The Privilege of Not Recognizing Privilege
I am a regular guest panelist on the British literary podcast Litopia after Dark. One of the topics discussed on last week’s show was the success, or lack thereof, of men writing in a woman’s voice, and vice versa. All of us had examples of writers who had convinced us (Roddy Doyle and Henry James are my personal favorites), and others who had missed the mark. One panelist, though, had a particularly valuable perspective to share: she had spent the first twenty-odd years of her life as a man.
I am a regular guest panelist on the British literary podcast Litopia after Dark. One of the topics discussed on last week’s show was the success, or lack thereof, of men writing in a woman’s voice, and vice versa. All of us had examples of writers who had convinced us (Roddy Doyle and Henry James are my personal favorites), and others who had missed the mark. One panelist, though, had a particularly valuable perspective to share: she had spent the first twenty-odd years of her life as a man. “I found that men took me more seriously, and were more interested in my thoughts, when I was a man,” she told us. “In general, I think women understand men much better than men understand women.”
This is my impression of pretty much all relationships between groups of unequal power, though of course there is great variation among individuals. The experience of the dominant group is presented as the default, and the less powerful group must adapt and, in a sense, become bilingual. Gay people tend to understand the straight experience better than straights understand gays, because the culture is overwhelmingly straight; heterosexuality is assumed unless there is information indicating otherwise.
Fish don’t notice the water they swim in. I never noticed, until a client pointed it out, that in nearly all mainstream fiction, characters are assumed to be white unless another color is specified. I didn’t need to notice this, because I am white; despite good intentions and efforts at improvement, I generally float (or bumble) through life assuming that my experience on this axis is the norm.
It’s not always easy for me to hear that this isn’t the case; that others suffer from, and are handicapped by, systems and conventions that have benefited me. I feel better thinking that we function in a meritocracy, and that any successive I have achieved are to my credit alone, with no unfair help from the color of my skin, my sexual and gender orientation, or my religion.
It’s difficult to suppress defensiveness, even for short periods, and listen to others’ criticisms of my groups, without trying to explain to them why they’re wrong, at least in my case. What I’ve had to learn is that nine times out of ten, members of the nondominant group already know what I think—they’ve heard it repeatedly, often with the speaker’s complete confidence that these are new ideas the listener couldn’t have been exposed to before. I’ve had to learn that polite silence and withdrawal do not usually indicate convinced acquiescence, and that those who take a moment to educate me are unusually patient and forbearing, not insulting.
This is true of women’s issues as well. Really.
This post is not intended to discourage men from commenting. It’s great to have you here. Rather, it is a suggestion that when you read posts and comments by women, about women’s issues, on a blog that is aimed primarily toward women, you consider the strong possibility that we have thought and educated ourselves about the questions under discussion, and that if our conclusions — sometimes communicated in a sort of shorthand, on the assumption that other women will know what we mean — differ from yours, lack of understanding on our part is not the only possible conclusion to be drawn.
You might want to check out Kate Harding’s thoughtful critique of Clay Shirky’s intelligent and well-intentioned essay on why women need to be more assertive in the workplace. Harding is a funny and articulate writer, and a much nicer person than I am, so it should be a painless illustration of what I’m talking about.
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