In a sense, we are all ‘going’ through life.
Most of us hobble, crawl and sword-swing our way through the muck and mire. But some of us walk unencumbered; some even meander jauntily. For those who gayly mince past difficulties, effervesce over challenges and shimmy under obstacles, it might be any number of life’s helping hands that gets them over the finish line: money, status, appearance, innate ability or right-place-right-time.
These are not merely the lucky few, though. Rather, each of us could be said to occupy a place on the scales of privilege, one scale per attribute (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), and, like the settings on a cockpit, the exact calibrations of our characteristics afford us certain access and good fortune in some areas, and strife in others.
What is privilege?
For a clear summary of privilege, the wording of Ovita F. Williams and Cheryl L. Franks is as good as any: “… having an unearned benefit because of a particular social identity or social group membership…”
With various characteristics, “privileges” intersect, meaning — in crude terms — that a white man might be more privileged than a man of another race, who in turn might be more privileged than a woman. This is, without hyperbole, the greatest generalization ever recorded in writing, and you should just forget I said anything. But you catch the drift.
Privilege comes from perception, not from a state of being
Life at the crossroads of any inherited or acquired characteristics is a whirlwind of complex social interactions. All dynamics of privilege are subject both to their wider contexts and how others perceive both the person in question and the very notion of privilege itself.
Take a gay man, for example (any ‘from behind’ jokes, and you’ll be escorted out). For us male homosexuals, privilege stereotypically runs high in the company of straight cisgender women (so long as they are allies) — especially in queer spaces, like a gay bar — but falls short of protecting us in cishet male contexts, such as everywhere. Again, generalizations abound, so, pinch of salt.
This change in levels of privilege from context to context can therefore only be based on perception, not on immutable circumstances. Women see gay men as a good time at the bar, where straight men might feel their masculinity being challenged — privilege is in the eye of the beholder. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this perceptual stumbling block is the responsibility of the perceiver. That is, it’s not your fault you’re being judged.
The dynamics of disability disadvantage
For people living with disabilities, privilege is even more of a quagmire. While disability is itself almost always a source of disadvantage (though not always), as Andrew Pulrang writes, privilege dynamics for disabled people are also on a sliding scale.
Those with visible and physical impairments are more likely to be granted greater access and acceptance than those with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.
For my own part, having traveled variously with a cane, a set of crutches or without any mobility aid at all, I have noticed a serious uptick in doe eyes, fawning and fuss when I try to alight a train or mount a bus with a walking stick, compared with a distinct lack of sympathy or willingness to assist when using crutches or indeed when going completely without, even with my characteristically charming limp.
With crutches, I suppose it is assumed that I — a 30-year-old, physically fit-looking man — have injured myself, which warrants no commiseration, and that, by hobbling along without aid, it is assumed that my impairment is not serious enough to require support. Pulrang also points out that social background and financial means play an uplifting role for people with disabilities, even though money cannot remove hindrances or extinguish pain by itself.
These dynamics are exponentially complicated for disabled people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community and/or not white. As is well noted in the literature (including — I proclaim bashfully — by me, here), ‘-isms’ and phobias intersect at multiple junctures, serving not only to increase but in fact to compound disadvantage — that is, being Black, quadriplegic and lesbian may be even more challenging than the sum of its parts.
Disability as a marker of privilege
As if this conversion is not Byzantine enough, might it also be said that disability itself can, in some situations, be a source of privilege? Hold your horses; I’m not ready to be canceled yet.
For background, I am newly disabled, having only recently been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that limits my mobility and causes chronic pain. Now that I walk with a mobility aid, I am often given room to maneuver on the street; I can park in wider, more convenient spaces; I get sympathy from the elderly, the similarly infirm or the general populace; my barber remembers me, knows my go-to haircut and offers me coffee (which no one else gets).
To my mind, these concessions are indeed a kind of privilege, but of course they are remedial, adopted as a way of redressing the disadvantage naturally faced by disabled people. It is the equivalent of Aunt Debbie declaring at Thanksgiving how fun and fab she finds The Gays™, with their vibrant colors and tenacious spirits. This is well meant and intended to right historic wrongs, and I choose to accept the token(ism) graciously.
I set out this overview of the complex world of privilege for a simple enough reason. It took getting sick and becoming disabled for me to understand my own privilege, and I’d like to pay that knowledge forward.
White, gay, male, cisgender, English speaking, literate, educated, middle class and young — not a bad résumé of privilege. But tumbling as I did into disabled life at age 29 elucidated a distressing but ultimately necessary lesson: While many characteristics are immutable (ethnicity, race, upbringing), some, such as gender expression, expression of sexuality (through coming out) and ability status, can change.
In the protected characteristics market, our privilege capital can plummet without notice. Treasure and be aware of your privilege (without it impeding others). You never know when you might lose it.