Check your privilege at the door

Our DPSN theme for November is ‘Power and privilege’ – we thought this would be timely given election season has just passed!  Power and privilege can affect our lives in many ways; either because we have it, or because we don’t.  We’ve asked our bloggers this month to share their thoughts on power and privilege, and how it shapes the world around them.  We want to hear your thoughts on power and privilege too, so let us know in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page to join the conversation.

I had an interesting conversation recently with my partner about the areas in our lives we experience privilege, and the areas we don’t.

My partner, who is of Middle Eastern descent, often has a significantly different experience than me (a white New Zealand European woman) when we travel through airports – despite the fact that we both possess a New Zealand passport and citizenship.

Almost every time we go through a security check-point – in New Zealand or otherwise – he is searched.  His bag has been opened, he’s been asked to take off his shoes, walk through special X-ray scanners, and once he was even detained for two hours with no explanation as to why, unable to contact me or his family.  Meanwhile I had passed through customs and had no idea where he was, as they had separated us – this was an incredibly traumatic experience for us both.

Now of course, terrorist threats are real and it’s true that randomly checks are now a part of the process of air travel.  It’s a good thing, I think, that security personnel do their due diligence and the majority of the time, this is no huge inconvenience (with the exception of the awful time he was detained).  But I find it  interesting that, in the eight years we’ve been travelling around the world together, I’ve never been “randomly” screened myself.  The colour of my skin  and the pronunciation of my name offers me a privilege when passing through airports; his does not.

Passing through airport security is one area in which I experience privilege.  Being female means in other areas I do not.

My entire life I’ve experienced passive sexism and people trying to police my behaviour based on my gender.  I’ve been told I’m too opinionated for a woman, and also too emotional.  I’ve been told at different times in my life I dress too provocatively, and then too conservatively.  I was told I shouldn’t study science, because I was a woman.  I had people criticise my choice to go back to university and incur considerable student debt to get into a career I would enjoy more: “You’re qualified already – can’t you just get a job and work like everyone else??”  Now I’m working again, I’ve had a number of people made snide comments about my income or the things I choose to spend money on: “I can’t believe you’re travelling again!  You’re obviously making the big bucks.”

For the record, no one working in public mental health care is making big bucks…trust me!

I’ve had people denounce my choice not to get married or have children, because as a woman, your perceived worth is hinged on both.  Some people have even had the audacity to question how “committed” my partner of eight years, whom I live with, must really be in our relationship, if I “can’t get him to marry me” – of course without consideration of his or my choices or wants in this regard.

I’ve experienced not so passive sexism and harassment too – catcalling, being hassled when out with friends for drinks, being told to smile more, the list goes on.

My partner, being male, has been fortunate not to experience any of the above.  His gender has afforded him privilege in work and social spheres that mine does not (not that there are no pressures on men to conform to their gender stereotypes – of course they can experience this too).

So it’s interesting, that by virtue of things entirely out of our control (our identified gender, the place of our birth, the family we were born into) we experience either privilege or discrimination.  The trick I think, is to not just be aware of the areas where we experience discrimination – but the areas we experience privilege too.  Because without being aware of our own advantages, we might not see where other people are missing out, and we can’t help to widen the space to accommodate their needs, too.

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