20 September 2009
The Power of Privilege
Today was another one of those gorgeous days that I wouldn't mind, oh, about 300 times a year. It was on the high end of mild, almost warm, with hardly a cloud in the sky and a breeze off the East River. In other words, it was a great day for a long walk and to spend more time envying everyone who was riding his or her bike.
And now I find myself thinking about what an odd combination of privilege and suppression my life had been. Until six years ago, one would assume that I had it all: I am white; I was perceived to be male and presumed to be something within the spectrum of heterosexuality: Yeah, he's kinda weird. But he's got a girlfriend, though she's not what I expected, either.
Yet...There was so much I could not express, even if I had the means for doing so. Yet...There was so much I could leave unsaid. Yet...I was acquiring the means, as the necessity developed and began to float like a bubble from the depths to the surface. Yet...I had the means to make that necessity not- so- apparent. Yet...
When you have privilege, you don't have to be particularly bright or articulate. Does anybody remember George W. Bush? When you don't have it, you are painfully aware of not only your own limitations, but those of the means that you've acquired, or have been given to you, up to that point in your life. And for those who, for whatever reasons, don't develop an awareness of the gaps in their means--in other words, those who know only that they're desperate and alienated and angry--the results can't be anything but terrible: a life of Emerson's quiet desperation if they're lucky, violent or otherwise pointless death if they're not.
I could walk around with a woman on my arm and not say a thing. But I could not tell her why--as I told more than one--she should get as far away from me as she should if she wants to emerge with her sanity intact; that no matter how much she loved me, she could not keep at bay the jaws that were closing in on me.
Why am I thinking of these things now? Well, this afternoon, my walk took me through Socrates Sculpture Park. There, I encountered Rick and Linda, and their two young kids. They're a very sweet-looking family: If the plumber's union put out a calendar like the firefighters have, he'd be on it, and she is adorably cute, as are their kids.
In other words, they're a picture of what most people envision when they think about what type of family life they'd like to have--the blue-collar version, anyway.
They're also about the most unpretentious people you can imagine. They've lived in the neighborhood all of their lives and wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Every exchange I've had with them in the seven years I've lived in the neighborhood has been friendly and folksy. I don't know what they told their kids about me, but they, like their parents, have always related to me as however I was presenting myself, and never questioned my transition.
Rick had just gone on a kayak ride offered by a local club. Linda said she'd never do it. I said that I've paddled a kayak before and would do it again, but I couldn't today: I've just had surgery, I said.
"So that's why we haven't seen you this summer," Rick realized.
I nodded. And I anticipated the next question one of them might have asked: "Yes, that surgery."
"Well, you look happy. How do you feel?," Linda wondered.
"Tired but ecstatic," I said. "I haven't had any pain. I went back to work, and have just enough energy to do that. But I'm fine."
They both expressed their happiness for me and Rick mentioned that he saw a program about the operation "with a woman doctor who, at the end of the show, said that she had it herself."
"Dr. Marci Bowers. My surgeon."
Their eyes lit up. "Wow, you went to her?"
And we talked some more. I realized that his position in this world is not so different from what mine had been. Yet I did not begrudge him for it, mainly because he's a nice man and has always treated me well. And Linda has the privilege of being a pretty white woman who has had the choice of devoting herself to her children. She works part-time and has returned to school, but she is able to arrange her schedule around her kids: Even if she loses some income, they can live on what Rick makes. I am happy for her.
Now I realize the reason why today I don't begrudge anyone his or her privilege, whatever it may be-- wealth, social background, looks or simply being born in the "right" body. It is this: While those who have privilege may not understand those who do not, their privilege gives them the opportunity to learn. I realize that, very often, my ability to learn and to empathise with other people has been constricted by the anger I felt over my own situation. I suspect that is also true for many whose lives have been circumscribed by that over which they have no control. We are so consumed with our own predicament, and must spend so much of our emotional and possibly physical resources simply to survive it , that sometimes we can't or don't empathise with those who may just be willing to make some effort to do the same for us.
This is not to say that I blame us for our own problems. What I mean is that experience can lead to knowledge, but it doesn't always lead to understanding--or, more accurately, the means to understanding--much less empathy. All you have to do is look at how much violence (whether physical, emotional or otherwise) the disenfranchised commit on each other to see what I mean.
Those who are not in those dire situations can reflect upon it from another perspective, with different eyes, if you will.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that all people with privilege will use it in the ways I just described. I know that as well as anybody can. However, change happens from one person to the next, not through mandates from above. Every time someone with privilege--however that is defined--sincerely relates to someone who doesn't, or at least makes the effort, that is a victory, however small. Every time a cis-gender person treats a trans person as a member of his or her real or figurative family, it's a step forward. That, of course, is the lesson I've learned from the relationship my parents and I have developed. And, of course, from Millie and Bruce.
So I have come to realize that instead of resenting those who have some privilege that I don't, I can use that privilege as a resource: If nothing else, their relative serenity of mind is a good starting point for an honest conversation in which there is at least the hope of finding understanding.
People like Rick and Linda may not have seen all of the spiritual and emotional storms I've endured. But they understand that I endured days filled with them before meeting them in the park on a day "excellent and fair." If their privilege, such as it is, allows them that understanding, I am happy for it.