Why Privilege Theory is Necessary

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged. The following Mutual Exchange will begin as a feature by ’s, “What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?”. , Casey Given and  have prepared a series of articles challenging, exploring and responding to the themes presented in Given’s original article. Over the next week, C4SS will publish all of their responses. The final series can be followed under the categories: Mutual Exchange or The Point of Privilege.

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Casey Given, in “What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?”, questions the relevance or usefulness of the concept of privilege. Not that he questions the existence of racial and gender oppression — far from it. He simply argues that privilege theory is irrelevant to — or actually detracts from — fighting oppression. The “privilege framework” has the effect of

sweeping oppression under the rug by emphasizing white guilt over political action to end socioeconomic inequality. What, after all, is the point of checking one’s privilege if not followed by action? Libertarians should pay heed by ignoring the privilege framework to instead focus on addressing racial injustice through market-based policy reform….

If awareness of one’s privilege is not sufficient to end oppression, then the framework itself seems little more than an exercise to alleviate white guilt. But, what good can that do? White guilt will not stop cops from racially profiling black people. White guilt will not help a family escape the cycle of poverty their ancestors have been stuck in for centuries…

Here Given displays a failure to grasp what privilege theory is about. It’s not about feeling guilt. People are born into privileged groups through no fault of their own; no culpability is involved. Rather, privilege theory is simply about awareness — about an accurate perception of the reality we must work within — as Occupy activist and medic Oakland Elle (@OaklandElle) succinctly explained in a series of tweets on May 25:

“Why do we have to talk about gender? Why can’t we all just get along?” –Dudes….

We have to talk about it, have to address it, because society has created a gendered hierarchy (among others). That hierarchy needs to be dismantled, and you can’t properly dismantle something you don’t understand. In my opinion, it starts with listening to people who are talking about their experiences with marginalization, rather than silencing them.

Privilege is an important concept to understand because it has a useful explanatory function, and correctly perceiving the world we operate in is necessary for operating effectively. Those who say “I don’t see race” and “I’m color-blind” are hindered in their effective functioning in the world just as much as literally color-blind people who can’t tell a red traffic light from a green one. Race and gender are real-world phenomena with very real material effects; so failing to perceive them is not a state of affairs to celebrate.

“Guilt” is beside the point. If members of different groups receive differential structural benefits through no fault of their own, anyone who wants to navigate the real social world we live in had better be aware of that fact. Pretending not to be aware of it is just stupid.

Given also suggests it’s perverse to treat as “privilege” many of the items included in the standard checklists of white or male privilege — most of which simply involve a normally unexamined sense of feeling welcomed, normal or safe in most daily social situations. After all, these are things that social justice activists should consider the minimum acceptable standard for everyone.

[The] answer to fixing such inequalities is not to put down people who rightfully enjoy its privileges but to prop up those who do not enjoy them through political action.

But that’s just it. The point is not to treat feeling welcomed and normal, not “othered,” as anything less than what everyone should experience in a just world. It’s to recognize that there’s a cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-class differential in how fully or whether at all that entitlement is realized.

This is closely related to another common misconception about privilege: That it’s about who’s better off in absolute terms. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a white person to deny that they’re privileged because (say) they were severely abused as children, or grew up malnourished in a house without indoor plumbing. But “white privilege” doesn’t mean that all white people are quantitatively better off, in absolute terms, than all people of color. It means that being white, as such, confers a differential advantage, all other things being equal. Of course all other things are never equal. So some severely impoverished or maltreated whites may be worse off in absolute terms than some well-to-do upper-middle-class blacks. The point, rather, is that when a black and white person are alike in all other things except race, the white person is better off than a black person who faces the same situation in all particulars except for being black.

My comments on the relevance of privilege to understanding the world we operate in and fighting for social justice is not just some general theoretical observation. The concept of privilege has very real, concrete applications in fighting for justice.

You may have noticed Given’s repeated calls for “policy reform.” Here at the Center for a Stateless Society, needless to say, we’re not usually real big on policy reform. Not to put too fine a point on it, we generally view working within the state to make the world better through legislative action amounts to flushing effort down the toilet. The state in its very essence is oppressive. If it weakens one form of oppression, it will do so only to make other forms of oppression function more smoothly and efficiently. The state will always be executive committee of a ruling class.

So the state may very well pass legislation, under pressure from upper-middle-class CEO feminists like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer and upper-middle class professional black civil rights activists, to “make the cabinets and board rooms look like the rest of America.” But it will do so in order to strengthen the system of class oppression by weakening the racial and gender divisions within the ruling class.

A few years back, on Black in America, Soledad O’Brien quoted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s cry of “I have a dream,” and then said that as evidence of the realization of that dream today, “Some are Secretary of State. Some are CEO.” My dream is to see the last Secretary of State strangled with the entrails of the last CEO.

Rather than lobbying the state to initiate reforms, we at C4SS prefer to make the kind of world we want to live in ourselves. As the Wobblies say, “Direct Action Gets Satisfaction.”

And the practical use of privilege theory is within the activist groups that are engaged in just such direct action. For example the idea of “intersectionality” was originally developed, not to further some kind of “oppression olympics” or competition to see who is worse off, but to foster solidarity within each movement by being attentive to the needs of specific intersectional groups in that movement, in order to prevent this differential oppression being used by opportunistic outsiders to create divisions. The working class movement must acknowledge the special intersectional problems of women or minority workers in order to prevent enemies from playing up racial divisions in the movement (as they did, for example, in COINTELPRO-style efforts by the planter class to split the tenant farmers’ unions along racial lines back in the ’30s). The feminist movement must pay specific attention to the needs of women of color, working class women, sex workers and transgender women in order to prevent them from becoming disaffected from a movement dominated by upper-middle-class white professional types like (again) Mayer and Sandberg.

Thus, privilege and intersectionality theory are not “identity politics” that undermines the effectiveness of social justice activism. They’re the cure for it.

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