The big, strong guy tells me he doesn’t understand “privilege.” Damn neologisms! It’s not as if he’s lived his life in easy mode. He’s had to work for everything he ever wanted! His struggles are as real as anyone else’s!
And he’s right. Except in the ways that he’s wrong.
So I tell him that I have Small Woman Privilege. Everywhere I go, without my needing to ask, people bend over backwards to help me: reaching, lifting, carrying for me. If I am in a situation that requires physical strength, I am inherently entitled to ask perfect strangers for their help. If they refuse to assist me, they are seen as bad people. In many cultures and subcultures, I can speak out in ways that would get a man punched, or at least challenged. I am immune from a large proportion of physical retribution; people swallow their anger, or restrict themselves to verbal sparring. Hitting small women may carry few physical risks, but the social costs can be horrendous.
I am also largely immune to being asked to fight, duel-like; nobody’s gonna get any kudos by beating up a tiny girly like me. In fact, a person could lose a lot of standing by hurting me. Even bullying me is dicey: it doesn’t say much about you that you’d stoop to persecute a wee, defenceless bunny like me. The times in the past when a bully was not bright enough to work that out, pointing it out to them, loudly and in public, always did the trick. If the worse comes to the worst, if I’m involved in a physical altercation with someone bigger – particularly a man – everyone’s assumption is that I’m the innocent victim. I have slapped a guy in public, and people rushed to see if I was OK, and if he needed apprehending.
I explain to the big, strong guy that I can get away with a lot of stuff that he’d get into trouble for. That’s my privilege. And he gets that, no problem! He’s seen a lot of that, tiny women using their gender and size as leverage.
So I say that with the privilege also some some serious drawbacks. Many people tend to infantilise me. I’m the height of a twelve year old, so they treat me as if I had the knowledge, experience, cognitive abilities, and right to self-determine of a twelve year old. They talk down to me, talk over me, or ignore me altogether. They go out of their way to tell me that I can’t do things, even when I’m already doing them. When I was putting up a fence around my property, perfect strangers stopped to tell me that I couldn’t do the job, as I was doing it. A woman totally lost it and screamed in my face that IT’S NOT A JOB FOR LITTLE GIRLS, even though I was working on the last panel.
As well as discounting my abilities, people tend to they trivialise my statements and moods, and ignore my boundaries. They find my anger “funny,” “cute,” or “endearing.” As a result, I’m often put in a position where I have to dish out consequences. Where someone with more physical presence may only need to say “cut it out,” I end up having to say “cut it out, or else,” and then having to make the “or else” happen. And then people act all shocked because I’m being such a bitch.
And then there’s the bad people. Some criminals look at people like me and see food items. I’m infinitely more likely than he is to be picked as the target of a violent or sexual assault, and I have to live my entire life with that concern.
Big strong men like him don’t have to put up with any of that, I say. His imposing physical presence and gender guarantee him a level of automatic respect in some quarters; a respect I will always have to fight for, and probably never get. And he can understand that, too, because he knows that some people like to lord over or victimise those they believe weaker than them.
So I tell him that that’s part of his privilege. The advantage he has over me, inherently, just because of being himself. Although he worked for his physique, he didn’t earn his stature or deeper voice or penis. Yet having them benefits him in ways he may never notice, because they are never not there.
It’s not that his life, or my life, are in easy mode. Is that we both have certain advantages we did not earn, and we are so used to living with them that we can become blind to them. I can forget, or never know, the prejudices he faces; the expectations and limitations people like to impose on him. He can forget, or never know, mine, too.
And we can both forget that our difficulties would be different – and in many cases, compounded – if we weren’t straight, able-bodied, cisgendered, and white.