Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

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