Hugo Schwyzer discusses how sex, class, and ethnicity influence how we argue.
As anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship can tell you, one near-certain source of conflict comes from the simple truth that thanks to our experiences, we all see the world slightly differently. That’s obvious enough. But do women’s experiences—as women—give them “standpoint privilege” in arguments with men? The answer is almost certainly yes.
In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of—but surely not the only—prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: The class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.
This enhanced awareness leads to something called “epistemic privilege.” (Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that deals with how we know things.) Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally—though not universally—the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition,” it’s because folks in a historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.
Here’s an obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are intellectually aware of the reality of rape. Most understand that it is men who almost always do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation.
Yes, it does mean that all else being equal, when the subject is rape, the average woman’s opinion does “count” more.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that women are “always right” and men “always wrong.” But it does mean that in heterosexual relations it is likely that a woman’s understanding of some dynamics (particularly around sex and power) will be superior to those of her male partner. In my marriage to Eira, for example, there are several layers of standpoint difference. I am male, she is female. I am white, the son of two college professors, and grew up in what most people seem to consider the upper-middle class. My wife is of mixed race, dark enough to have been called a “nigger” when she was a child; she grew up very poor and was the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Around three intersecting issues—race, sex, and class—my wife’s experience has been radically different from my own. In a very real sense, that gives her a breadth and depth of knowledge about those issues that I cannot share.
When my wife and I are having a discussion about race or gender roles, topics about which we don’t invariably agree, standpoint theory doesn’t say that my wife (because she is a woman of color who grew up poor) is always right and I (because I am a white man who grew up in comparative affluence) am always wrong. What standpoint theory does say is that the one in the privileged position (and in my marriage, around issues of race and sex, that would be me) has a special obligation to reflect on the ways in which privilege may serve to blind—and the equally important ways in which sexism or racism may serve to give women and ethnic minorities a deeper and more profound understanding of the dynamics at play. To put it simply, I have to ask myself a question over and over again: How is my “WASPy privileged maleness” distorting what I see?
We can never adopt a true “view from nowhere.” We can defy gravity in outer space, but we can never slip the surly bonds of our human imperfection. Our experiences impact us each day of our lives, and our experiences are shaped by our gender identity, our race, our class, our faith, and our communities. And while everyone sees “through a glass darkly” as a result, it seems eminently reasonable to say that the experience of being a member of a historically disadvantaged group (women; sexual, ethnic, or religious minorities; the working class) creates greater clarity about the dynamics of oppression. This is what the foremost advocate for standpoint theory, Sandra Harding, calls “strong objectivity.”
It’s only the well-off who say “money doesn’t matter”; the poor have a superior standpoint about the necessity of having it. It’s generally only whites who say “racism isn’t a problem in America anymore.” Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.
Sometimes my wife is wrong. (Yes, my love, you are, even if it’s only every fifth Tuesday.) Sometimes I am right. We quarrel like any couple, though our experiences have given us tools like “fair fighting rules” that not everyone, alas, possesses. We know that in our marriage, each of us is equally important, each of us is entitled to his or her opinion, each of us deserves to be heard. But we also know that we didn’t come into this marriage as disembodied souls; we brought in our gender identities, our class backgrounds, our skin tones, our multi-generational family histories. And just as it’s absurd to pretend that we’ve come from equally privileged backgrounds, it is equally absurd to pretend that those backgrounds have not at least in part shaped our worldviews. Again, power obfuscates; oppression clarifies. So when the topic at hand is gender dynamics or race or class, the epistemic privilege is not mine. And thus the burden to reflect just a bit harder, is.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, son, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.