Munroe Bergdorf writes for Playboy

On Privilege and Freedom

The London-based activist and model on disestablishing normalized oppression

Art by Favianna Rodriguez

We are living in a time of social recalibration. Our understanding of oppressive structures has never been as widely acknowledged, discussed or deconstructed within the mainstream as it is today. The language we use for this is expanding, thanks to decades of thought put to paper, largely by womxn, people of color and the LGBTQ community, about what it means to be seen as “less than” by those who hold social power.

Discussions surrounding race, gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors have helped us identify which cross-sections of society are most likely to be placed at a social disadvantage. These conversations have benefited greatly from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading American scholar of critical race theory who coined the term intersectionality in the late 1980s; today, intersectional feminism recognizes the political and social disparities that impact our identities. The experience of an upper-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual woman will differ from that of a working-class, black, transgender, queer woman. And in understanding that difference in experience, we can understand and pinpoint systems of oppression such as racism, transphobia and sexism in a more nuanced way.

It wasn’t until I discovered Crenshaw’s work that I felt truly close to feminism—I found so much of the feminist theory I had been exposed to either dismissive of womxn who hadn’t been assigned female at birth, or focused primarily on the needs and experiences of Western white womxn. I craved a branch of feminism that took into consideration the fact that womxn don’t come in one form. We all have different stories, different struggles and different lessons to teach one another, so it’s vital that the womxn’s liberation movement reflect that.

Intersectional feminism allows us to see who holds power within society through the lens of privilege—a word often used in discussions of social justice today. Privilege is the recognition that some of us are afforded a head start by virtue of our identity. Privilege doesn’t mean your life has been easy; it just means it would have been harder had you also been born X. It’s important to recognize that privilege isn’t fixed, just as our identities aren’t fixed—we change as human beings throughout our lives, and so may our social privilege.
Common isn't the same as normal. 
With all this language being adopted into the mainstream consciousness, it’s important to note that this expanded terminology isn’t necessarily new. It originated largely from conversations that have been going on within marginalized communities for a long time. The fact that you may not have heard them until now is due largely to the historic lack of diverse voices within the mainstream, and limited discussion of racism and prejudice in a real, nuanced way from the perspective of those who experience them. Terms such as mansplaining, cultural appropriation, white guilt, hetero-normativity and cisgender help us disestablish certain behaviors and identities as “normal,” thus allowing those who are marginalized not to be seen as “other.” Being straight and cisgender may be common, but common isn’t the same as normal. There’s power in the language we choose, and there’s freedom in our willingness to understand how it affects others who don’t have what we have.

It would have been hard to imagine even 10 years ago the conversations we’re now having about our different experiences in society. Maybe we got too comfortable within the boundaries of our privilege, or numb within our oppression. But if we’ve learned anything since the start of the #MeToo movement, it’s that we must never be complacent, because those who would wind back our freedom of choice, expression and identity are anything but. We must stay active, we must stay vocal, we must stay informed. In the quest for equality, we must be conscious of what we’re striving to be equal with and certain that we don’t repeat the oppressive behavior of some privileged communities. Freedom must come from reconfiguring society in a way that’s inclusive and not reliant on the exploitation, suppression or ostracism of any societal cross-sections. Freedom has to be a consistent and sustainable goal—freedom for all, not just power for some.

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