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Privilege Blindness

In the book Memoirs of a Geisha, the reader is introduced to the life of Nitta Sayuri as she reveals her life as a geisha. In the opening chapter, she speaks of sharing her background of being born and raised in the little fishing village of Yoroido with a customer. When she tells him that is where she is from, he can’t contain his disbelief.

As a skilled geisha, she has perfected the art of letting men believe what they want by not reacting, she leaves him to come to his own conclusion and he eventually settles on the idea that such a skilled and beautiful creature can’t possibly be from a little nowhere place like the fishing village. Note that the important part here is when she offers up this very simple and core fact about herself it is dismissed as a joke, this is what it is like to deal with Privilege Blindness.

Privilege Blindness is about creating a narrative for others based on a limited or misunderstood, self-assumed, knowledge of someone’s life coupled with a refusal to change those assumptions when confronted with facts. Anyone who experiences privilege in any way can fall victim to Privilege Blindness and they can be extremely attached to those narratives, leaving them difficult to be divested of their notions. This blind belief that life as they see it is the one and only truth makes them steadfast in their suppositions, this is how they relate to the rest world and because of the relative ease of the life they enjoy, they have a blindfold on when it comes to dealing with alternative experiences.

Privilege Blindness is mired in a type of absolutism based on a false dichotomy between the Good Guy/Gal story people have written about themselves, those they love, and those they respect, and the necessary evil/wrongness of everyone else in the Other Category.

With the rise of the anti-hero in media they are able to, not only justify, but dismiss and ignore all of their flaws as part of the backstory that makes them more heroic by not following the rules. They see themselves as breaking them for greater good and everyone else is simply a one-dimensional secondary character who either supports them fully (Also Good) or those with lives different than their own (Inherently evil/flawed) and if they operate outside of the box they do so for evil purposes.

This past week I confronted sexism head on. It wasn’t anything so dramatic as saving women from sex slavery or even as thrilling as changing corporate policy into something more inclusive.  It was simply a question about why a word was chosen.

In a social media debate group in which I participate and function as an admin, Brent* made a post about how gun control would adversely affect the African American community. During the discussion, Greg, a man in his early to mid-forties, made his foray into the debate with:

“Slow your roll, sister. Generalize much? I am never for giving anyone with power more power”.

As it wasn’t initially clear whom Greg was addressing, I wondered if this sister remark was aimed at Brent because he is openly gay or at me because I’m black; so I asked. Turns out he calls everyone sister when they are overreacting. When I pointed out this was sexist his response was, essentially, “it’s what I say, if it offends you, too bad”. Someone else called him an asshole because of his dismissive attitude and we were off and running.

For four days, and so much back and forth later that I probably can lift a car with my thumbs now, he is still complaining about P.C. culture and how everyone is so sensitive.
The group was regaled with stories about how he’d come to the defense of others, physically and violently, and that Social Justice Warriors were all talk and no action.

By my questioning and challenging the way he uses one word sent him into a tailspin. I don’t think his anger was because he cares so much about using the word “sister” as a slight, but because I had dared question his personal narrative as the anti-hero. He was no longer purposefully flawed in an attempt to exist with us mere mortals, he became just another schlub, like the rest of us, who makes mistakes, and suddenly the world isn’t as black and white as he thought it was. His carefully contrived persona was now marred. If he isn’t All Good, then maybe other’s weren’t All Bad.

There sometimes comes a point, where you realize in a debate or argument, that you are having two different conversations. It’s beyond cognitive dissonance, it’s something more primal and last night I came to that point with this seemingly, unending discussion. We are living this discussion in America right now. Everyone has dug in their heels and are fighting the evil of another ideology to the detriment of those who don’t live with the privilege of changing their circumstances.

We encounter it when we see news footage of a police officer gunning down an innocent man, setting up the scene to frame the dead man for causing his own murder! People still come up with a narrative of who the cop “truly” is outside of this one incident.  Simultaneously, they are creating a narrative of how bad the victim must have been and that is why he deserved to die slaughtered in the street.

We encounter it when a convicted rapist is excused by a judge because his narrative is driven from the assumed inherent goodness and worthiness of the criminal because of his pedigree rather than condemning him for the heinousness of his criminal actions and certainly without any concern for the victim.

We encounter it when some cisgender people are chomping at the bit to physically and verbally attack transgender people in public spaces because their inner dialogue has created a narrative in which transgender people, or anyone in the LGBTQI community for that matter, are perceived as pedophiles and/or abominations to nature.

We encounter it when your fellow feminist is your sister at arms until you try to focus the discussions on intersectionality, then she sighs beleagueredly and wants to know why we need to bring race into everything. Because her ultimate feminist narrative is that every woman gets to be like her and that should be all any of us need rather than every woman being able to explore their own unique style of feminism.

Who they are and how they behave falls in the Good/Worthy Column and anyone too different from them must, by default, be in the Bad/Unworthy Column thus justifying the man-made atrocities endured by The Others in this world as consequences rather than fixable outcomes based on learned human behaviors and actions. It’s why you get stories of how great they are compared to Hitler.  An example of pure, unadulterated evil that they will bring up when you point out some of their flaws.

Privilege Blindness sets up a dynamic from the perspective of an assumed perfection of who you are and what you believe against any and all statements, claims, or facts to the contrary. It’s about the inability and unwillingness to deconstruct who we think we are and who we believe others to be. It is an unwillingness to grow by incorporating new knowledge into our framework. It’s about understanding that all the hard work we’ve put into becoming who we are hasn’t lead to perfection but just an incarnation of us that is better than we were yesterday and that we will probably need more work and tweaking to be even better tomorrow if we are to continue to grow.


*names have been changed

Written by Pamela Getz

Writer and Activist. Follow Pamela on Twitter @goddesspamela.

Pamela Getz is Editor of International Affairs for Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

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  1. “Privilege Blindness is about creating a narrative for others based on a limited or misunderstood, self-assumed, knowledge of someone’s life and a refusal to change those assumptions when confronted with facts.” I think this sums up the way a great percentage of humans behave in general… especially (and sadly) ‘us’ Americans.

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Privilege Blindness