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Jun 062012


priv-lij] Show IPA noun, verb, priv•i•leged, priv•i•leg•ing.

a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.

a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities: the privilege of a senator to speak in Congress without danger of a libel suit.

a grant to an individual, corporation, etc., of a special right or immunity, under certain conditions.

the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.

any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government: We enjoy the privileges of a free people.

 From dictionary.com

I’ve been rolling these ideas around long enough. It’s time to bring them into the light. They’re not all pretty. As someone who aims to please, I fear alienating people. I will endeavor to be as transparent as I can in unpacking my own privilege, even as I ask people to unpack and be comfortable sitting with theirs.

These aren’t new concepts for me. I’ve alternately embraced and wrestled with them since my early years as a naively eager college student studying Women’s Studies. I embraced language that could help me give voice to my own reality as a person who inhabits two minorities—womanhood and disability. Some of my journal entries from those days are insightful. Some of them miss the mark in ways it pains me to read.

Recent discussions among those who identify as sex-positive, sex-supportive, or sex-inclusive have got me thinking again.

Here are some thoughts I’ve put together. They’re pretty raw and unformed. I’m leaving them that way on purpose.

People with privilege, whether you identify as such, or are given that label, it’s okay to feel discomfort.

You can, as I know you’re eager to do, use your privilege to help. If you have money, you can give it. You can do without a couple of extra Starbucks lattes throughout each week and use that money for the good of your choice. You can speak out on the necessity (for both workers and clients) of decriminalizing sex work without the fear of being fingered and censured for being a sex worker. You can use your collective energies to make sweeping societal changes that will make our world more comfortable for people with different disabilities, of different sizes, etc. Who you are will dictate what means the most to you, and how you and your privilege relate to those with less or different privilege.

First, though, you need to feel a little uncomfortable. I know you don’t want to. You just want to help. Remember that for years it is we who have felt uncomfortable. Not saying it’s right; that you should feel uncomfortable just because we have. But there needs to be something more than just knowing on your part..a building of connections, a space and time for listening before doing.

You think we’re yelling at you…and maybe sometimes we are. Consider that when people speak out, it’s usually because they feel safe to do so. That’s an important first step. Creating a safe space is no easy feat, so if minorities are speaking out, this is a good thing.

Am I preaching?

I am a person of privilege. IN spite of the fact that every day I leave my house I run the risk of experiencing an environment that excludes me in some way. IN spite of the fact that every time I leave my house I, a married and college-educated woman with a house of my own, (all things valued in our society) “.run the risk of being treated or talked to as a helpless child. In spite of the fact that as a disabled woman I’m at an increased risk (statistically, and even more importantly anecdotally) of experiencing violence, that my wit, charm and intelligence are overlooked with automatic assumptions of what I can or cannot do….

In spite of all of this, I have enough money to live, enough money to enjoy a suburban life. When I emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, the process, though fraught with bureaucracy and woefully expensive, was smooth, in no small part, I am sure, because of my fair skin and native tongue of English. Oh, and I had the financial means to hire a lawyer, a specialized immigration firm even, which further smoothed the process.

I don’t speak to you with an unprivileged voice. I don’t (intentionally) speak to you with an angry voice. IN spite of how it looks, when I speak to “you” I speak just as much to myself.

But I do speak to you in a voice of diversity. Every time I walk into a room, I visibly change its minority composition. Reid Mihalko, glancing around the room at Momentum’s closing keynote, saw me taking notes on a piece of adaptive technology. It struck his eye as an aspect of diversity, a not unwelcome aberration in a roomful of smart phones, empty hands, and perhaps even a few pens and notepads. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with this reality of mine—that I do change the landscape, and I can choose to continue to struggle against this, or I can use it to speak out. Positive experiences, like having the difference I bring simply acknowledged, help with this, as more often than not when I change the landscape, there is palpable discomfort or anxiety.

So, while I have more to say about privilege, what it means and some of the more subtle ways in which it plays out, I’d like to propose that we slowly move the conversation over to one of acknowledging and exploring diversity and inclusion.

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