Understanding the “Privileged”

Another piece I wrote for The F-Word UK: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/07/understanding_the

Individual #1: Racial minority, woman brought up in a single-parent household with a deceased Dad, experienced financial hardship as a young child.

Individual #2: British citizen, well-educated, from a loving family, raised in some of the world’s safest areas, no physical impairments, middle-class upbringing.

It’s easy to identify which is the privileged one, yet they both describe the same person: me.

For a long time, I identified more with the first description. While aware of other types of privileges, the predominant in my mind was wealthy white male heterosexual privilege. Consequently, I was on the losing side.

That is, until I had a conversation with a white male heterosexual friend about race and gender. We discussed the concept of wealthy white male heterosexual privilege, which he found offensive.

I initially felt anger, but as he was my friend, I thought I’d calmly explain why he was wrong to feel offended. I elaborated by talking about how white male privilege adversely affected my life.

My friend listened compassionately, and seemed shocked.

“I’m so sorry to hear about that. I knew before that it’s hard to be a woman and an ethnic minority, and wasn’t trying to say it wasn’t, but I get it now. I am so sorry.”

I felt pride and asked if that helped him understand his privilege.

“Well, I still feel there’s something wrong I didn’t communicate well before. It’s more the way it’s often spoken about,” he replied. “I feel there’s this underlying assumption many have when they speak of the concept. Like that because I experience privilege as a white heterosexual man means I have the overall better life, when that’s not the case.”

He went on to talk about his past. He’d experienced tremendous poverty and abuse growing up. He felt he suffered from depression, but never asked for help due to the stigma he felt as a man he’d receive for it.

It was now my turn to feel shocked. All I’d known was his current situation – in which his family was wealthy – and the image he conveyed: tall, confident, and muscular.

It made me re-consider my belief that because I was less privileged in some ways, I had the worse life. While I lost my Dad at a young age, I lived a safe, stable middle-class upbringing. As a child, my supportive family and education-oriented culture taught me to value academics and family. My friend, on the other hand, suffered from neglect, experiencing brief stints at foster homes and street fighting.

It was like I’d created this mental hierarchy measuring people based on privilege, rich white men and women were further up, and thus had greater lives. When I realised I was more blessed in some ways than my friend, I saw how flawed that logic was. After all, I hadn’t had it easier than him in life overall just because I grew up with love. I’ve battled with emotional health issues, some actually indirectly a result of sexism, racism, and my socioeconomic background.

Yet I also asked for and received mental health treatment because I knew my family would help me. Reflecting on it deeper, I likely also benefited from the fact it’s societally more acceptable for a woman to ask for help than a man.

I realised what my friend was saying: just because you’ve the upper hand in one area of life doesn’t mean you’ve the happier life. Nobody’s immune from pain, no matter her or his gender, race, or wealth. After all, depression and suicide can affect anybody.

My heart softened. I learned an important lesson: if one wants real understanding between the sexes, or even non-white feminists and white feminists- we’ve got to respectfully talk and call somebody out on their privilege. The intention has to be to promote unity rather than separation, which is more likely to occur when one communicates as opposed to aggressively confronts.

In similar past situations, I’d get mad. Why should I “respectfully” educate and listen to him when I feel disrespected? It shouldn’t even be my responsibility as a non-white minority to teach him in the first place.

Yet because of structural racism, the average person isn’t taught about these concepts. I myself didn’t know about white male privilege until university. Is it really productive to get mad at him personally, taking out what is actually my anger at society, for being born into a world that didn’t teach either of us better earlier? Wouldn’t it be more productive to instead respectfully explain it to him and hear him out, given people usually listen when they feel heard?

It turned out it was. That day my privileged white male friend became an advocate for women and racial minorities’ rights, and I became a better human being.

The Greys of Liberation (from The F-Word UK)

I wrote a piece for The F-Word UK I’ve pasted below. Original article here:¬†http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/06/the_greys

What exactly does a liberated Western woman look like? Is she the driven career woman, the stripper, the nun, or the housewife? In feminist circles, the debates over this issue are endless and admittedly often judgmental.

To me, the answer is quite clear: there is no set answer. Indeed, to attempt to even provide a rigid definition for another person can ironically be counterproductive.

Let me explain.

For me, who I am today is a culmination of all the people I’ve ever been in my short life. I’m on my journey towards authentic liberation as a woman, but I had to first experiment with different selves – and still am doing so.

When I was a teenager, I rebelled heavily against my more conservative, studious Indian upbringing. The hyper-sexualised Western world seemed more liberating than my strict background, in which I’d felt so controlled by cultural and familial expectations. Scenes and activities I later found objectifying I embraced in an attempt to construct an identity of my own. I looked at the likes of pole dancers and party girls with secret admiration.

Yet as I grew and gained more self-awareness, I eventually no longer felt this way. While I was beginning to construct an independent sense of self, I realised I was still unhealthily looking for the same validation I had as “the good Indian girl”, but now from men and my Western peers. I realised many of the “sexy” women I’d looked up to weren’t as free as I thought. I felt we’d been pressured subconsciously from society and the media to look and behave like a sex object.

I became disillusioned. I labeled women who largely used their sexuality for gain as disempowered – sell-outs who were emotionally either unintelligent or unhealed. I was wary of the sexuality I’d been sold that seemed so disempowering to my gender. I shunned my sensual side as I couldn’t trust my own impulses anymore; they seemed more a product of a patriarchal society and past conditioning than myself. Certainly I was becoming more liberated as I was starting to learn to think for myself. Still, I was not being my full self ironically for fear of not being a truly liberated woman.

Yet, I could never label either of these stages in my growth as more or less liberating than the other. Each part of the journey led to greater liberation, a blossoming of different aspects of myself, shaping the more balanced woman I am today. The only way I could ever grow and become more liberated is by being able to choose, at least consciously, to carve my own identity. Sure, I will never be 100% free of subconscious, environmental, and biological influences, yet I will always have conscious control. And as I choose to create my life, I grow into and learn more about what is truly liberating for me, even if I make some mistakes along the way.

So really, I’ve no idea what is liberating for you or what will be liberating for me in a few years from now. But thanks to all my various phases in life, I have a better idea of what feels liberating for me right now. Like when I let myself feel insecure or strong, allowing myself to be the imperfect, multi-faceted human being I am who’s still growing. When I belly dance, and experience a different, more sensual side to myself. When I achieve a goal and experience a sense of accomplishment.

I also have a stronger idea of what doesn’t feel liberating for me right now. Like chasing success because I am trying to prove my worth. Dressing a certain way because I feel societal pressure to look and appear sexy. Trying hard to appear confident, like I’ve got it all together, and acting like a “good, classy girl” – doing whatever it takes to not appear like the “trashy” or insecure woman we are taught to look down on. Judging another woman, rather than compassionately supporting her in finding her own personal liberation, however it may look like and differ from mine. Because by trying to suppress and define another for themselves, I inevitably end up suppressing and losing myself.

Perhaps, then, a liberated woman is one who defines liberation on her own terms. She makes her own life decisions in whatever way and order she decides aligns with her individual values. Whether that’s pre-marital sex or waiting, one career or 20 or none ever at all, a job as a sex worker or a life as a nun without sex. Maybe a liberated woman is simply one who lives her life according to what she feels is right regardless of what others tell her, whether that’s a patriarchal system or a feminist leader.