17 October 2009

The invisible knapsack of boundaries

The invisible knapsack of privilege has been an enormously helpful contribution to sociological theory. The knapsack of male privilege, the knapsack of white privilege, even the knapsack of Christian privilege.

However, it's not string theory. It's not the unified theory of everything. And I've seen people treat it as such. I've seen people forget that all sorts of privilege exist in each persons backpack, a different mixture for each of us, and any one of them may be at play - or none.

I've been trying to work out if there ever can be a unified theory of privilege. I suspect not, because I don't think it's possible to find a unified theory of a dynamic system like human enculturation. But I've noticed one thread which runs through each account I've read lately of peoples experiences without privilege, and that is something which stands out to me.

The privilege to have boundaries, and have those boundaries respected.

Black people don't have their boundaries respected. Women don't have their boundaries respected. Lower class people don't have their boundaries respected. When a man thinks he has a right to objectify a woman, rape her or control her, he's not respecting her boundaries. When white women think it's OK to touch black women's hair and get affronted when told it's not, they're not respecting boundaries. When a Christian secretly tucks a Bible into someone's stuff because she knows they are Wiccan, she's not respecting their boundaries.

In every case, there are a group of people who have their ability to create or maintain boundaries challenged, by a group of people who have never been taught to respect or even see the boundaries of the other group, but have been taught to maintain and respect their own.

I see this because I have been abused by people in positions of male privilege who never considered my boundaries real because I was a woman, by people in positions of Christian privilege who never considered my boundaries real because I was a Pagan, by people who were mentally healthy who never considered my boundaries real because I was mad. In every case they not only violated my boundaries, but became angry when I asserted that I had a right to maintain boundaries - and outraged at the mere possibility of anyone violating theirs.

It's not a small stretch for me to see the boundary violations in other situations. This seems to me to be one aspect of the invisible knapsack, and a very important one. I don't think it's the only one, but I think boundaries are not spoken enough about, not addressed in our society, not taught to our children as something that needs to be respected. I think it would really lighten the load if they were.

I remember once telling a male friend how rude I thought the constant sexism I encountered was. I said that I had decided to confront it, whenever I heard it, by simply saying "that's a rude thing to say." He told me that he believed it would be equally as rude for me to tell someone that what they had said was rude. I found this very perplexing. It didn't make sense. And the only way I can explain it, was that they felt entitled to say anything without having to worry about how rude it sounded, but I had to be careful I wasn't rude to them. Privilege, much?

Our society grooms males into having strong boundaries and applauds them for maintaining them; but the same society teaches women not to have those boundaries, and withdraws support for women if they do.

It could easily be seen as an aspect of male privilege alone. But I have seen the same process time and time again with many different protagonists. It happens with white people, males, heterosexuals, the employed, the mentally and physically abled. It happens in many other contexts, like military hierarchies, caste systems and peerages. The privilege in the invisible backpack is the privilege to maintain boundaries while being oblivious to the boundaries of others.

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