Checking Privilege Divides, Fighting Oppression Unites

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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In “Why Privilege Theory is Necessary,” Kevin Carson highlights three points of disagreement with my initial article. First, he claims that the point of the privilege framework is “not about feeling guilt.” Second, he believes that the privilege framework can “foster solidarity” among various socioeconomic groups. Third, he asserts that focusing on policy reform to eliminate oppression will only “make other forms of oppression function more smoothly and efficiently.” It is my point of privilege to respond in disagreement on all three points.

Regarding guilt, Kevin may not perceive the privilege framework as serving to shame individuals of supposedly privileged socioeconomic classes. Nevertheless, many reasonable people see it as such, especially students required to undergo sensitivity trainings on college campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has documented this academic trend over the past two decades, challenging the often bizarre exercises that students are forced to participate in to be made aware of their so-called privileges. One infamous case at the University of Delaware involved an exercise in which students were made to stuff marshmallows in their mouth if they have a societal disadvantage and then talk to each other, symbolizing the supposed privilege that straight white males enjoy since they were the only ones in the class without a muffled mouth.

Intentional or not, jamming the privilege concept down one’s throat (sometimes literally, as at Delaware) has had well-document pushback for attempting to induce guilt. The Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective, for example, reports one student’s reaction to reading Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”:

My reaction to this paper was basically if you are a white male you should be ashamed of yourself. Even if what happened a hundred years ago wasn’t done by you and you have tried to be accepting to all, you should still be ashamed.

This perception of guilt is all too common in discussions of privilege. As Jennifer Ng of the University of Kansas observes, “White students quite commonly deny their involvement in a racist society by pointing out that they were never slave owners.” And why should they confess to perpetuating racism through privilege if they themselves have never acted racist? Ng continues, “I doubt students would feel any more comfortable with being asked to personally identify or theoretically associate themselves with the deeds or feelings of colonizers or Nazis.”

In short, it should come as no surprise that the privilege framework’s practice of singling out heterosexuals, whites, and males for a supposed privilege that they did not choose comes across as a guilt trip and receives pushback as a result — which brings us to Kevin’s second point. With such well-documented hostility to the privilege framework, it seems impossible to claim that it serves to “foster solidarity” among various socioeconomic classes. To the contrary, its practice of alienating people based on race, sex, and sexuality has only served to divide rather than unite. The very fact that we’re debating this issue in a Mutual Exchange is testament to its divisiveness.

Indeed, it’s remarkable how explicitly the privilege framework marginalizes whole classes of people by assigning societal value to literally skin-deep qualities like race and sex. Kevin quotes an Occupy activist for stating on Twitter that “society has created a gendered hierarchy” that “needs to be dismantled, and you can’t properly dismantle something you don’t understand.” If this societal hierarchy needs to be discussed, let’s be specific about it.

Which race is more oppressed — blacks or latinos? Is a white trangendered woman more privileged than a black male? Do Jews and Catholics have the same white privilege as protestants? It seems impossible that any discussion of this privilege hierarchy will “foster solidarity” instead of reinforce discriminatory stereotypes. This is precisely why the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective recommends shifting intersectionality’s focus from privilege to oppression, as I argued for in my initial article. Fighting injustice is a uniting cause; pointing out privilege is a dividing one.

Furthermore, pointing out privilege is a cause without a call to action — which brings us to Kevin’s final point. As pleasing as it may be for libertarian anarchists to pat themselves on the back for being aware of their privilege, the state will continue to oppress. Anarcho-capitalists may conjure up an ideal world in their head where such oppression does not exist, but the real challenge for any activist is implementing their vision in reality. Instead of wishing the world’s problems away, libertarians should be active in fighting oppressive policies that actively keep minorities down like occupational licensing, mandatory minimum sentencing, the drug war, restrictive immigration, deportation, the public education monopoly, and the minimum wage. Anything less like privilege is bourgeois musings.

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