In my experience, every internet feminist likes to think that she (or he, although the male ones mostly identify as progressive bloggers, rather than specifically feminists) has something new to say about privilege. And the reason I’ve tried to stay clear of that up til now is that I don’t think that. Privilege is a tangled confusing messy concept, and my adventures in comment flame-wars have taught me that however well you think you’re explaining your point, someone is going to take issue with it. And when you’ve been in your umpteenth flame-war, and you’re hearing those tired old tropes of ‘men want to have sex with women, therefore you guys have all the power’ and ‘why are you getting upset about video games when there are children starving in Africa?’, you need something to dull the impact. Often, that means shorthand. We talk about Feminist Bingo, about Trolling and Derailing For Dummies, and Check Your Privilege. It doesn’t help us win any arguments, but then, this is the internet, we were never going to win. And it helps us feel safe and secure that we know what they’re doing, and we see through it.
All this is awesome, until you start to translate it to real life. Because, as I only started to realise recently, real life has fewer trolls than you might expect. Oh, there are definitely some: the drinking society lad at the party who wants to tell you it’s not ‘real rape’, or the EvoPsych student who goes on about how women are just naturally inferior to men. But by and large, they’re the minority. Most people I come across on a day-to-day basis don’t troll feminists sites attacking the authors with rape threats and and comments about how they’re too unattractive to be worth listening to. They don’t know what derailing is, and though they may well do it, it’s not not deliberate. And when they make arguments like ‘but what about the men?’, they’re not doing it to provoke a reaction or buy into an internet trope. They’re doing it because that is genuinely the first response to what you’re saying.
Now, that’s not a good thing, nor is it an excuse, but it’s not the total dead-end that it is online. Hard as it has been for me to accept this, the people who I chat to about rape culture and gender essentialism are often hearing my arguments for the very first time. Spend too long on the blogosphere and you start to believe that everyone knows and understands those terms, and that anyone who says otherwise is either a troll or a hopeless misogynist. But the guys I chat to at parties are neither, and sometimes all they need is a bit of time to process what I’m saying, because what you forget when you read feminist blogs is that these concepts are hard. Privilege in particular is difficult to understand. And I think in that case, the shorthand we use and the assumptions we make can often hold us back and prevent us from actually getting our point across. We’re so used to being attacked in the most horrible ways online that we assume an attack is always imminent. And while that’s completely justified (trust me, I’ve seen the comments feminist bloggers can get), it doesn’t actually help us convince anyone.
So here’s a way I’ve found that does, or at least has a better chance. I don’t use the word privilege. In progressive circles, ‘privilege’ has a very particular meaning. It means an innate advantage that society has granted someone, making certain aspects of their life easier than someone who does not have that advantage. That’s it. And everyone has privilege. One of the hardest things for me was accepting that being a non-straight woman did not cancel out the privilege I get from looking white and from coming from a well-off family. Because outside of those circles, ‘privileged’ means something else: it means wealthy entitled bastard. Seriously. Here in the UK it conjures up images of posh public schoolboys drifting effortlessly into top universities and high-paying jobs just because their father had a conversation with someone. It means never having to worry about money, and not caring about anyone who does. It means looking down on the rest of the world.
Now, I don’t deny those men are privileged, but they are few and far between. And the problem is that when you say ‘check your privilege!’ to someone, say a boy at a party, he won’t think about the fact that he never has to worry about walking home alone or whether or not he should wear makeup to a job interview. He won’t think about the lack of societal pressure for him give up work to get married and have children. He’ll just think about how hard he worked to get into university and how his parents are struggling financially right now and how he gives to charity once a month, and he’ll compare himself to The Privileged Bastards he knows so much about. He’s nothing like them! And so assumption that he’s privileged feels like a ridiculous and utterly unfair attack that has come out of nowhere from the mouth of some crazy angry feminist. And put in those terms, it kinda is.
((How do I know this? Because, I’m now ashamed to say, I spent a good six months convinced that anyone who called me out on my privilege was overreacting and just looking for an excuse to dismiss my opinion. I felt personally attacked, because couldn’t they see that I wasn’t a privileged person? I was a woman, for goodness sake. And I worked really hard to get into uni. They were being ridiculous. Clearly.))
So instead of using that word, a word that seems so obvious to me, I pause, breathe, and talk in examples and analogies instead. I talk about being bombarded with so many messages that a woman’s only value is her beauty that I always have to worry at interviews whether I’m being judged on my looks or my intellect, and if what I’m wearing one day might ‘send the wrong message’. I talk about always having to wonder whether it really is too late for the 10 minute walk home in the dark. I talk about having experienced so much belief that women really ought to be more domesticated that ‘woman, get back in the kitchen’ jokes can never be funny for me, regardless of intent.
And almost without fail, the guys I’m talking to look at me in an interested way and say ‘I’d never thought of that’. And that’s when I turn round and explain: that’s privilege. The ability to not even have to worry about the things that make up such a significant part of my life. I know you’d never thought about it before, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work incredible hard for what you’ve achieved. But you have the privilege of not even realising you have this advantage over me.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it takes a lot more discussion, and the temptation for me to scream that this is my life, damn it, can’t you just accept that? becomes almost unbearable. But mostly, I get somewhere, even if it’s not exactly where I wanted to be. It takes time and it is hard and I often wonder whether the effort is worth it. But then I think about how long it took for me to get here, and how relieved and grateful I am that I did. And then one of those guys texts me to say he called out one of his friends on objectifying schoolgirls in short skirts, and I think yes.
I mean, I totally am a crazy angry feminist, but I don’t need them to know that.