits. It means accepting that others are better than us and society is unfair, two ideas Americans can’t abide.

Despite the constant denials, privilege is of course real. That’s a fact I’ve thought about over the last few days in the aftermath of my essay on Steve Silberman. I pointed out in it that he has the privilege of being neurotypical which makes it more likely others will listen to him. I called this issue with the mass media and society at large out and I was right to do so. For this I gained quite a bit of attention which profoundly moved me.

However it was rightly pointed out to me by @Erabrand that I myself have privilege. After all others have tried to speak up on the media’s preference for NT translators instead of our own voices and they haven’t been heard like I have been. Others are dismissed as having a chip on their shoulder due to other master statuses such as gender or race. I’m lucky to fit the classifications society views as “right.”

She’s not wrong. I’m a cisgender, middle class white male with a college degree, a respectable job, and a family. I represent a positive face for autism so when I see something wrong, I’m coming at it from an almost purely autistic point of view. I can’t be questioned as having some other agenda. This isn’t my fault, of course. I have nothing to apologize for in my life and I won’t do that.

What it does mean is I have to be aware of how my standing affects my views. When others come from a perspective that isn’t mine, I can’t dismiss it because it’s not covalent with my life experiences. I have to understand that they come from their own reality and it deserves to be heard. That means that if I’m aware there are other voices worth hearing, I must amplify them. I have a platform I can use to boost others. It’s my moral duty to use it.

It’s perfectly okay to admit this and to help others. Doing so doesn’t undermine the validity of our arguments. After all, if our arguments are truly the best, wouldn’t we rather they were proven in a fair battlefield of thought? Admitting privilege and listening to others is at least a first step in that direction.


5 thoughts on “The Problem of Privilege

  1. Thanks for posting this. I think about this a lot – especially lately, in light of my complexifying relationship to autism.

    I think what trips us up, sometimes, is that our own difficulties may make it seem as though we’re not favored or advantaged (privileged) in the ways we most long for. So, we can think of ourselves as struggling in key ways, when in fact we do have a lot of privilege to fall back on. In my case, I’m a queer woman who’s been intermittently disabled over the years, working hard to make ends meet without a college degree to back me up. I’ve been broke, I’ve been well-off. Now I’m just barely above the “broke”line again. So, that’s not always easy. It makes me vulnerable. But my vulnerability is very, very different from others’.

    Case in point: I was technically homeless in the winter of 1990. I walked out of a bad relationship with a bag of clothes and one person I could rely on. I was walking around the snowy streets of a major city, looking for a doorway to sleep in, in case my one contact couldn’t help me. I got lucky. They were home, so I didn’t have to spend the night in a doorway. The thing is, my homelessness was very, very different from that of a black woman who I and some friends helped to a shelter, where she was going with her three young kids. My situation was a passing inconvenience, and I knew that because I was a young white, middle-class woman who nobody guessed was gay, I could expect special consideration from others — especially white men middle-class men who may have seen me as a potential partner. Not that I was taking advantage of that, but I was always so very aware that my homelessness and my difficulties were temporary hardships, at best. And I could fall back on an informal network of white folks who looked out for each other (especially attractive young white women), for support. This is why I am reluctant to call myself disabled or disadvantaged — because beneath the surface, there are forces which look out for “their own” and mitigate the impact. And that’s something that precious, precious few white folks are aware of. It’s not that we all have it easy and cushy and whatnot — there is just a whole lot more that we can take for granted… and often never suspect that others can’t.

    Thanks for writing this. It’s important.

  2. Pingback: My disadvantage is … different – Under Your Radar

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