Saturday, February 16, 2013

Throwback: "Unpacking the Knapsack" from 2011

This was an article I found on my old Tumblr account that was hidden... but which I actually really quite like, so I'm re-posting it here:

Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack was Fun the First Time

You know those privilege unpacking briefcase exercises?  Where you give some person in a privileged category (straight, cis, white, male, etc.)  a list of say 25 privileges they have that somebody else doesn’t so they can visualize privilege better?

I hate them.  I really, really hate them.

I didn’t always hate them.  That’s because the original idea and the intent behind that idea is not a bad one.  And it’s still pretty good in the right context, which is as a learning tool for people who already acknowledge that they are privileged and already acknowledge that they are working to understand and work against that set of privileges.  There are still problems, but you’re not going to find an exercise that is universally non-problematic anyway.

Buy why does this classic toolbox bother me so much?  I’m writing, so of course I’m going to tell you.

The first problem is that there are privileges that really aren’t limited to just one category of people.  In the white privilege checklist, for example, number two states that if I need to move I can be pretty sure I can rent or purchase property wherever I want and have it be affordable.  This is a white privilege, but it’s also a class privilege, a cis privilege, and an able-bodied privilege among others.  Number three states that people will probably be neutral or pleasant to me, which again is a white privilege that can also apply to other categories.

Be aware, this isn’t a problem because it lacks exclusivity!  To continue that example, they are white privileges!  It’s a problem because people who aren’t already there to examine privilege and people who are defensive about their own privilege read those points and automatically come up with reasons why those privileges don’t apply to them.

At best, this leads people to not fully comprehend just how privileged they are.

At worst, it leads them to doubt that this particular form of privilege actually exists.

For example, the cis privilege checklist here.  I hate to admit it, but it’s actually a rather poorly written list in a way… so many of these points are not exclusive to cis people, and are not written in a way that specifies cis people, that people are more likely to talk about things other than cis privilege than they are to examine themselves.  That’s the reason that bolded disclaimer has to be there; people show up basically because they want to deny that being cissexual carries with it a set of privileges so they go through each point saying “That applies to people with disabilities, too!” or “That applies to people of color, too!” or “That applies to women, too!”  or “That applies to fat people, too!”  The message is lost in denial.

Or, alternatively, it leads people to crusade on something else entirely.  The reason there are so many dozens of these lists is because people read them and, rather than think critically about their own privilege, they think “That sounds like me!” and write their own list.  That’s not inherently bad, but it leads to comparisons which can be rather appropriative and insensitive, not to mention it narcissistically makes everything about them.

For example, a person with BIID (Body Integrity Identity Disorder, popularly characterized by the desire to have a limb amputated because the individual feels it should not be there, although that’s not the only manifestation) wrote a non-BIID privilege checklist that has since been removed which was basically a re-worded list of cissexual privileges and she got called out on that.  I had shown up there because I had only heard of BIID on Nip/Tuck and seeing how they continually portrayed trans people as fucked up deceivers I decided I wanted to read something without the pop culture filter attached.

I showed up wanting to be supportive and left offended, not because people had made a comparison between BIID and transsexualism, but because it had been done in a way which appropriated trans experiences without challenging cissexism.

The worst part is that I realized that this is exactly what most lists do!  The offender above had done it more explicitly, but was it really any worse than the list she copied from?  The fact is, so many cis privileges are also tied to race and gender and passing ability.  I am a white trans man with good medical access.  Most of the horror stories you hear about trans life have not applied to me and it is reasonable to expect that most of them never will.  And it’s rather easy for all of us to basically rip off an exploration of white privilege, re-write it for something else, and just forget how much of the result is based on race and other factors.

Some people have tried making up for this by making combo checklists… “Black Male Privilege,” for example, to point out intersections between race and gender, or “Trans Male Privilege,” or “White Female Privilege.”  But rather than acknowledge why these lists are necessary in a world that sees privilege checklists themselves as necessary, people complain that somebody dared using “privilege” in the same sentence with an oppressed category.  Especially “female.”  White feminists get really riled up about that.  They’re missing the point, which is  not to say that females have privilege, but pointing out that white women have privilege over women of color.  It doesn’t sink in, though, because relying on lists is itself problematic.

Another reason is that you can write a list of privileges for just about anybody if you think hard enough.  There are multiple “Female Privilege Checklists” out there written by sexist “men’s rights” activists talking about things like the fact that men pay more for auto insurance.  There are checklists trying to illegitimize the concept of white privilege by lamenting the use of the words "cracker" and "honky," ignoring hundreds of years of oppression .  There are feminists out there making lists as we speak trying to claim that trans women have privilege over cis women.  Cherrypicking makes things like this rather easy, and they’re big pats on the back to the people who make them.

Conversations about privilege have to happen, and I know it’s easy to want to turn it into lists and soundbites, but that’s just not going to happen.