Monday, May 21, 2012

Learning about lack of privilege

Recently John Scalzi made a post to explain how life is for those who aren't straight white males (SWM) to those same SWM people.  He talked about how it is like a video game and being a SWM is a lot like playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty setting - people give more weight to your opinion, you get more money for no reason, things tend to go your way.  He specifically wants to avoid the word privilege in his post and in the discussion that follows but obviously it is the core of the issue.  The best way gain an understanding of someone is to walk a mile in their shoes, of course, so how would a SWM like me gain such understanding?

There is an event where men walk in high heeled shoes to generate awareness about violence against women.  It gets attention of course because they look utterly ridiculous in high heeled shoes and it raises the question:  Why is such foolish, outrageous footwear expected of one gender and expected to be absent in the other?  In particular, why are the reactions to people stepping outside of stereotype so strong and negative?  I asked Wendy if I should do this sort of thing and she told me that I should not, but rather put on fake breasts, makeup and a dress and go out that way instead.  I don't know if she intended that I actually try to pass as a woman, as that would require considerably more doing, or simply look like a man in drag.

Clearly crossdressing isn't going to give me the perspective of someone who has lived an entire lifetime as a non SWM, particularly since it doesn't cause people to treat me as a woman, minority, or gay person.  I think it might give me some perspective on how people who refuse to conform to gender norms are treated though, and it certainly could get me some experience on doing things with considerably less privilege than normal.  I do all kinds of weird things that have people treat me strangely already like go barefoot everywhere but these things that I do now are all done because they are actually more comfortable or better in some way.  Putting on a dress isn't that - shorts and tshirts are eminently practical clothes and I have no interest in dresses outside this experiment.

I don't especially want to go to tremendous effort to disguise myself so I think if this is a project I wish to undertake I should probably not consider trying to pass as female.  Not least of course because I am one of those people for whom it would be exceedingly difficult.  I don't know that I could pass for a minority outside of a very professional makeup job (even then...) and I also have no clue what I could do to convince a random person I was gay without being ridiculous.  (Hey random person!  I'm gay! So, ummm, yeah, react naturally to that.)  Strangely the fact that this would be a big deal to many people is making me want to do it more.  People shouldn't care whether or not my clothes violate gender norms but they do care.  A voice inside my head tells me I am obligated to call them on their prejudices and make a scene.  That voice is the one that gets me in trouble.  

Of course, it is easy for me since I can go back to my normal mode any time I want.  This isn't about being allowed to live my life, just about learning a bit, which makes me appreciate how hard it must be for trans folks and others who violate these sorts of norms constantly.  I have the fallback of "I'm doing a social experiment, you have a problem with that?" and other people don't.


  1. Just to point this out:

    Investing a lot of yourself into trying to be perceived as female, and dealing with people (by the hundreds) who refuse to see you as such and generally treat you like a joke, may not be representative of a female experience, but it's certainly representative of a trans experience.

    It has nothing to do with "refusing to conform to gender norms". Trans folk often totally conform to gender norms. They just do not exhibit the appropriate biological (and all-too-often immutable) cues for their gender. And I know a number of trans women who have less to work with than you do, yet still do their best to live their lives.

    Also, it should be said that there's an enormous difference between "doing weird things which draw attention" and "violating entrenched cultural taboos". The former gets you an odd look. The latter gets you kicked out of restaurants, spat on in the subway, yelled at from across a street/square, fired from your job for doing in your personal time, etc.

    I realize you probably get these things, but for what it's worth, from the perspective of someone who *did* jump life's difficulty up five or ten notches, this is a remarkably apt analogy. Understanding how the game gets harder doesn't really sink in until you've played it at that difficulty. (You may just have to trust me on that.)

  2. So here is the question: Do you think I would be able to learn anything useful from dressing in a typical female fashion and going about my daily life? I have some vague guesses as to what would happen but clearly one cannot get the full experience without actually doing it.

  3. What an interesting thought process Sky. I'll be keen to read about whether you think there is something to learn from such an experiment, and how it goes if you do undertake it. I think you're right that walking in someone else's shoes is a way to understand, however, you're also right that having the CHOICE to leave those shoes behind actually means you can never really understand how it is for someone who must stay there because that is who they are. I admire your desire to understand so fully people who face different battles. Please keep us updated if you decide to try the experiment.

  4. Oh Snidely, you won life on the easiest setting and had to play it on the harder one, didn't you?

    I think the experiment wouldn't really teach you much, to be honest. The fact that you know you can just go back to the way things were really puts up a shell around you. People aren't attacking who you are, they are attacking what you are doing, and what you are doing is trying to expose their prejudice as much as it is to learn something yourself, that means when you are treated differently or badly you are kind of winning.

    I think a much more interesting experiment would be trying hormone replacement to learn about what it's like to feel like you are the wrong gender (if hormone replacement can help alleviate these feelings trans people then presumably it can create them in cis people). Also, after reading Whipping Girl, I want to see what people smell like, and maybe know what I'm feeling.

    But of course I'm too worried about what people would think of me at my job, and to a lesser extent concerned that there might be side effects. But if I win the lottery you may well see me signing up. Even then it would be to learn about how it felt for me, not to learn about society, after all, I'd be rich at that point, and to paraphrase Chris Rock - "Trans people and cis people have more in common than either of them does with rich people."

  5. @Sthenno: I think I was just playing the demo version...

    I agree, though, with what Sthenno's saying. When you're being discriminated against for who you *are*, it's very different than it is when you're being discriminated against for something you're *doing*.

    I'm not sure if HRT is really the source of enlightenment though. I think a not-insignificant percentage of the psychic gains of HRT is just knowing that things will get better, after a lifetime of things getting worse. But gender awareness is a subtle thing, andmost of the dysphoria comes from the dissonance between what you *know* to be true, and what you *feel*. In the absence of confusion, it wouldn't pack the same punch.

    That said, it might be worth it just for te new world of smells and tastes. Oh. My. God.

    I wouldn't worry about what others think though. HRT is _slow_. No, slower than that. And many trans women go on a full course for life without ever socially transitioning,and nobody ever notices. The way the world perceives gender is truly fascinating.