We got together last week and had a great discussion on Privilege and Intersectionality with Reggie Lutz, Lillian Csernica, and Lesley Smith.
We started by floating basic definitions for these terms. Privilege is the very (extremely!) common phenomenon where one social group gets treated better than others. More opportunities, more acceptance, is perceived to be more beautiful/stronger/intelligent/etc. Members of the privileged group can expect to see the rules bent for them because they "deserve it," while non-members get no tolerance enforcement, criticism, ostracism, are perceived to be lesser in many ways.
Intersectionality is a term that fewer people are familiar with, but it basically talks about how many different criteria are used to define privilege, and how the borderlines between privilege and the lack of it can intersect in many ways. A woman is in the non-privileged group by gender, but may be white (privileged) and heterosexual (privileged) and cis-gendered (privileged). [Cis-gendered describes people who identify with a gender that matches their physical sex.] A gay man has a different combination of privilege and lack of it. So does a transwoman of color. The different combinations can be very complex, and very often, advocates for the underprivileged on one criterion will inadvertently (or purposely) not include people who are underprivileged on other criteria. This is like, for example, when feminists predominantly fight for the rights of white women and neglect women of color. I'll leave researching the lively conversations on this topic to you, but I would argue that feminism is not complete until all women have been raised by the tide, whether they be women of color, gay women, transwomen, disabled women, etc. Intersectionality is an important term in our current debates about equality.
Lillian immediately provided an example from her novel in progress, Sword Master, Flower Maiden. Her character Yuriko is a high-ranking courtesan, and an Englishwoman, raised since babyhood as Japanese with no knowledge of English ways. As a white woman, she is technically a nobody, but she is highly educated. He is a samurai, but is in exile, so his status is lower, and he does not have her extensive education. They take a while to figure out what kind of politeness to use with each other as a result!
Reggie remarked that people who experience connection often "connect over something specific," like an activity or something they like such as music, but then later conflicts come up in the relationship because of larger social divides like race and gender. One can maintain relationships without being blind to these possibly divisive issues, simply by virtue of a powerful mutual interest that brought the people together.
One phenomenon related to this question of privilege is humor. Humor by nature is supposed to tread close to borderlines of discomfort, but some kinds of jokes are appropriate for members of some groups, and not for others. Who is allowed to insult whom and for what reason? Why is Chris Rock able to be so successful with his routine about "blacks" vs. "n**s" but that would be completely appalling from another source? The key is that language use marks us as outsiders versus insiders, and the expectation is often that insiders will use language invoking a sense of solidarity and closeness. This can include slang and colloquialisms, but also face-threatening acts like insults. When I first saw my husband talking with some of his friends, I wondered whether they were friends at all! Social context is incredibly important. Lillian mentioned how in a Japanese context, referring to one's son as "my worthless son" can indicate modesty, though to me it sounds pretty horrible. Lesley mentioned how shocked she was at the language used in Grand Theft Auto, in particular the use of the "N-word." In England, it is simply unacceptable for any kind of use, whereas in the US it has been somewhat reclaimed. Queer is another word that has been reclaimed here. It no longer retains the meaning of "strange," but has been adopted by the LGBT community as a badge of honor. The success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy arose in part from the reversal of the privilege relationship and by giving power to the "queer" side.
We spoke a little bit about slurs, but weren't able to go into a lot of detail, which is why I've got them on my list for a hangout this month! It's always worth thinking about how different people refer to each other. I spoke a little about the "official" names for the undercaste in my novel, which include "undercaste" and "Akrabitti," their official name. For more on that, see this post. Lillian talked about how we can say Mr. Postman or Mr. Policeman but Doctor and Nurse (without the accompanying title). I mentioned how "girl" and "boy" have been used insultingly for adults without privilege by those who have it. Also, as I do when we discuss insults, I emphasized how important it is not just to consider insults but also to consider avoidance behaviors that people engage in, even the building of physical barriers. An example of this would be the upstairs/downstairs nobles and servants situation. Lesley described servants being treated as non-entities. The people who are supposed to be invisible often will have their own ways through streets, places to keep to in houses or in neighborhoods or stores. Lillian mentioned the Tradesman's Entrance.
Passing is another fascinating phenomenon related to this. Basically it refers to a member of a non-privileged group pretending to be a member of the privileged group. This can be difficult or easy depending on how obvious the markers of membership are. Gay people have in the past been (and still are) pressured to act like heterosexuals to avoid censure. People with some African blood who nonetheless are quite light-skinned have sometimes tried to pass for white in order to receive the benefits of membership in the privileged group. Lesley mentioned pretending to be neurotypical, and how draining that can be. We also talked about how some science fiction stories have taken up the question of artificial people pretending to be human. Pretending is very dangerous, however, because if the "truth" comes out, the pretenders are often attacked and even killed.
We spoke about the idea of "default value." The privileged are the ones who most often have their stories told (history is written by the victors?). This tendency is magnified because people tend to expect what they have already seen, and there is fear in the unknown. Fear, while it has some adaptive advantages, is also a severe disadvantage in cases of unwarranted bias. Defaults do change over time, but slowly. When we talk about wanting to change the default of stories about white able hetero cis-males, we don't mean we want to remove them from the picture - merely that we want people to assume that other kinds of people are present in the world and thus should also be present in story scenarios.
Changing bias is very difficult, particularly since we often reinforce bias with our own unconscious behaviors. It requires attention and concentration. We need to ask, "Who do we listen to, and why?"
Thank you to everyone who came and joined in the discussion. I hope to see all of you - an others - tomorrow for "Insults, Privilege, and Socially Potent Language Use."
Here's the video, for those who would like to hear the details!