Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Body, My Privilege (part 1)


This is an extremely difficult post for me.

It's a post I've been meaning to do since I began the blog and have been putting off.  A post wherein I acknowledge the privileges that have been attached to my body, as well as the stigmas. 

MY BODY is such a complicated topic for me.  Thru out what seems the entirety of my life, I've felt detached from it and burdened by it and privileged by it and stigmatized by it and resentful of it and undeserving of it on so many levels at different times, and often, all at the same time.

As a trans person, as a black person, and finally as a person who is coming to terms with no longer being able bodied, there has been much to cause me to feel that my body is a source of constant danger or handicap.

Thus, coming to terms with the fact that it is this society that is the source of constant danger and handicap has been a very long journey.

When I first started learning about the concept of privilege I was of the opinion that I could possibly not have ever experienced any privilege myself.  Not with so many axes of oppression in my life!  Wasn't I black?  Wasn't I  transsexual?  Wasn't I a survivor of domestic abuse, an alcoholic family, of homelessness, rape, homophobic and transphobic street harassment, sexual harassment, you name it??   I could NEVER have possibly benefited from any systems of oppression with such a long pedigree of suffering...

But other folks?  My  oppressors??  Oh how I've revelled in learning about the evils of those who definitely DO exist with privilege and don't have the guts to admit it!  As a result I came to anti-oppression awareness for selfish reasons, as understandable as those reasons may be.

I want this post to be about acceptance.  Acceptance of what my body means to me, and what it means to others.  Acceptance of its boundaries and my own power to be an agent in its healing, in my own healing, as well as an arbiter of my own suffering. 

That means doing myself what I constantly ask my oppressors to do:  Acknowledge the privileges at work in our lives, to take responsibility for the consequences of that privilege. To confess.

Unsurprisingly, admitting the problem is always the first and hardest step.  This will be the first in a series of posts (I hope), where I analyze the privileges I've had in my life and the harm they have caused as well as the help they have been.  This means making myself a little more vulnerable than I've been before.



I was raised solidly and emphatically middle class, by middle class parents who had been raised the same way.  By the time of my birth, my mother was taking maternity leave from her then budding career as a hospital administrator. My father was a spoiled "Cosby" type kid who had never had to keep a job for longer than it held his interest.  I was raised as the beloved only child for 11 years, not even understanding the concept of having to wait until christmas for a toy I wanted, let alone do without.   I attended expensive private schools for the entirety of my education (my mother never lets me forget this).  I had most of the same material  advantages my school peers had, but true to American Middle Class culture, I never felt that I had enough and felt inadequate in the presence of those who had more.  And also true to American Middle Class culture,  I grew up believing that poor people were just terribly unlucky for the most part, and that some (most?) of them were just too lazy or too unintelligent to better their own lot in life. 

Oddly enough, I haven't personally qualified as anything more than "working poor"  for over ten years now, but that "boozhie" upbringing is still there.  I've never experienced the full weight of my poverty because I have always known, in the back of my mind, that I can always ask my mommy for money, or go back home to her  and take a "break" from having bills to pay.  I have done this several times in my adult life.  During critical times when I needed a "break" from the tedium of supporting myself, a place to stay after being kicked out of wherever, a place to recuperate from catastrophic health issues, it's always back to my Mommy and her 5 bedroom house I go.  Knowing you have that "soft place" to land makes ALL the difference in the world when it comes to the choices you make and the chances you take.

At 30 something, I am only now learning how much this privilege has informed how I relate to others.   Especially as it exists in my relationship with Mr. Laplain.  He grew up quite the opposite.  Often going without, often not knowing if his most basic needs would be met, he has an intimate understanding of poverty and its rigors that alternately make me feel guilty (for my own excess), embarrassed (of his lack of "taste" according to my American Middle Class values), and desperate (to rescue him from a "poor person's" fate). 

It's been a source of tension for us in our life together..  So many times I feel we are experiencing our relationship as polar opposites , divided along class lines.  Where I feel like we just "happen" to be living in subsidized housing and that we are "lucky" to be "getting over" with such cheap rent, he notices and feels the indignities of living in "poor people's housing" in a way I just don't (and don't want to... because then that would make ME poor too). 

Also because I am the sole source of income for us right now, I do not experience the fear and forced dependence he does within our relationship.  For me, I provide for the both of us  simply because NOT providing for the both of us isn't even an option in my mind.  I would no sooner allow him to "do without" than I would allow ME to do without... and I've never allowed myself to do without for too long.   For him, no matter how sincere my intentions, I still retain the "power" to choose not to provide for him and that infuses our relationship with a dynamic that leaves him at a distinct disadvantage. 

But I never have to think about that if I don't want to.  I know that when it comes down to it, I'ma be a'ight.  I got my mommy.  I'm in her will. I got an  upbringing that makes me accessible to others with similar backgrounds who in turn are willing to offer me opportunities they probably wouldn't if I didn't.  But I don't have to think of my financial opportunities like that if I don't want to. 

The result is privilege. My privilege.


Like many light-skinned blacks in the USA it was very hard for me to cop to this one.  My favorite excuse was to say  being light-skinned didn't matter because white people don't notice the difference among Black people anyway.  And I should know because I've grown up around them my whole life and they never once let me forget I was black, and besides I'm one of the darker skinned ones on my Daddy's side of the family so I'm not really all that light-skinned anyway , end of conversation.

The truth is, documentably, different.  While white people in this culture certainly don't tend to treat light skinned blacks as their social equals, it is understood that Whites are far more comfortable with fairer skinned blacks and tend to offer them more opportunities than they do the darker skinned.  This is obviously true just considering the media alone. 

It's not just all about how Whites behave tho.  Black people tend to respond more favorably to lighter skinned blacks as well, tend to associate light-skinnedness with better treatment, better education, and just being "better" in general. 

I know this.  I've lived this.  I have never once had anyone black or white, ever make fun of my skin tone or comment unfavorably.  Whenever my skin tone HAS come up it's invariably "wow, you really ARE fair for a black person."  When white people have commented on my skin, it's usually something nauseating and half-insincere,"Wow it's like you have the PERFECT TAN all the time.  I'M SO JEALOUS!"   These are things that are often said to light skinned black people.   Much much more rarely said to dark skinned people of ANY ethnicity or race.  Thus the light-skinned experience of white people"complimenting" us on being black, no matter how preposterous or insincere the praise, it is a far cry from the common experience of people "recoiling" in reflexive fear at the sight of a dark skinned face entering the room. 

Among black folks, I found from a very early age that my skin tone was a source of fascination, community envy, and community pride.  I have been referred to as "pretty" "redboned"  and "black but mixed with..." since I can first remember.    I remember during childhood, the tense but oh-so-subtle ways my mother and grandmother would inspect my skin after coming indoors from playing in the sun for a few hours... sighing with relief  that I hadn't gotten "too dark"... I remember more than one conversation I overheard about how lucky I was to have inherited my "daddy's good looks" rather than my mother's hershey bar complexion.

I remember my own feelings of confusion and relief around my skin tone growing up.  I remember being about 5 years old, sitting next to my mother on the couch,  comparing my hand in hers and noticing the contrast in colors.  I remember thinking, almost instinctively, "how sad for mommy" without even understanding why I would think that.  I also remember feeling angry at the way our difference in skin tone marked me as different from my own mother, my mother who I so longed to be just like, how it divided me from her,, and at the same time inwardly being glad that I ended up on THIS side of the divide. 

These are all painful things to admit out loud. 

These are just two privileges, huge ones, that have informed my life.  I've willfully and sometimes genuinely cluelessly remained unaware of whenever they were in play, but they have always informed how I move thru this world.

The hardest part to admit is that I'd be lying if I said I didn't still retain a certain sense of entitlement due to these two privileges in particular.   These privileges caused me to experience the world in such a way as if I were "special" and also as if I were "typical"....  as if I had better treatment coming to me simply because my body/my background was more easily accepted by others. 

My privileges have allowed me to feel indignant whenever I 've received less than I thought I should, and to project an air of confidence,  of "transcending" my lowly circumstances whenever I've been caught flatfooted by one of my oppressions.  These privileges, or rather, the ego benefits of having been raised with these privileges, have born me through many  genuinely desperate situations.  I can't exactly say I'm sorry about having these privileges when I know, for instance when I was homeless,  being able to use "pass" for a recent college graduate who was just having a bit of bad luck after moving to a new city, influenced potential benefactors to take me much more seriously than they otherwise would have .. how it made my homelessness more sympathetic and ultimately alot shorter lived than it would have been otherwise.

The hardest part of learning to do this anti-oppression awareness stuff is figuring out how to feel about things like this.  The truth is, when I really really needed it, I DON'T feel guilty for having had privilege.  I DON'T feel guilty for being able to use whatever resources were at my disposal to survive until the next day.  But it's hard to know that and also know so many of my FRIENDS in similar circumstances perished because they didn't have what I had.  I DO feel guilty about that. 

Guilty may not be a very useful way to feel... but everybody's gotta start somewhere I guess.

I think that's enough for now.  Next post I'll tackle other privileges.

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