In certain circles, privilege and oppression are terms we use to describe our unequal social experiences. I imagine these words with quotation marks around them, because I tend to regard them as ideas which are somewhat intangible and academic. It’s hard for me to pigeonhole and categorise my experiences of being alive. They seem to be just more boxes to squeeze myself into, leaving no room for grey areas, ambiguity, nor celebration. However that’s perhaps a privileged perspective enabling me to undermine terms used to describe very valid, real, socially constructed lived experiences in order to appease my ego and pretend I’m more than the sum of my privileges and oppressions.
My life, at times, appears to be a theoretical obstacle course. Despite the fact that I have a fair cache of social privilege, the way I move through the world is seriously coloured by the social oppression my body was immediately wrapped in at birth. I have a disability – my physical body is not quite the same as most people’s, and my muscles move differently, but perhaps the most profound social difference is the way I speak. Since my brain was hurt in such a way when I was born, my natural voice is limited to a few mostly indecipherable sounds. However, I have no difficulty with the sounds that spontaneously arise with laughter or tears. I speak by fingerspelling words or by typing on an electronic device of some sort or another. And oh yes, I dribble, noticeably so (I’m always surprised at how a bit of saliva can scare people off approaching me).
I know the picture I paint of myself isn’t comfortable for most people to comprehend, let alone without feeling pity. However as I write this seemingly innocuous word – P-I-T-Y – I feel a visceral sense of revulsion hit me in the pit of my stomach. It never fails to upset me. This feeling comes hand in hand with understanding just how privileged I am (think growing-up-on-the-north-shore, think white-Catholic-school-girl and one-who’s-able-to-rely-on-extremely-supportive-family-and-friends – these kind of privileges). The very fact that I made it to a tertiary education institution is an overt sign of my privilege, particularly in light of the fact that most people with a severe physical limitation will not get properly educated. Seriously, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only a quarter of people with disability finish high school in Australia, and that’s a very significant drop from the 50% of the regular school-attending population. Having a communication impairment further decreases those statistics, so in essence, I am really fortunate that I am in the position I am to be writing this article.
I guess this is why experiences of privilege and oppression always leave me somewhat stumped. Some of my privileges are solidly linked to my oppressions, and it hurts my mind trying to reconcile that fact. As I previously alluded to, I am often marginalised in situations, but I have been fortunate to be equipped with tools that allow me to push through that oppression, and neither be crippled by it, nor defined by it. My intellect has always been, and possibly will always be, doubted by strangers. I am lucky that I can prove my capability through my academic work, not only to others, but also to myself. Ironically, it is here, where I come unstuck. I have been socialised (and privileged enough) to minimise the hardships my disability entails, in order to not be perceived as ungrateful or self-pitying. Yet, if I didn’t have the buffer of privilege in other areas of my identity, my quality of life would possibly be too horrible to imagine. So, unsurprisingly, I rightly value my privileges. I am fortunate in that I see myself as more or less the equal to my peers who don’t have disabilities. What’s more revealing, is that I, not only deserve and desire the same quality of life as they do, but I wholeheartedly expect it. However, in doing so, I become partially blind to the systemic social exclusion of others. And so the small, but daily, prejudiced slights from the wider community – I’m often patronised, ignored, and sidelined – have become necessary reminders for me to claim my oppressions, as well as my privileges, as a means to give a voice to others who are not quite so fortunate.
I face other confounding discriminations and societal challenges based on how I identify, but the assumptions about my physicality are something I have to constantly and consistently negotiate. That makes my other encounters with prejudice outside of my disability literally pale in comparison because of my other social advantages. This is not to say that the other oppressions I am impacted by, are any less distressing, just that they aren’t as blatant and all-encompassing, and of course they are mapped on to my body in different ways. It was a significant realisation in my social consciousness, to learn how similar privileges and even similar oppressions can appear and operate quite differently depending on how they are embodied.
I think of this when I remember friends who have equally persistent disabilities that severely interfere with their studies, but are not readily visible and so they aren’t eligible for as much academic support as me. In those incidences, I feel the manifestation of my disability is one of hidden privilege, as it affords me both financial and other types of support. Although that extra help assists me to live my life in the way I choose, it also underscores the social oppression I contend with. For instance, if employers were spontaneously willing to hire someone like me, I wouldn’t need to rely on the government for the pension (or be terrified that it will be cut). But I guess, for now, my privileges balance out my oppressions just enough so that I don’t feel too socially limited, and for that, I am endlessly grateful.
Other embodiments and other lived experiences have their own emotional weight, social impacts and, their own privileges as well as oppressions. So I try and not project my experiences on to other people’s identities, or speak authoritatively about other minorities. I have learnt that the many different facets of my identity form the basis of my human experience, and to devalue any of them is to devalue a part of myself. The ground between my privileges and oppressions is uneasy, hard to stand on, and a place where I can really only talk from the ever-evolving understanding of my own journey. Privileges and oppressions are things which I am still trying to work out how to navigate, while making room to just celebrate what is, and celebrate what I have, due to the lottery of life and the chaos of the universe.