There's a common trend when it comes to discussing sensitive topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism. The only people that truly delve into public discourse about such topics are the individuals that are being affected by them.
People of color speak up about racism, women talk about sexism, the LGBT community is vocal about homophobia and transphobia, and individuals of lower economic standing speak up about classism.
Yes, of course the individuals that are being oppressed by certain systems are going to be the most vocal and obstinate for change. But, wouldn't the most effective way to change a society be to have members of dominant groups affect cultural and legal changes -- since they are the creators of these systems?
In other words, members of the dominant group have to be aware in the ways they are privileged. And yet, the conversation does not start with these people.
African-Americans may talk day and night about the ways race negatively affects them, but what good will it do if it is not understood by the human beings that created and currently sustain the social institutions that have oppressed them for three centuries to the modern day? Why does the conversation about racism not start with white Americans? Why does the conversation about sexism not start with men? What about homophobia and heterosexuals?
It's almost as if whiteness or maleness is invisible, or an "unmarked category."
This is power.
The ability to dominate in every single social political and economic institution, and yet be so invisible, questioned by no one and leaving unchecked. This position is so powerful that even the people that benefit from such systems have not even the slightest understanding of how it privileges them.
Power can speak loudly, but also be silent.
This is why often times when people are confronted about their privilege, there are strong responses. A woman in my sociology class discussion explained that she resents the phrase "white privilege" because she feels that in no way she is privileged, due to financial struggles she has endured in her life.
But the problem is: privilege doesn't mean one hasn't struggled or suffered. It does not equate wealth and status. It merely means a special advantage or immunity available only to a particular group. So "white privilege" simply means that there are certain unearned social benefits to having white skin whether one sees it or not. This woman conflated these terms and was quick to demonstrate the ways she was oppressed, yet completely blind in the ways that she is privileged. Yes, she suffered socioeconomic burdens, but her poverty will never be attributed to her skin color or her race.
Yet, this would not be the case with perhaps a black woman, who would most likely have that hurtful stereotype imposed on her. This experience demonstrated to me how sometimes systems of oppression can be blind to one another.
I think the first step to truly breaking social barriers in this country is acknowledging the ways in which we are advantaged.
I am an Indian-American woman, and I have been made aware of my "otherness" as a non-white, dark-skinned woman since I was a small child. As a woman of color, I face certain injustices and micro-aggressions, but as a cisgender heterosexual, I do not.
I acknowledge that I am privileged in these ways.
You may ask: why am I privileged?
I don't have to think about which bathroom to go to, because my gender is validated by mainstream society. My sexuality is validated as well. If I had a significant other, I could freely be affectionate with him in public without thinking twice or having to accommodate the comfort levels of others around me. I have never had gender experiences that did not match the sex I was assigned to at birth. I also come from a financially stable family. I have never had to take up a job to support the family income, take out student loans or go to bed with an empty stomach. My family's socioeconomic status has allowed me the privilege of growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with good quality schools where I was able to attain an excellent elementary, middle and high school education.
So I recognize my privilege, the next step?
I have to take every initiative to change my language, attitude and behavior towards people who are marginalized in one way or the other. Using my knowledge to try and change the mindsets, and eventually the greater social milieu of the society, and country I live in.
And I believe everyone else should take initiative too.
Then, maybe one day, the marginalized won't be "marginalized" anymore.
They will just be who they want to be, without question and without labels.