What Privilege?

April 27, 2008 at 3:30 am (Critical Theory) (, , )

Better people than I have written about privilege. Yet it seems that discussions of privilege nevertheless arise (and often) in these, the interwebs—often with disingenuous trolls but, sometimes, with well-meaning people who simply do not understand how privilege operates. Too, there often seems to be a conflation of the exercise of and interaction between privilege and oppression in our culture.

And so I thought it necessary to outline some of the basic concepts underlying privilege, and we begin where B. Deutsch ended, with the fundamental expression of privilege of every stripe: “I have the privilege of being unaware of my [own] privilege.”

The manifestation of privilege is directly hinged upon our society’s definition of its default members. Our culture identifies its white, able-bodied, straight, male members as ideal. They are the primary representation in media of all forms; they hold the positions of power and prestige; they are the members of our society who are most valued; they are given greater credence in public fora; the history taught in schools is their history; in short, our society favors (or, haha, privileges) members of society who fit these criteria.

The primary form of privilege is obliviousness. A driver on a smooth road will often assume that the driving conditions of other people mirror his own. He can only ever base his conception of the road on his own experiences. What does he know of heavy rain, or sleet? Of pot-holes? Why would he even begin to think of hitch-hiking? Until he is presented with these conditions himself, there is no reason to imagine the adversities they present. (Of course, as Wise notes, the ability of the privileged to deny the experiences of others is also a form of privilege.)

The privileged receive almost innumerable benefits because of their privilege: Deutsch’s “Male Privilege Checklist” enumerates some of these, which, together with McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” begins to give us a picture of how these privileges interact and intersect.

And members of the privileged class are almost always isolated: they are rarely made to interact with people of color, women, people with disabilities, or sexual minorities in their day-to-day lives. (Contrarily, persons of color, persons with disabilities, women, and sexual minorities are constantly presented with and reminded of the reality of their oppressors’ existence.) This lack of interaction simply exacerbates the situation: when the owner of a company accepts applicants for hire, who does he esteem more highly: the woman of color, or the white man? Who is he more likely to hire? Of course he hires the person more familiar to him, the person he sees as more compatible with himself; and thus the expression of privilege is perpetuated.

If we view society as a hierarchical structure, those members of society at the top of the hierarchy are those who benefit from all or most of these forms of privilege: an able-bodied, white, heterosexual male of the upper-middle class being the ideal. However, privilege also benefits those who meet only some of these criteria—an able-bodied, straight, man of color receives the privileges granted to him by his able-bodiedness, his heterosexuality, and his sex.

However, the realities of racism will still affect him.

And, just to be clear: racism exists. Hate crimes still occur, people of color get stronger sentences for the same crimes, and crimes against people with white skin garner worse reprisals, even résumés with recognizably African American names are less likely to get interviews. And with every study released that demonstrates that visible minorities receive poorer healthcare, and that children of color are disproportionately assessed as mentally deficient in school, etc., we have to understand that they are all describing the symptoms of the racist structure which is pervasive in our society, and which form part of the intersecting oppressions faced by people of color every day.

This is not to say that the situation is hopeless, but recognizing the existence of racism is a critical step in eradicating it. Denying the existence of racism presumes that its effects are natural rather than imposed (and, you guessed it: that’s another form of privilege). To deny racism is to insist that the disparities between people of color and whites are deserved.

Which is another facet of privilege: the privileged assumes that he has earned his position in the social hierarchy—the corollary being, of course, that the under-privileged and oppressed must have, similarly, earned their positions.

The operation of privilege is not merely an argument about “who likes whom”; it is based on how we exert privilege and value oppressed minorities. We devalue and discount people of color, and that evaluation is based on the extent to which people of color either succeed or fail at being white. The standards and the definitions of that aesthetic are created from white privilege.

We are used to hearing about internalized racism as if it is an individual event: some particular individual has a self-destructive attitude or feels self loathing because that person has given credence to racist statements which an outside voice has made. This trivializes and obscures the function of endemically internalized racism, which includes racism within the functional framework of identity. For any individual to be aware of zirself as being of a “race” at all is to interpret zirself through the definitions of the society within which ze is located. The delineation between people (and I am not speaking of delineations on a privilege basis, simply the awareness. To be aware that one is recognizable as “Hispanic” or “Caucasian,” for example) taken from hereditary features like melanin or facial structure, near or distant familial geography, etc., is to assign meaning to those things. And within a racist culture such as ours, the meaning of those features is coded by privilege. How we react to that codification is individual, but to be defined (both within one’s close community and in the cultural discourse within which that community is located) as “other,” as “less,” and as “wrong” is to be removed from those assumptions of right which are fundamental to privilege.

Similarly, a white, able-bodied woman embodies both privilege and oppression: she is privileged by virtue of her skin; she is oppressed by virtue of her uterus, her ovaries, and the fatty pads of tissue surrounding her mammary glands. She forms part of the dominant social narrative, but is also made Other by that narrative.

And, as everyone but privileged males is already completely aware, women are oppressed every single day, whether they have positions in the work force (See: “Women Still Paid Less Than Men,” “Access to supervisory jobs and the gender wage gap among professionals,”
Women & Paid Work,” “Women Paid Less at Every University,” “Even in higher education, women paid less than men,” etc.) or work at home.

Gender equality has yet to reach parity. The fact that, for instance, a movement like “masculisim” can seem rational—despite women having significantly lower wages for the same jobs, worse healthcare for the same symptoms and means, that there is a significant portion of our society which blatantly refuses to credit women with equal intelligence, and that the dominant culture of our society reliably fails to credit women with the capability for basic self-determination and competence—is a typical reaction to a faction of the population which has traditionally been subordinate to the dominant motif suddenly “not knowing its place.”

And this lack of equality is expressed everywhere: the system of oppression is rigid and inflexible, and it confers privileges to men over women at every turn. There are no benefits to being a woman that are not framed in terms that inherently limit and define women in the Patriarchy’s terms (and in the Patriarchy a woman’s best assets are her ability to produce progeny and provide a successor to the male line).

Homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are interwoven in our culture, and so transwomen, transmen, cisgendered women, fags, intersex individuals, and the otherwise genderqueer are all seen as less than men, who, as members of the dominant class, not only have the power to produce and enforce heteronormative, misogynistic ideals, but to instill those ideals and values into popular art, music, print materials, educational materials, advertising, and every other tool our society uses to transmit information. Non-cisgendered males find themselves taking this odious nonsense in and internalizing it. We make it a part of how we identify ourselves as individuals, as families, as communities.

So of course we have young boys who don’t meet the standards of masculinity presented by popular media getting picked on; of course a woman who doesn’t want kids is going to have her very femininity questioned; of course a woman who has a high-ranking position in a corporation has to have slept with her boss to have gotten there; of course men suffer from domestic abuse in silence; of course they have body issues they can’t express in public circles.

When the gaze of our popular culture, our classic literature, our political discourse and our philosophy is male, and when it is the straight, white male who defines what is fit for public consumption, of course genderqueer individuals, people of color, and cisgendered women find themselves alienated. It only makes sense. But that alienation? That is something that the privileged do not have to deal with.

It is not wrong to be benefited by privilege—it is, of course, completely unavoidable. White men will benefit from white, male privilege. However, to exploit the disparity between the subaltern and the privileged, or to deny the existence of that disparity, that is wrong.

This is why feminist, womanist, and anti-racist movements are so important. Without a common language, we cannot discuss concepts related to marginalization and inequality; the only way that a common language can arise is through movements like these, which seek out and label the various forms of inequality expressed in our culture, and to which we are otherwise completely blind.

These movements give us the language necessary to change our understanding of the manifestation of privilege. We speak, and we raise the awareness and consciousness of others. If we use the tools these movements provide we can begin to pinpoint where things have gone wrong, where exploitation exists. For some, it will be as though we have created racism and sexism; bringing it to light and exposing it and getting angry about something that they have already convinced themselves is a non-issue. Creating it for them is not the same as creating it in the world. Those of us who experience racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia, those of us who deal with the effects of privilege every day: we are already aware of its existence. The only people surprised by it are those who have the privilege to be oblivious.

The response among people whose privilege is checked is often to fall into white liberal guilt, a fruitless response that is as little help as actively benefiting from privilege. It is important that, having become aware of privilege, one stop exploiting the bias inherent in our society and exploiting the people around one. Ignoring manifestations of privilege does not make everything better; pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t help either. To see that the damage is there without seeing what must be done helps no one.

And the quickest way to begin easing the damage caused by your privilege and exploitation of others is to become critical of the dominant motifs in our society. Adopt feminist, womanist, and anti-racist ideas; read as often as you can.

The tendency, otherwise, is to become blind to inequality and the exercise of privilege—and that is, after all, what privilege is: an unchecked and unexamined existence as a member of the dominant class. It will be uncomfortable. It will be painful. But that’s the only way to combat the racist, sexist, ableist, and anti-queer mentalities espoused by the dominant culture. You’ll have to get loud and angry and rough things up.

And that’s good.

I mean, after all: if equality were so easy that it could be achieved without a fracas, without disrupting the status quo, it would already be the status quo and this discussion would be moot. So cause a fracas. You’ll be glad that you did.

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