This piece has been adapted for OutWords from an op-ed piece that originally appeared in the Niverville Citizen on April 26, 2016
Most people will tell you they believe in diversity and inclusion. Most people believe they live it. Most believe everyone should be treated equally, until there is something about treating another person equally that makes them uncomfortable.
I’m uncertain who coined this, but there is a saying: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Privilege can be understood by asking yourself if someone would not accept you because of something you cannot change about yourself, such as skin colour, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical disability? If the an- swer is no, you are accustomed to privilege.
Although I am gay and fighting for GLBT equality in school systems, I have been unfairly granted other privilege by the cruel way our society favours people with light coloured skin.
Perhaps people cannot be faulted for privilege granted to them by virtue of the family they were born into or the colour of their skin. But we are at fault when someone presents us with their discriminatory experience and we dismiss it because it’s not like anything we know or believe to be true.
We live in a society where power imbalance is normal. This has created biases in us that we’re often not aware of. It makes sense, then, that certain privilege skews our ability to recognize a violation of a human right that isn’t threatened in our own lives.
As individuals who identify as GLBT, we know it is chronically misunderstood that we are not just our sexuality or gender–just as heterosexual people do not exclusively identify themselves by their sexual- ity, and cis-gender people don’t identify themselves solely by their gender.
It is unfortunate that we are labelled based on whom we are attracted to or how we were identified by others at birth. These labels shine the spotlight where it need not be—on sexual practices and genitalia. This often leaves us feeling like we must defend ourselves in a way that others don’t, creat- ing feelings of frustrations and sometimes feelings of inferiority. Because of the pervasiveness of this, I believe that we become accustomed to fighting and forget to take stock of the privilege we have. Consequently, this often results in our disrespecting others in ways that are similar to the inequalities we fight.
We see this in the GLBT community when one is “more gay” or a “better gay” when they’ve always known their sexual orientation versus coming out later in life. Or when individuals who identify as bisexual are treated dif- ferently because it appears as though they just aren’t “strong enough” to come out completely. Or, when we fail to be inclusive of the cultural and socio-economic diversity within the community.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change it. There are no better groups to advocate for marginalized individuals than those who understand what it feels like to be marginalized. In order to do this, we need to become aware of our biases, and we need to work to correct them. And, yes, we all have unconscious biases. We need to recognize the fear we experience when our own privilege feels threatened. We need to educate ourselves to understand what makes us feel superior, or more accurately fearful, in order to ensure we do not perpetuate societal beliefs that any characteristic makes one human being more deserving of kindness, opportunity or compassion than another.
The next time someone says they are being intimidated or asked to change something about themselves that is impossible to change—like skin colour, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical ability—or extremely difficult to change—like being caught in a cycle of poverty or abuse, listen. And never miss an opportunity to use the privilege you do have to stand up for another human being’s rights.
–Michelle McHale speaks her mind when she observes social injustice. She is a strong proponent of self-awareness, inclusion and diversity education.