Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Privilege

There was a meme a while ago where people had to take a list and bold the "privileges" they experienced growing up. I know I've left it too late to address this, but I think it leads to some interesting ideas in general, so I'm going to babble a bit.

To deal with the meme itself: it originated from a teaching exercise developed at Indiana State University. Most people who filled in the meme commented that it isn't terribly well thought out. Some of the criticisms are a bit off-target; yes, it is US-centric and yes, it concentrates on class to the exclusion of other kinds of privilege, but that's because it was designed to teach American college students about class, not to be used as a meme in the rather international and highly varied context of LJ, or to make a profound statement about privilege in general. Several people argued that it fails even to address even American class privilege in a sensible way; I don't know enough about that to be able to comment. My reading of it is that somebody who bolded most of it would have the following advantages: a financially stable background; guardians who were committed to education; to some extent, though the list doesn't cover this as well as it might, a culture which is socially valued. Those are definitely advantages which some people have and others lack, which is not to say that everyone who has them must have a wonderful and perfect life and everyone else must be living in misery!

But I think the reaction to this meme is a good example of why those privilege lists don't really make the point they are trying to make very well. I believe the original "privilege list" was Peggy McIntosh's 1988 essay Unpacking the invisible knapsack. It's worth reading her original article to see what she was trying to say before her meme (in the literal sense) started being used all over the place to make vaguely related points. I must admit I find the article rather annoying, albeit intelligently written. It very obviously comes out of second wave feminist ideas about male privilege, and McIntosh has come to the realization that the experience of black people in a white-dominated society is somewhat analogous to the experience of women in a male-dominated society. There are some immediate glaring problems with this, most notably the fact that, um, black women exist! And I would probably like the list a lot better had it been written by a black person, because it's hard not to find it smug and patronizing as it stands. It's also assuming that there are two races, "black" and "white", and making what I think are rather dangerous analogies between gender and race. On a structural level I think a lot of her examples are pretty much repetitions of the same thing.

Basically, what she's saying is that white people get treated as individuals, black people as representatives of their race, and this can cause real problems even in the absence of overt, deliberate racism. This is a useful point to make; I assume the list leaves out all the other disadvantages that POC may have to negotiate due to historical or current active racism because its audience can reasonably be expected to know about those. I'm just not sure that privilege lists are a good way to make this or related points.

Privilege is a really loaded word. I have a hard time seeing it as a problem that (some) white people can go shopping without getting harassed; it's a problem that some POC can't. But calling that a privilege makes it sound like white people are oppressing POC just by going shopping, which is a bit ridiculous. As cakmpls pointed out (I can't find the reference now, sorry), going through your life without being assumed to be a criminal or subject to violence or excluded from jobs and institutions is not a privilege, it's a basic minimum that everyone should have. redbird said something really intelligent distinguishing privileges that can only exist at the expense of the unprivileged from general unfairness. If everything from arguments to job interviews favours white people at the expense of POC, then making things fairer would at least in the short term disadvantage white people.

A big problem with the privilege list way of looking at things is that it can only really look at one axis at a time, and in fact most people are probably members of less favoured groups in some respects and more favoured groups in others. Lots of people looked at the class privilege meme and complained because it assumed middle-class people to have loads of advantages, without considering things like health, appearance, race, good versus bad (or even abusive) parenting, sexual orientation, gender identity, social ability and so on, which obviously have a big effect on whether someone has a good or bad childhood. I also don't think it's wise to make facile analogies between the different ways that some groups may be at a disadvantage; sexism is not the same thing as racism is not the same thing as ableism is not the same thing as fat-hatred. I also don't think it's wise to discuss as if all these things can readily be separated.

The original privilege list didn't do this explicitly, but it is often used in this way, and I think it's not surprising given the choice of term and the whole political context of this sort of list: someone who "has privilege" is automatically assumed to be deliberately wielding that privilege to hurt people who "lack privilege". It's common in a certain type of identity politics to talk about "the oppressor class" and "the oppressed class". Yes, there is a very important difference between a white person making a racist remark to a black person and a black person saying something disparaging about honkies or whiteys. That doesn't mean that all white people are racists and all black people are saints.

What happens when privilege gets brought up in (online) discussions? Sometimes it's used to make people considered to be privileged shut up; their opinion isn't valid at all because they have too much privilege or "entitlement" or "internalized whatever-ism". In some cases this is a feature; if members of a minority feel that they are always being shouted down by members of a majority, and they want to create a community where that dynamic is reversed, fine, good for them. It may well be more important to hear the views of members of a (hopefully relevant!) minority. But in other cases the members of the minority are actually trying to have a discussion with the members of the majority, and appealing to privilege tends to spoil this. I think the main reason is that couching things in those sorts of terms just makes the people from a dominant background defensive. People are generally willing to accept that they have advantages compared to others, but to call those advantages privileges makes lots of people upset. Emotionally, an extremely likely reaction is to point out that your life isn't that great after all, and I've seen far too many discussions derailed into hopeless shouting matches. The activists in favour of some oppressed group are accusing everybody in sight of exercising privilege (the activists who do this are as likely as not to belong to the culturally favoured group themselves, mind you), and the members of the dominant group enumerate all the disadvantages in their life and protest that they are not whatever-ist.

The thing about privilege is it's an unanswerable argument. Anyone who criticizes it is open to the accusation that they're just acting out of privilege which lets them deny their privilege so that they can contribute to the oppression of the unprivileged. Undoubtedly, this is sometimes the case. But assuming that it always is leads to a lot of really unproductive and circular discussions.

Well, what do you think? Someone complimented me recently on posting thoughtful essays to LJ, which made me realize I haven't done so in quite a long while. And now I've got past the major worst of work panic, I can write up things that I've been ruminating on for a while.
Tags: essay
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