Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cis Privilege and Other Privilege Checklists

Last night was complicated.  I'd had a headache most of the afternoon because I had hoped that lab meeting food would carry me through until dinner.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  When I don't eat a lot of calories, whether I'm hardcore fasting for Yom Kippur, or I'm just eating small amounts of food over the course of a long period of time, my body assumes that it's Yom Kippur and tries to make me lose my appetite so I can make it through.  So by the time I got home, I had no appetite and so I did not eat until 8:30, when CA came over for dinner and Psych (I also almost threw up after I had my noodle soup, which hasn't happened in a while after fasting).  So that sucked, but Psych was fun.  Then I stayed up because I'm a huge idiot, and then I couldn't sleep, which brings us to this morning, when I was not able to get up at 7:30 as planned.  Boo!

Anyway, I say last night was complicated because I was having a conversation with a friend about a story he's writing.  In his story, he has written in a character whose biological sex is unknown and whose gender presentation is ambiguous* (not as much like Pat from SNL; the best similar character I can think of is from one episode of Bones, where a Japanese specialist is visiting and the team is trying to guess if the specialist is male or female--not one of my favorite episodes, obviously).  The point of this ambiguously sexed and gendered character is two-fold; the character serves a purpose in terms of having a hand in the plot, which my friend acknowledged has nothing to do with sex or gender.  But the ambiguity, apparently, comes into play because the two main characters are supposed to be flawed, and the way my friend was representing some of these flaws was to make them mean to Sex/Gender Ambiguous Character and even bet on SGAC's sex (and later, one character actually TELLS SGAC that they have a bet going, so could SGAC please clear things up so they know who owes whom money?).

Needless to say, I was angry, hurt, and really confused.  Here's my friend, a very liberal person.  He's never struck me as actively progressive, but he never struck me as, well, transphobic.  I ended up exacerbating my headache trying to explain to him the problem.  It took a while, although credit goes to him for not being a total douche about it.

If you're curious as to why I have a problem with this idea, then I'll try to explain here.  A person's biological sex is not anyone else's business.  In our patriarchal culture (that is, a culture where we have people arranged in a hierarchy, where men are at the top and non-men are at the bottom, and this hierarchy is constantly enforced and reinforced in a self-perpetuating cycle), there is a strong tendency for people with penis-like biological parts to dress in a certain way and present their bodies in a certain way, and one for people with vagina-like biological parts to dress in a different way and present their bodies differently.

When you see a person on the street, and you perceive this person as a man, it is not because you can see the persons genitals and those genitals consist of a penis and scrotum.  It is because the person is presenting as masculine/male.  What if you see someone on the street and you cannot tell, based on their presentation, whether or not they are male or female?

Do you have any business asking this person to show you their genitalia so you can know?

I asked my friend how much it mattered whether or not SGAC was male or female or in between, genital-wise.  He said it didn't actually matter.  What mattered, of course, was that the main characters didn't know, and they wanted to.

Now, if he were writing a story about how his characters were douches who thought it was okay to ask a stranger about their genitalia because in the end, we were going to see, as readers, that this behavior is wrong and unacceptable, that's different.  But, as I pointed out to him, this plot point means one of two things.  Either:

- it's meant to demonstrate that the main characters are not perfect because they're transphobic/unaware of their cis privilege, which means that being transphobic is an acceptable human flaw that will not prevent readers from identifying with the characters, or
- it's meant to be humorous because making a trans** person the butt of a joke is acceptable.

He and I discussed this at length.  There were no other reasons for this plot bit to be included.  The conversation was resolved when he acknowledged that the message he was sending was not something he agreed with in any way, and that it was absolutely not necessary for his characters to be transphobic.

We got into a discussion of various privileges, which is what brings me to what I'm referring to in the title of this post: privilege checklists.

Privilege checklists are easily available on the internet, although some are more well known than others (such as the ones on Alas, a Blog).  These lists detail several different privileges that groups of people have based on sex, ethnicity, sexuality, cis/transness, religion, etc.  The idea of the checklists is, from what I know, to both validate people without those privileges and to introduced privileged people to their privileges.  Why would we need to do the latter?  Because privilege is often invisible to people possessing it.

I consider myself not-stupid when it comes to issues of race/ethnicity.  I know that it's bullshit for me to claim that I'm "color blind," and that I treat everyone the same hurray because the idea of "color blindness" ignores the realities of the racism that people of color face every single day.  If I tell my friend that I don't see race, I'm not making the world a less racist place.  Instead, I'm just ignoring the way that her blackness makes it much more difficult for her to find a job, etc.  That's douchey.  Also, color blindness is a disability, so let's stop calling it that.  My brother is actually color blind, and he's not a douche when it comes to race.

However, even though I consider myself aware of my white privilege, when I was reading the white privilege checklist, I still came up against an item on the checklist that I had never thought about before.  When I buy "nude" underwear, it's almost always at least CLOSE in shade to my actual skin color.  But that's because my skin is light beige, and "nude" underwear is ... light beige.  But what if my skin were almost paper white or almost pure black, or just some darker shade of brown or olive or what?  "Nude" underwear is supposedly the color of nude skin.  But it's really the average color of nude white skin.

And that's privilege.  While that's not to say that every person with non-light beige skin has gone on Victoria's Secret and gotten pissed the fuck off because yes, they still sell "nude" underwear that's light beige, I think it's safe to say that you're more likely to notice that "nude" doesn't actually mean "nude" when it doesn't mean "nude" for you.

The cis privilege checklist (cis being the opposite of trans) focuses a lot on the fact that genitalia are considered private ... unless you're not cis, in which case people think it's totally appropriate to demand that you prove you have a vagina so you can use a bathroom that has a stick figure of a bald person in an A-line skirt (I wear pants; should I use the other bathroom?).

Here are some great privilege checklists, for your awareness-raising pleasure (if you're Christian, please read the Christian privilege checklist because omg so tired of people insisting that Christians are persecuted in the US!):

* Biological sex is not the same thing as gender.  Biological sex relates to the body parts you have (and "male" and "female" are not the only things you can be).  Gender is different and includes a variety of things.  Gender is a performance, a way of interacting, etc, and it includes how you present yourself.  When you see a person walking down the street and you assume they are male, I bet you're assuming they're male because they're presenting as male, which is a gender thing (unless they're in disguise after a bank heist, in which case ... totally different situation).

** What does trans mean?  The way I see it, a transgender person is someone who does not (either intentionally or otherwise) conform to the cultural norm, which in the US means a person who is biologically male who does things that are traditionally feminine, a person who is biologically female who does things that are traditionally masculine, a person whose genitals do not place them in a particular sex category, a person whose behaviors do not put them in a paticular gender category, a person who feels that they are both male and female, a person who feels they are neither male nor female, and so on and so forth.  In terms of privilege, however, we're talking about cis privilege, which means that although I actually would be considered trans under my own definition (that is, I'm biologically female, but I consider myself androgynous, not masculine or feminine), I have cis privilege.

*** I'm not sure that this is the best checklist, not because it's wrong or anything, but because there are other ways of being disabled/less abled/differently abled that are not "physical" disabilities (i.e. learning disabilities, mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, etc.).  As someone who is less than perfectly abled because of a chronic illness, I have privileges of being able in some ways, and disadantages in other situations.

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