Our community needs to recognise its own privileges

Our guest writer, Alex Rivers, deconstructs privilege from a personal perspective and makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion around why even within our own communities, we need to check our privileges. 

Deconstructing yourself can be a painful process and the first time I really started to self-scrutinise, I felt physically nauseous. It was the result of a Facebook argument that I very rightly lost (or won, depending on your opinion about personal growth as a journey). I objected to a post, which argued that men contribute to misogyny in some way. I look back and despair now as I responded with what was effectively a ‘not all men’ reply and I was rightly shot down. Not by strangers but by peers, who were asking me to acknowledge my privilege.

I remember showing around a dozen different friends the Facebook exchange and on reflection, I can see now that I was attempting to seek a pardon for being male as I could not get my head around the concept of privilege. The worst thing looking back was that I failed to notice that the friends who agreed with my reply as valid were also male, and therefore part of the greater issue.

Privilege’. This word is so loaded for many people, especially if they are a minority and have suffered societal discrimination because of their minority status. Over the past 12 months, I have dipped my toes into the choppy waters of social media and found that this word is divisive and even actively hated by some members of the LGBTQ+ community. The pink equilibrium is maintained if we spam each other with vacuous rainbow memes and make the occasional reference to a hate crime in the news. However, I warn you, friend, that if you drop the ‘privilege/intersectionality bomb’ into the communal timeline and give it a few hours, the forecast will be a heavy shit storm and 147 essay-length comments. The unlucky moderators return to a scene of chaos, like a parent who was assured the house would be in safe hands over the weekend by their teenager who instead threw a house party. Privilege and intersectionality gets folk’s backs up and who can blame them? When a 45 year-old, white gay man gets accused of not understanding discrimination, yet he recalls nights in the town centre being called everything under the sun; or is estranged from his family after coming out – yes, I can speculate that it hurts and that the criticism of exercising privilege feels off.

Privilege’. This word is so loaded for many people, especially if they are a minority and have suffered societal discrimination because of their minority status.

As a collection of communities, we risk point scoring on our disadvantages rather than celebrating individualities. The concept of intersectionality can help us appreciate how multi-faceted every community is and with these intersections come different sets of needs. No community is worth more than another.

Within the realms of my own experience, attending my synagogue on the weekend, I initially faced a barrage of reminders about what it is to be ‘born Jewish’, to live ‘as a Jew’ and to merely ‘feel like a Jew’. For context, I have identified as a Jew for the past 16 years, despite not being formally recognised as there is no proven maternal lineage. Yet, I have studied the Torah, abided by the commandments and very vividly, I recall being held by the throat in a school hallway for being a “fucking Jewish faggot”.

The challenge of being openly bisexual was bad enough but also presumed to be a religious minority because my father was very dark skinned; this combined was social suicide. I remember being sent to the school office and not only being given a bullying counsellor, but a special one who was coming in just for me. The staff member gravely said: “we’re aware that your family aren’t Christian, that your father is foreign.” “No”, I said, “he’s from Birmingham.” The conversation ended and from then on, I was treated as ‘that Jewish kid in year 9‘. Many years later, in 2018, I decided to start ‘acting like a real Jew’. Yes, I know my choice of words is problematic. It’s deliberate. In the first few months of acknowledging Shabbat, my mentor called me out very directly on the grounds of privilege. She said that simply wanting to live amongst my fellow Jews, who carry a long established history of discrimination, is not enough in itself. Whilst she never used the word privilege, she referred to the fact that by not growing up in a Jewish household, I could therefore not understand the Jewish struggle. “Alex, you are joining the most persecuted people on the planet but you cannot really appreciate how bad it is for us”. Her words, not mine.

On hearing these words and meeting other sceptical Jews, I then began to see some parallels between Jewish Conversion and the ongoing tensions between gender critical women accusing trans women of experiencing male privilege before transition. Where I’m thankful, and, yes, privileged, to not suffer transphobia, I can – at a surface level – appreciate common themes. I work hard to be included as a Jew in my community and at times, my efforts may seem desperate, even false. There will be always be members of my community who do not accept me simply because I was not ‘born a Jew’. Heaven help those who get wind that I’m also bisexual and non-binary.

Relationship dynamics in our queer communities carry a massive loading of privilege. Due to the ingrained culture of bi-erasure, I am perceived as a heterosexual male with two little darling children. I won’t dwell on this too long as I explore this more in ‘Bisexuality, Parenting and Me’. However, I will note that one significant aspect that affects my life daily is being a carer. My partner suffers long-term PTSD from sexual trauma that impacts almost everything she and I do. I believe our intersections are hierarchically based on how much they challenge broader society and its sense of ‘safe or ordinary’. In my own case, I am a bisexual, non-binary Jewish carer. Yet, I am perceived by the majority of folk I meet as a 30-something, able-bodied, heterosexual parent. I blend in, and therefore the oppression I experience is nuanced and frankly minimal so yes, I am privileged. I may argue the case over my bisexuality as I wish to combat biphobia, yet I choose my battles. Choosing when we have to fight is privilege. My partner, on the other hand, is a severely disabled, bisexual, androgynous person and frequently has open red sores on her face due to chronic eczema. She tells me often “where are the fashion models with red skin due to psoriasis? I thought we were striving for inclusion, yet no one represents me.” We attend Pride events together but in truth, she feels indifferent towards them as whilst she knows she is amongst other LGBTQ+ folk, her most prominent intersection is her disability, not her sexuality or gender identity. She cannot change how she appears; she is frequently dismissed because she is disabled and this determines how little privilege she has.

I am blessed to be working with a North East charity which supports LGBTQ+ asylum seekers going through legal appeal. Privilege is always at the back of my mind as I am forced to ‘check it’ constantly. Back in June, I sat with a gentleman from West Africa who told me he grieved for not being able to father children because he was castrated by a gang after they discovered he was gay. While I absolutely believe privilege is a useful tool, it would be callous and inappropriate to ask this man if he is aware of his privileges. Yes, to my knowledge, this gentleman is a cis man. However, he is also a gay black man who has suffered attempted murders, been disowned by his family and had to face the realities of our government’s horrendous ‘Hostile Environment’ policy. Every person has their own story and their intersections do not dictate what they have endured.

Relationship dynamics in our queer communities carry a massive loading of privilege. Due to the ingrained culture of bi-erasure, I am perceived as a heterosexual male with two little darling children.

So, where do I stand in all of this? I have begun to make my peace with the word ‘privilege’ as I have come to the realisation that I was already familiar with the concept in a different context, as a little boy at the dinner table refusing to finish his vegetables. How many of us across Britain remember the cliché line “there’s starving children in Africa” as we scowled at our half-full plate? Our parents were asking us to check our privilege, just in the language available at the time. Away from the table, I grew up with a career mother working in social work in the North East. Through the 90s, I often heard conversations about intentional tokenism and demographic lip service within the industry. My Mum explained it was a golden opportunity to have a client who was BAME (Black Asian or Minority Ethnic), but ideally you wanted, quote “a black lesbian from a council estate”. If this isn’t fake enough, her employer was pushing for these cases with every employee simply on the grounds that they would look good for inclusion at a national level. The challenge of achieving this employer target was nigh on impossible in County Durham. Just try finding the gaysian community in Bishop Auckland or even just a gay couple holding hands in public for that matter. In a politically left wing yet socially conservative area, minority folk are well hidden. I know this because I too made a career of hiding parts of my identity until I moved away.

Despite all odds, I can recall one occasion where my Mum was very proud as she had a call out to a depressive Pakistani lady who could not host a visit on Saturday for a very important reason. My Mum got a rush as she pondered which mosque the lady was attending on said Saturday, in the great metropolis of Sedgefield, only to discover that the client actually just did her Asda shopping that day; *boom* there went the preconceptions! I think my mother felt cheated of some intercultural connective experience.  As a closing thought, should I even be writing on intersectionality when I’m white British male? To quote a friend, Bisi Alimi, on Twitter:

It is really nice to see white LGBTQ+ ppl talking about racism in the LGBTQ+ community in UK. I mean the fact that we have been shouting this over the rooftop for years really doesn’t count. We want to thank the media for talking about it, because white people just realised it.

Follow Alex on Twitter (@NotWayneWright)

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