On Recognizing Privilege

I was just speaking with my partner about an upcoming overseas trip we’re planning (she is turning 40, and so has decreed that we are visiting Iceland this summer (I have no problem with that)).

More than a decade ago, back in PhD school, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a 2-week program in gender studies at the European University in Budapest. When the program was done, my partner flew over from the States and we took the Eurorail to visit Hungary, Vienna and Prague (this was in the days before the massive influx of US tourists, back before those places were considered de rigeur post-college walkabout spots for wealthy kids who’d gotten a European vacation as a gift for graduating… in MY day, our gift for graduating was a college degree and a lifetime of debt, okay?).

Anyway, my partner and I did this as cheaply as we could, staying in the sketchiest places, the kind one can only tolerate in one’s youth. I’m generally not a fussy or pretentious person. I had a huge meltdown, however, in Prague when we arrived at the hostel at which we were to stay and discovered a room likely last occupied by violent dinosaurs who not only ate flesh, but also carried numerous communicable diseases. They’d left… traces.

Apparently, my first words, upon walking into the room were, “Is that blood?”

My partner and I, reminiscing, were just arguing over whether that blood was on the floor and counter in the kitchenette or smeared all over the bathroom floor. (I admit, I may be mixing this memory with the one of sharing a hospital room with a slightly demented and in-pain woman who smeared her feces all over the walls of our shared bathroom.  I’m beginning to realize I’ve seen a lot of smearing in my day.)  In any case, there was blood, and it wasn’t mine and it wasn’t my partner’s.  Commence Episode 1 of Alysia Totally Losing Her Sh*t.

I was an Awful American. I stormed out of the hostel and into the streets of Wherever-We-Were, crying hysterically. I convinced my poor partner we needed to leave that place and rent a hotel room for the night instead, lest we be murdered in our sleep. Once we got the hotel room, I got upset again because there were two twin beds in the room instead of one full-sized one and, when we asked the desk clerk about it, she told us just to push the two beds together. I attributed this to the hotel’s homophobia. The desk clerk probably thought I was a prissy, Entitled American Witch. I have no argument against that; I think both assessments were probably true.

Now more than a decade later my partner and I are trying to plan a trip to celebrate her 40th birthday. She has always wanted to go to Iceland, so… we’re trying to plan a trip to Iceland in early summer.  I worry now about carrying all the medical supplies I will need (2 blood glucose test kits, a double supply of insulin for safety, insulin pump tubes & needles & reservoirs & batteries, extra syringes in case of pump failure, pre-filled syringes of MS drugs with ice-pack, extra prescriptions for emergencies,kitchen sink…); I worry about being hassled for being gay in public; I worry about being able to go to the places my love wants to go, since I stumble around with a cane and she enjoys hiking up mountains and other Sporty Person activities.

And I am fighting to balance the need to properly advocate for myself as a disabled lesbian and the need to recognize that mine is not the most dire situation—I want to remember my own privilege, even as I want to be clear about the ways that things can be tougher for disabled queers like me.  (Tougher than what? You might ask. I say: exactly.)

Here’s how I solve this dilemma for myself: my own pain and difficulty can be used to call attention to the pain and difficulty of others, rather than just to reify my own desire for comfort—even when my own pain or discomfort is so much less urgent than that of someone else. My own difficulties as a queer, disabled American woman abroad can serve a purpose: I am sensitive and aware in ways I might not have been were I more normatively-identified. And because I am first-world, because I am middle class and white, I get heard when I speak, when I know so many others don’t. It takes nothing away from my own experience of difficulty to recognize that other people experience pain and difficulty, too—in different, and sometimes more intractable or more severe, ways than I do. (Here I’m not even touching the tip of that iceberg—get it? a pre-Iceland metaphor—not even starting to talk about the ways in which I’m privileged enough to be able to take a 5-day vacation in Iceland with the person I love.)

To understand that I am privileged over many other people does not mean that I am ignoring the ways I am less privileged than others, too. Ensuring that everyone has what they need doesn’t have to feel like I’m neglecting my own needs.  Willingly advocating for giving up a little of one’s own privilege so that the gap between one’s own experience and that of others is lessened, well, that’s just humane, isn’t it? Human, even?  And it costs one so little.  (It’s a different thing when one is expected to take care of everyone else’s needs instead of one’s own; I was just speaking today with someone who’s a mom, and thus expected to subvert her own needs and desires in favor of others’—this strikes me as a uniquely different problem.)

My life should be a recognition of both my privilege and my disempowerment, so that I can be a fierce advocate for myself and for others. This is not to suggest that I ever want to stay in a place with blood smeared anywhere in it.  I’m 45 now, and just over it.  But next time, I probably won’t throw a First World Problems hissy fit about it, either.

I’m learning to find a balance, which is not easily done. And so much depends upon it (my own well-being, and the well-being of so many other people). I’m also trying to unlearn the Midwestern White Daughter of a Conservative Immigrant Behavior that’s been drilled into me since childhood: don’t make a fuss, don’t draw attention to yourself, always be meek and polite and agreeable, shame should be your default feeling. That kind of thinking is really convenient for those who are empowered never to consider the needs of others, or the ways in which their empowerment hurts others. It makes a nation of Stepford Wives, of which it’s probably good to be the king.

I shall never forget the experience of having a man on a crowded subway press against me in the throng and rub his crotch against my ass. Terrified, I slunk my way to a corner of the train car to get away from him, trying not to be noticed. I was so ashamed. A moment later, he’d moved on to a different victim, a young woman near the car’s entrance. I know he’d moved on because she started screaming profanity and making a fuss about him frotting on her. I’d been afraid to make any noise, assuming the train was a “frotternity” (get it?) and worrying about making a scene; what I learned was that HE looked like the bad person, not the girl yelling. I hope I never forget that lesson.)

Let me unlearn my training. Let me not be a nice girl anymore. Let me not be always and only agreeable. Let me not worry that someone will be “mad at me” for speaking or thinking or desiring, or let me worry and do it anyway. Let me not squish myself up into a painful little knot in an effort to take up less space in the world. Let me no longer keep to myself; let me not hide, but also let me not eclipse someone else in my efforts to be seen.

My body is ready, friends. Let there be blood.

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