Monday, April 23, 2012

feminism, marginalization, and blog has trendy words tonight

this post has been in my brain for months, and it may not win me friends but i need to say it. besides, i haven't been feisty on this blog in forever. if i don't soapbox once in a while i will totally lose my blog cred.

over the past few months i've noticed a trend where people throw around the term "privileged" in order to shut down others in a discussion. it is generally a discussion of poverty, gender, or marginalization of some sort, which makes it all the more gross.

when one says "your opinion doesn't count because you are ________ " it is dehumanizing and asinine. when one says it, one is basically saying either
A) "i know every experience you have had, and know that you cannot possibly relate to what we are talking about" which is presumptuous and ridiculous,
or (the worse) B) "although you may have been victimized and faced hardships in your life, your experiences don't count because you have X amount of money, education, support, skin pigmentation, etc." which is downright disgusting. it is especially so when it is used in conversations about marginalization and feminism. it is about as patriarchal of an attitude as exists.

it's like all of a sudden everyone heard the word "privilege" and though it sounded cool, and thought "hey, if i call people privileged i will look smart/PC/involved/whatever". it is a way of shutting down and dehumanizing people while looking like the good guy.

what bothers me most is how many "feminists" use it so readily, and against one another. honestly, it's part of why i am loathe to self-identify as a feminist, and why i think feminism has stalled and started to lose ground it gained decades ago. the "us vs. them" model is the very heart of patriarchy, and when feminists fall into it they lose credibility and effectiveness. bickering about who has the right to talk about feminism is beyond counterproductive. i think it's one of the reasons so many teen girls now roll their eyes at the term "feminism". it makes being a feminist inaccessible, because who, really, can join their voice to the discussion without fear of having their access to the internet used against them.

i understand that it is important to recognize the advantages one has in life, and that many people in the world don't have the same advantages. it is absolutely important to identify one's own privilege, and discuss from a place of gratitude and humility. but "privileged" is only something that one should self-identify, never something that one person should assume about another. the person i may judge as "privileged" may have been raped or abused, may have spent early life in poverty even though they have loads of money now, may have achieved their ivy league education in a desperate attempt to win love and acceptance from family, may suffer from mental illness or some other hidden physical disability. when i judge someone as "privileged" i am refusing to see them as a human being, refusing to believe that they could be anything deeper than my surface perception of them.

use of the term "privileged" as a pejorative separates people into two groups. there are the victims, and the privileged, the "have"s and the "have not"s. so when one uses it in a discussion of, say, poverty, one not only dehumanizes the "privileged" person, but also the "victim". when you say one person is privileged and one is not, you are saying that you know everything about the "not privileged" person as much as the "privileged" one, and know that they have never experienced any advantages or good things. as with any dehumanizing term, it dehumanizes everyone equally.

because i have white skin and am well educated, i have often been labeled as "privileged" by people who have no idea that i experienced homelessness as a child, have been sexually assaulted, have battled mental illness, cannot feed my child without public assistance programs, and fought a learning disability for the education i received. yes, i have had access to education. i have a home, food to eat, and this blog itself is a privilege which most people in the world (especially women) don't have. i have always had a supportive family on which to rely, and yes, the color of my skin has been more benefit to me than harm, i am certain. does any of that negate my past experiences? does any of that mean i don't deserve to have a voice?

at what point exactly do the scales tip? if one has never lived below the poverty line, is any opinion on poverty meaningless? how many years does one have to have had money to no longer be allowed to talk about poverty? does one have to be raped before being allowed to discus rape? does being male exclude a person from being able to care about and have opinions on feminism? does being straight mean one can't discuss LGBT rights issues? where are the lines, and who gets to draw them?

i think what bothers me most is that it is such an accepted label, and that no one seems to bat an eye when it is used to marginalize someone. it is not entirely honest to say that i dislike self-identifying as a feminist. i really do consider myself one. but it is an uncomfortable association for me, because i have felt just as marginalized by "feminists" as i have by patriarchy. and sadly, i don't see that changing any time soon. as long as so many feminists are set on relating to patriarchy on its own, adversarial terms, feminism will remain inaccessible and irrelevant to anyone but women's studies and social justice majors.
if "good people" can only prosper at the expense of "bad people", no one will truly prosper. if it is ok to exclude and devalue people because they are "privileged", it is ok to exclude and devalue people for any other reason. and there's the rub.

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