I have a friend whose pronouns I consistently mess up. He’s trans. He uses male pronouns. And every so often I slip. I forget. I…something. I can’t really even explain it.
It keeps me humble. I do know better. Usually, living and working as I do in the sexuality-related world, I don’t make those mistakes. I’m hyper-aware, super-conscious, ultra-careful about peoples’ identities, oppressions, and choices. I try to be respectful; I try to stay up to date and educated about what’s going on and how trends and choices are shifting.
My own identity is a combination of histories and possibilities, too. In “Straight White Male: the lowest difficulty setting”, John Scalzi writes, “People who play on gay minority female? Hardcore.”
That would be me. Almost. I would argue that my queer minority gendernonconforming female setting is harder still. And reading this article explained something for me. It actually helped me understand why I always went for the hardest teachers, the most challenging homework, and (until recently) the most complicated way to do things. That’s where I was comfortable. That’s what felt normal. Anything else felt like cheating.
Wait. Cheating? Taking a simpler or easier path is cheating? Something’s not right. Getting help is not cheating. Wanting to work less hard is not an ethics violation…but sometimes it feels like one.
I’m getting over it. And when I coach, I help my clients get over it. Because somehow, I find that privilege seems to convey a sense of entitlement to ease, and anyone who plays above straight white male tends to absorb the idea that we’re not supposed to have ease, that things are supposed to be difficult, and that yes, taking the easiest path available to us given our “difficulty setting” is still cheating.
Especially if it actually makes success less struggle and more joy.
I’m calling BS on that one.
I don’t think anyone is supposed to have to struggle. I am not someone who wants to send straight white men (individually or collectively) down the giant slide in Chutes and Ladders, back to square 2, just because I don’t have as many advantages. I want them to succeed. And I want it to be easy. I just want it for me, too.
And because I carry my own set of privileges (language, class, education, intelligence, able-bodiedness) which have shaped my life in some very fortunate ways, I understand this about the power of being on top: I can help people best when I claim all the power available to me.
When I claim it, then it’s mine. I can do what I like with it. I can hoard it (not helpful) or share it (much better). I can speak up when someone else can’t. Even though I have access to a car I can insist that we coordinate with the bus schedule. Even though I can handle stairs I can hold myself to higher accessibility standards. I can learn languages that are not my native tongue even though I don’t have to. I can tell the truth about who I am, and not “pass” for convenience sake. I can own it when I make a mistake.
And I can get the damn pronouns right.
It’s easy for me to get self-righteous about people who consistently mis-pronoun my trans friends–when someone who uses “he” gets called “she” for the 20th or 50th or 100th time by the same person, I wonder if the speaker is paying attention at all. I get mad. I get frustrated. I try to figure out what new educational trick we need to make it stick.
And then I do it. Totally innocently. Totally by accident. Even though I know better and intend better. Even though I like the person. Even though they are my friend and I want to do right by them.
We’re all swimming in the cultural soup. Even me.
What can I do? I can apologize. I can do my own work around gender and identity and stereotypes. And I can keep showing up. My awareness is still solid. My intentions are still good. If Yoda was right and there is no “try”, then I just need to do.
Privilege gives me the tools, space, and access I need to do. We can all do. We can all make a change, a shift, a tweak in the power imbalance somehow. We all have a toehold somewhere–even if we play hardcore.
Where do you begin?