Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Own Your TAB Privilege

Lately I have been struggling with the fact that people I otherwise like and respect are driving me to the brink of sanity by just not getting it. By "it," I mean understanding the power dynamics of a situation involving them – a member of a majority group – and those with marginalized group status. Finally, the word privilege emerged from my subconscious. Now I am obsessed with the concept because it made insanity into sense.

Privilege is unearned power or advantage bestowed upon a member of the majority. It exists because of the systematic disadvantages the societal structure imposes upon members of a marginalize group. Rather than being about one instance or even type of prejudice, privilege is related to how the world tends to work. Whether earned or not, whether wanted or not, privilege is a de facto power granted solely because of majority group membership.

Thus, male privilege exists because of insidious aspects of our society that disadvantage women thereby bestowing advantages upon men. For example, when I become emotional, I am in danger of being considered a "hysterical female" whereas men can display the same emotionality without risking stigmatization. They have the "privilege" of showing whatever emotions they experience and in fact, are often lauded for "being in touch with their feelings."

No matter the privilege – white, male, TAB, heterosexual, sisgendered, class, religious, economic, and the list goes on – the crucial element involves a majority group having advantages denied the members of a marginalized group. In this way, though I might be disabled, bisexual, female, and poor, I still enjoy white privilege on a daily basis. (Nobody walks quickly past me standing on a deserted street because they fear being mugged.)

Hand in hand with the concept of privilege is the idea of "othering." Characterized by using a system of social markers to segregate people into neat categories, it results in "us" and "them." The methodology highlights difference and assigns meaning to that distinction. To use a favorite example, "Wow, I'm amazed you could do that well especially since you're blind." My difference (blindness) was highlighted separating me from the group and then that category was evaluated by a separate set of standards. I became the "other" who can't do as well at a given task.

Using the tool of othering, it is possible to secure and perpetuate privilege. Because people expect less from me, they also assess me as less capable. Clearly, I am at a disadvantage saddled with such assumptions, but it also means another group (sighted people) are seen as more capable, which is advantageous. Over time, lower expectations shape educational opportunities and job options so that a blind person in fact attains less, reinforcing the devaluation. Expect less. Achieve less. Be perceived as less. Vicious cycle.

The problem with privilege and othering is that they are so entrenched in our social structure that we don't even perceive their existence. How can you fight against a form of oppression that nobody can perceive?

The first step is to identify your personal privilege, which is known as "owning your privilege." I shall leave you with some forms of TAB privilege to ponder.
*In day to day life, a TAB knows they can meet their own needs and handle most emerging eventualities.
*A TAB knows the preponderance of strangers encountered will treat them as a competent adult.
*A TAB will be able to avail themselves of whatever facilities needed such as bathrooms, busses, post office, courthouse, and hotels.
*Should a TAB appear in public disheveled, unkempt, or badly dressed, nobody will assume it's because they lack the ability to do better.
*Nobody will assume a person with a TAB is their caregiver.
*A TAB will not be called inspirational for accomplishing a typical daily activity.
*If a TAB is in a building that catches fire, they have the same chances as every other person to get out unscathed.
*If a TAB needs emergency medical care, they can trust nobody will assess their life to determine if it's worthwhile enough to save.
*A TAB will not be subjected to questions about how they accomplish tasks such as bathing, eating, using the bathroom, or dressing and be expected to answer in detail.
*A TAB is not expected to thank people who offend them.
*When a TAB does not get what they want or need, they can express displeasure without risking being called ungrateful, overly demanding, or too sensitive.
*A TAB can walk into a yoga studio and take a class without relinquishing independence or being obligated to do more than anyone else to get the same things out of class. More about this last one next week!


Steve said...

Privilege is a tricky word. (I always keep trying to spell it with a 'd')

It's not right to says that they are unearned. I would say rights are unearned, privileges are earned. I argue that neither word fits social classes well.

Jen, is your literacy a privilege? How about your excellent ability to take difficult nebulous concepts, shine light on every aspect of them, and condense it down into a weekly blog post? You define privilege as "an unearned advantage." I think simplifying it to just "advantage" captures the sentiment better.

There was an article posted by one of my Facebook friends (which I admittedly did not read). The premise was (as I understood from the headline and the comments) about sex columnist Dan Savage, and that as a white, able bodied, thin, financially secure, cisgendered man, he did not deserve success wherever he found it.

First, being one race or another, cisgendered, and able bodied are indeed uncontrollables. No argument there. However fitness level can be improved with effort, and ones financial situation improved with great effort. Mixing uncontrollables with controllables as the article did, is not useful. Furthermore to argue that being white is an advantage does not consider the global aspects. Sure we rule the roost here in the US, but the concepts of "gaijin" and "gringo" aren't particularly complimentary, and assert the superiority of Asians and Hispanics respectively.

Privileges often are associated with duties and responsibilities. The privilege of driving demands you drive safely. The privilege of donating blood demands adherance to the standards of circulatory system cleanliness and behavior. The privilege of being a Wikipedia moderator (or significant position in any organization) demands that one work in the best interest of that organization and to perform their expected functions in a competent manner. Failure to abide by the responsibilities of a privilege causes revocation of the privilege.

Using "responsibilities" in the same sentence as social class privileges leads to White Man's Burden, (or straight man's burden, man man's burden, TAB man's burden) and the whole can of worms those open up.

Using "rights" to describe the advantages one gets due to uncontrollables is even worse. Is it my right to be white? Certainly not, it's uncontrollable.

Again, I think "advantage" and "disadvantage" best capture the reality that being a certain way eliminates whole categories of problems from a person's life.

Another question, is the rise in the use of "privileged" an example of the the euphemism treadmill working not on any particular advantaged/disadvantaged spectrum, but on the entire structure as a whole?

You also mention othering. That's a problem on both sides. Consider the Gallaudet college for the deaf, and how their most recent president was asked to resign (partially because of personality conflicts) because she was not fluent in ASL. They have created their culture for themselves and no hearing person will enter into it.

There is an excellent short clip of Morgan Freeman discussing othering in the context of Black History Month.

However, I doubt you'd be OK with his solution of "not talking about it" in regards to disability awareness.

Jen said...


It seems like much of what you said involves objecting to the word "privilege" used to label a particular concept. I didn't pick the word, so I can't help there.

Advantage, in the way you are using it, fits better. Again, I've taking a term from the field of oppression theory and I am pretty sure it's going to stick since it's been around for a while.

I'd say my access to the type of education I received is an aspect of white privilege. that education allows me to read and write the way I do. Thanks for the implied compliment.

I'd argue fitness and thinness are not universally related. Some people are heavy and completely fit. in the same way, thin people can be unhealthy. I'd also argue that financial status has a component of "unearned" in it. People who come from a wealthy background tend to be wealthy. Yes, people can sometimes go from poor to rich and vice versa based solely on their own efforts, but I believe effort cannot always change it.

Dan Savage has great success. I suspect if he'd been a black, poor, disabled, fat, and trans/female success would have been far less likely. He had privilege based on many of his majority group statuses – access to education being top on that list.

I don't know much about race in other countries, but I suspect being white anywhere in the world is at the very least not a disadvantage. Scorned? Yes. Disadvantage in the systematic way Hispanics are disadvantaged here probably not. Being white and American in the Middle East probably is, but that's mixing race and national origin. While we aren't liked in many places, "white privilege" is about unearned advantages distributed based on social structures.

They could have called it "white advantage," "male advantage," and so forth. I don't think they meant to refer or include privileges related to responsibilities. That is a different use of the word.

I think you should go look at the list of privileges listed in an article entitled "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." I found it rather illuminating.

You are going to have to say more about the concept of "burden" for me to get your point. "TAB burden?" Ditto the "treadmill working" thing.

Deaf culture is an anomaly. It is, however, in existence because of the oppression experienced by Deaf people in the hearing world. It's the manifestation of an oppressed group going off on their own, as some people of color have tried to do in years past.

If you look at Deaf culture as you would, say, American culture, the president things makes more sense. We wouldn't have a president not fluent in English, for example. Would a sci fi con be successfully run by a mundane? They just wouldn't understand the group well enough to do it. Fluency in ASL is a sign of cultural assimilation and I can understand objecting to someone not assimilated running their university.

Freeman has a point for white privilege. If nobody could actually identify race, that privilege would no longer exist and othering wouldn't be possible based on it. Disability is not the same as race in terms of marginalized group status in that simply not noticing it would not eliminate the differentiation of us from TABs. To make disability an identity devoid of meaning, we would have to change how things are done, like always building ramps, having books in alternative formats, not having fragrance added to anything, and so on. It's not even like sex/gender where fire fighters might have different evaluation standards based on sex. This is how disability is distinct as a marginalized group identity and why sometimes oppression theory doesn't quite fit it.

Steve said...

I think an education advantage is more a function of your class than your color. After all, there are plenty of "po' white folk" who will never go to any college, much less do well in one. There are two components to it as well, advantages innate in your DNA, and advantages gained by you seizing opportunities which were presented. Again, the dichotomy of unearned and earned presents itself.

I'll argue that any advantage has both innate and earned components, and that some advantages can be taken by those without the innate part. Skin color, yes, being white provides innate advantages, but again, the trailer trash are letting that advantage go to waste. Most everyone is a TAB, but some willingly disable themselves by lack of exercise to the point where they no longer can walk and have all the health problems associated with morbid obesity.

There's an image meme called "Successful black man". The images are square with simple radial segmentation of the background into various shades of tan. A black fellow wearing a crisp suit is in the center with a caption around it. The top line of the caption is something one stereotypically associates with "street" culture, and the bottom line is a complete reversal making the concept something a successful person would say. My favorites are: "I got 99 problems... ...out of 100 right on the CPA exam." "I'm always packin... updated resume." and "I don't have a job... offer you at this time." Observing and commenting that some groups receive unearned advantages is appropriate. Accepting one's relegation to the disadvantaged side is not.

When I said "TAB burden", I refer to a hypothetical extension of the concept from colonial times of "white man's burden". In the British Empire, the public sentiment was that the natives living in the imperial colonies were the responsibility of the ruling white British. The native cultures were _obviously_ inferior to proper British civilization, and it was accepted that they would just have to be uplifted out of their savagery.

As I said before, I don't think something can be a "privilege" without having responsibilities come along with it. To say that whites have a responsibility to blacks, straights have a responsibility to gays, men have a responsibility to women, are generally unacceptable thoughts these days. TABs and disabled people are a bit different. The ADA does require that the able bodied take care of the disabled. As you say, disability is distinct in that no other majority/minority relationship gets special treatment like that. However as you said in your last comment to me, TABs aren't required to do anything deemed "unreasonable", so it can be argued that it doesn't reach the conceptual level of a "burden."

The euphemism treadmill thing was more me just speculating. We have the historical treadmill of terms: cretin, idiot, retarded, developmentally disabled, etc. I was wondering whether this use of the word "privilege" covering all of the majority/minority interactions was replacing anything and whether it in turn would be replaced with another meta-term.

Steve said...

One final thought, assuming one disregards the _causes_ of one's advantage or disadvantage, do the generically advantaged ACTUALLY have a responsibility to the generically disadvantaged? The Abrahamic faiths would argue yes...

Jen said...

Hey Steve,

You know how there are two meanings of hot? Sexy and high temperature aren't really related except that sexy came from the idea of hot as too hot to touch. Well, privilege is similar. There's privilege as in earned advantage and then there's the concept in oppression theory. You have the two really intertwined and I'm having trouble sorting out how to respond to you because in terms of earned privilege, you have valid points. In terms of unearned privilege (advantages bestowed based on inherent characteristics) I think you are off base.

I think privilege of class, color, gender etc are very complicated. Poor white people might have white privilege, but class privilege is another kettle of fish. From what I can tell, my white privilege gives me certain advantages that my lack of TAB privilege nullifies. Not all aspects, but some. For example, I'd probably not be hired over a person of color who is able bodied even though I'm white.
Some disabled people became disabled because they did really risky things like diving into shallow water. We still consider them disabled and don't have some sort of test about whether or not they "did it to themselves." Before you decide an obese person is to blame for their condition, do you ask each one? Do fat people have to carry a doctor's note saying their condition is not their fault?

Does lifestyle play a role in people being overweight. Hell, yes. Do other factors like parental education level, financial status, neighborhood safety, access to health care, and quality of school lunches play a role? Definitely. I don't think it's possible to just say those who are morbidly obese are to blame and behave accordingly.

I agree that being okay with relegation to a disadvantaged state is not desirable. I would argue that expecting people to fight back and "overcome" it when those of privilege don't have to is hypocritical. This is why those of privilege need to realize the dynamics and try to do something about it. It's not incumbent just upon the disadvantaged to not settle. People with privilege should fight equally hard to balance the inequities. They don't.

It's pretty unacceptable to say that a TAB is responsible for a disabled person. The ADA is about addressing systematic discrimination. It should not be seen as helping a specific disabled person. It is more about creating a world where everyone can function. Or as close to it as we can get.

The only thing different in the TAB/disabled relationship is that concrete things need to be done to address the situation. In a way, it makes something fuzzy in racism, sexism, heterosexism etc clear because there are concrete steps that can be taken. When you add a ramp, it means a person in a wheelchair has access. There's no equivalent to addressing the predominance of y chromosomes in corporate America. A ramp won't fixit.

I actually take offense at the idea that TABs are responsible for me. In sorting out why that bugs me so much, I realized that it makes personal something that is more generalized. People with privilege, in my opinion, are responsible for identifying their privilege, not abusing it, and understanding who does and does not share that privilege. They also, in my opinion, should do something to balance the situation.

Saying a privileged group is responsible for a marginalized group is patronizing and paternalistic. Parents are responsible for their kids. Superiors are responsible for their pets. TABS are not any of those things in relation to disabled people. Am I making any sense?

mmale47 said...

Interesting discussion. jen, thanks for answering Steve's paternalistic slip showing in his ignorant comment re. ADA. Saves me from doing so, lol. Steve: no worries, we're all ignorant, just about different things.