Privilege Is a Plastic Spork

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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The critiques of privilege theory, here and elsewhere, mostly boil down to the responses it often elicits from the very people it’s meant to educate. And I’ll agree that one, especially if she’s a libertarian, must look at the actual effects of any proposal, and not just its intentions. Indeed, it’s hard to find a theory as poorly understood, and as thoroughly and pervasively straw-manned, as privilege theory.

So one might take Casey Given’s route and discard the theory as on-net unhelpful. But I believe there are entrenched biases which make people predisposed to seek to ignore oppression and resent any framework, phrase, or person who brings it up. And to blame the clumsy, and clumsily applied, phrase or framework behind “check your privilege” – for the existence and continuation of this problem seems shortsighted at best. We’re shoveling mountains of snow with a plastic spork, it’s true. But it’s the best tool we’ve got.

The problems with privilege theory are real. It makes white folks feel guilty. It collectivizes and categorizes people. It, alone, isn’t enough to create change. But, actually, those are all problems with any acknowledgement of the continued existence of bigotry, regardless of how we frame it or the vocabulary we use. There simply isn’t a way to point out oppression on arbitrary bases without making people feel guilty (at least some of them, some of the time), or collectivizing or categorizing people (otherwise known as recognizing the identities bigots use as a basis for oppression). And no, whether you call it privilege or oppression or whatever, calling it out alone won’t end it.

Oppression is fucking uncomfortable. Realizing that you began the race a few steps ahead of the guy on the corner begging for change is really unpleasant. Anything which threatens the certainty that “everything you have, you earned,” isn’t something most people lean into or enjoy. Everyone is most intimately familiar with their own oppression, and is naturally most sympathetic to it.

That privilege checking would be violently misunderstood and maligned isn’t evidence that it’s not useful. But it is evidence that it’s really hard work.

The question is, then, do the benefits of acknowledging bigotry justify the discomfort it creates?

Well, it obviously depends on what you value. If recognizing truth is your thing, then it has utility there. As Kevin Carson eloquently put it:

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” have just as dysfunctional a perception of the world as literally color-blind people who can’t tell a red traffic light from a green one.

So privilege helps us correctly identify and acknowledge identity-based oppression. And like most problems, bigotry isn’t fixed by being ignored. Ignoring bigotry has never worked in the past, and it’s not likely to work in the future. For better or worse, fixing problems usually requires some work. And the first step is generally admitting that you have a problem.

So, I’ll admit that the privilege framework is the spork to the flurries of institutional, personal, and governmental asshattery we find ourselves constantly enveloped by, whether we admit or acknowledge or not. But before we throw the spork away and just pretend it’s all just niceness, I’d ask, do you have a better way?

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