It’s funny how that sort of thing works. One can realize the ramifications of one’s position in society that has been either been granted or attained and that realization can then make your life experience even richer yet. Then you can use that position to make the world better.
I am privileged in many ways.
I am a straight, able bodied, white person, living in the United States. All of those things provide me with benefits in the society that I live in. All of those things I can easily take for granted and I did for many years. Years of my life I spent struggling to make ends meet. Years of my life I spent working two jobs to try to get educated in the arts while barely paying for rent and health care and food and sometimes picking one above the other. Years of my life I spent living in a city where I was, among other things, the victim of a home invasion robbery, held up at gunpoint, sexually assaulted and physically assaulted more than once. Yep, life is goddamn hard sometimes. But throughout those years I still had a leg up that others did not.
When I was first introduced to the concept of privilege, I was a bit taken aback. How could I be “lucky” or above others when life had seemed so difficult for me up until this point?
Privilege comes in many levels.
When I was robbed at gunpoint, I had the privilege of being a white person and so when the crime was reported I was more likely to be believed than if I was say, a person of color. It was not immediately assumed that I was “part of the problem.” Or that I had somehow brought this upon myself as often happens when a person from a minority group reports a crime. I was privileged in that I could find TWO jobs at a time in my life when I needed them. If I was disabled, or openly gay I may not have been so lucky. It’s true that a man would have probably had an easier time finding work but you get the idea. As for the assaults I survived, well one can argue that those happened as a result of rape culture and the fact that women are not yet equal to men nor are women truly safe in our society. But we are safer than in some places in the world.
So I have had the benefit of some societal privileges in very tough times. And today I am even more privileged still. I have a partner who helps me share the household bills, I have a place to live. I have food and I have support of wonderful friends. I’m not nearly as worried about where my next meal will come from as I was in my past. I also have a rather powerful position in this community of freethinkers where I can voice my concerns and I can get people to listen. I have a loud voice. I am a doer. And I am still an able bodied, cis, white person. I have a lot of privilege.
So when someone says to me, “check your privilege.” I do. When someone first asks me to listen, I will. Because, it takes very little effort on my part and it means so, so very much to the people asking for my time.
It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t take it personally because I have learned that when you realize what privileges you have, you realize both how genuinely lucky you are, how much you have achieved and you learn how you can help others around you who may be less privileged than you. It is actually a good feeling. It doesn’t silence me when I am asked to take a step back. I do not take it as an insult because I understand the underlying concept. I realize that this understanding is required in the fight for equality. It is part of what we have to understand in order to make the world better. It is not dogma. It’s part of understanding the socio-ecominic world in which we all exist in. I am higher than others. There are others much, much higher than me. We can all learn from each other. We can do better.
So when people are above me on the ladder of privilege, such as a very wealthy, white male in a position of fame and power, and someone asks them to realize their position is higher or to “check their privilege” or to (temporarily) “Shut up and listen” in order to help the less privileged community around them that they claim to want to see grow and expand. I expect them to be fully capable of doing so without snide commentary, hyperbole or dismissive rhetoric that further separates the us from the them.
I also expect that someone in such a position will know that listening to the concerns of those marginalized groups with less power in not an “enforced silence” being imposed upon them. It’s not some sort of joke. It’s simply a respectful quiet, contemplative moment where voices not as loud as your own can be heard and fully considered. And it’s certainly no excuse to further expand the distances and volume of the voices from within the hierarchies of this expanding secular community with anger and insults.
Before I sign out on this post I just want to give an example of the type of thing that I try to do from my slight position of privilege in this community.
When I was invited to speak at the Women in Secularism 2 conference; I didn’t have to buy a ticket. I could have just been content with that fact and gone on my merry little way but I am also (at times) observant. I knew that not everyone could afford to purchase conference tickets, as I would not have been able to when I was younger as shown up in that photo at the top of the post. I also noticed a lack of diversity at last year’s event. Not coincidentally, the need for diversity in secularism being one of the reasons why this particular conference is held. Last year at WiS it was pointed out that there were not many men in attendance in the audience. It’s true. I noticed that too. And so I did something rather simple from my perspective to change that fact the following year, and many of the readers on this blog helped me. (Thank you again.) I used my sometimes, loud voice to raise $1800 that was donated to CFI and used to pay the admission costs for nine men to attend the event. Normally, as many of you know, I raise money to send women to science conferences because they are the ones often underrepresented at public events, but in this particular instance I realized there was a need for something different. I listened, I reevaluated my actions and made a slight modification to my normal behavior to make a difference in a positive way.
Now, imagine if everyone from a place of power would agree to make a few small changes while taking the time to listen to the voices that are, as of today, not as loud as theirs.
*featured image of me back in the day in art school.