It’s funny when a straight, white man denounces the three-word descriptor as unfair because those are not the words he would personally choose to describe himself. Talk about missing the point – or helping to hammer it home. That’s exactly what privilege is: the identities that are so deeply accepted as societal norms that they become invisible. I didn’t grow up introducing myself as a straight, white, middle class person either. Why would I? Nine out of ten of my friends ticked all those boxes too. Woman, though – I describe myself as that on the regular.
People who take issue with identity politics tend not to like the way we use the word ‘privilege’. I’d be happy to use a different word; I just don’t know of one that hits the nail on the head so well. I’m privileged too – in some ways, maybe more privileged than a working-class Dub, even if he happens to be a straight, white man. But this isn’t a privilege competition and I’m not here to pass blame. As Frankie Gaffney points out so well in his anti identity politics piece in the Irish Times, he didn’t choose those attributes – it’s just how he was born.
Think about that for a moment. He didn’t choose it; he was lucky compared to many, but it was nothing more than a luck of the draw. And that of course goes for those who weren’t so lucky as well, which is exactly why we call it privilege – it’s not earned, it’s not chosen, nor is it in and of itself a sign of ignorance or arrogance. It just is.
When Gaffney sets out his vision for a world of equality, he writes: “We should all be subject to the same laws, all have the same opportunities, all have the same rights, all have the same responsibilities…” What he doesn’t want is politics that sets out to divide us. But can’t he see we’re already divided? Can’t he see that plugging that gap between society’s divisions requires a mapping out of the same? If our privileged identities are so normative that we can’t even see them, how are we going to break down the oppressive ideas and prejudices against those who don’t fit within the norm, these ideas we’ve all internalised by virtue of growing up in a divided world? Equality is not about blindly giving everyone the same, like sweets divided into bowls for kids at a birthday party; equality is about looking at the unfair starting points, working to dismantle what caused them and distributing resources accordingly.
Should we talk about suicide rates amongst men, the homelessness crisis and how and why it’s gendered, how toxic masculinity is killing both men and women and how we can destroy it? Of course we should. I want more of that kind of talk, and I have yet to meet a feminist who doesn’t. What I don’t want is for these concerns to grow louder and more frustrated every time a woman talks about women’s rights or a person of colour about racial privilege. We can do both. There’s not a finite space for discussing societal problems and fighting for a more equal world. Keep talking.
Did I ever go hungry? No, not once. I’ll say it again: I’m bathing in privilege. I’m still scared of walking home alone at night; I still panic every month in the days before my period arrives; and I’ve learnt to always wrap my opinions in soft cotton wool, lest I be called out as hysterical – but hey, that’s just being a woman. I’m still regularly reminded of my privilege on an almost daily basis, but while it’s hard, I suck it up. Because this is about inclusive equality for everyone, so screw my hurt feelings.
I could spend my days defending my right as a white middle-class person to use whatever words I choose, regardless of my ignorance around their heritage and the hurt they cause, or I can focus my energy on listening to those who have fallen deep into the cracks of society’s divisions, with the aim of lessening the divides and building bridges. Gaffney has the same choice, and here’s a clue: it’s not the people fighting back against oppression who are to blame for society’s great divides, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel.