The Value of Privilege Theory: A Reply to Casey Given’s Rejoinder

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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After reading Nathan Goodman‘s reply to Casey Given, and his rejoinder to both of us, the striking thing is that Casey seems, by his own admission, to be less clear than we are of what our actual areas of disagreement are. His rejoinder to me at times talks past the points I made and restates his original complaints about privilege in slightly different words. And he actually interprets Nathan’s statement as being in agreement with him.

In reply to my argument that privilege theory wasn’t about guilt or culpability, he cites what he says is a common perception by those who have been through college sensitivity training that it is indeed about “induc[ing] guilt,” and that the intended takeaway is that even someone who didn’t own slaves or “act racist” “should still feel ashamed.” If that is indeed their perception, either someone isn’t teaching properly or, for whatever reason, they aren’t learning properly.

Simply put, it is a bare fact that (among other things) structural racism and patriarchy exist in our society, and that whites and men benefit from it as groups. It should be obvious to anyone, as a matter of simple common sense, that people who are not hindered by such forms of systematic structural oppression in their daily lives have an advantage over those who are, just as someone who doesn’t have a 50 lb. weight shackled to each arm has an advantage over someone who does. And “privilege” is as good a word as any to describe this phenomenon.

The idea that the word “privilege” carries a normative connotation, implies that anyone who isn’t so impeded by daily harassment or shackled to 50 lb. weights is at fault, or implies that anyone should be shackled who isn’t, is just ridiculous. Anyone who actually conveys the impression that this is what privilege means is doing a bad job teaching privilege theory, and alienating the very people who need to understand it in a non-judgemental manner.

The lesson of the marshmallow exercise Casey refers to isn’t that anyone who doesn’t have marshmallows in their mouth should have them “jammed down their throat,” or that they should feel guilty that they don’t have. It’s simply that they’re better off, both for reasons of structural injustice and perhaps for no fault of their own, than those who do have a mouth full of marshmallows.

On the other hand, I think there’s some attempt to encourage this misunderstanding of what privilege actually means, on the part of the cultural Right, as a way of sabotaging social justice activism. And some people may subjectively hear an accurate explanation of privilege as a condemnation of them because of unexamined resentments of social activism itself.

So some people interpret sensitivity training as a demand that they feel guilty for being white, male, straight, cis, etc. I’m a relative newcomer to these concepts — I’ve been actively learning about them for around two years now — but I never interpreted them that way. I interpreted them as a simple call to be aware of my advantages in interacting with women, people of color, LGBT people, etc., to be supportive and show solidarity, to hand them the mic and help amplify their voices, and to be on the alert for ways in which the justice movements I’m a part of could better address the intersectional needs of less privileged members.

But suppose some people do say the things Casey quotes? Some people also say things like “Why do blacks get to say the n-word?” “What’s wrong with a White Student Organization?” or “Slavery was 150 years ago and segregation’s been over for four decades — why do they have to dwell on it?” I hear stuff like this all the time from people who “never owned slaves” and don’t think they “act racist.”

The very fact that anyone sees racism or sexism as a matter solely of individual bigotry, that either a man or a woman, a white or black person, can equally be guilty of, rather than a structural phenomenon, reflects profound ignorance about the reality we live in. And any white person, man, etc., who fails to understand that we benefit by being white or male in ways that give an advantage over anyone who isn’t, is ignorant of something they shouldn’t be. Whether people fail to learn because somebody’s teaching the ideas badly, because somebody’s encouraging them to misunderstand, or because they don’t want to understand, doesn’t change the fact that these are things that need to be understood.

Whether intentional or not, the beliefs that privilege is about guilt and that racism is about “personal attitude” or “acting racist” have done a great deal to undermine social justice activism. By not only obscuring perception of the social structures of oppression we seek to dismantle, but also causing people to resent the concept of privilege based on a false understanding of what it means, these beliefs derail efforts to fight oppression.

Casey, oddly, attempts to put intersectionality forward in opposition to the concept of privilege. But the two concepts are inseparable. The whole purpose of intersectionality is to understand differential privilege within a group. To treat the acknowledgement that intersecting forms of privilege make people worse off than individual forms of privilege as a refutation of the concept of privilege is decidedly — I use the word again — odd.

Odder still, he actually quotes Nathan’s argument against essentialism as if it backed up his own position, as if it were a remedy for the “collectivism” of plain old vanilla-flavored oppression theory:

Essentializing a basic “woman’s experience” or “black experience” means ignoring the different ways oppression is experienced among members of these groups. Often, such essentialism means taking the experiences of relatively privileged members of groups as default. For example, a standard “women’s experience” may specifically describe the experiences of straight, cisgender white women, as they experience misogyny without typically experiencing the homophobia, transphobia, and racism that other women may face.

But the problem with essentialism is that it doesn’t pay enough attention to privilege. The “holistic undertanding of individual experience” that Nathan points to — the idea that a “typical female experience” may exclude women of color, working class women, trans women, &c — is more privilege-oriented than monolithic female, black &c identities, because it was created to prevent upper-middle class white professionals like the typical TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radfem), and rich CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer from passing themselves off as spokespersons for the “typical woman,” and likewise to prevent a similar position of hegemony by an upper-middle class professional “black leadership” within the Civil Rights movement.

Finally, Casey repeats that “pointing out privilege is a cause without a call to action.” That’s like saying an understanding of hydraulics doesn’t build an irrigation system. No — but any attempt to build an irrigation system in ignorance of the principles of hydraulics, or in violation of them, will be doomed to failure. I really don’t know what to say, other than to repeat that any “action” that’s not based on an accurate perception of reality won’t be very effective. As I said in my original response, the sharecroppers union split along racial lines in the 1930s, not because members addressed race privilege, but because they failed to do so.

In this regard, I can do no better than quote Nathan: “Casey Given urges action to challenge the institutions and rules that enable and exacerbate oppression. But in order to engage in such action successfully, it’s important to have an accurate analysis of the oppression we’re seeking to fight.” Both action without reflection, and reflection without action, are useless.

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