The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
When thinking about privilege, I begin first with the body. Not the body as a concept, but the tangible physicality that negotiates everyday, lived experiences.
Yes, as Richard Newton argued, social media movements like #checkyourprivilege or videos like Buzzfeed’s demonstration of “Step Back, Step Forward” do not address the complexities of our identities. They do not make way for the intersectional ways we relate to each other and to ourselves as discussed by Amanda Robbins. Beyond that, Samantha Poremba showed how checking one’s privilege only gets at the surface of the problem, stopping short of exploring, unpacking, and challenging the larger ideological systems perpetuating it.
That being said, to take stock of one’s own privilege is necessary. To begin paying attention to the large systems of power that inform our experiences, we need to understand that some bodies have more access and more power than others.
My discussion of privilege, my consideration of the word, is visceral.
I cannot help but think of myself as a queer, disabled woman of color as I write this response. I write thinking of my community of queer and trans folks, crips, and feminists of color. Because of our bodies, our intersectional identities, some of us are thought not to matter. We are rendered invisible, silenced bodies that exist on the periphery of culture, expendable bodies that are not privileged.
And there is that word again: privileged.
There is a need to be nuanced about this word. We need to focus on the systems that create oppression, and yet what do we do with the body, the body that experiences the tangible affects of a lack of privilege? Where do people and there experiences go?
Before we begin looking at and challenging the toxic ways heterosexism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc. are replicated, we need to know how we as individuals, as living bodies, are impacted by these systems.
I first began to understand the dynamics of oppression, ideological systems, and what maintains them the first time I realized that even though I had a disability, the fact that it was invisible gave me more privileges and cultural capital than someone who has a visible disability.
After reading Phyllis M. May-Machunda’s “Exploring the Invisible Knapsack of Able-Bodied Privilege”, an essay informed by Peggy McIntosh’s writing, I sat with myself and made a list of the different ways I too, in states of passing, experience the privileges bestowed onto the nondisabled. Some of the one’s that resonated with me that also appeared on May-Machunda’s list include “I can ignore the width of doors, the presence of steps and other architectural features of buildings … I can be fairly sure that the first reaction to me is not pity or revulsion due to the condition of my body … [and] I can look others in the eye in my daily interactions.” Pausing to explore the diverse ways I had social advantages allowed me to truly begin to understand the layered ways ableism functions. I began to see the question “How are you privileged?” as the first step on the path toward recognizing oppression.
This path, however, is not complete unless we discuss how we can challenge these systems.
In this process of self-interrogation and questioning, feelings of guilt, discomfort, and perhaps even defensiveness will arise. I have experienced the gaping silence, the uncomfortable shifting that occurs in the classroom when conversations about privilege come up.
I do not think, however, that it is necessary to sanitize the ways we feel when we talk about these differences in our lived experiences. In fact, these very tangible, gut responses can serve as productive and fertile locations. As a scholar who explores body politics, Elspeth Probyn advocates for what she calls “gut ethics.” Active engagement with the gut response for Probyn allows one “to interrogate the ethical implications of a cultural system that regularly establishes boundaries between different types of bodies.” By questioning, truly questioning, what our gut reaction is to our own privilege can allow us to explore, decenter, and shift the imbalance of power in our culture, the different ways some of us are given a voice while others of us are considered expendable.
Regardless of the word we use, or rather don’t use, let’s not forget the lived experiences of our bodies.
Shayda Kafai, PhD is a lecturer in the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Using her scholarship on disability, sexuality, and gender, she is dedicated to dispelling the ableist myths that forcefully craft our lives. She blogs at Vocabulary of the Body.