Male Privilege?

I should really continue with the strength of my ambiguous title but I’m going to immediately run toward the safe ground and underline the fact that many males possess great privilege, as do almost all genders that were born in the ‘west’, especially those with the genetic advantage of being white.  But this rambling prelude highlights the situation that truly exists in a world in which the many oppressions inherent in kyriarchy (the complex intersection of multiple streams of oppression and domination) intersect.

Let me pose you a question: Who is more oppressed, an Asian labourer working for subsistence pay but having great dominance over the women of his culture or a white western woman with the disposable income to fulfil her material wishes but dominated and held down by a male-centric power structure?  What about an English male with a severe physical disability who is discriminated against daily in his exclusion from services that most people in his culture take fore-granted?  Let’s add a rich white teenager who commits suicide because society cant accept his self-identified gender.  Who’s at the top of this heap, who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed?    The answer, of course, is that it’s a foolish question.

We all live in a complex web in which we are, in some way, carriers of privilege and therefore part of a system of oppression. When I say all I mean all. Yes, I mean you, but we’re not going to talk about you, we’re going to talk about how I fit in to this web (as best as I can see it).  I recommend you do the exercise for yourself, it can be enlightening.

  • Firstly I’m rich, not stinking rich – I can’t afford a house in the city in which I live – but I’m above average for England and England is way above average for the world.  I have money for lots of toys, food and leisure and I buy them from chain stores and online giants that I am fully aware are actively exploiting people in third world countries.  I am part of the economic system that oppresses the people in those countries.
  • I’m male, and that means that without trying I earn 20% more than a female doing the same job.  I’m also more likely to be taken seriously than she is and significantly less likely to get attacked or harassed.  I can count the number of demeaning sexual comments that have been aimed at me in public on one hand (and that’s comments in my lifetime, not just this week).  Even being aware of all this and actively trying to act in a reasonable fashion I still find myself looking down on women occasionally.  The modes of thought instilled in the schoolyard sneak to the surface unbidden and I have to keep close watch to avoid acting on them.  I feel shame about this but I suspect it is true for people everywhere – the modes of thought learned as a child take a lifetime to counter.
  • I’m ‘white’.  More than that the schoolyard taught me to be racist at a young age and so like sexism I have to fight my own racism daily.  I hope I am succesful but the price of success is constantly monitoring my thoughts.  Analysing what I am thinking and trying to determine if it is fair and objective, trying to identify the irrational idiocies I learned in my youth.  I hate this truth but it is a truth nevertheless and it should be admitted.
  • I have a physical disability.  You wouldn’t know it to see me but about twelve times an hour, as I sleep, my body gives up on breathing.  It’s called sleep apnoea and sufferers are constantly exhausted due to the disruption.  However, my privilege of being from England with its free healthcare means my health needs have been assessed and my condition diagnosed so that with the help of technology the condition is pretty effectively managed.  It’s not perfect but it’s pretty damn good.
  • I have a mental disability, I am manic depressive (I so prefer that to bipolar).  I have spent time in a mental ward and can ricochet between suicidal despair and irrational highs but, most commonly, I can feel a terrible mixed depression and high.  Adrenaline courses through my body whilst simultaneously my mind fixates in ideas of self harm or suicide and my thoughts race.  What sets this off? Sometimes nothing, but most often physical or verbal confrontation.  If someone at work gets in my face and fails to understand that my condition (and the law) require them to make the reasonable adjustment of communicating with me calmly it can destroy me for weeks.  If someone in the street is having a bad day and I catch the brunt of it then the effects can be catastrophic.

There are many more ways that I sit within this web but these are enough for now.  They are enough to let me ask the question ‘what does ‘male privilege’ mean’ when it comes to me, an individual within this complex world of privilege and oppression?  At its simplest it means my recognition that my gender means that I have on average more power and privilege than an otherwise identical female.  But it also leads me to understand that there is no such identical female – each of us inhabits a very personal position in a kyriarchal power structure.  My gender means I may oppress a woman but her (mis)understanding of mental health may mean that she oppresses me as a manic depressive and add to that oppression based on race and physical disability and both I and this theoretical other could oppress and be oppressed by each other in a multitude of different ways.  Now add everyone else in the world.

So what is the outcome?  The glowing realisation I want you to take away from all this.  Well, you’ll need to find your own truth but my truth is the realisation that we are all oppressors and oppressed.  The only way we can move forward is by looking to our own privilege and trying to understand it and minimise its effect.  Fight for your rights as a woman, or as a person of colour or a member of any other oppressed group but remember that you are also an oppressor of others and you must listen to the voices inside yourself and analyse whether they are correct.  More than that you must listen to the voices outside who are telling you when you are being an oppressor and you must strive to understand them.  You do not deserve to succeed in your struggle for equality unless you have tried your hardest to give all those you have been unwittingly oppressing equality of their own.

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