Privilege

Amp put up a list of privilege lists on Alas. For those not familiar with the format, most are based on Peggy McIntosh’s White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.

When they stick to the specifics these lists can be illuminating – I’m probably not the only white person who had never had to think about the colour of ‘flesh-coloured’ bandages. But seeing all those lists together raised some real questions for me.

This is partly because I think there’s a real problem with the way privilege is framed in these lists – anything which one group of people have and another doesn’t is considered a privilege. I’m fine with describing a man who doesn’t do his share of housework and has women around him picking up the slack as privileged. I’m much less OK with describing a man who doesn’t have to worry about being raped, if he walks home after dark, as privileged. Not being afraid of rape is a right, not a privilege.

I disagree with the content of some of the lists. I think an extremely large proportion of the average sized person are not true for many women – whatever their size (particularly this one: I do not have to be afraid that when I talk to my friends or family they will mention the size of my body in a critical manner, or suggest unsolicited diet products and exercise programs – I find the idea that ‘average-sized’ women can be free from this fear almost ridiculous). The white-privilege list seems to assume that the white-people in question are middle-class. Some of the non-trans-privilege list also apply to many non-trans women (particularly the stuff about gender and medical care). This is from a social class privilege check-list: “There are places where I can be among those exclusively from my social class” – which suggests he’s never been to a factory, poor neighbourhood, or a prison. I get that it’s a blunt instrument, but a lot of these lists are obscuring more than they’re illuminating.

I also think there’s a real problem in treating different sorts of oppression as if they operate the same way. I’ve written about this before. But these lists, which are all based on each other in some respect really seem to suggest that privilege all works in the same way. For example, representation in media plays a part in most lists, but I would say the role media plays in upholding different oppressions is really different.

But most fundamentally I just don’t have much time for analysing the world through privilege. It so often leads to individualistic non-action – to someone interupting a conversation to say “but even having this conversation is a privilege.” On an individual level I think it’s important to know where you come from, to know what you’ve been given, and to analyse how you benefit from this system. I absolutely think that everyone has a responsibility to not use the privilege, and power, society gives us – over people we know. But you can’t give up privilege as an individual – you can just fight to end it by working collectively.

*********

Note: I’ve had a disturbing amount of support from right-wing assholes for this post. I think they glided over this sentance:

On an individual level I think it’s important to know where you come from, to know what you’ve been given, and to analyse how you benefit from this system. I absolutely think that everyone has a responsibility to not use the privilege, and power, society gives us – over people we know.

I think I should make the point more explicit. I believe that when you interact with someone who has less power and resources tha you do you have a duty not to wield your advantages over them, or to act like you’re superior because you have that power and those resources. Snapping at workers in the service industry? Absolutely unacceptable for anyone who believes in any kind of equal society. Asking why those in poverty get hire purchaces (when you can always get credit from your parents)? Equally obnoxious. Obviously in order to do this, you need to understand what power and resources our society has given you.

However, I believe this step is only a necessary pre-requisite for meaningful political action, it is not meaningful political action in and of itself. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t realise what society gives you, it’s just that realising it doesn’t doing anyone any good at all unless you organise.

Also posted at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty

This entry posted in Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Fat, fat and more fat, Feminism, sexism, etc, Race, racism and related issues, Transsexual and Transgender related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

11 Responses to Privilege

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  2. 2
    Brooklynite says:

    I think it’s really telling that the social class privilege checklist you link to above is actually two checklists — one for “the Privileges of the Upper Social Classes,” and one for “the Privileges of the Lower Social Classes.”

    Too often, these checklists are just lists of ways in which the experiences of members of one group of people are (usually? always? sometimes?) differ from those of members of another group. When privilege is framed in that way, there’s a weird leveling effect — one that makes it possible to talk about “the Privileges of the Lower Social Classes.”

    It’s obviously really important for people who occupy favored positions in society’s heirarchies to be educated about the ways in which those heirarchies operate. I’m just skeptical about these checklists as an educational tool.

  3. 3
    belledame222 says:

    Interesting, thanks.

    Yeah, I think–and having been on both sides of this game as well–that the “privilege” thing can indeed be turned into just that, a game. “yeah, well…”

    Something else I’m pondering: how useful “guilt” is, particularly when it comes to stuff like this (privilege) as opposed to, say, -behavior-: something you can concretely make amends for. in that case, guilt/shame is a necessary socializing tool, sure.

    But: i dunno. And I mean: i dunno how many people come right out and -say- in so many words “oh, ‘I have privilege’='I must feel guilty now,’” or “you have privilege, so FEEL GUILTY, FUCKER!” But…it does seem like that’s often the transaction.

    and it’s delicate, because on the one hand, people get -defensive- when “called on their privilege,” and sure, there -can- be legitimacy to the notion that, gee, if there’s so much defensiveness, maybe that’s something you might want to look at, you know…

    but, hm. It’s like: when someone does a “privilege” check, well, maybe it’s mean to trip guilt wires and maybe it’s not; but it seems like people -always- take it that way.

    and is it because:

    “Check your privilege” usually means “you just did something that stepped over a line/pushed my/our buttons,” etc., and the anger and hurt at -that- gets all tangled up in “look, matter of factly, this is how things are?”

    or is it indeed simply that for a lot of people, even the most matter of fact, non-blaming-and-shaming, “look, this is how things are: you have this privilege, I or so and so do(es) not” is gonna raise defensiveness and lashing out -no matter what?-

    and if the latter: why? Serious question.

  4. 5
    Sailorman says:

    or is it indeed simply that for a lot of people, even the most matter of fact, non-blaming-and-shaming, “look, this is how things are: you have this privilege, I or so and so do(es) not” is gonna raise defensiveness and lashing out -no matter what?-

    and if the latter: why? Serious question.

    IMO there are multiple reasons:

    1)The person raising privilege is almost always doing so to support their own position and/or attack the “privileged” person’s position. (Sometimes not: perhaps your friend and you each watch each other’s acts and helpfully offer corrections in a mutual goal of self-improvement.) On the net, it’s like a deus ex machina of arguments which is available to an arguer in inverse proportion to their privilege.

    Because it’s being used as an attack, it gets treated as an attack. Note that the “non-attack” version (which might be “that seems like you may be making an error based on certain assumptions–can you explain them to me? I think some are unwarranted” and so on) does not get the same defensive reactions.

    “Check your ____ privilege” has become a synonym for “You’re acting ____ist” or (worse) “You are ____ist” and in these circles that’s a strong attack.

    —————————————

    2) It’s not “OK” to be privileged. A comment about privilege usually carries some sort of unspoken “…. and that difference in privilege is wrong” on the part of either/both the asker and the answerer. It’s the unspoken assumption which makes folks defensive. Obviously if X points out Y’s ____ privilege, it’s not socially acceptable for Y to say “Yeah, isn’t it great to be ____? Sorry you’re _____, must be a bummer. Stop whining and accept life.”

    Should it be OK? I don’t know, it probably depends on what the privilege is. I mean, people are different. They will always be different. And I don’t know what that says about the validity of privilege lists. But if being different from someone else in a way that makes you advantaged is bad then speaking of privilege is going to raise defensiveness.

    ————————————–

    3) Because it is linked to guilt / power but doesn’t really correlate with intent, it creates cognitive dissonance in some folks. This is a big one for me, personally: I tend to happily take blame for shit I do, but generally refuse to take blame or responsibility for things beyond my control (In what country and into what race/religion/family I was born; what people who I don’t know and don’t control have done to others, and so on).

    As has been mentioned before (and by many folks more articulate than I) discussions of privilege are designed to acheive a sort of “debt” or “conversational obligation” on the part of the allegedly privileged one. So some folks are trapped between their moral linking of responsibility/intent and their soacial obligations.

    This also ties into the fact that some “privileges” are, theoretically, earned. Privilege for race or sex is somewhat different than privilege for class or education.

    ————————————-

    4) Because it’s impersonal. I mean, chances are that
    -The person accusing you of privilege is, in some respect of life, more privilege/better off/etc than you are; and/or The privileges which one purportedly has are balanced or erased by personal happenings.

    I mean, i have known some folks in my life who are technically possessed of things which make them privileged and are astrondingly unhappy, unlucky, and, well, are not ANYONE I would ordinarily refer to as “privileged”. Can’t we all say the same?

    And on the Internet, who knows who anyone is?

    People start slinging the privilege shit high-ho at the first sign of strife, but what is really comes down to in a personal argument (which is where it always comes up) is so much more complicated than that. Am I more privileged than _______? Less? More deserving of respect or less? Have I worked more, or harder; do I deserve what I have more or less than you?

    Unless you know the complete life histories of both parties–and who does?–it’s useless. because there are so many flipping privileges in life that we are all in the end just people. (Now, as PEOPLE, I think some of us are a lot more privileged than others. But you can’t tell than from a two line profile.)

    ———-

    5) Finally: BINGO. Because unless you have the fortunate/unfortunate* lot of being a straight white abled rich U.S. educated English speaking male (did I miss any?) it turns into that useless “You’re privileged! No, YOU’RE privileged” conversation all the time.

    And that is some useless argumentation going on there.

    *(For those who wonder “how the fuck could that ever be unfortunate?” my theory is this: If what you are and cannot change does not match with what you want to DO, it sucks. This happens to pretty much everyone in life at some point. Note I’m using “unfortunate” and not “reverse privileged”; this is fully intentional)

  5. 6
    Mandolin says:

    (This is in regard to people who question the use of privelege checks as an argumentative tool, not in regard to the original question of whether emphasizing privelege impedes collectivist action.)

    Okay, let’s say for a moment that “privelege check” is a way of saying “your racist (or whatev.) assumtpions are showing.” (I actually think it’s a way of saying “your racist (or whatev.) conditioning as a member of this society is showing.”)

    What alternate phrasing do you want people to use?

    Or are you arguing that people shouldn’t point it out when they believe people around them are acting or arguing on racist (or whatev.) assumptions?

    Also — in my opinion — the unpriveleged olympics shouldn’t play in to most of these conversations. Just because X is priveleged economically (which may allow X to say or believe ignorant things about class, if X hasn’t done work to try to understand X’s privelege and how it operates in the world) doesn’t negate X’s lack of privelege as a transgendered person.

    We’re all priveleged and non-priveleged in various ways, in the same way that we’re knowledgeable and unknwoledgeable about various things. Y being ignorant about horses doesn’t negate Y’s ability to talk expertly about math.

    And I’d note that one’s personal privelege or lack thereof isn’t the only thing that determines whether or not one has good knowledge or understanding of how certain oppressions work in society. Education does wonders.

    But so does listening to other people. I often find myself disagreeing with women of color when they talk about the ways in which white behavior is priveleged or racist. But when I find myself disagreeing with an entire community of people who have much more intimate involvement with racism about what’s racist — well, I have to step back and let that sit with me for a while. I refuse to believe that I’m the arbiter of what’s racist or not. To think I’m in any way more able to spot racism than people who have to live with racism, and thus live with spotting it, seems very arrogant to me.

    People who are priveleged are taught that they are in a default state, that they are objective, and that they are appropriate arbiters of other people’s epxeriences. That’s one thing a privelege check does for me. It says: “Stop. Think about this. Are you sure it’s within your realm of experience to tell these people they’re wrong?” and also “What unquestioned assumptions (that support your place in the society) are you articulating in the subtext of your assertions? Can you tease them forward? Do you still think they’re true?”

    I also disagree with those who think it’s not okay to be priveleged. It’s fine to be priveleged. But you’re right – when it’s called out, it’s generally going to be called out because you’re abusing your privelege.

    And, in my experience in academic circles at least, it’s not something you “can do nothing about.” It seems to me that the more fully you understand your privelege and think about it before you speak, the more fully you are able not to abuse it.

    Which seems to me like the important thing.

    In re: collectivism:

    Maia, I really appreciate your emphasis on collectivism. I agree that it’s important, but I’ve been wondering lately about how many different parts there are to political progress. It seems to me that theorists who aren’t workign directly on political action have their place. Maybe we have too many of them, though.

  6. 7
    ScottM says:

    While I may quibble with various items on the list, I think they’ve very handy at helping introspection. While they don’t do a good job of pointing a direction for change, they do make a good check to lazy assumptions.

    If you’re used to saying, “Gee, you ought to buy health insurance to avoid big expenses like X”, then understanding better how people’s checkbooks don’t balance as easily, or how preexisting conditions can bar coverage can help the “advisor” not come off like an inconsiderate ass. The same benefit can come from understanding the privilege lists– while they don’t propose solutions, they do help you navigate away from minefields.

  7. 8
    Sailorman says:

    Mandolin Writes:
    October 18th, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    (This is in regard to people who question the use of privelege checks as an argumentative tool, not in regard to the original question of whether emphasizing privelege impedes collectivist action.)

    Okay, let’s say for a moment that “privelege check” is a way of saying “your racist (or whatev.) assumtpions are showing.” (I actually think it’s a way of saying “your racist (or whatev.) conditioning as a member of this society is showing.”)

    What alternate phrasing do you want people to use?

    Or are you arguing that people shouldn’t point it out when they believe people around them are acting or arguing on racist (or whatev.) assumptions?

    That is an excellent question.

    I guess I would sort of answer it with a question of my own: To what degree does it matter why the assumption is being made, instead of whether or not is is correct? And if it’s not correct, isn’t that a more powerful, more logical, and “better” point to make instead?

    I think that in a fair number of these situations there may not be a need to point out the privilege at all. If a point is based on an unwarranted assumption, then the point can be attacked without necessarily going down the “that’s a privileged assumption” road.

    This is part of why I think privilege checks are overused: It is easier, quicker, and simpler to say “check your privilege” than explain why someone is wrong. It’s perfectly human to prefer that option.

    It is a bit trickier when the assumption is both privileged and correct (which does occasionally happen). Then the question becomes how to deal with it. Those situations are ones where the privilege bomb needs to be used with extreme caution IMO, and sometimes that doesn’t happen.

    Also — in my opinion — the unpriveleged olympics shouldn’t play in to most of these conversations. Just because X is priveleged economically (which may allow X to say or believe ignorant things about class, if X hasn’t done work to try to understand X’s privelege and how it operates in the world) doesn’t negate X’s lack of privelege as a transgendered person.

    We’re all priveleged and non-priveleged in various ways, in the same way that we’re knowledgeable and unknwoledgeable about various things. Y being ignorant about horses doesn’t negate Y’s ability to talk expertly about math.

    And I’d note that one’s personal privelege or lack thereof isn’t the only thing that determines whether or not one has good knowledge or understanding of how certain oppressions work in society. Education does wonders.

    I agree. Privilege in one area does not automatically imply privilege in another.

    But you raise an interesting point. Do you agree that–all too often—a lack of privilege is used synonomously with expertise in the field? This jump IMO happens all the time. I think there is some sort of odd concept that the nonprivileged automatically have “good knowledge or understanding of how certain oppressions work in society.” Obviously, they probably know a lot more about what happens to them. But I’m not sure how the claim of global knowledge pops up in a well-supported way.

    But so does listening to other people. I often find myself disagreeing with women of color when they talk about the ways in which white behavior is priveleged or racist. But when I find myself disagreeing with an entire community of people who have much more intimate involvement with racism about what’s racist — well, I have to step back and let that sit with me for a while. I refuse to believe that I’m the arbiter of what’s racist or not. To think I’m in any way more able to spot racism than people who have to live with racism, and thus live with spotting it, seems very arrogant to me.

    Riffing off the above paragraph: Would you believe that the particular black community knows more about being white than you do? Seems like one would really have no cause to disagree about, say, the experiences of others who are relating their personal beliefs/feelings/experiences. But “racism” is a big ocean. So you might find yourself disagreeing with them over their interptretation of what whites were (say…) feeling/thinking when they did something.

    In that instance you would not necessarily be acting privileged. But someone might well accuse you of such.

    People who are priveleged are taught that they are in a default state, that they are objective, and that they are appropriate arbiters of other people’s epxeriences. That’s one thing a privelege check does for me. It says: “Stop. Think about this. Are you sure it’s within your realm of experience to tell these people they’re wrong?” and also “What unquestioned assumptions (that support your place in the society) are you articulating in the subtext of your assertions? Can you tease them forward? Do you still think they’re true?”

    The catch-22 is this: Someone who will/can “call a privilege check” is not, in that particular conversation, acting in an unprivileged fashion. The checker is saying it because they think they are an objective judge of privilege; they think their opponent is wrong/misusing it; they think they are an appropriate judge of the consequences. Calling a “privilege check” is privileged behavior.

    But I think you have posted the solution:


    “What unquestioned assumptions are you articulating in the subtext of your assertions? Can you tease them forward? Do you still think they’re true?”

    You said earlier “how can you ask?”

    This is how.

    Your sentence is not going to make most folks superdefensive (note that I removed the parenthetical “dig” from your text). But if answered, it addresses the same issue. It fights the same privilege. And it starts fewer arguments, mostly becauyse it’s harder to misuse.

    I also disagree with those who think it’s not okay to be priveleged. It’s fine to be priveleged. But you’re right – when it’s called out, it’s generally going to be called out because you’re abusing your privelege.
    And, in my experience in academic circles at least, it’s not something you “can do nothing about.” It seems to me that the more fully you understand your privelege and think about it before you speak, the more fully you are able not to abuse it.

    Which seems to me like the important thing.

    I added emphasis to the part I’ll respond to.

    As soon as you start assigning one person the ability to judge “abuses” of the other’s conversation, things go downhill fast. This is especially true because there is no acceptable response to a call of privilege, other than backing down.

    I sometimes imagine this mental conversation:

    “You’re abusing your privilege.”

    “No I’m not. YOU’RE abusing your ability to blame things on my privilege, instead of answering my argument.”

    “That’s a privileged thing to say.”

    And so on ad nauseam until one person leaves.

    I think privilege checks work VERY well when they are made neutrally–by a third party, or a moderator who really has no vested interest in the debate. They can also work well as an assessment tool after the argument is over; one can revisit one’s words without rahashing the argument. But when they’re used by one side as an argument tool (as they usually are) they’re close to worthless.

  8. 9
    Mandolin says:

    Hi Sailor,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    I still disagree in parts — partially because I do think that oppressed groups have a greater understanding of the dominant class than the dominant class does of the oppressed groups — but I think we’re closer to common ground. I appreciate that.

    I want to give you the thoughtful response I think you deserve in reply, but it’ll have to wait for a day or two until my workload permits it. I hope that’s okay.

    Best,
    M

  9. 10
    Bethany says:

    I just want to comment on the development of this blog so far:

    I think is great that you all are discussing privilege, but I would urge you to think about privilege in terms of sexual identity, religion, gender, physical ability, and even from a socio-economic viewpoint. Race and ethnicity are great examples to use when discussing privilege, but I wonder if thinking about a different ways privilege is used to dominant and oppress subordinate identities may lead to a deeper discussion.

    I agree that sometimes those who use the, “is that your privilege speaking?” argument because they are putting up defenses and want to use privilege as a trump card, but I will also say that those who are oppressed often times do recognize privilege a lot easier and faster than those who are privileged. It is a privilege to be blind to one’s privilege, to be able to ignore it, or to choose to ignore it. At the same time, I am not going to deny those who use privilege as a trump card in arguments – pointing out something privilege is sometimes called for. A privilege person can never fully understand what is like to be oppressed, they can only empathize.

    Regardless what you come up with, it is important to do your best to create an equitable environment for all humans.

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