Intersectionality in Action Renders Privilege in Theory Obsolete

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 writing the lead essay for this Mutual Exchange, I sought to make three points about privilege. First, it is an ineffective framework to promote social tolerance since it comes off as attempting to induce guilt in so-called privileged people, which usually results in pushback. Second, it ignores oppression to strangely shame individuals for having “privileges” that ultimately should be human rights for all. Third, it does not lay out a roadmap for social change since heightened awareness of one’s privileges will not end systematic poverty or oppression.

To my surprise, all three respondents to my original essay have agreed with me on several of these points while still rejecting my conclusion that the privilege framework is thereby ineffective. On the first point, Cathy Reisenwitz agrees that privilege “makes white folks feel guilty.” Nathan Goodman acknowledges that “[e]nough people have a knee jerk negative reaction to the phrase [‘check your privilege’]” that he “personally prefer to avoid it.” Kevin Carson likewise admits that many students pushback against privilege exercises because they perceive it as an attempt to make them feel guilty. However, he doesn’t think that privilege taught properly should make them feel this way: “If that is indeed their perception, either someone isn’t teaching properly or, for whatever reason, they aren’t learning properly.”

On my second point, Kevin acknowledges that the ultimate goal of social justice activism should indeed be to extend privileges to everyone so people all genders, races, classes, and abilities feel “welcomed and normal, not ‘othered’” in everyday life. Nathan acknowledges that privilege talk “often becomes muddled” because “basic rights, or at least reasonable expectations for all humans, [are] referred to as ‘privileges.’”

On my third point, Cathy agrees that “whether you call it privilege or oppression or whatever, calling it out alone won’t end it.”

This is much more agreement than I ever expected, which makes it all the more puzzling why the three would still reject my conclusion. Kevin and Nathan do so by positing intersectionality as a means to address the privilege framework’s common problems, “recognizing people and the oppression they experience holistically” as Nathan puts it.

But what would intersectionality in action look like? Since its whole purpose is to analyze the numerous axes of privilege and oppression that an individual stands at the intersection of (hence the name), it seems to me that intersectionality cannot collectivize people like the privilege framework is infamous for doing. After all, discussing the privilege or oppression that one class of people experiences would necessarily result in generalizations that exclude the more marginalized members of the group.

As Kevin aptly put it, the notion of a “‘typical female experience’ may exclude women of color, working class women, trans women,” etc. Intersectionality thus functions to prevent “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.”

If this is the case, advocates of intersectionality should hold any collectivizing claims of privilege with suspicion. For example, the University of Delaware’s marshmallow exercise that I mentioned would not be appropriate because it makes normative judgments about class without examining the intersectionality of each individual’s identities. A white student may not have any marshmallows in his or her mouth, for example, despite the fact that he or she could come from dire poverty. A lesbian may have the same amount of marshmallows in her mouth as a trans woman, despite the fact that the two experience radically different LGBT intolerance.

In this manner, intersectionality in action would seems to render privilege in theory obsolete. Any attempt to elucidate a privilege hierarchy would ultimately fail since individuals experience oppression in complex and multifarious ways. Thus in this sense, the very theory meant to save privilege theory ends up toppling it. The only solution, then, is to pass judgement on individuals based on their individual circumstances, the intersection of the privileges and oppressions they’ve experienced throughout their life.

I will admit there is one decent message behind the phrase “check your privilege.” At its very heart, it is a call for an individual to be self-conscious of the oppression that other people have experienced throughout their life. Yet, even this function of the privilege framework is not new or revolutionary in any manner. This call to humility has been alive for decades in an old adage: “Before you judge someone walk a mile in their shoes.” There is no question that individuals should be aware of the societal advantages and disadvantages they hold when interacting with others, but that’s just common courtesy.

Privilege theory, on the other hand, turns basic manners into a self-congratulating notion of societal change. But, as I mentioned in my original article, heightened awareness of one’s circumstances can’t end systematic oppression in and of itself. That’s precisely why libertarians should be focusing on oppression instead of privilege, fighting against government policies that put down disenfranchised classes.

Perhaps the biggest shame about the privilege framework is it paints the arch of history in a dark hue. While much more progress needs to be made, we now live arguably the most socially tolerant times in world history. Most of us today work, live, and interact with people of different races, religions, and sexualities on a regular basis. This remarkable fact is the exception, not the norm of human history. The emergence of property rights and the rule of law over the past few centuries has slowly allowed society to progress to a point where people from radically different backgrounds can peacefully cohabitate in the same social space, workplace, neighborhood, or even home without conflict. Instead of being distracted by a divisive privilege framework, libertarians should foremost seek to promote markets’ socially unifying force by fighting against government oppression.

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