Contemplating Privilege

I nearly fell face first out of the closet with a painful crunch and bang Saturday night at dinner with my brother, his wife and a group of our mutual art friends. I didn’t actually come out, but it was a close shave. In the process, I had a bit of a personal epiphany.

For a long time I’ve been hearing and reading about privilege, its existence, its benefits and detriments, and how it manifests in real life. I thought I understood this concept fairly well; I thought being a gender non-conforming, Hispanic, gay, female in a nearly all white, predominantly straight community in the American Midwest gave me at least four separate checks in the non-privileged boxes. Regardless, I realized during the dinner conversation Saturday night that there is definitely a real, tangible, if invisible, bar raised by privileged thinking…for both the privileged and non-privileged, alike.

Surmounting that bar to reach a minimum level of equality with those who hold privilege is a Herculean task for those without that status. Seeing past the entitlement to acknowledge (let alone, correct) the plight of inequality, is a huge challenge for those who enjoy that status. Effectively eliminating privilege on every plain while maintaining freedom for all groups (even the currently privileged)…mind-bendingly daunting.

Here’s a high-level of what happened:

A group of us went out to dinner, as we do about once a month. We had a pleasant catch-up chat, boisterous and fun with everyone chatting all at once. But then the conversation suddenly seemed to focus on a discussion going on between my brother and one of the older women in the group…and, reluctantly, me.

Someone commented during a story about someone’s grand kid, who is deaf, that getting the child into “the deaf community” early is important. My brother responded that mainstream education and the benefits from fitting into the mainstream society should outweigh considerations of community and, his tone implied, all the touchy-feely-preachy things that go along with it.

The discussion devolved quickly and soon the inevitable “I don’t care” comment was made, attempting to at once minimize and appropriate the sentiment: “They [the unprivileged] can care about their community or cause, but the rest of the world shouldn’t be forced to care or listen to it.”

At this point my mouth got ahead of my brain and I interjected that there is a distinction between “forcing” an issue on someone and vigorous advocacy for a belief or cause. I also pointed out that it is easy to say from a position of privilege that the disaffected should “just be proud of who they are and not make the rest of us miserable listening to it”, but those that don’t have that privilege have to advocate for their cause just to reach the basic level of benefit that the privileged enjoy.

It was clear by the looks on everyone’s faces that I’d said a lot more than the words they heard and that I wasn’t just talking about the hearing-impaired. The look my brother gave me was a mixture of offense, thoughtfulness and trepidation. I think he was afraid I might launch into a full-on lecture.

I didn’t, mainly because I realized after saying that much that (1) I don’t know enough to speak intelligently on this topic without compromising myself; (2) it wasn’t the time or place for that discussion; and (3) an issue so fundamental deserves more thought and preparation to be persuasive. And I didn’t come out because the venue wasn’t right and that discussion with my family deserves more delicacy than a diatribe at a group dinner can afford.

The conversation moved on to something else after that. I think everyone sighed with relief, too.

Though the evening was actually quite fun, that discussion left me a bit shaken and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I haven’t come to any conclusions about privilege or about coming out to my family. But I have discovered another area of personal growth that needs some attention. Great, just what I needed, right? Lol!

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