How Ideas About Privilege Reinforce Racism

One of my internet crushes is whatever asshole writes the last psychiatrist, and one of his (I think it’s a man) themes is that the system defends against change.

Recently, I’ve been reading the word “privilege” everywhere in the media – often in conjunction with race, but not always. (This theory also applies to gender, sexuality, etc. – but, I’m going to talk about the race for right now.) Check your privilege! You know you’ve heard it.

Anyway – let’s say you agree with the idea that “the system defends against change.” (In this case “the system” can be thought of as “the media.”)

– The system defends against change

– The system is racist

– The system has completely embraced the concept of privilege

– Therefore, the concept of privilege is being used to inhibit useful change that would actually lessen racism.

Ok – so, to back up – what is racism? I’m sure there are many answers to that, but I’m going to go with “when members of one race are forced to absorb behavior against them that is detrimental to their mental or physical wellbeing because members of larger society choose to ignore these injustices.” This is systematic racism I’m talking about, not individual racism. Notably, I believe it is possible for members of one race to be racist against *their own* race – if, as part of larger society, they do not support actions to protect other members of their race. This happens sometimes, I think, because individuals expect they will benefit more personally than they will be injured by the actions that are harmful for individuals of their race as a whole. One of my other internet crushes, @dexdigi, writes about that here.

So, how does the concept of privilege solidify racism?

First of all, it sets up the frame of reference to be from the point of view of the white person. It’s “Check your privilege!” not “Check my injustice!” I can see why it took off this way – the media tends to favor the white point of view. White people have more trouble empathizing with minorities than minorities do empathizing with them. It’s telling, that even in our discussion of racism, we’re still parsing the discussion through the eyes of of white people. To *really* loosen racism, white people are going to have to learn to project themselves into the bodies of people of color. White people are going to have to *feel* a little part of what people of color *feel*. By keeping this discussion focused on what is happening inside the white body, we are preventing this empathy from developing. For white people to make this transition, they’re going to need to keep reading stories from the point of view of people of color.  Even just hearing a language change (Check my injustice!) would be an improvement, because it would invite the reader – for a split second – imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

The concept of “privilege” also implies a fix to something that’s not the problem. Many people with privilege recoil from wanting to talk about privilege, and in my opinion, justifiably so – they don’t want to lose it! For instance, sometimes feminists say men are “privileged” not to know what it’s like be scared walking home at night. This is dumb – I don’t want men to be scared walking home at night, I want women to feel safe. I don’t want it to be harder for white people to get jobs, I want it to be easier for black people to get jobs. These things shouldn’t be *privileges* they should be *normal*, and not having them should be called *injustice*.  The fact that the system has called it “privilege” makes it sound like some people are benefitting from the system being a certain way. Men don’t actually benefit from women being scared to walk home late at night, but by saying they have “privilege” sort of makes it sound like they do. This sets them up to defend it, no one wants to give up their “better” position, but they don’t actually benefit from this arrangement. Their wives and daughters could get stabbed. Similarly, black people having trouble getting hired doesn’t actually benefit white people overall, it just makes the economy smaller, and in the meantime we have to do something with all those people who can’t get jobs. (Prison, anyone?)

Lastly, the concept of privilege leads to a politically correct laziness. “Checking” your privilege is very easy – you just say “I acknowledge my position as a privileged white person” then don’t actually change any of your behavior. It has provided a code for people to project the image that they want (nice! liberal!) without actually changing the more destructive aspects of their behavior. It provides a way of objectifying people (“if I say all the right things, then I can’t get yelled at by minorities.”) As Lupita said, you can’t eat words (or beauty, works both ways.) Words are meaningless, if they don’t touch something deeper.

So, what do you actually do?

Anytime you want to “acknowledge your privilege” – flip it, at least in your head. Put yourself in the opposite point of view and imagine what it would be like to not have that “privilege.” Start with the assumption people who are complaining have a legitimate grievance, and try to understand it.

The deeper fix is to loosen the sytem’s grip on you. This is hard. I can’t tell you how to do this, cuz I haven’t done it yet. Check back later!

All of the Privileges

I read this article on facebook the other day:

Her first line resonated with me, “it’s not enough to acknowledge your privilege” – but, after that, I sort of disagreed, or only partially agreed, with many of her points. When I expressed my disagreement on facebook, I was smacked the fuck down (by another white girl, I should add) and now I’m afraid comment on it because I’m white.

Then, I read this article:

Which was FAN TASTIC because I’m totally a woman, and I can totally tear the fuck into it without anyone being like “shut UP, you dumb man!”

So, backing up – the internet is full of these lists where people say basically, “I am this type of person, and I will now speak on the behalf of my group to inform the INTERNET of my personal pet peeves while claiming them as generally applicable to everyone else in this group.” So, let me mansplain this to you. One highly recognized form of prejudice is when you *ask* someone to speak on behalf of their minority group instead of asking them what they want an individual. It is dehumanizing, but, that works both ways. Women who put forth general rules on “how to treat women” are just as sexist as men asking “how do women want to be treated?” The problem is with the grouping of “women,” and setting rules as a group, instead of recognizing their individuality.

But, there’s something deeper than the mild hypocrisy. I’m struggling with it a bit.

Part of it is demanding empathy while refusing to give it. “Listen,” for instance, is something that comes up a lot on these lists – yet, often people who like these types of lists refuse to listen themselves. In the feminist article, many men responded with the ways they are hurting too.

Thanks but men right now are being treated like crap currently. The Majority of suicide rates are male, males on average have 5 years shorter lifespan than females, men are more likely to be convicted and receive a harsher sentence for a crime than if a female were to do the same crime. Men are less likely to get custody of their kids in a divorce even if the wife has been shown to create a bad atmosphere for the kids to grow up (This can also be vice versai) The majority of the homeless are men. The list goes on and on and these issues need to be addressed.

Jackson B.

Why, yes, I believe many of those statistics are correct. You raise some interesting questions – why *are* there more men in prison, and more male homeless? Why are there more male suicides? This doesn’t completely square with a simple view of an oppressive patriarchy, and clearly the situation is more nuanced. Maybe there are situations that tend to benefit women, and others that tend to benefit men?

Yet, we get comments like this:

Sad, but not surprising, that 99% of the men commenting here refuse to see how they’re violating nearly every point on this list. And you wonder why there are a lot of “man-haters” out there.

Jeanne C.

Why are they going to listen to you, Jeanne, when you’re not listening to them? We all want empathy, we all want to be heard, we all want love – you don’t get these things by demanding them. You get these things by giving them.

Articles and comments like this basically work through shame. We can shame a few already relatively politically correct men into becoming even more politically correct, and that is it. Yet, even those we shame into these behaviors will still not behave in ways that satisfy us because they will not *see* us.

The reason that first author’s line “it’s not enough to acknowledge your privilege” resonated with me is because so many men I know act feminist, pretend to be feminist, and try to out-feminist other men *to receive female applause*. They don’t really understand our situation, and all their “feminist” acknowledgements fall flat – they are going through all the motions, but never comprehending. And, these men never *will* understand what it is like to be female until women can start to understand what it’s like to be male. We’re two sides of the same coin, baby! You can’t understand only half of this one, it’s a package deal.

As for race – well, I feel uncomfortable speaking about race. Because I am white. Probably, some men felt uncomfortable responding to that article because they are male. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if something very similar is going on. For me to really start to understand what it is like to be a minority, I am going to need to engage with someone on what it is like to be white. By being silenced on this issue, I can mimic the behaviors lined out for me in articles like this, but I can’t begin to deeply understand how issues of race influence the people I love. I need to be allowed to expose my ignorance before I can work on it. For me to see my girlfriend deeply, I’m going to need to find a way to get past this – to ask dumb questions on what it’s like to be latina in America. This isn’t a hypothetical mind game, this is important. This is my life.

I also think it’s notable that it was a white woman who objected to my comments, not someone who had anything to gain by working with me to further my understanding of race. Not someone who was actually affected by my ignorance.

Even after all this discussion (or monologue?) I still think I’ve somehow missed the boat.

If you have the ability to articulate how you are unprivileged, if you have an audience who will listen to you, if you are not afraid for your well being when expressing your opinion, and if you have received the education necessary to express your thoughts clearly, you are most likely in camp “privilege” regardless of your color, gender, or sexual orientation.

Those who can express eloquently need to be the ones listening the hardest, because when they speak, they will need to speak for those who can’t.