Why Having Conditional Privilege Is Not the Same as Simply Being Privileged
originally published on writingalchemy.net
Invisibility dominates my experience of oppression. I am a genderqueer who is usually assumed to be a cisgender woman. I am a queer person who doesn’t look “queer.” My pagan, polyamorous, pansexual, and graysexual identities aren’t immediately apparent either. And I live with high anxiety, unstable blood sugar, and a chronic back condition, all of which have a dramatic effect on how I live my life, but none of which are obvious on first impressions. This means that a lot of strangers assume me to be a cisgender, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, monogamous, Christian, white woman, but only one of these eight things are actually true (I am white).
Many people say that being assumed by society to be a member of a privileged group (“passing”) gives you privilege. I certainly agree that this does change the experience of oppression significantly. When I am assumed to be privileged, I am not targeted by the direct forms of oppression that affect people who are visibly members of an oppressed group, such as harassment, violence, invasive questions, bigoted assumptions, and discrimination in jobs and housing. There are definitely times that I have found safety in the assumption that I was a member of the privileged group and I am certain that these assumptions have benefited me in my access to education, work, and housing. However, being assumed to be a member of the privileged group does not stop less direct forms of oppression from affecting me. I am still impacted by toxic social messaging, lack of positive media representation, discriminatory laws, and accessibility barriers. In addition, the cumulative effects of discrimination upon my community, such as high rates of poverty, stress, and lack of resources, also impact me.
Additionally, I think it is important to remember that it is oppression itself that sets the default human (the standard of what is “normal”) to be cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, straight, Christian, monogamous, heterosexual, white men. It is oppression that teaches us to assume privileged identities until proved otherwise. This is part of the larger erasure mechanism which denies and trivializes the contributions, needs, and even existence of many oppressed people.
Erasing our identities is a part of oppression and it is harmful because it denies part of who we are, misperceiving us as something we aren’t. A lot of queer and trans people know how painful and isolating this can be. This erasure also puts a burden onto the oppressed person. Any person with an invisible identity who doesn’t want that assumed away has to actively oppose it. I recognize that included in this is the option to hide my identity, which can be significantly beneficial, but there are costs that come with it — costs that are not present for people with privileged identities. These costs include anxiety, fear, shame, disconnection from community, lack of access to resources, and the painful dissonance that comes with being seen as something you aren’t.
For myself, I feel the cost of emotional dissonance the most with my gender. However, the physical cost of being cut off from resources happens the most with my physical disability. Because most people assume that I am able-bodied, the burden is on me to anticipate my need for accommodations and figure out how to access the appropriate resources. If I ever fail to anticipate an accommodation that I need, I can end up in a pretty bad situation. The most memorable of these happened when I took a train last year. Because it was the first time I had taken a train in years I did not anticipate that it would be such a high step from the platform into the train. And since I don’t look “disabled,” no one had asked if I was going to need help lifting my rolling bags up into the train (a question that could be standard to ask everyone). So I unknowingly missed my opportunity to get help. It wasn’t until I was in the train-boarding rush that I was suddenly confronted with the choice of hurting myself by lifting my bags onto the train, desperately tying to find an attendant and possibly missing the train, or begging help from the angry passengers who were standing behind me wondering why I was holding up the line. When I decided to ask help from another passenger, the experience turned out miserably, again because I don’t “look disabled.”
I also want to point out that the assumption of privileged identities can’t be turned off. It is constant, and as such I am constantly being forced to choose whether to come out or let the assumption of privilege slide. This gets exhausting. I can’t go up to everyone I pass by on the street and say, “By the way, you are probably assuming I am a cisgender, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical woman. In fact, I am actually a queer, disabled, neurodiverse genderqueer.” Even if most random strangers were receptive to that, there simply isn’t enough time in the day. I’d get nothing done. I either have to change myself and how I express myself in order to try and be perceived correctly or just accept that many people will assume away most of my identities and I can’t stop them.
Recently I heard about the concept of Conditional Privilege from trans women who were discussing their experience of Conditional Male Privilege (or Provisional Male Privilege) before they transitioned. Frustratingly often, trans women are accused of having grown up with “male privilege” in an attempt to invalidate their identities. However, because trans women are women, the experience of growing up as a woman who was assigned male is totally different than the experience of growing up as a cisgender man. Being forced into a gender that does not fit is painful and comes with inherent harm. In addition, the term Conditional Male Privilege highlights the fact that this privilege is conditional. It is lost any time the person receiving it demonstrates that they are not actually a member of the privileged group.
The idea of Conditional Privilege deeply resonates with me. What is exciting to me about using this label is that it captures some of the duality and inherent costs that come with the experience of being falsely assumed to be a member of the privileged group. What goes along with Conditional Privilege is an experience of identity erasure that I have chosen to name Identity Erasing Oppression. I am hoping that in creating this name I can call attention to the unique aspects of the type of oppression that target invisible identities. One of those aspects is the pressure, or even demand, that people prove their membership in a group in order to access resources. With my disability this manifests as the implicit or explicit pressure to explain why I need to sit in a special type of chair or why I require help lifting something. In the queer community this can manifest as suspicion of bisexual people or people who “look straight.” Often, even after a person struggling with Identity Erasing Oppression has demonstrated their membership in a group, suspicion continues and they only gain partial access to resources.
There are also cases where a person is unable to prove their membership in a particular group or when the person dealing with them simply doesn’t believe them. Many examples of this have happened in my community. People with service animals have been prohibited from entering businesses and community spaces because they didn’t look “real.” I know of multiple mixed race people who have been forced out of POC groups because their experiences as people of color weren’t considered to be valid by the other members of the group. And I’ve witnessed community members blatantly ignore the pronoun preferences of non-binary people who don’t fit a particular idea of what a non-binary person is supposed to be like.
Oppression encourages toxic gatekeeping behaviors and this means that being considered “real” has very serious consequences. This means that people who face Identity Erasing Oppression (along with many other groups) experience pressure to change themselves in order to conform to the narrow mold of “real” on which access to resources is dependent. It should therefore not be a surprise that in every community I’ve been in every single person was struggling feelings of “not being real enough.”
I believe that Conditional Privilege, Identity Erasing Oppression, and gatekeeping separate us from each other and reduce the power we have together. Conditional Privilege is a complex experience that is an inherent part of certain experiences of oppression. Binary thinking encourages us to think of privilege as an all or nothing thing: a person is either privileged or not. However reality is more complicated that this, and every time I’ve seen an accusation that an oppressed person is actually receiving privilege for being falsely perceived as a member of the privileged group, it was intended to invalidate and dismiss their lived experience as an oppressed person. Rather than jamming lived experience into a model that doesn’t fit, I would like to make room for lived experience by complicating the discussion of privilege and oppression.
Let’s talk about Conditional Privilege and Identity Erasing Oppression. Let’s listen to each other and validate all of our experiences. Oppression looks different when it is affecting different people. Oppression hurts us in different ways. Oppression pushes us all to make a range of choices and compromises for our survival. And yes, we need to think critically about our choices, particularly when it comes to recognizing when others don’t have the options that we do, but that doesn’t diminish our experiences of oppression. Whether our identities are apparent or not, we are all real, and our experiences of oppression are real too.
Image description: The title “Conditional Privilege” is at the top of the image. The silhouette of a person stands before two doors. The label “Option #1” is above the door on the left. On that door are written the words, “Identity erasure. No support, community, accommodations. Still affected by indirect oppression such as toxic messages, stereotypes, and myths.” The label “Option #2” is above the door on the right. On that door are written the words, “Come out and prove you belong to get: support, community, accommodations plus direct oppression, violence, harassment.”
Image attribution for the clip art silhouette used within my image: cliparts.co