Thoughts on privilege

The first rule of Privilege Club is: You do not know you’re a member of Privilege Club.

The second rule of Privilege Club is: Even if you know you’re a member of Privilege Club, you don’t know how far your membership goes.

The third rule of Privilege Club is: The second rule of Privilege Club applies even if you try to take it into consideration.

The fourth rule of Privilege Club is: You do not talk about Privilege Club, except to deny its existence.

Just what we need: more proclamations from a straight white man

This is my third attempt at writing this post. The reasons I’ve found it hard to write are the same reasons I think it’s important for me to write it. Its purpose is mostly to help me organize (and record) my own thoughts; a secondary purpose is to effectively raise my hand and say “I believe privilege exists” to punctuate the silence from many privileged people. I believe that the more people who openly acknowledge privilege, the easier it will be to defeat, and this post is just one way of acknowledging it.

I recognize that there’s a risk that this post will come across as mansplaining privilege. “Listen dear, I know you think you know about privilege, what with being sexually harassed, talked over in meetings, received less recognition and compensation for your work and so on – but hush now: man talking. Let me tell you what privilege really is.” Recognizing the danger isn’t the same as avoiding it, and I may fall into the pit anyway. Please call me on it if I do.

How does privilege affect me?

I’m a straight, white, cis-gendered, married, middle-class Christian male living in the UK. I could go on with things that have given me advantages, but that’s probably enough to start with.

That means:

  • I can sit here thinking about privilege instead of working a second job or trying to find a job. If I lose my current job, I can be reasonably confident of finding another one before I go hungry.
  • There’s a referendum tomorrow: I can vote freely, and I’m confident the vote won’t be rigged.
  • I can write this post and be pretty confident I won’t be abused for it. (When I messed up an earlier post in a few ways, I was called on it by a writer I admire. It stung, but the criticism was all measured, polite, and useful. No threats, nothing ad hominem. Compare that with the comments on the average feminist article…)
  • I can walk across the local park to the shops without fear of sexual harassment. (If I walk across at 10pm and there’s a group of teenagers hanging around, I get nervous. I don’t know how rational that is though.)
  • I can show affection to my wife in public and not receive abuse.
  • I can practise my religion without persecution. (I’ve received more abusive comments from other Christians for things like my stance on homosexuality than I’ve received about my other religious beliefs.)
  • Although I tend to talk quite a lot in meetings, I’ve rarely been cricitized for it. I suspect a woman talking the same amount would be seen as “overly opinionated” or somesuch.
  • I’ve never been denied service for how I look. Compare this with the #AirBnbWhileBlack situation which originally prompted this post, and which horrified me when I heard about it. It horrified and surprised me due to rule two.
  • If someone buys me a drink, I’m happy for them to bring it to the table, without worrying about whether or not it’s spiked.

Now none of this is what I might have termed “privilege” a couple of years ago. It’s just “normal life, the way it should be” – because everyone is equal, right? I would have used the word “privilege” for things like blatant nepotism, or inheriting millions. (The deposit my parents gave me for my first house? No, not privilege, of course not. Being lucky to have hard-working, generous parents? Sure, I can acknowledge that – but calling it privilege would break rule one.)

Living in different worlds

I’m not hopelessly naive – I haven’t just woken up and discovered that sexism, racism and homophobia exist. But I’ve become more aware of the extent of them, and how they can make it feel like you and I may be living in entirely different worlds. We could walk down the same street, minutes apart, and experience very different journeys – not just tinkering round the edges, but aspects that change the decisions we make, the state in which we arrive at our destination, our outlook for the rest of the day, and so on.

That’s an easy idea to shrug off, and I suspect I’d have dismissed it at least partially a while ago. No-one could have proved it to me, in that I can’t live in someone else’s skin. Sure, you could have shown me a video of the two experiences, but that’s not the same as feeling it, and living it – not just for five minutes, but for a lifetime. So instead of looking for proof, I go by what others say about how they find the world around them, basically – and it feels like reading books like Everyday Sexism has opened my eyes, at least partially. (Girls Will Be Girls helped a lot here too, particularly descriptions of structure vs agency.)

I still have to fight myself on this – privilege is apparently really hard to shake off. It’s so easy to fall into Privilege Denying Dude mode, fundamentally assuming that the world really does work the same way for everyone, and that those unfortunate people that bad things just seem to happen to would be so much happier if they’d just make better life choices. It would be lovely to think I always catch myself before going into that mode these days, but it seems unlikely… and how could I know?

Aside: eyes wide (?) open

This morning I read a wonderful piece called “10 ways to be a better male feminist” by Aaminah Khan. It includes this line:

And once you start doing this, you can’t just stop, because even if you want to, you won’t be able to shut your eyes to reality once you’ve had them opened.

For a couple of months now, I’ve been realizing that being a feminist isn’t making me happy. I didn’t really expect it to, but when I first ordered a few books a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’d expected how sad and angry I might become… and yes, that’s obviously within the privileged position of only having to learn about the injustices rather than live them. No sympathy requested or expected. The only way I expect to become less sad or angry about this is for the world to change.

Debatable privilege

There’s one aspect of privilege which isn’t directly related to my gender, race, sexuality or anything like that – but more my experience.

For those coming to this post from a non-software-engineering background, I’m a micro-celebrity on a Q&A site called Stack Overflow. People ask questions about how to solve programming problems, and other people provide answers – I mostly provide answers, and I’m pretty good at it. This in turn has led to me speaking at quite a few conferences. It’s fun, and the attendees seem to enjoy my talks.

Now, when a conference opens its Call for Speakers, the organizers often email me directly to ask me if I’d like to speak. Sometimes they’ll put me in the agenda before we’ve even worked out what I’m going to talk about, let alone written a full abstract.

Is that privilege? Most of the other speakers will have had to find topics which are new and cool, hone abstracts, carefully craft bios to sound impressive but not arrogant… all work I haven’t had to do. I’ve taken a shortcut. Does it count as “not privilege” due to “earning” the shortcut with previous talks and Stack Overflow answers? I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel guilty about it; usually I don’t.

Conclusion (aka darn it, this time I’m going to hit “post”)

I don’t want to come across as wearing too much of a hair shirt. I didn’t “opt” to be in a privileged position, and I don’t feel guilty for being a man, or being white. (And no-one is asking me to feel guilty for that, either.) But there’s no excuse for not recognizing the privileges which give me unfair advantages every day. I hope that busting the rules of Privilege Club is the first step in dismantling it entirely. I hope I’m able to help open my sons’ eyes to privilege earlier than I opened mine. I hope there’ll be less and less to open our eyes to over time.

Speaking up on rape

(Yet another blog post that’s hard to write an appropriate title for. Sorry for the lack of imagination.)

If you haven’t already read about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, you might want to do some background reading first. There are many, many articles about it. This Independent piece does a good job of showing some of the bizarre support given to the perpetrator1, along with the powerful letter from the victim. A couple of articles which helped to prompt this post, neither directly about this case, but both obviously relevant.

The latter article in particular made not writing this post increasingly difficult, compounded by tweets like this by @bookshaped:

I’d love for men to start Tweeting under a hashtag of #IRegret or something, based on times they didn’t stand up to rape culture. (I know)

… and this by @ClaireGillesp:

I’m going to retweet this from now and until I see men talk about rape culture. (Retweeting Roe McDermott’s article linked above.)

(Apologies for not knowing how to include tweets in a cooler way here.)

On the other hand, my ignorance makes writing this post pretty tricky too.

I haven’t been raped. I haven’t raped anyone. Very few of my acquaintances have told me that they’ve been raped (or sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed); I’m no longer naïve enough to believe that very few of them have been victims of those crimes, but that doesn’t help in terms of personal knowledge. Basically, I only know what I’ve read online and in a few books explicitly dealing with rape (of which Asking For It is the most obvious example) and in the general feminist literature I’ve been reading over the last couple of years. Oh, and the thinking that those books have prompted, of course.

All of this is to say that you shouldn’t expect much insight from this post. It’s more a statement of support than anything else. A small voice saying, “I acknowledge there’s a (huge!) problem, and it’s a problem men should be dealing with. It’s awful that we’re not.”

Let’s get simple things out of the way first. Things I’d love to believe are uncontroversial:

  • Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are unacceptable. (We could argue over the lines between the three of them. I have a fuzzy idea of where I’d draw the lines, but I’m happy to be guided here.)
  • The victim should never be blamed. Wearing sexy clothing does not make it the victim’s fault. Getting drunk doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Passing out doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Going from “consent given” to “consent withdrawn” doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Rape is the fault of the rapist.
  • The perpetrator should be blamed, and held responsible. Having a promising life outside this crime doesn’t excuse it. Being drunk doesn’t excuse it. (If you can’t be drunk without assaulting someone, the onus is on you not to drink. Surely that’s a simple rule to follow.) Not having any previous convictions doesn’t excuse it.
  • A staggering number of women (and some men, of course) are victims of sexual violence and harassment. I find it hard to get my head round the statistics that are presented, but that doesn’t mean they’re not accurate – it just means the world is a nastier place than my white male middle-class privilege has shown me.
  • The conviction rates for rape are appalling, for various reasons – some of which are well-intentioned parts of general criminal justice systems, and some of which I suspect are simply male privilege at work.

The stats really are staggering – to me, anyway. I don’t remember my parents teaching me about consent explicitly, but it was just a general part of how we were brought up. I can’t get into the mindset of that sees an unconscious woman and thinks “Ah, there’s an opportunity.” When I’ve had some drinks, I certainly exercise poorer judgement in general, but that’s such an enormous leap that I just can’t understand it.

Regrets, I’ve had too few

Where I find it hard is that #IRegret part. When I said earlier that I haven’t raped anyone, I appreciate that in many cases that could be denial at work. In my case, my life has been such a stereotypically middle-class “nice boy” one that I can really be pretty confident in it. I’m likewise confident about sexual assault. For sexual harassment, it’s certainly easier to believe that I’ve inadvertently perpetrated that – and if that’s the case, I do sincerely regret it. But regretting nebulous “something I might have done” isn’t really useful.

Have I perpetuated rape culture more generally? Here I can remember one very specific remark I made while at university which objectified a woman sexually in a troubling way. (Aargh – even just finding the words now is horrible. “In a troubling way”? It was a nasty, sexist, demeaning thing to say, and I regret it.) I’ve also told a number of sexist jokes over the course of my life, hopefully decreasing over time. I’m watching myself now.

Have I tolerated others making sexist and demeaning remarks, thereby increasing the acceptance of rape culture? I’m honestly coming up blank here (my circle of friends is also pretty tame), but I think it’s pretty certain that I have. While I’d like to think that being “actively demeaning” is relatively rare for me, being too afraid to rock the boat by calling out offensive comments sounds all too plausible. I regret that, and hope to do better.

What I certainly can own up to with regret is trivializing sexual harassment. I haven’t wolf-whistled women or made comments about their cleavage etc, and I’ve always been “mildly disapproving” of such behaviour – but in the past I haven’t considered it to be as harmful as I do now. I’m never going to have the full sense of the life described in books like Everyday Sexism, but I hope I will gradually have more understanding and empathy.

Call to action

So what’s the point of this post? Why write it?

  • I hope it encourages other men to come out in support of victims and acknowledge that men have been getting away with sexual violence for far too long, and should be vocal about it.
  • I hope that in writing it, I’m encouraging myself to be less cowardly in situations where I can help to fight rape culture instead of passively accepting it.
  • I hope that it is a tiny crumb of comfort for women who don’t see men making any attempt to engage with the topic.
  • I hope it acts as encouragement to help steer money to rape crisis centres. Recently, Sarah Breen walked the Vhi Women’s Mini-Marathon in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. If (like me) you’re a man feeling like you can’t do a lot to help on this issue, you can at least get your wallet out. Find a local rape crisis centre or women’s refuge to donate to, or simply skip the research and give to the Dublin RCC. (That’s a direct link to the “donate now” page. It won’t take you long. Do it now.)

1 I say the support is bizarre, but what would I do if one of my sons were in the same position? While I can hope that I’d stick to my morals, I’m not going to claim 100% certainty of that. I earnestly hope I never find out.