November 22, 2011

Cisgender Privilege (Part I); Qualities of A Transgender Ally

[Note: Cisgender (adj). - 1. to describe those who identify with their biological sex, and (a simplified definition) 2. not transgender.]

As a white woman I have white privilege.As a cisgender woman, I have cisgender privilege.

I know the issues are both very different, but for me it is helpful to connect the two in my mind to help guide how I educate myself and how I react in situations. I didn't want to try and tackle cisgender privilege all in one blog post-so I'm starting this off with a part I that focuses on general privilege in my experience.

Privilege is an uncomfortable issue. (I'm interested to see how people respond to this post.)

It's so natural to be defensive and even in fact, actively defensive in order to pretend that privilege doesn't exist. As a white woman, I will be the first to say that many white people constantly create fabrications or remain oblivious (myself included) to mitigate this guilt. "Reverse racism" and "post-racial" society are both false terms that help mitigate white guilt about privilege; even though there is no such thing as "post-racial" anything and reverse racism can't exist, these terms are totally popular even among the most liberal and progressive circles.

Instead of defensiveness with privilege, developing myself as an ally was a better reaction to start forming in the past few years. Below is a combined summary of blogs (citation below) I've read lately. The first is a list of some possible traits of a white anti-racist ally that I particularly liked as I've read them online recently The second is using this first list as a good starting point to think of cisgender privilege/being a trans ally:

Qualities of a White Anti-Racist Ally:
1. "Is responsible for self-education about privilege, racism, and oppression; does not expect people of color to always teach them."
2. "Does not require people of color to prove the truth of their racial experiences or injuries."
3. "Responds to racist statements even when a person of color is not present or does not object."
4. Does not expect recognition or gratitude; addresses racism because it is personally offensive.
5. Recognizes that allies will always fail, and when they do should remain non-defensive, apologize, correct (if possible) and self-educate (see #1).
6. Recognizes that their other minority identities don't erase their white privilege. (And to quote another tumblr article, "do you think white privilege is ever erased, period?")
7. Recognizes their white privilege and actively works to maintain that awareness and act in response.

[Citation: #'s 1-4: Quelola (Tumblr) and #5: What Tami Said (Blogger)]

For me thinking about ways to be a white anti-racist ally is a good starting point for being a better cisgender ally, which I have only begun to seriously consider this year. Here it is modified a bit for possible qualities of a transgender ally:

Qualities of a Transgender Ally:

1. "Is responsible for their own self-education on transgender topics and does not expect transgender people to teach them."
-I've heard trangender friends tell me that they recieve questions about extremely personal and sensitive topics, like genitalia; it can't be the responsibility of the minority individual to constantly educate those with a privilege status.
2. "Does not require transgender inidivudals to "prove" their transgender identity."
3. "Responds to transphobic statements even when a transgender person is not present or does not object."
- Including using correct pronouns (which I will be the first to admit that I have definitely failed at sometimes), including when the transgender person isn't there, etc.
4. "Does not expect recognition or gratitude; addresses transphobia because it is personally offensive."
5. "Recognizes that allies will always fail, and when they do should remain non-defensive, apologize, correct (if possible) and self-educate (see #1)."
6. Recognizes that their other minority identities don't somehow "erase" their cisgender privilege.
-I think this one is so crucial. I can't tell express how many white gay men dominate entire conversations, never listen/acknowledge women or people of color, only to claim they are "feminist!" or "progressive!" or "gay!" and therefore able to erase the possibility of being an "-ist".
7. Recognizes their cisgender privilege and actively works to maintain that awareness and act in response.

I know this is only a brief list and that it also might be common or first-hand knowledge to many reading this blog, but I hope it sparks dialogue and that others feel comfortable adding to the list with experiences (as identifying with or being an ally of either community). I'm constantly blown away by how little I've known for such a long period of time when it comes to confronting privilege, and I'd be excited to hear what everyone else thinks about ways to recognize privilege and becoming better allies.

More links:


  1. Thank you for this post. I think it applies to so many realms of privilege, and actually is a good guide on how to be an ally in general.
    The fact of the matter is most privileged people don't think in terms of being privileged. I like how you say that step 1 of being an ally is self-educating. I would like to extend that to include "educating others like your self". I think an ally should let people know that these terms and privileges exist, because how can one self-educate if one is not aware that the topic exists? Unfortunately, the mere fact of having privilege generally means that you are unaware of having it, and even less aware of other peoples' experiences of not having that privilege.
    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Love this! #5 is extremely important. I get the feeling that some people believe that by acknowledging a mistake they are throwing away what they've previously claimed to stand for, but by ignoring it or becoming defensive the result is that they will remain blind to that particular facet of privilege. We're socially raised to default towards social privileges and solving those problems isn't as simple as seeing that they exist. You're not flipping a switch, you're starting a process.

  3. I guess this probably isn't the best place to discuss this, but since you put the link to the reverse racism blog post I may as well. I'd agree that there isn't reverse racial discrimination in any significant way, but I'd argue that racism doesn't actually require a power structure to exist. In my view, racism is more a prejudice that when coupled with a power structure can produce discrimination. Just my two cents on that topic.

    Since we're trying to open up dialogue, it sometimes feels like there are so many different privileges that they get difficult to almost impossible to keep track of. Would it achieve the same end to lump the ways that one should deal with all of their privileges into a few things? For example, sensitivity, fairness, etc. Or do you believe it is necessary to address each privilege individually?

  4. Kyle -
    I. that definition of racism wouldn't make sense to me; racism created the systematic oppression of people for hundreds of years in America (everything post-European encounter, arguably).

    There were rules in America set up by white colonists in the 1700s that made it "illegal" for black enslaved people to "associate" with the Native Americans present. White fear that these black people would somehow "combine" forces and overthrow white hegemonic POWER structures was what fueled a lot of racist systemic structures.

    Racism has been all about keeping power structures in place. I don't think there is any way possible I could remove the idea of power structure or systematic oppression from racism.

    II. I think that's a trap. Take cisgender privilege. Maybe it would just be "let's be sensitive". I don't think it works the same way. Sensitivity and fairness still wouldn't account for the way transgender individuals have their gender identity or safety questioned everyday. I think active awareness of each individual issue is important; they are so, so different. Sensitivity and fairness don't encompass the naunces of systemic discrimination against people of color and transgender individuals; they both have different histories, that need to be individually considered to understand fully.

    At the same time, "intersectionality" I think is a better way to go, and perhaps what you were getting at:

    The LGBT Center buttons say: "ableism, racism, sexism, heterosexism: See The Connections". I think that's the key: *see* the connections. Things that we can't see or acknowledge individually...don't exist in the minds of those with privilege who arent forced to confront these issues. Maybe take a look at the "we aren't post-anything in America" article I linked up above-it makes a great point that when we don't recognize something individually it becomes fictional "like the Loch Ness Monster". That's dangerous!


  5. Great post Megan, I'm glad you took the usual post on recognizing privilege one step further by connecting it to ally-hood! I feel like a lot of times this conversation gets stuck in the "I am privileged and so are you" place, which is unfulfilling and awkward, without moving on to the "So now what?" Being an ally is a rewarding experience, for me it has helped give purpose to my life and not feel like another cog in the soul-sucking machine...I wish more people could open their eyes to it, whether you are gay straight white black or something else, there is always someone you can stand up with as an ally.

  6. Great Post Megan. I have never truly acknowledged my cisgender privilege. I think some times we get so raped up in our on lack of privilege that we ignore the privilege we have over others. I am so glad that you created this post. With trans day of remembrance recently passing, i think this is as great a time as any to stop and reflect.

    P.S. i love the way you were able to compare cisgender and white privilege. I would also throw male privilege in the mix. You definitely got me thinking!

  7. If you don't believe that as a white woman you can be the target of racism, then I'd suggest you read this article .

  8. ^honestly, using a story based in zimbabwe (that is already complicated by issues of colonialism to begin with) in response to an argument concerning american power structures comes across as pretty obtuse. both the links and the author's comment are pointing to an american context.

  9. @Joanne: Clearly, if a white person goes to ANY part of Africa which is not white dominant/white majority or too affected by the presence of colonialism (read: have white people established in positions of power) they can be the target of racism. I assumed Megan was speaking specifically about the USA, where the societal and cultural structures match those of which she lives in and can comfortably express and explain through experiences of her own. It would be odd for Megan to talk about Zimbabwe, or other parts of Africa, where she doesn't live or has possibly never visited.

    @Megan: I love the idea of self-teaching, because I believe you can learn a lot if you teach yourself, but you can't be expected to learn a lot of important, small (and possibly obscure) bits of information on your own--and that will lead to mistakes. I also think the willingness to be corrected and acknowledge incorrectness plays a key role in the success of #1.

  10. So, given the link defining racism, I do wonder if that means that there is only one "subgroup" or...I don't even know how you would define it...that could be called "racist" within any given group of people. Who really has POWER versus power seems to eliminate a lot of people. Presumably, there is no similar limitation on who can be called prejudiced or who can be called out for practicing discrimination?

  11. Hey Megan!

    I'd be interested in hearing what you would call it when black person acts in a manner that would be defined as racist towards a white person. In my experience, I've heard and seen a lot of black people say things and behave in ways that are just absolutely disgusting to someone that was white. The parting words from someone in my family when coming to Duke was to not let "those white people" treat me wrong.

    I can certainly understand you not believe that there is reverse racism if you're looking at from a who-has-the-power standpoint. But in this day and age, do you really believe that it's still all about power? Things are so much better than they were back in the 1700s when those laws were made to retain power. But now, you have to admit that power is more widely spread even if it's not totally even.

    So, I guess I just don't see how someone can say that black people can't be racist because they don't have the power to be. Black people are not powerless anymore. We may not have it all but we do have some. I think racism is about more than power now. Or maybe if you want to keep it in a context of power, I'd still say that reverse racism exists (I don't even like the term reverse racism. Racism is racism no matter who commits it in my opinion.) If white people use racism to maintain power, then maybe black people use it to get power. Maybe it can be seen as black people wanting to gain more power or take more away from white people.

    Either way, I believe that ANYONE can be a target of racism from ANYONE. But I'd like to hear your thoughts or thoughts from anyone else, too.

  12. @Michael Gustafson, personally, I think the racist impact of an action is more clearly defined by the recipient of an action than its perpetrator (which is my only point of disagreement with this article and its link; otherwise, I think it's wonderful).
    If an Asian first-generation immigrant were stereotyping the work ethic of black Americans, the racist impact would be clear. The immigrant derives very little privilege from their identity alone but in stereotyping a(nother) marginalized class, they align themselves with a historically oppressive power structure; they enforce the stereotype threat experienced by members of the (other) marginalized group. It's lateral oppression; marginalized groups scapegoat one another in order to align themselves with the dominant group.
    The same immigrant disparaging the work ethic of white Americans, on the other hand: would it carry the same impact? How do white Americans experience racial/cultural stereotyping when it is divorced from the historical weight of stereotype threat? To me, the difference between the two is the difference between placing a single straw and placing the last straw, the straw that breaks the camel's back.

    @aj, on the subject of power, I tend to agree with Megan that minorities remain systemically disempowered in the U.S. This may not be uniform at the local level. The Occupy movement, for instance, brings us images all the time of non-white police forces who locally hold power over predominantly white protesters. But when you consider that these events are witnessed by a predominantly white public, that the institutions of law that govern over these conflicts are predominantly white, and that the minorities that enter these institutions are often expected to uphold the status quo even when at odds with their own experience and beliefs, you have a very different image of power. Generally, I ask myself, who holds power at the top? That said, I agree, racism is about more than power.

  13. Just noticing that a lot of this discussion on racism/reverse racism already occurred in the comment section on the original (outside link) post (including further clarification on the definition by the original blogger)...
    From my understanding after reading those comments, it seems that people use "prejudice" "discrimination" and "racism" interchangeably, but while anyone can discriminate or be prejudiced based on qualities such as race, "racism" (according to the post) refers to the specific discrimination of others based on race by the most powerful/most historically privileged group. It's not necessarily based on current population numbers, but more of quantity/quality of power, historically and presently. This privileged group does indeed change based on what country you are in.
    Again, in the post and subsequent comments on The Angry Black Woman blog, the fact that people can discriminate and act in a prejudiced manner based on race is acknowledged, but the power held by the privileged group is what changes the action to the term "racism".
    I didn't exactly understand it at first either, but that was how I interpreted the comments on the blog post. Whether or not you agree is another story, but I would recommend reading those comments before that particular conversation repeats verbatim or so new insights can be added to the overall conversation! Plus, I'd love to read more comments on what people think of the cisgender privilege/transgender ally tips portion of the post. :)

  14. Jen! Thanks for writing!
    I had a conversation this weekend about this topic again with my friend (hi Aliza!), and she made a really good point that with today's vocabulary, the word racism is used a lot to describe virtually any prejudice based on race simply because that's the word in our vocabularly to describe that kind of prejudice. But if you look at definitions of -isms, the definition is two-parts (or at least my understanding of the definition); and it's like you said, that an "-ism" is a prejudice + a system that supports it. So racism in that definition (that I agree with) would encompass systemic discrimination and thus wouldn't make sense or be accurate if applied "against" white people. You could be prejudiced against anyone-like A.J. was discussing above, but that the "reverse" (eh) racism just wouldn't work with that definition of racism. Thanks for articulating this again, it's good to hear (read) it written out a different way.

  15. a post like this is why someone like me, a much older adult who doesn't even attend duke, comes to this blog often. bravo. :)

  16. I read the post in the first five minutes it was published, and then decided to let the comments section sort itself out as a treat for myself... til now, haha.

    Megan, you did a really amazing job of articulating privilege both in the post and the comments. (I love you!) However... I'm kind of disappointed that people didn't really take this opportunity to discuss cisgender privilege. It's important to discuss race and I think a lot of important things got said here, but when I saw "15 comments" I was hoping for something else.

    If anybody's still interested in self-educating, this is a decent place to start looking for links. Have at it.

  17. Lawrence - I think, for me, that I had and have questions about the structure and definition of racism as defined above that was used to develop the analogy to cisgender privilege. I couldn't get / haven't gotten through them to the point of being able to focus on the main point, which is about cisgender privilege.

    Currently reading through the links at the link you posted, though.