“Look at me” can mean a lot of things. We say it as a way to imply our values and to insist that some aspect of what we look like is a reflection of who we are and what we care about. It’s an explanation. A clarifying feature.
It’s also a lie. What we think we imply isn’t what other brains interpret. That’s the brain’s job, after all: to interpret information. Our brain makes decisions at whatever speed and in whatever way a series of events has programmed meaning.
I’ve experienced an evolving privilege, one that has been on my mind for weeks. Before I get into the story, I want to say that I don’t intend for this to be all the education people need on privilege, nor do I assume I know everything. I’m sharing my story. It’s my blog, after all. But if I get something really wrong, tell me. Talk to me. I want to learn and grow. That’s why I’m writing this in the first place.
For a long time I was enjoying the privileges of being a white, straight woman. Okay, so I wasn’t ever straight, but I played the part. I had long, curly hair. I wore dresses (no, really) and even wore makeup to black tie events. I dated men. Just past that exterior, I was hiding in a shadow of myself. I was swapping pronouns and names to be “one of the girls” so I could join the same sorority and sit at the same table to talk about boys. I wanted to keep the privilege of “being normal,” or so I thought.
I enjoyed that privilege without ever realizing it. Getting into bars for free. Free rounds of drinks. People holding doors for me.
But then, I felt bold. One night after work, I cut my ponytail off. It wasn’t as dramatic or exciting as the movies make it out to be. I was scared. I didn’t want to hide anymore and I had just cut off my disguise. I looked ridiculous but it was liberating (after I made my way to a stylist who made it look intentional. Do not ever take scissors to your ponytail on a Sunday night, trust me. They take Mondays off).
Suddenly, I “looked gay.” I quickly started to notice the double takes, side glances and every other kind of stink eye coming my way. People were confused, and frankly, so was I. What was so different about me all of a sudden? It was different at work especially. For the first time in my life, the guys treated me like “one of the guys.” I guess they saw past my gender because we had the same female interests. My female managers, on the other hand, weren’t really sure what to say. They didn’t feel comfortable talking about relationships or their kids anymore.
Then the misgendering started. “Sir! Sir!” The waiter would yell as I walked away, shaking my head. I never knew what to do, really. I was new to all of this. Do I correct them? I’ll never forget the first time I did. I was at a Chipotle in Cambridge, a town that prides itself on being liberal to a fault. It also enables some bad behavior and inappropriate questions, which I found out seconds after I said, “No, I’m a ma’am.” Her next question was, “Does it offend you when people call you sir?” I had no idea how to answer. Honestly, I kind of wanted to cry. I wanted to scream, “Look at me! Do I look like a man to you? Do you even notice me?” Instead, I looked down and said, “Not really. I just wish people would see me.”
PSA: If you’re not sure of someone’s gender and still sir/ma’am them, it’s not polite whether you meant it that way or not.
Then I lost the privilege of going to the bathroom without looking around first and planning my approach. It has happened at conferences, bars, restaurants, and everything in between. Someone asks me if I know I’m going into the wrong bathroom. The bouncer grabs my shirt. Or when the TSA agents exchange glances because they aren’t sure who should be patting down my groin.
These awkward and embarrassing moments happen a little too often. Weekly, even. It’s worse when you’re on business travel in Asia with executives from around the world.
I say all that knowing that I recognize that I have the privilege to go back to a life in hiding if that’s what I wanted. I could grow my hair out. I can hide. If my privilege were determined by my skin, there would be no hiding. No avoiding the glances. No roller coaster of privilege.
That’s why it infuriates me to see people with so much privilege try to suggest it doesn’t exist. That their life and the outcomes are all factors of “hard work” and “doing the right thing.” While I believe you work hard and do the right thing, it doesn’t mean you exist as some special unicorn in the midst of all the messed up things that happen in this world.
We live in a world that has historically assigned privilege based on things like your gender, your skin color, and who you love. We’re not going to flip a switch and have that go away. On the same token, you can’t disregard the privilege you are born with or act like it doesn’t exist if you want to make a difference. And you should want to make a difference because this world can’t be a better place for our kids until that stuff is addressed.
Katrina Kibben is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Three Ears Media. For most of Katrina’s career, she has been a marketer living in a recruiter’s world – listening to both sides of the talent equation to understand the real issues and find solutions for engaging and hiring better people. Today, she uses her technical marketing know-how and way with words to help both established and emerging brands develop and deliver content that fuels smart recruitment marketing that makes the right people apply.
Katrina has written for Monster.com, HR.com, RecruitingDaily and many other digital publications. She is a recognized leader in recruiting and employer branding who speaks regularly at conferences around the world.