The Various Functions of Privilege Analysis

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 offers some interesting criticisms of the concept of privilege, criticisms drawn from feminist and anti-racist scholarship and activism rather than from the right. While I agree with some of these criticisms, I think his piece ignores several functions the concept of privilege can play, as well as some concepts in feminist theory that are useful for overcoming some of the criticisms often raised by libertarians.

He is correct to note that the conversation often becomes muddled, with basic rights, or at least reasonable expectations for all humans, referred to as “privileges.” I would contend that this indexing can still be useful, in order to understand how one’s own success may be contingent on oppressed people having basic rights denied to them. But the conflation at play can pose problems, and that’s worth noting.

However, a concept can be wielded in confusing ways and still serve useful functions. One key function of the feminist or anti-racist conception of privilege is its connection to standpoint epistemology. This focuses on how privilege makes itself invisible to the privileged party and simultaneously conceals the conditions of oppression from the privileged party. In other words, it deals with how knowledge is distributed along lines of oppression. In “The Knowledge Problem of Privilege” I argued that calls to “check your privilege” often represent “an attempt to get people to recognize the limits of their knowledge.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains this epistemological approach, known as feminist standpoint theory, as follows:

Women are oppressed, and therefore have an interest in representing social phenomena in ways that reveal rather than mask this truth. They also have direct experience of their oppression, unlike men, whose privilege enables them to ignore how their actions affect women as a class. The logic of an epistemology that grounds epistemic privilege in oppression is to identify the multiply oppressed as multiply epistemically privileged. Within feminist theory, this logic has led to the development of black feminist epistemology. Collins (1990) grounds black feminist epistemology in black women’s personal experiences of racism and sexism, and in cognitive styles associated with black women. She uses this epistemology to supply black women with self-representations that enable them to resist the demeaning racist and sexist images of black women in the wider world, and to take pride in their identities. The epistemic privilege of the oppressed is sometimes cast, following W.E.B. DuBois, in terms of “bifurcated consciousness”: the ability to see things both from the perspective of the dominant and from the perspective of the oppressed, and therefore to comparatively evaluate both perspectives (Harding 1991, Smith 1974, Collins 1990). Black women are “outsiders within,” having enough personal experience as insiders to know their social order, but enough critical distance to empower critique.

This approach to recognizing relationships between power, oppression, and knowledge is not unique to feminist theory. In “Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts,” James C. Scott argues that the perspective of the oppressed is rarely understood by their rulers. The power of rulers over their subjects or bosses over employees deters the ruled from telling the truth to those above them, thus relegating the perspectives of oppressed people to what Scott terms a “hidden transcript.” These types of information asymmetries can be discussed without phrases like “check your privilege,” and Enough people have a knee jerk negative reaction to the phrase that I personally prefer to avoid it. But the concerns about social position and situational knowledge that the phrase is often meant to raise are real and valid, so we should engage seriously with those who express these concerns in terms of privilege.

Often when I bring up the epistemological issues that discussing privilege is meant to illuminate, libertarians counter by arguing that this concept is collectivist, or that it involves making unjustified assumptions about individuals. This can be true if we essentialize groups and assume a universal “woman’s experience” or “gay experience” or “black experience.” This is why the concepts of intersectionality and anti-essentialism discussed by feminist scholars like Trina Grillo are so important to honing a realistic theory of social oppression. Intersectionality is about recognizing people and the oppression they experience holistically. For example, when studying the experience of a woman of color, it’s not sufficient to just study misogyny and racism and then add up the impacts of both. Sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, and other factors all intersect to produce unique and potent forms of each other. Institutional environments further play a role. This means that while the law looks at particular forms of discrimination and oppression in isolation, intersectional feminists favor examining individuals and the oppression or privilege they experience holistically. This produces a more nuanced and individualistic feminism, as well as one that promotes solidarity among people resisting oppression. Anti-essentialism further promotes an individualist and nuanced approach to conceptualizing oppression. Essentializing a basic “women’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 this of course ignores that all these forms of oppression shape how some women are subjected to misogyny. Furthermore, it erases how cisgender straight white women have their particular gender norms shaped by their race, their sexual orientation, and their cisgender privilege. Thus, this essentialism normalizes a privileged experience while erasing the nuance of oppression. Anti-essentialism, much like intersectionality, enables us to look at individuals holistically, particularly as they experience oppression. As Trina Grillo puts it, “the anti-essentialism and intersectionality critiques ask only this: that we define complex experiences as closely as possible to their full complexity as possible and that we not ignore voices at the margin.”

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. Tools from feminist theory and critical race theory such as standpoint epistemology, intersectionality, and anti-essentialism are all useful for analyzing, understanding, and ultimately dismantling oppression. And all of these tools have been tied to privilege analysis, thus making such analysis well worth studying.

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