What I Am Learning about Privilege

History flows—oozes perhaps—like lava to the sea, burning all that stands in its path.  That we are among the things in that path is something we generally prefer to forget, only to be shaken by moments that awaken us to the approaching fire.  Accidents, deaths,  national tragedies—each arouse us momentarily to the droning, one way1 march of time.  These moments anchor us in history.  “Where were you when…”

As I sat down to write this evening, news of the Parisian fire awoke me once again from my oblivious slumber.  For decades to come, every child of France will ask, “Where were you when Notre Dame burned?”  A mere Francophile, and not at all religious, I cried at the destruction of the ancient cathedral.

Already we hear the promises.  Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and so it will be.  Ashes do not smolder forever.  When they cool, they will be swept away.   France is awake.  With tears in her eyes, she prepares to work.

Events that turn our eyes to the flames do not relieve us of our daily obligations.   Paralyzed by our grief, we must nevertheless go on.  With  barely a moment to catch our breath, we find ways to take the first few steps.

  • We take control of the story.  Our loved ones are not gone; they watch over us.
  • We tell ourselves that this is for the best.  True, the car is totaled, but the next one will be so much nicer.  
  • We rescue something from the carnage.  We carve a coffee table out of the 100 year old oak uprooted like a sapling by a passing storm.  Better yet, we plant a new tree.  In time might it not also prove to be magnificent?

And yet.  And yet.

We cope and we remember,  We hurt and we continue.  We grow and we change.  We do whatever we can to forget, once again, the relentless approaching inferno. There is no shame in this.  We do these things because it is in us to do so.  “Whatever gets you to sleep at night” is as valid a moral compass as any other as I can imagine, so long as what that is prevents no one else from peaceful rest.

There is no UNDO button on history.   In whatever moment we find ourselves awake, we do well to look momentarily into the fire.  Tomorrow we must pick up our tools and get busy.  And when we complete all we intend, we will rest once again, telling ourselves that it is even better than before, as if to say, of all possible critiques, Notre Dame was nice, but maybe just a little too old.


I remember the room—the half-painted walls and the stacks of books; my therapist’s glasses and the my butt sank into cushions of the old plaid sofa.  Exactly what words were used and in what sequence is far less clear.  We were talking about the price I had recently paid for beginning transition.  I lost most of my friends, and family support was anything but at that time.  

She asked me about why I had lost my friends, and I said something like, ”I broke the man code.”  She directed me to think about what that was and why that mattered, and we spoke of the concept of privilege, an idea which at most I had seen darting across my peripheral vision.  Now I was tasked to look straight at it.  As nearly as I can recall, I said this:

“Whatever I do with my gender dysphoria, that  (i.e. male privilege) has to go.”  

I was, in that moment, startled awake.  Like many erstwhile sleepers, a light flickered on, I bolted upright in bed, and I uttered some gibberish that I didn’t remotely understand.  I had no bearings, but out of this confusion, a new waypoint emerged—one from which I would navigate in the future.


Fast forward 10 years.  

I have completed those aspects of gender transition which most deeply involve medical intervention .  Many of you now do reflexively what I asked of you five years ago—to refer to me by a new name and honor the validity of my gender identity by using coherent pronouns.  For my part, I have begun to understand and that there are nearly four billion living examples of what it means to be a woman, and that I am one of them.  I do my best to remember that being misgendered at this point says far more about the speaker than it does about me.  I take measures to see that such invalidations continue to diminish and I keep appropriate emotional distance from those who cannot or will not make those adjustments.  Transition is a path rather than a destination, but today the path is better lit.

For the past several years, I have had the annual pleasure of helping to teach first year medical students about transgender experience independent of and connected to medical systems.  First year medical students consume information with ferocious intensity.  By the time I meet them in the spring, they separate fuel from fluff with mechanical efficiency.2   This being the case, I look forward most of all to the question and answer period.  This year, the most fantastic inquiry went something like this:

“Having lived most of your life as a well-educated, well-compensated white male, and having gone through such a transition, what have you learned about privilege?”

In the moment, I related the story of the counseling session which lit the spark, to which the student immediately parried, “Do you think you’ve accomplished that?”  My answer was, “No, of course not.”   The remainder of this post concerns what I actually have learned.


I know next to nothing about privilege.

I write at some length in a sincere attempt to consider the question posed to me.  In so doing, I will certainly say things that sound rather stupid and embarrassing ten years from now.  This, I think, is about what one might expect from someone who forfeited only a small fraction of the privilege afforded to me.  I deliberately write under the title “What I Am Learning about Privilege”, because I recognize that I still don’t understand the topic well, and that understanding it better only offers the possibility, not a guarantee, that I will find ways to be less a part of the problem.  Those who wish to learn about privilege from a qualified source should look elsewhere3  I would suggest White Fragilty:  Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander,  Whipping Girl:  A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininty, by Julia Serano or So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeola Oluo.  These are difficult reads for many of us.  Go on, be brave.

I write despite these limitations for several reasons. First, I  remain committed to sharing aspects of what it is like (for me) to be a transgender person, and what is involved in transitioning specifically.   I serve the reader poorly if I leave unchallenged the dominant cultural understanding that transition is a matter of the surgeries one has and/or the medicines one takes.  Second, I know that my readership is limited, and that the vast majority of people who take the time to read do so because they know me in some fashion.  I doubt that the undeniable gall of me writing half-wittedly about this will drown out the voices of those who know of which they speak.  Third, I do some small penance in these pages for the my historical blindness to the plight of others.  In writing these 50 lines on the chalkboard, may I become a little less so.  Finally, I wish to encourage.  If someone as oblivious as I was can start to see privilege, I’m pretty sure that anyone can.

Privilege is a fact, not an attitude.  

Like many beneficiaries of privilege, I originally saw privilege as a character flaw–a way of thinking–and believed that was something that I could unlearn to whatever extent I exhibited it.  Conversations about privilege so often derail because privileged participants feel affronted and respond by defending their honor rather than by trying to understand.  Had I not already been in therapy for an extended period of time and had I not observed that people reacted to me much differently as a transperson than as one they encountered as male, I would have tried to shut down my therapist’s question.  Hell, I probably still did.  I don’t honestly remember feeling insulted, but my initial response reflects that I saw “eliminating privilege” as a bullet point to add to my to-do list.

Privilege is a fact of social structure.  Those belonging to privileged classes—white, male, Christian4, educated, middle or upper class, heterosexual, financially comfortable or wealthy, two-parented, etc. experience easier access to the tools of prosperity—finances, education, employment, power and so on.  It matters not a bit that I never consciously took advantage of anyone else.  Advantage accrued to me, silently, persistently, unsolicited and unnoticed because society, law, culture and the economy were fashioned for centuries by self-interested people who were demographically similar to me, using such power as they had to protect their turf. 

Perhaps you are a positive person, hard-working and always willing to lend a hand to those in need.  Kudos, my friend.  Personally, I’m rather lazy and self-centered.  You are a better human than I am.  You still prosper through privilege which you did not earn.

Seeing privilege is uncomfortable for those who have it.

I worked hard, I assure myself, to get where I am, but even those aspects of my personality that enabled me to work so hard are essentially happy accidents of genetics and social context.  I emphatically am not a self made woman.  I was given an easier path to walk and I did so without falling on my ass—nothing more.  There are uncounted millions who worked harder than I did languishing in poverty, crushing daily stress, and powerlessness.  The price of my easier path to success is the treacherousness of theirs.  

I can not “get rid of privilege” in my life.

I dislike, now that I recognize it, the skewing of society that prevents others who work as hard or harder than I did from succeeding.  Disliking the inequities of society does not negate them or the fact that I still benefit from them.  Disliking inequity does not necessarily mean that I am willing to give up a single thing to diminish it.

Transition merely enabled me to experience directly what goes missing when moving from a privileged (male) to a marginalized (transgender female) gender status.  Parenthetically, when I hear the refrain that people are claiming to be transgender because it is trendy, I worry that my head might explode.  Sure, it is a moment when transgender identity is somewhat novel and newsworthy, but being transgender affords no advantage whatsoever in terms of access to the levers of power and thriving.  

Having lost one sliver of privilege going foreword does not erase the privilege I accrued prior to coming out.  In fact, I continue to possess certain social traits that were rewarded in my male upbringing which were not similarly rewarded in those socialized as female.  I never learned, for example, to be deferential to men or to be act graciously in accepting an assignment that I perceive to be a waste of my talent.  Privilege is a fact, and the facts don’t change until the societal structures that create it are dismantled.

Privilege cannot be addressed, let alone eliminated, until or unless the structures which create it are dismantled.

Sometimes my next bullet point comes to me as I am trying to mop up the last one.  File this under things I did not know that I knew a couple of hours ago, but it turns out that I did.

Privileged people have difficulty seeing privilege because of perspective bias.

I practice medicine in the era of information.  Patient surveys reveal that physicians and patients, when asked the same question—“How long did the physician spend in the room with you?”—give widely different answers, and that the answers often have relatively little to do with the actual amount of time spent.  Perspective matters.

It seems to be a common human trait to overestimate the extent to which we “made it on our own” and to underestimate the extent to which others did so.  Anecdotal evidence fertilizes such perceptions nicely.  How many of you believed that racism had diminished to the point of political irrelevance when Barack Obama was elected President?  I certainly did, because my perspective—a white person voting for a black person—caused me to assume that 300 million other Americans felt more or less the same.  The privilege I experienced as a white person made it easier for me to ignore the fact that employment/housing discrimination, mass incarceration and historically unaddressed racist social structures did not disappear in 2008.  No–I felt good about myself for being so “colorblind”.  This did nothing to mitigate that I could, the next morning, number my black and brown friends without using my toes, and that I had no possible way to actually understand the struggle of being black in America.

This is the trap that prevents reasonable discussions about privilege.  Those who have privilege feel that mention of it diminishes them.  Not so.  Privilege elevates them at the expense of others.  What is felt is not insult, but guilt.  Privilege guilt needs to be faced, not dismissed.

Privilege is nearly impossible to see from the inside

I am a recreational astrophotographer.  I take pictures of the sky because if I do the work, I can count on the sky to be stunningly beautiful.   A few years ago, I posted a picture I took of the Andromeda Galaxy, some 3 million light-years distant from our sun.  Much to my surprise, several people asked if this was a picture of the Milky Way.  I spent years getting to know the sky and hours setting up and acquiring the photo.  Coming from this background, I could not conceive of taking a high-level external photo of the entire Milky Way because I am inside of it.  When next I take a picture of the Milky Way, my telescope will stand idly by, because I do not need to zoom in, but rather to try, as much as possible, to lean back in order to catch a glimpse of the big picture.  

Otherwise put, recall the old saw about the forest and the trees.

I have a friend—truly a friend—to whom I recently confided my angst about the difficulties I might have finding another job if my current one disappeared.  Meaning no ill will whatsoever—in fact intending the opposite—he told me that he understood how I felt.  I told him that he could not possibly understand because our circumstances were substantially different.  I botched the conversation, honestly, but my objection was valid. He felt aggrieved because he personally would have hired me.  Still, he could not possibly know how it feels to be a member of a class which faces employment discrimination and wrongful firing sanctioned by law in the majority of the United States.  He did not see the extent of the privilege that smoothes his path–virtually identical to mine pre-transition–because he never once stepped off of it.  Privilege is obvious only to those who do not have it.

This is the transition I will never finish.

I spent forty years mostly oblivious to the ways in which the structures of society continually enhanced my chances of success.  I spent the next ten, starting on my therapist’s sofa, merely beginning to grasp what is obvious to those who have to contend with structural bias on a daily basis.  If I live another forty, I will still never fully unlearn the patterns stamped into my thoughts or be able to give back the advantages that I received.

It is not enough for me to wish for a better society.  I need to work toward one.  I will probably never be in a position to rebuild social structures, but my shovel too has dug this hole, and at the very least, I must lay it down.


History flows like lava to the sea.  All will burn in the end.  If, for the moment, I find myself on high ground, it is largely because I was born there.  If I stay here, I will still burn eventually.  All around me echo the screams of those scrambling through harsh terrain, pursued by the same fire.  The ground must be leveled so that they will not be tripped up.   I am nothing but a hindrance to this effort untilI get off the higher ground so that it may be used to begin the arduous process of filling in the pits and potholes.  And when the path is leveled, all will follow it.  Then we will run together, run like hell toward the sea, reaching down to help those who stumble and spurring each other on until finally our legs fail us.

  1. From our perspective.  The laws of physics place no such limitation on the direction of time.
  2. That I once was in their shoes now baffles me.  I have no recollection of ever being that sharp.
  3. After, I hope, finishing this post!”
  4. In the USA.  Religion tends to attach itself to the instruments of power, and in other societies, the faith that conveys privilege will vary.

5 thoughts on “What I Am Learning about Privilege

  1. Mercy Danger

    I learn so much every time I read your blog. “Privilege is obvious only to those who do not have it.” What a powerful sentiment. The other line that really made an impact for me was your final sentence. Well put. Thank you for taking the time to open the eyes of at least a small few of us. I appreciate you.

    Reply
    1. rmaddy Post author

      I love and learn from you too. I’m glad that you joined the blogosphere! We’re both years late to the party but not everything that is worth saying can be set to music. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading.

      Reply
  2. Grace Carter

    I have only met you once, Renee, at a wedding over 18 months ago, but knew of you and your transition through my own close family members whose son is gay and are members of the local LBGTQ support community. They share your blog with me, and as always, I am utterly moved to tears by the depth of your insight and am privileged to witness your transition and your honesty. God bless you….as the white mother of a mixed race child, the observations I can share of white privilege are beyond measure. Some day I may be brave enough to write about them…using you as inspiration. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. rmaddy Post author

      It is great to hear from you Grace. Already, I reread what I have written and see that there is so much more for me to process. Thank you for taking the time to read this work in progress.

      Reply
  3. Julie Harmon

    Renae, your post was a good read. I believe that perspective is also somewhat predetermined by the society and social beliefs we are raised to believe and maybe not as much of a conscious choice I once believed it to be. I always enjoy reading your posts because they make me think… this one sure did.

    Reply

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