Disclaimer: Some folks might think that what I’m writing about here is “intersectionality,” but it’s not. Intersectionality is by and for women of color to examine the relationship between race and gender. It is not a term for us white folks to apply to ourselves, our academia, or our activism. We can’t be intersectional because we’re not women of color, nor should we think/attempt to direct where intersectionality as a concept needs to go. The term intersectionality has been appropriated by us white social justice people to prove our so-not-racistness and swear some sort of faux-allegiance to women of color. What I’m talking about here is similar to intersectionality, but it isn’t intersectional.
As another note, I will be arguing as why I think ‘capacity to leverage’ might be a more apt way to describe what most folks define as ‘privilege.’ ‘Capacity to leverage’ and ‘privilege’ are not mutually exclusive. For me, ‘capacity to leverage’ is a more rhetorically useful way of talking about how one interacts with systems of power and oppression, and it is similar to what ‘privilege’ attempts to describe, though I don’t believe ‘privilege’ does a well enough job. For the first half or so of this piece, I will still be using the word ‘privilege’ in order to point out what I see as flaws with it before moving on to ‘capacity to leverage.’
Way too many discourses regarding privilege end up being complicit in Oppression Olympics. For those who don’t know, Oppression Olympics is the idea that specific facets of identity (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) are more oppressed than others. This is how you get people like Gloria Steinem making claims that “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” This is where phrases like “privilege over” come from, and such phrases set up a hierarchy of oppression, making them complicit in Oppression Olympics. There are differences in all oppression struggles, and even more differences as we dive further into the nuances within these facets of identity. We should name the differences in these struggles and being mindful of this as we do our work, absolutely. For example, a trans woman’s experience will be different from a non-binary person’s, because the hyper-visibility of trans femininity churns out different forms of violence than the lack of visibility for non-binary persons. (And really, non-binary people have been visible for years.)
The thing is, too, in that example I already committed the sin of oversimplifying the conversation, because a DMAB non-binary person will move through the world much differently than a DFAB non-binary person, and there’s an even longer conversation to have about the benefits that come from trans masculinity both presently and historically under a white patriarchy. And even in that, we can talk about whose gender expressions are legitimized by the white patriarchy based on race. The conversation can get really complicated really fast (as it needs to). What ends up happening a bit too often though, at least in my experience, is these conversations turning into a pissing contest of who has it the absolute, 100% worst.
I know I had a habit of doing this, and it’s something I’m working out of my perceptions and activism. This idea of Oppression Olympics centers around the idea of a “keyhole theory,” meaning that if you tackle one or two specific oppressions, suddenly all the other oppressions will be eliminated and we’ll all be liberated. I don’t buy into this idea. I understand the desperateness that comes with wanting to find “The Answer” when it comes to oppression, because people want to end exploitation, brutalization, and dehumanization of people. The results, however, of trying to figure out which oppression is really “the root of all oppression ever” is that this pursuit erases the fact that all oppressions have had more than enough time to tie together, converge, and collaborate with one another, so they can’t be dissolved so easily. If there ever was a time when we could have ended all oppression by attacking one or two specifically, I believe that time is long gone, and we can never get it back.
When these conversations become a pissing contest, then they also operate as a tool to silence others when they are speaking on different oppressions they experience, or speaking on how their oppressed facets inform their privilege. This happens when folks assert a certain conception of privilege that is purely dichotomous (think: those awful “how privileged are you?” checklists). I mostly attribute it to a misunderstanding of privilege, but at the same time, it reminds me of how people accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when talking about who primary targets are of certain forms of violence (or when people are talking about their specific oppressions), effectively derailing an otherwise productive, necessary, and thoughtful discussion to make it about themselves. Trans guys and DFAB non-binary people love doing this in women’s spaces, and they especially love correcting trans women’s usage of transmisogyny by saying “Don’t you mean transphobia?” I began to ask myself the question, “Is this conception of privilege really a misunderstanding, or a different way of reinforcing one’s stake in oppression?”
Problems with Privilege
Folks I’ve encountered, both in the flesh zone and the internet, often conceive of privilege as an ‘either or.’ In terms of gender, it’s to say that men have all aspects of male privilege afforded to them. Nope, that idea is inherently racist, ableist, cissexist, and queerphobic. If you think all men are sexualized in a way that wholly benefits them, you need to stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself “Well, wait, which men exactly?” You will soon find out that this really only applies to white, able-bodied, cis, straight men. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say people benefit equally from where they do have privilege. BUT! All men have male privilege. All men benefit from all forms of misogyny, which includes transmisogyny, and sexism. Their experience of it, however, will be different depending on the other facets of their identity.
Privilege really can’t be described as an ‘either or.’ It really is not as dichotomous as “you are privileged or you are oppressed.” My being a trans woman is not separate from my being battered, disabled, bisexual, polyamorous, and someone who has experienced sexual violence. It is also not separate from my being white, educated, young, able-bodied, thin, and middle class. I experience all of this simultaneously. Some of these things may be more targeted/privileged depending on the context, but at no point do any of my other facets disappear. None of the facets of my identity exist in isolation from one another. They are constantly intermingling and influencing each other, even when some facets are made more apparent in certain situations.
My conjecture is that folks conceive and describe privilege as an ‘either or’ because they have stake in framing it this way. When it is framed as an ‘either or,’ it makes the checklist approach to privilege much easier to justify, and through the checklist approach, Oppression Olympics. When Oppression Olympics can be invoked, then others within your own community can be silenced if they don’t meet certain qualifications. But at the same time, I’m not about to talk about this stuff as if it’s all relative. It’s not. There are some very concrete manifestations of power, and they must be looked into.
Examining Intra-Community Power Differentials and Infighting
In writing this, I anticipated that folks might twist my arguments to say that because playing Oppression Olympics is an unproductive, harmful distraction, and because people experience oppression differently from others, then there are “no true power differentials” within oppressed communities, because we’re all experiencing the same thing from different angles. This is false. And just to be clear, right now I am not talking about how other oppressions influence these specific communities, I am talking about intra-community politics. This is not to say that racism, ableism, classism, etc. aren’t dynamics, I’m just not talking about them right now. For the trans community, that means transmisogyny and, potentially, binarism (though binarism, if it’s real, doesn’t apply to white trans people) are the power dynamics.
People who benefit from power differentials within communities are the quickest to accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when they are examining these power differentials. DFAB non-binary folks pull this against trans women all the time when we mention that anyone who is not a trans woman has the capacity to leverage transmisogyny. This is unacceptable, and it’s a form of red herring. Nobody is playing Oppression Olympics nor being divisive when they are examining and pointing out power differentials. There are differences in power, because people within communities have the capacity to leverage varying forms of violence against others in their community.
DFAB trans people can leverage transmisogyny for their benefit. Whenever I bring this up in my community, I am met by a whole bunch of voices who, as I’ve said before, accuse me of playing Oppression Olympics. There is nothing I can systemically leverage over a DFAB trans person in regards to gender unless they’re a person of color, which then means I can leverage binarism against them, but that is conditional on whether or not binarism is an actual thing. When it comes to white DFAB trans people, there are zero things I can leverage against them in regards to gender.
Therein lies the power differential. Transmisogyny can be leveraged by anyone who is not a trans woman, and trans women can leverage… binarism if it is a power dynamic within the community. Examining power differentials on an intra-community level is hugely important, because we, as a community, need to be aware of who we are potentially harming by our words and actions in order to foster a community grounded in solidarity and love.
Not Privilege, Capacity
I’ve been slowly working the word “privilege” out of my vocabulary, mostly because I think it oversimplifies, is easily co-opted by Oppression Olympics athletes, and ignores the multifaceted identities of oppressed people. In place of it, I’ve started saying “the capacity to leverage <insert oppression here>.” I wanted to have something that acknowledges that a certain oppression can be something one passively benefits from, something one can actively participate in, and something that can be employed on an intra-community level. The dominant conception of privilege, as I see it, doesn’t necessarily get at the last two pieces.
- The capacity to leverage means one has the ability to passively benefit from an oppression. I do not have the capacity to passively benefit from any form of cissexism and misogyny, because I am a trans woman.
- The capacity to leverage means one may actively participate in a particular oppression and benefit from doing so. I do not have the capacity to actively participate in cissexism or misogyny and benefit from doing so, because I harm myself, my fellow trans siblings, and my fellow women by doing so.
- The capacity to leverage means that I can partake in intra-community violence (infighting) and benefit from doing so. I do have the capacity to do this only under the condition that binarism is real. If it is, then yes, I have the capacity to leverage binarism as a white trans woman.
Yes, I understand the huge irony in those last three bulletpoints, because in a way, I set up the capacity to leverage as a checklist, which is something I actively condemn throughout this essay. I do believe that, like privilege, like oppression, there are certain requirements that need to be met for one to have the capacity to leverage an oppression. By no means should everyone completely stop using the word ‘privilege’ to describe how people benefit from oppression, but I really do believe it oversimplifies the conversation and attempts to condense people to a single facet of their identity. For me, replacing ‘privilege’ with ‘capacity to leverage’ has helped me be more precise in regards to oppression, has helped me map power better, has helped me not energize Oppression Olympics, has helped me not immediately dismiss others in my community who can harm me, and has helped me better foster solidarity with others both within and outside of my community.
The capacity to leverage more effectively identifies how people interact with systems of power both passively and actively. Privilege seems to stop at how people benefit passively from these systems, which also helps to explain why so many activists, in my experience, can’t name how they actively participate in systems of oppression. To better foster solidarity between communities and within our own communities, we need to be actively aware of the forms of violence we can leverage and benefit from. The capacity to leverage, as a rhetorical device, is one such way to get us there.