On Entitlement, Privilege and Feeling Bad: The Importance of the Icky Feelings

[Last week was a lot, and I’m still recovering, so my apologies that posting is light this week. That said, let’s dive into the issue of the week.]

Creative Commons.

Creative Commons.

I want to talk to you about entitlement. No, not “entitlement programs” that are actually necessary social safety nets, but rather the sense of entitlement to another’s person space, time, breathing room, conversation. And specifically, male entitlement to female social spaces.

An example of this recently surfaced in my regular blog reading. Over on the Green State blog, Lauren explicated a Facebook discussion she had with a few men who objected to the idea of women’s only hours at a gym.

The idea behind women’s only hours is simple – it’s much like the women’s only cars on trains in Tokyo. Harassment while at the gym (or on the train) is so bad that the company offered women’s only spaces so as to make it impossible for men to harass women. While this solution is only a bandaid in a culture of entitlement leading to harassment, the marking out of a place that is safe for women and for women only is important.

The men didn’t see it that way. It’s “reverse sexism,” they cried. It’s “punishing all men for the actions of a few!” It “violates my right to use the gym when I want!”

The punishment line struck me.

What, exactly, is the punishment here? How, exactly, are men being punished by women creating a safe space that is only for women* to access?

The only way that creating a safe space is a punishment to those not allowed in the space is if those excluded people feel somehow entitled to it. If you feel that you necessarily have a right to be in women’s spaces and to have conversations with women regardless of women’s feelings or safety, then a space where you are cut off from that would, indeed, seem like punishment.

But it seeming like punishment and it actually being punishment are two different things.

What seems to be happening in the conversation here and in similar discussions when street harassment, creeper behavior and the like are brought up is the distress of the privileged.

Realizing that you are part of a group that participates in oppression sucks. I get it. It’s hard when you’ve spent your entire life feeling happily oblivious to ways you and your group have been quietly or not so quietly oppressing marginalized peoples. Waking up to that hurts.

Sometimes, people manifest their unnamed discomfort by blaming the marginalized group. These are the gym guys – the guys who, rather than asking their fellow men to knock it off with the harassment, cast women as the evil villains in their play, women who simply want to go to the gym without getting approached by strange, sweaty men (seriously, least romantic environment ever, second only to a visit to the gynecologist).

This unabashed entitlement to women’s spaces and to women’s bodies is a symptom of privilege. And it’s hard to talk some folks through that. Many will react poorly when you try to set a boundary around your space and around your body. This, of course, only reinforces that safe spaces are necessary and boundaries are important.

But, sometimes, you get through. They finally realize that “holy crap, [marginalized groups] live in a different world!” And you feel a tiny bit relieved. Finally, they’re trying to get it. They’re willing to listen to you as a human being! As a person! We’re real people! But that relief is often short-lived, as the next hiccup inevitably comes: “Now that I know my privilege, I feel bad about my privilege. Help me to feel better. Make this bad icky go away!”

And there’s the thing: my job as a marginalized person is not to coddle the privileged. Their job (and my job as an intersectionally privileged person) is to steer into the skid, lean in to the icky. Because discomfort over an awareness of the other person’s feelings and how I might make them feel? That’s what living an intersectional existence of privilege creates. I am going to feel bad. You are going to feel bad. We should feel bad.

We want to be coddled through. We want to be told that it’s okay that we accidentally did that racist/sexist/homophobic/cissexist thing, that we’re understood and we are okay!

But here’s the thing: we’re not supposed to feel okay because what we did was not okay.

If recognizing privilege and our own complicity in oppression was easy happy fluffy unicorns and kittens, the world would look way different. But as it is, it does create discomfort. It does create distress. It feels, sometimes, that you’re being punished merely for having these privileges, like you're being told you're a bad person for being male, middle class, and whiteYou’re supposed to feel bad when you hurt people because that’s what unchecked privilege does.

Keep in mind, I speak of this from experience. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman from a middle class background, I mess up a lot. I say/do things that are privileged. And it is my responsibility, when my privilege is called out, to own up to it, to recognize that what I did was Not Okay. And I must also own my feelings of feeling bad about it, because feeling bad when you hurt someone is what happens.

I can make things worse by feeling entitled to a person’s space and feelings and comfort. Requesting that a woman comfort you because realizing that you might make women uncomfortable? That’s still entitlement to our space and our feelings. Portraying attempts to fix the balance and to correct sexist behavior as women punishing men? That’s entitlement and unchecked privilege. Complaining that affirmative action is punishment to white students? Entitlement out the wazoo.

Feeling icky about your privilege is part of being privileged. It is up to us to own that, understand it, experience it. Then we help make things better.


*I’m presuming that men and women here means cisgender men and women, and it’s worth remembering that, often, spaces that are created as safe for cis-men and women are often still unsafe for non-binary people.