Recently, while meandering through the thick, wordy, impassioned haze that is the contemporary gender-focused blogonet, a persistent tick was bugging me. Occasionally my contributions would be met with the 'straight white guy' accusation; which is to say, it was being declared that I was those things… and for some reason this was important in assessing the quality or validity of my statements.
'Whiny fucker doesn't understand his privilege'.
Well, I gave this issue it's fair amount of thought, and the other day I think I managed to crystallise into something resembling a principle. The sentiment isn't new, but in a lot of discussions and in a lot of articles it isn't adhered to.
- Considerations of privilege (vis a vis demographic groups that enjoy systemic benefits because of some aspect of the way they are) should never override the basic law of treating all individuals as individuals.
Stereotyping is wrong. It is logically wrong to say 'all white/black people act like x', because such a variable doesn't determine behaviour (unlike, say, a drug, or physical pain; even in these scenarios, an absolute generalisation would be a fallacy, but a general assertion would have some validity). Similarly, it is wrong to say, 'all heterosexual/homosexual people act like y', and so on.
This is based on the the idea that every individual is an individual. That they have quirks. Special circumstances. Unique experiences. This is true regardless of any consideration of privilege.
From a sociological point of view, privilege narratives are important; they help us understand the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways in which a system gears itself to accommodate certain types of people over others. But 'types' is a key word: if we let these things act as a prism through which we view any given individual, and if we make assumptions about them based on these things, that is stereotyping, and wrong, regardless of which side of privileged the person falls.
'But they are privileged, they don't get to complain!'
You don't know what any given individual has gone through. Let's say this one guy, when he was a kid, was abused by a child milder for years, but couldn't tell anyone. He is straight, white, male, and his parents had money. Now it doesn't matter at all, and I mean fucking at all, that this guy is white, or male, or straight, or moneyed. At all. Not even a blip on the god damn radar. These things still happened. That these events, when millions of people are taken into account and the data is aggregated, will be more likely to happen to people in other abstract categories, has no bearing whatsoever on this individual person's claim to having been abused. Whatsoever. And they happened just as much as they happened to someone under different circumstances.
Reply might be, 'Yes, but they won't have to deal with the oppression of being a woman/gay/minority as well'.
True. But let's say they also had cancer at one point; they're over it now, but they had it, and it was hard.
'But they still didn't have to deal with those other things'.
Ok, but has woman x who was not abused and who never had to battle cancer in a position to claim that they have had a more trying existence than the above straight man? Well, perhaps, if that individual woman went through some tough shit themselves. But it's not a consideration of categories, or generalities. It's a consideration of the different individuals' circumstances.
I mean… we have to act in a way that resemble the world we want. We have to embody the better world we seek, if we want it to come any closer. This means not being racist, sexist, classist, etc, at all.
Moreover, if you talk to this person without knowing about their personal history, and you assume, because of their orientation or race or whatever, that they have de facto had an easy life, and you berate them about their privilege and their lack of understanding of the issues and so on, if you're wrong, you will cause them significant personal pain. Whether or not there is a lower likelihood of a person from this demographic having experienced significant difficulty or trauma is completely irrelevant. With any given individual, you don't know, and until you do know about them specifically, you don't know. You can't extrapolate facts about an individual person by the categories they fall into, except for the fact that they are in those categories.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, thinking in terms of stereotypes reinforces a culture of generally thinking in stereotypes, which as we all know comes around to bite less privileged groups in the ass harder than that category which resembles our apex example above. If you talk about a man in a stereotypical fashion, you hurt women more than men. If you stereotype a white person, you hurt other groups more than white folks. And so on. Simply put, you are hurting oppressed groups more by the mere act of stereotyping. The next time you make assumptions about a straight person's character, you're hurting the LGBT cause. Etc.
There is also, occasionally heard, the argument of, 'Well, good, now you know how it feels; now you know how it feels to not be treated like a person'. I am perfectly willing to accept that one consequence of a more equal society would be that those folks who currently are the victims of stereotypical thinking less frequently will have to share more in the burden of having such immoral and ignorant sentiments hurled at them. But the sentiments are still ignorant and immoral. The people who make assumptions about others based on the above criteria are still being crass, insensitive, illogical, rude, and bigoted, regardless of who they do it to.
So yes, it's logically wrong, it's dangerous, it's immoral, and, ultimately, it's counterproductive. If at this stage you're thinking, 'Yes, but you're privileged, of course you're going to say that', well, I guess I failed to make my point.