26 March 2015

Privilege means I can ignore injustice

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of privilege lately. That's a pretty loaded word these days  privilege. It seems like a lot of people don't understand it. Here's an old post from writer John Scalzi that has always struck me as a pretty great explanation: Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.
"I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies."
And that's the problem you have to address when you start talking about privilege. But I'm going to skip it because privilege is really good shorthand for a complicated concept that is, ironically, extremely difficult to wrap your mind around when you're the one with the privilege.

I've been thinking about this because I live in Indiana, and today our governor signed into law a controversial piece of legislation being referred to as a religious freedom bill. Our state legislature is Republican-dominated and CNN claims the governor is considering a 2016 presidential bid, which is completely in line with what I suspected when I first heard of the bill. Why do we need a bill that protects religious freedom? Isn't that literally written into the Constitution of the United States of America somewhere? This must be some kind of political posturing ploy, I thought.

And I did nothing. It seemed inevitable the bill would pass and become signed into law, as it has. And I had my life to live and simply couldn't handle the emotional keelhauling of paying close attention to this legislative stinker.

And I realized today that this is precisely the definition of privilege. These laws will never affect me; not in any real way. Not personally, at any rate. Yeah, I'm angry. I'm outraged. It will legally protect people from discriminating against my friends. But not me. Nobody is going to refuse to serve me or sell things to me because doing so violates their religious beliefs. Realistically, I'm a middle-class white woman. If a straight white male is playing the game of life on "Easy" mode, I'm on "Slightly More Difficult Than Easy." Probably not even "Medium," if we're being honest. Not if "Difficult" is poor, black, transgender lesbian. My opportunities in life are somewhat more curtailed than that of a straight while male in my same situation. I have to take more precautions than he would, and I may be struggling against deeply-ingrained cultural gender stereotypes in ways I'm not even aware of, even in my own head, but...

The fact that I can ignore this kind of thing for even a couple weeks because it would cause inconveniently distracting emotions pretty much screams privilege. And that, my friends, is what privilege is: it is when you have the option to ignore injustices because they do not directly affect you. It's not a judgement. It is merely a statement of fact.