I was reading this blog about inclusive language, and came across this statement: “As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women.”
The blog, which talks about how all feminists need to reevaluate the language they use and eliminate language that perpetuates “racism, ableism, classism, cissexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, and heterosexism,” went on to say this:
“At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women. Not just women who fit into a very narrow set of categories. And this is why we need to use inclusionary language. This is why we need to cultivate spaces which are truly safe for everyone. This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.
People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved. If we ever live in a society where trans hatred doesn’t exist, everyone who is cis gendered will lose privilege, for example. As the old saying goes, “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead,” and this appears to apply to social justice issues as well, though you would be hard pressed to find someone who openly admits it. Being informed that you are hurting people with your actions threatens people when they have something to lose in this fight. This is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege.”
Now, I match that earlier description of “white, Western, able-bodied cis women,” which this blog seems to convey means I have something called “privilege.” I’ve been told this before, in other discussions with other groups, and I’ve always wondered what this meant.
White privilege, at least, has been defined for me as the following:
“[A] way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue as on the disadvantages that people of color experience. Unlike theories of overt racism or prejudice, which suggest that people actively seek to oppress or demean other racial groups, theories of white privilege assert that the experience of whites is viewed by whites as normal rather than advantaged. This normative assumption causes all discussion of racial inequality to focus on the disadvantages of other racial groups, and on what can be done to bring them up to white (i.e. ‘normal’) standards, effectively making racial inequality an issue that does not involve whites. Researchers suggest that more equitable attitudes can be achieved by refocusing such discussions to include whites as a group which holds social advantages rather than experiencing a ‘normal’ state of existence.”
Extrapolating from this definition, I would then also have able-body privilege, Western society privilege, and cis women privilege. (For the record, I had to look up the definition of cis woman.) According to this theory then, being white, able-bodied, from a Western society, and comfortable in the gender I was assigned at birth does not make me normal; it makes me advantaged, in some very specific ways. However, as a feminist who has read The Mismeasure of Women, I also know that being born a woman comes with some decided disadvantages as well.
I have to say, s.e. smith’s blog entry made me very uncomfortable, and it has taken a lot of thought for me to try to figure out why. But when I read this bit here: “[t]his is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege,” I can’t help but feel defensive. And yes, for the record, I am resisting the commandment to completely get rid of all exclusionary words from my vocabulary—I’m a writer. We always try to add in words, not take any away.
So let me take you down my deductive reasoning path: My privilege, which comes from labeling me as “advantaged,” means that I am not normal. I suppose there is an underlying idea that there is no such thing as “normal,” but if that is the case, then what is left? Advantaged or disadvantaged? I’m not sure that’s a message most feminists want to convey. It hearkens back to that same zero-sum thinking that says there can only be a win or lose situation, and if I win, then you lose; if I am advantaged, then you must be disadvantaged, and if somehow you were to gain advantage, then that would take away from my advantage. For example, if we allow same-sex marriages, that will some how take away from the marriage of heterosexual people; we can’t all have the same things, at the same level.
Well, if that’s the case, then what the hell am I fighting for?
What flows from the assignment of “advantage” and “disadvantage” to people is that the people with advantage are not only assumed to have power, but assumed to exercise said power over the disadvantaged:
“Every time we use [exclusionary language], we engage in othering. We exclude The Other, and make it clear that we don’t actually care about the issues that other people may experience. We make it clear that our claims of ally status are just lip service.”
If we slip up, as Ms. Smith discusses at one point, and use an exclusionary word or phrase, we do irreparable damage to our would-be allies:
“For the ally, it’s a slip, the use of a ‘bad word’ or the failure to recognize a community of people in a supposedly inclusive discussion. For the person who has that word or phrase used as a slur every day, as a weapon every day, who is constantly deliberately excluded, seeing a supposed friend do it is a stab to the heart. … This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.”
This reeks of something to me, something rather dark, something that suggests that simply because I was born a “white, Western, able-bodied cis woman” I am necessarily powerful. Those who have ANY level of privilege–me and people like me–have been endowed with the power to hurt other people just through our words–whether or not we mean them, whether or not we say them on purpose or by accident, whether or not we even recognize that the words we have used are exclusionary–and there is nothing we can do about the harm we (and our privilege) have caused. And furthermore, if I don’t recognize that privilege, and if I don’t actively work to educate myself about all the people who do not have my privileges, and if I don’t actively monitor every word I say, I will be doing this irreparable harm. Frankly, it seems like I’m going to have to put even more effort into being a good person than the non-privileged person next to me.
Except, odds are that the non-privileged person next to me is also able-bodied and from a Western society. Or maybe that person is an immigrant, but still able-bodied. Or maybe that person is an immigrant, differently-abled, and non-white, but cisgendered. Or maybe that person is an immigrant, non-white, differently-abled, transgendered person, but is “privileged” insofar as she or he has a job and a home.
My point is, if I keep going far enough down the list, the odds are that any given person standing, er, existing next to me is going to have privilege of some kind, is going to have some sort of “advantage” because some characteristic they possess has been deemed “normal.” And odds are that same person will, in some way, also be whatever the opposite of privileged is. The odds are that the person is a complicated individual who cannot be easily categorized one way or another. Personally, I don’t think I am easily categorized either. Even being “white,” the most obvious and theoretically privileged part of me, is a relatively new concept because my Irish heritage meant there was a time when I was not considered “white.” (For an interesting discussion about what it means to be “white” versus white, read this article.)
But, yeah, sure, I do seem to have privilege. I can go with that. But I also have self-identified as fat, thanks to a genetic predisposition to gain weight whenever I look at food, and I have felt like The Other many times because of it. And the reason I became a feminist in the first place was because I was tired of being told I was “less than” just because my genitals went inside instead of out. And maybe the reason why so many feminists seem to look like me and have the same privileges I do is because we have a shared history of what brought us to feminism. We didn’t have other characteristics that superseded our feminist leanings; we weren’t disabled, or non-white, or part of the LGBTQ community, so we came together under the umbrella of what we had in common, which was that we wanted our bodies to belong to us, our voices to be heard, and our lives to be counted as equal. It is from that place that we learned compassion for all the people over whom we also happen to have some sort of advantage.
And can I just add that I really hate that concept? I am trying to just go with it, but I can’t help but feel insulted on behalf of anyone who would then have to consider themselves disadvantaged because they weren’t like me. More advantaged? Less advantaged? Is there a chart on which you can find your advantage level?
Words are powerful, but I don’t think I want these words. I don’t want the words that put me on one side and all the non- “white, Western, able-bodied cis women” on the other. I don’t want to be The Other; that’s why I’m a feminist.
I don’t have any solutions here—I’m just trying to articulate why reading that blog made me feel defensive, sad, and somehow, oddly left out. I know, I know, it’s a white girl’s lament. But sometimes it is difficult to fight so hard to be inclusive and know that other people still see you as separate, and maybe even somehow above them.
Maybe my real issue is with this line: “At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women.”
I don’t know that justice and equality are the same thing. But I do know that I’m not fighting for justice for all women—I’m fighting for equality for ALL, period. ALL. Everyone. The entire lot of us humans, privileged or not.