Privilege Relativism: Framing

I think this might be a series of a few posts. I have not yet encountered what I’m calling here “privilege relativism” elsewhere, though I’m sure it exists in corners that think about critical race theory and other critical theory frames on marginalized identity. A brief framing of what I’m meaning, with an ask that if you know of someone’s work I should read, please share in the comments!

I really like definitions and find more and more people beginning by offering definitions. I’ll try to define privilege relativism here as: the shift in what privilege and cultural power you carry compared to others in the contextual space you’re in.

I first tried to visualize what I mean in this post where I just focused on gender. There are many other facets here, but the basic activity is to look at the different concurrent expressions. A key thing here is the emphasis on the impression that others get simply from looking at you. I think this is really important because this is where things will start to shift when the context you’re in changes. It’s also important because, for the most part, we don’t walk around or move through the world with biographies of our held identities floating over our heads.

I’ll expand a little bit on gender as it shows up for me and in my experience in another post perhaps. For now, the text in the post offers an example of why I place myself as I do.

What’s key about this is that sometimes I show up as a member of an agent group (a group that in the current dominant culture holds power over another), even when I might feel that I do not. I’ve certainly had the feeling of the past that, since I’m trans, when I speak I’m not seen as speaking for men. Chances are, because of how I’m perceived, I do. In many spaces, people may not know I’m trans; in others, they may, but my expression and presentation mean that what I say (and don’t say) can be seen as one way of modeling as a man.

For me then, this is important to understand in how I encourage expression and validity of emotionality, empowering femme and nonbinary humans, rejecting misogyny, homophobia, etc. etc.

A concrete example here for me is how I use my pronouns in Zoom calls and other online meetings. When I’m in spaces where I know there is a large number of trans and non-binary or gender expansive humans, I’ll list my pronouns as “he/they”. In spaces that I assume to be an average sampling of society, I’ll reverse and use “they/he.” In cisgender dominated spaces, the use of “he” pronouns seems to miss the point of my gender identity. While I am likely read as a man, I both want to challenge people’s reading of that, and specifically acknowledge that I am not trying to “be a man” so much as exist as a transmasculine human. It’s a nuance, but to me it feels like a distinct gender from “man”, not in any kind of hierarchical way, though I appreciate the distinction from being a cisgender man.