Schrödinger’s Privilege

I got into a conversation a few days ago on the topic “what can [privileged people] do to help [unprivileged people] without sounding like they want cookies or are using their privilege to dominate/take over?”

And while tackling this on a variety of spectra (as happens when a gay white man is talking to a straight white woman about privilege), talking about sitting down, listening, remembering it’s Not About You, I had a sudden epiphany.

All privileged people are some analogue of Schrödinger’s Rapist.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

I’m a straight woman with Real Queer Friends.  I know I’m a nice person, I know I don’t [consciously] judge people for being not-heterosexual.  And after years of friendship, my friends may be working on the assumption that I am not a threat, not a person who is going to suddenly use “gay” as a derogatory term or crack hilarious jokes about buttsex.

Working on the assumption.

Because I am Schrödinger’s Heterosexual:  my friends can never truly be certain whether or not I’m homophobic or transphobic or see the world in heteronormative terms until I demonstrate it.  Until I fail the test.

And that goes for my race privilege, and my class privilege, and my education privilege.

And there’s no pass condition on this.  A privileged person can simply never actually prove with 100% certainty that they will never be a threat or a problem or a trigger to an unprivileged person.

And lords and ladies, we’ve got more than enough extreme-headdesk-worth examples of people who really, really should know better pulling some serious asshattery.*  Until now, they might have been Schrödinger’s Mainstream Feminists.  Now we’ve opened the box and had a look and it ain’t pretty.

We privileged people do not “deserve” the automatic trust or assumption of good faith or patience of unprivileged people [especially while in the act of fucking up].  And that’s okay, because it’s not about us.  And that’s Basic Ally-hood 101.


*Author’s note: I originally went to type that as “people who you would never think would be bigots”.  I get to assume these people aren’t bigots, because I’m a straight white lady.  That’s privilege.


  1. Octavia

    Ha, yes yes yes. Very apropos to our Twitter convo.

    Someone saying they ~*understand*~ a marginalised person’s anger, but that marginalised person is still totes mean because they should be hating ~*behaviours not people*~ and can’t we just ~*agree to disagree*~ (cos that’s how oppression works wtf?!) is fucked. And thinking that we get to make that call IS using privilege as a weapon.

    When we work from the assumption that marginalised people aren’t allowed normal human emotions – anger, to write someone off as bigoted/dangerous as we ourselves do, self-protection – and believe that we’re always owed second (third, tenth…) chances we’re working from a position of assuming marginalised people are not fully human, and again we’re using our privilege as a weapon. Because where else does the assumption that people have no ‘right’ to consider us Schrödinger’s White Feminists (for example) come from if not from the position that we are Better Than and Owed More?

    Did you see Sady’s latest non-apology for the non-apology? This one is centered around her social anxiety (which pissed me off because fuck, my social anxiety and likely-PTSD does not make me exempt from being wrong. Triggering happens BUT I still must own my fuck ups)* and is written very nicey nicey. So nicey nicey it even reads as “Oh, maybe she’s got a point…” until you realise she hasn’t addressed any of the issues raised by WoC or trans* people AT ALL. And apparently they’re still mean for disliking her, she’s just a scapegoat!

    Black Amazon is of course shutting it down:

    And Big Name Western Feminist fans (who also ID as feminists) have chased Jaded off Tumblr with threats. Well done white feminists, we’re so awesome and totes trustworthy! /sarcasm

    Anyway I love this post and my comment is long but that’s how I role.

    * Fun fact! What this convo has been very carefully NOT centered around: the PTSD and mental health of some of the marginalised people involved! That’s just not important.

    • QoT

      That’s how you role? 😛

      Even though I’ve done it myself, it never fails to amaze how people will just keep insisting that they are a special case and they can’t possibly have done wrong because INTENT even when basic Own Your Privilege 101 says “if less-privileged people are saying you have committed fail, they are probably right.”

      Anyone who disagrees is welcome to explain how the use of the phrase “playing the race card” isn’t the exact same thing.

      • Octavia

        Unintentional pun ftw.

        “Playing the race card” needs to be on some list of Worst Ever Phrases.

        The Privilege 101 thing is one of those good rules to live by because if I know I’ve fucked up before (I have) and if I know I will fuck up again (I will) what makes me so sure that no, this time is different and I am TOTES correct and it is you, more marginalised person, who is fail?

  2. Ella

    Although it is a good post in most respects, I think you have failed with your Schrödinger metaphor. What you’ve said doesn’t really relate to Schrödinger at all.

    Schrödinger’s rapist might be a guy that you don’t know if he’s a rapist or not, but then looking into his mind would cause him to be a rapist. I know that’s not what you mean.

    I think what you are trying to put accross is the idea of falsifiability.
    i.e. The statement “All swans are white” is false as soon as you see one black swan.

    • QoT

      No, Ella, but thanks for telling me what I totally would have written if I were as smart as you.

      Thank you especially for not reading closely enough to note that this isn’t my metaphor in the first place, but that of a guest poster on Shapely Prose who I think made a fucking good point in a fairly easy-to-understand way about the uncertainty women have to feel about men. As per Schrödinger, each man exists in a state of quantum uncertainty per his being-a-rapist, thus simultaneously being rapist and non-rapist, hence women’s inability to just assume any given man is non-rapist. That uncertainty is removed when he tries to rape you and thus the waveform collapses.

      WTF this has to do with falsifiability is genuinely beyond me.

      I think what you are trying to put across is the idea that you’re an asshat.

  3. Gravey Dice

    The accuracy of the metaphor isn’t really all that important. The fact is that the point is made.

    While it is false to say that you understand how a marginalised person feels, it is OK (in my view at least) to say that you can imagine how they would feel. I would hazard a guess and say that most people can’t even imagine it, but it is at least more accurate.

    And I know this is all very easy for me to say as effectively the pinnacle of privilege (straight, married, white, male, educated, middle-class, etc) but even those who are marginalised in some ways can still be privileged in others.

    As a man, I can easily accept that I am a potential rapist. I am a potential mass-murderer too. I’ve discussed before how I came to realise this at high school – much to strange and uncomprehending looks from my class-mates.

    And sorry to keep harping on about me (what the fuck is the term for a male harpy?) but I feel extremely privileged in one other way. I have always enjoyed good relationships with women, and when we have talked about it, the answer has always been the same. And the same goes for all the abuse victims I have worked with.

    It is because I give the impression of being unthreatening. Maybe one day I will be threatening. I hope not, but I won’t know until it either happens, or I am dead.

  4. Boganette

    Thanks for this QoT. It is an incredibly timely post not just for me personally but also in light of so much extreme fuckwittery on feminist blogs at the moment.

    I swear I almost fell off my chair when I read “Daly’s work was unfortunately marred by a streak of transphobia” – I couldn’t fucking BELIEVE that she wrote that. That is OFFICIALLY the worst asshole apology I’ve ever read. Well it wasn’t an apology was it. And “we also want to note the limitations of her brand of feminism” – how is that feminism if it calls women “Frankensteinian”. And the photo has Mary Daly with a fucking AXE. I need to lie down.

    • Boganette

      Edit – was talking to someone about this and Melissa apologised in the comments. I thought her ‘edit’ was the only apology.

      • QoT

        I think it’s still an asshole move – how many people are going to go through all the comments to find the full apology when the edit very clearly signals “we don’t take her transphobia seriously”?

        • Boganette

          Yep, I still think it’s an asshole move. I think she should have removed the post and clearly stated that Mary Daly was transphobic and that no amount of wonderful ‘other’ things she did make up for that fact. I also thought it was really condescending in the comments how people were saying things like ‘you people’ need to bla bla bla benefit of the doubt bla bla bla good faith bla bla bla.

          So wrong.

      • NickS

        Fuck, I forgot totally about that.

        Any signs of transphobia/prejudice that isn’t followed by a full “oh shit…” post and I’ll stop reading a blog. Amongst other indicators, like science denial (bar Neal Asher’s climate change denial bs (I’m a hard sci-fi addict))…

        And her apology was, well Genderbitch puts it better than me, since I’m all out of angry.

        • Octavia

          Thanks for posting this, I’d been meaning to.

          Yeah her apology… wasn’t. Deleting and banning the comments of a lot of (not all) trans* people on the original post, failing to add a trigger warning for DALY WITH AXE, making a tiny piss-poor addendum to the post as if “unfortunately marred by a streak of transphobia” encapsulated the extent of Daly’s fuckery, and not warning or calling out other commenters who were saying it basically wasn’t a big deal (i.e. showing just how invalid her com rules are, they don’t apply to nice white cis feminists).

          And then a follow up post which was all “Woe is Melissa, people assume bad intent in me why whhhyyyy”.

          It is no wonder the concept of ‘safe space’ in Shakesville is laughed at by so many people who aren’t cis white feminists.

        • NickS

          Not a problem Octavia 😛

          Yeah her apology… wasn’t…

          Yeah it was a mega irony moment, Melissa’s a major safe space advocate and targets privilege bullshit, and yet utterly douched it up. And yet I missed it and kept reading the damn thing…

          Not that it’s actually worth reading anymore, as it seems to have devolved into open posts and low content fluff.

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