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Thursday, 12 November 2009

Ignoring or not being emotionally affected by marginalisation is a privilege.

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings where Renee has very generously allowed my random musings to appear on her excellent blog


I’ve seen a few of these round on the internet lately and my head aches a little with them. On one forum I was accused of being hedonistic because I defined myself by my sexuality (and my sexuality is totally about having sex, it seems) while he, a heterosexual, didn’t feel the need to.

In another venue I see many men tutting and finger wagging at an angry woman during a debate about sexism - her tone is wrong, she’s too emotional, she’s overwrought and making it personal.

Elsewhere I have seen any number of marginalised people criticised as whining, being emotional, being too critical and noisy and angry and selfish.


I’m sure with a few minutes search or remembering I can think of a few others and I know people reading this most certainly can. Because one of the hallmarks of privilege is not being involved, not having to worry about it and, on some level, not caring.

I am privileged. This is an unavoidable part of being white, male, cisgendered, able bodied, neuro-typical, comfortably well off, educated and no doubt many other privileges that I am extremely lucky to possess.

I don’t approve of prejudice, ill treatment or devaluing of people who do not share my privilege. I try to be an ally.

But to me it will always be, on some level, an intellectual exercise. I can be disgusted about a vile piece of racism, but it won’t hurt me. I can be angered at the sight of some repellent misogyny but I won’t be wounded by it. When someone’s waving their able-bodied privilege around I can be exasperated and irritated but I won’t be upset and diminished by it.

And sometimes I don’t think about it. There are hours, days, weeks when I can go without ever considering race or sexism or most marginalisations. I try to make a point of doing so - but that makes it a conscious choice, a luxury. And if it gets uncomfortable or unpleasant or I simply become tired, then I can stop.

Because when you are a member of a privileged group with one of your descriptors you don't NEED to think about it - because everything around you is set up to cater to your privilege. Just as an able bodied person doesn't have to think about being able bodied while someone in a wheel chair does, just as a white person doesn't think about how race affects them every day, but a person of colour is far more likely to find it being a relevant considerations, just as a woman has to be more alert to gender issues than a man is - and just as a straight person never has to think about sexuality but a gay person has to be so terribly aware.

Yes we think about our marginalisations. Yes I define myself by my sexuality in that I - we - pay more attention to it as a descriptor that straight people do. That is not something we choose nor is it something we want to do - it's a necessary adaptation to a world that is hostile to us.

IF no-one cared what my sexuality was, IF I had all of the same rights as heterosexuals, IF I could hold hands with my husband, have a picture of him on my desk, hug him in public, IF I could choose my holiday destinations without considering whether a country would imprison or kill me for my sexuality, IF I could go through my life without enduring derogatory or insulting comments about my sexuality and relationship all the time, IF society didn't spend no small amount of effort calling me a freak or lesser or a second class citizen, IF I could be sure I would be safe from discrimination, prejudice, hate crime and bigotry...

IF all these things were true then I WOULDN'T think about sexuality either. If I had the privilege of not having to think about my sexuality then it wouldn't dwell so much on my thoughts and it wouldn't be such a dominant descriptor. It wouldn't be such a dominant descriptor because it wouldn't effect my life so much, it wouldn't be something I would have to constantly take into account, it wouldn't be the worry that preyed upon me, the concern that dogged me, the constant nagging fear that I - and every other homosexual - can NEVER be rid of - at least not in my lifetime.

My point?

My point is that marginalised people have to think about their marginalisation, have to consider it and have to get involved in issues connected to it. It means marginalised people have to define themselves by their marginalisation and have to see how it effects everything around them

It means marginalised people cannot choose not to think about it.

It means conversations about marginalisation are conversations about their lives. They’re deeply personal and vitally important to them. It means they don’t have the luxury of being detached, unemotional or uncaring.


Which means

Which means marginalised people have good reason to think about their marginalisation, be alert to it - and damn good reason to be angry

Which means whenever you say a marginalised person is ‘obsessed’ by their marginalisation or ‘sees it everywhere’ or talks about it excessively - then you are probably wallowing in privilege.

Which means whenever you criticise a marginalised person’s tone, whenever you say they are ‘angry,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘emotional’ or taking it ‘too personally’ - then you are probably displaying your privilege.

Which means if you think a marginalised person is too obsessed or too emotional or angry or taking it all too personally and it bothers you then work towards a world that doesn’t FORCE them to ‘obsess’ or that doesn’t hurt or anger them. Chiding them on their ‘tone’ and their ’obsession’ only highlights not just your privilege - but also your ignorance.