I recently had a discussion with a man about labels. This man (let’s call him TM from here on in) works in the entertainment industry, like me, and recently was introduced on stage to perform as “another white male”. TM was riled that this description was used for him, even though it’s true – he is both white and male. When I pointed this out, he told me that he doesn’t like labels.
In fact, TM loathes labels. In his own words, he is pro-equality, and doesn’t think people should be judged by their race, sexuality, beliefs, or in fact anything other than what kind of person they are. TM treats everybody the same and doesn’t get why everybody else can’t do as he does, because he thinks that if we did then as a society we could finally just do away with those wretched labels once and for all. TM is attempting to live in this utopian society already; he ignores all instances of labelling because he doesn’t want any part in it. Instead he lives by his own ideas of equality – being friendly and treating everybody with equal compassion unless they give him a reason not to.
In theory this is a nice sentiment, but in practise, this is absolute bullshit. TM only gets to feel and act this way because he occupies a position of extreme privilege and power. Of course he can hate labels! We all hate labels, but only TM gets to bemoan labels and then ignore the fact that they get used: his labels (“white”, “male”, “cis”, “straight” “middle class” etc) make him into the best Top Trump card in our society. He’s a unicorn: magical, powerful, untouchable, unaware of his own status. He has been granted immunity. He has an inbuilt Get Out Of Jail Free card. He’s the centrefold, the leading man, the hero; he’s fucking Wolverine.
If TM had a different set of labels, he would realise that there is no option other than to speak out. His labels have never resulted in him being denied a job, targeted in the street or questioned on his family background. TM has never had to run home to avoid getting raped, or ignore a cat call in the street, or move seats to avoid being touched on public transport. I could name a million other experiences of my own to explain that I have to suffer, justify, defend and arm myself every day of my life, in ways TM has never even had to contemplate.
One of the easiest ways to see this TM’s white male privilege at work is that for TM, not taking action is an option. I disregard my labels just as much as TM, but because my labels hold me back, single me out and invite problems on a regular basis, I do not have the option of ignoring them. This is a monumental luxury for TM. He’s not even aware of it, because society tells him he is just a regular joe and not a unicorn; our media, government and culture at large is dominated by white male unicorns just like him, reassuring each other that they’re the norm, the mainstream, the modus operandi. The fact is, TM could spend his whole life ignoring problems and he’d have probably the same exact opportunities, the same pay, the same safety, the same option mobility. TM’s place in society, his worth as a citizen and his influence and bearing on others is never called into question.
It’s important to acknowledge the hierarchies that exist. It’s important to recognise the labelling, the assumptions, the profiling, the problems. It’s important to know where you fit into everything. I’m certainly not advocating some kind of minority oneupmanship, but whether you like it or not you are part of this society, and these societal problems belong to everybody, and unless something changes, they will be inherited by all of our kids. These labels may not affect you in the same way, but if you don’t like them, staying silent isn’t going to do anything to change them – and for a lot of people isn’t even an option. And if staying silent is an option, then you might have a lot more privilege than you realise.