The Insidious Language of Privilege

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By Jason Brown

I sit in the passenger seat of my friend’s jeep. We are bulldozing our way through NYC traffic, trying to get to the Holland tunnel via Canal St. Every week we head out to Jersey and meet up with a group of guys that get in armor and hit each other with sticks. The man sitting next to me is one of my closest friends and deepest of allies. I can’t remember what we were talking about at the time, but I certainly remember someone cutting us off in a way that even seasoned New Yorker’s thought obnoxious, and I say “that’s so f***in’ gay.”

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It gets real quite in the car. Only a week earlier my friend had “come out” to me. I was the first person he told, and as soon as I let the words fall out of my face I knew I had speared him in the heart. It’s a tense five minutes as we weave our way into the dual lanes that will put us deep under water. I look at my friend and say, “Well I guess I shouldn’t say that anymore.” He turns, looks me in the eye and says “you owe me a lap dance.”

He never got that lap dance, but I did carry with me a pile of guilt. I never thought myself as discriminatory or contributor to the system, but there it was. By using the vernacular of power I was preserving the status quo. It was a painful truth and being ignorant and impulsive I would through trial and error stumble upon more of these subtle reminders of privilege. Our society uses minority titles as definitions for various deviant or substandard behaviors so pervasively that we often don’t even know what we have said. When my brother was in the military he had one friend call another friend a “Jew” and told him he was being “Jewish” for not lending him five dollars. The first friend pulled out a star of David, and said something like what gave it away, my big nose?; then walked off. The remaining friend was from South-Central L.A., and turned to my brother and said “oh man I feel dirty…is this what being white feels like?”

The guy never even thought about what he was saying, or that the term “Jew” might actually have significant meaning to a cultural group. For him you just called someone a “Jew” if they were being tight with money never thinking that that might have come from a discriminatory past. We as a society do this all the time. It’s in our literature, it’s on T.V. and it’s all over film. Terms like “I’ve been gyped/chinced”, “that’s lame”, or “you throw like a girl” all help reinforce the dominate group by identifying subordinate groups with undesirable or substandard behavior.

What’s so insidious about this is that we don’t even think about it. We let those things actually define a group. Girls can’t throw right? Gay men are not very tuff, and women are in fact weak. Never mind that it would be easy to prove the falsehood of those statements. I doubt I could out throw a women’s college softball team, my friend from earlier is a physical beast, and I still can’t take Mrs. Guy in sparring. Yet despite the fact that they are not absolute truths we make them social truths.

What is important about these becoming social truths is that they help maintain the power imbalance. Identifying girls with not being able to throw, you are saying they are weak. By virtue of being weak totally undeserving of power; they are lesser so it is ok that they don’t get power. It may seem a small thing to say a simple phrase, but its ramifications on our shared social structure are catastrophic. The third column in the Unified Model is its effect.

I have two teenage children, one of either sex. Watching them interact and learn about the adult world provides a contrast to my own history. I get to watch them begin to weave themselves into our society. I also notice how they have been shaped by it. My daughter gets really irate at the fact that I do a lot of cooking, and can’t stand it when I sew. To her those are associated with gender. I was taking a pizza out of the oven the other day and recoiled after I touched the metal part of the oven, and she told me “Don’t be a pu***.” I want to take a closer look at this one instance and take it apart so we can examine what happened there.

First off we have the use of the female sexual organ as a sign of weakness. It is making the asceritation that the core physical part of what makes the female gender female is the root of female weakness. More over it implies that the female physical manifestation is something less than perfect. Secondly I was to feel shamed by being labeled as such. Now we have it that the female organ is shameful. The most significant feature of this interaction was that it wasn’t male to male, or male to female. This was a non adult female talking to one of her care giving adult males. She was trying to subordinate me by using a term used to subordinate her gender. I am sure I am missing layers of meaning, but I at the very least want to bring up what I noticed.

My daughter doesn’t get that from me, only the inability to clean a house, or her mother. Her mother reads Bell Hooks, and has her undergrad in Feminist Lit. She is a special ed teacher. There is a serious attempt to nullify power imbalances. Heck I even cleaned the toilets last week and noticed that I had in fact left a sock in the middle of the floor. There is a strong argument then for how much socialization is done outside of the home in America. These small phrases stack up.

We really have to look at what we say, and it may seem such a little thing, but its end game effect isn’t. Listen in a public place. How many times do you think you will hear that a minority groups title being used in a shaming way? Some of them won’t be obvious. Like gyped. It came from being robbed by “gypsies” or rather the thought that that is what all gypsies do. Chinced refers to supposed Chinese bargaining rip-offs. The one I have trouble with saying, that’s lame; an obvious tie to disabled people not being as good as the rest of us.

The thing that isn’t a big deal is how little we would have to change just to cut these from our vocabulary. Each one might not cut that deep but you can still bleed to death from a thousand of those cuts.

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