What part of this is a privilege?

Black Women are Perceived as a Threat (from Womanist Musings)

I wrote about the relationship of Muslims to “white privilege” here last May as part of a carnival organised by Brooke of Rolling Ruminations, and followed it up with a post about how complaints about discrimination by convert Muslims are sometimes met with responses like “well, you could just take off the hijab and you’d get your privilege back”. Privilege is the unearned advantages one gets by being part of a dominant group — being white and/or male, for example — and while I don’t dispute that it exists, I’ve also noticed that it’s often used as a convenient means of dismissing people’s opinions. Sometimes, one sees an invocation of “privilege” which is plain silly. This post at Womanist Musings is one such.

James Bain is a 54-year-old man from Florida who was recently released from prison after serving 35 years in jail for a burglary and male rape he didn’t commit; DNA testing was used (having been refused on multiple occasions by the courts) and proved that he was “just not connected to this particular incident” according to a Florida state attorney. A law passed in Florida last year entitles those wrongfully convicted to $50,000 for every year they spend behind bars, which in Bain’s case adds up to $1.75m. Bain wants to go home and look after his 77-year-old mother, who is in poor health and has been in hospital several times over the last few times. Getting a girlfriend is not on the agenda for now, because Bain fears that a woman might only be after his money:

He said it’s the money that’s keeping him on his guard — and is one reason why he doesn’t yet have a girlfriend.

“I just don’t want no woman to want me for my money, to be honest with you,” he said. “… You don’t know what they have planned.”

I’d say this attitude is quite natural for someone who has just come into a substantial sum of money that is beyond their experience or that of someone of their social class. I recall Mukhtaran Mai, the victim of a public gang rape in Pakistan, saying similar things about men who had proposed marriage to her after she received compensation. But Renee, the author of Womanist Musings, doesn’t see things this way:

His suggestion plays into the meme that women are gold diggers who are constantly out to take money from men. This construction of course never considers the millions of hours of free labour that the average woman will supply patriarchy throughout her lifetime. In the interactions between men and women, it is men who will overwhelmingly profit.

It is tempting to give Bain a pass because he has not witnessed first hand the struggles of women’s groups to attack sexism; however, this does not acknowledge that in the time before he was imprisoned, he was more than willing to adopt the male privilege that patriarchy handed to him on a silver platter.

Sexism is connected to race because Black women continue to have to deal with it on a daily basis. Many Black men are convinced that we should openly embrace their issues while ignoring the ways in which the Black male patriarchy has brought significant harm to Black girls and women.

Bain is fine with women as long as he can maintain control of the relationship. He currently resides with his mother and has expressed a desire to take care of her, thus fulfilling the male provider role. It is quite normal to want to take care of an aging parent, but when it falls into typical understandings of how we perceive gender, it is indeed problematic.

He was only 19 when he was sentenced (which meant he could have been in jail for several months before). To suggest that someone “was more than willing to adopt the male privilege that patriarchy handed to him on a silver platter” requires that you know anything about his life story or his family circumstances before that, and none of that is in the reports. This is fairly typical of those who harp on “privilege”: they think they are entitled to make assumptions about the supposedly privileged person. (Someone who got wrongly imprisoned in the USA is likely to have been to poor to afford a lawyer he could pay to stay awake while purporting to represent him, for example.) There is no mention that he had a wife or a girlfriend, and the idea of a male “shepherd” as the head of the household is what patriarchy means, after all. Besides, who’s talking about black women? He mentioned women, so all the talk about how he sees black women as a threat (as opposed to just being suspicious of women generally after not having met one in 35 years) is irrelevant.

Someone intending to go and look after an ailing elderly mother is unlikely to be seeking a relationship in which he or she is powerful, in any case. People usually respect the authority of their parents, after all. He does have control over his own money and — at least in our society — has the ability to leave the relationship, particularly in Bain’s situation where he has money. In any case, his mother is not his only family member and he will probably not be her sole carer, but a participant in her care — he will be rejoining the household he had to leave when sent to prison. He is a free man, and doubtless after spending 35 years in prison, he wants to stay that way for the foreseeable future rather than letting himself get tied down with responsibilities for a wife and children, regardless of what authority and privilege he may acquire by doing that.

In my post on white privilege last year, I mentioned male privilege and how, for black men in many places, whatever power they have is outweighed by disadvantages compared to black women — the fact that they can’t go to the next district without fear of running into the local “boys” who might attack them (this a known problem in some districts in London), the fact that they face pressure to join gangs (ditto), and the greater likelihood of police harassment and of ending up in prison. It’s a bit distasteful for a woman, of whatever race, to lecture a man who has experienced this kind of oppression to talk of his “privilege”.

Perhaps my horror of prisons is unusual, but I cannot think of anything worse in this life than being trapped in a building full of criminals (including some of the staff) when I’m innocent, being locked in a room at night (and much of the day) with two or more other men, having to relieve myself in front of them, and in the same room in which I eat, not being able to see my family more than once every few weeks, and possibly without being able to touch them, and subject to the whims of the staff — lockdowns, cell raids, “practice pack-ups” and other petty humiliations — and to those of other prisoners, up to and including rape. I had a taste of some of this at boarding school as a teenager (no, not the rape bit) and would sooner find myself paralysed than go through anything like it ever again. Nobody, not even someone with a painful disability (such as Renee’s fibromyalgia) who lives with their family and sleeps in their own bed and eats home-cooked food (or even if they’re tube-fed as long as nobody’s spitting or putting broken glass in their feed, as has been known to happen with prison food), assuming he or she is not being abused there, has any right to talk of a man with a 35-year jail term recently behind him being privileged.

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