The Trouble with “Privilege”

Q: “How many social justice advocates does it take to change a light bulb?”
A: “The advancement of Illuminism is a long-term and complex project involving challenging societal notions of shade privilege and dismantling instruments of the Darkarchy.  However, the first step toward any attempt to correct the problem is to be aware that the bulb is burnt out.”

I’m a scientist at heart, but I’m the child of an English professor, and it sometimes shows. I tend to think a lot about language, the way it’s used, and the effect that usage has — occasionally to the point of thoroughly over-analyzing things. My favorite piece of non-fiction ever is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” — which you should definitely read, by the way. It’s really interesting and entertaining — at certain points, it’s goddamn hilarious. The basic point of the essay is this: If your thoughts are poorly-formed or poorly-organized, your language will be too — but the reverse is also true. Unclear language can make bad ideas seem palatable (think “collateral damage” vs. “civilian deaths”), or otherwise just impede clear thought.

There’s a particular term that’s become extremely common among social justice advocates in recent decades, and that term is “privilege.” And I’m convinced that the way this term is used is both misguided and counter-productive when it comes to solving social problems.

A note before we continue: I’m going to use the word “we” frequently in this post. Unless I say otherwise, “we” means “people concerned with social justice issues and wanting to fix them”. I’m not sure whether I’d call myself a “social justice advocate”, but I pretty clearly fit that last description.

The go-to primer on privilege (as the term is used in social justice circles today) is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. It includes a listing of ways in which the author has found she experiences white privilege, frequently without realizing it. Side-note: I’m using the version of the essay with the list that’s only 26 entries long, as opposed to 50 entries.

The first thing to notice about this list is how many of the entries are about things that don’t happen to white people — half of them explicitly contain the words “not” or “without” (4, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25). Most of the others are also, as McIntosh says, “only what one would want for everyone in a just society”.

But if they ought to be conferred onto everyone, how does it make sense to describe them as “privileges”? Doesn’t it make far more sense to describe them not as privileges being conferred upon white people, but as rights being denied to other people? “An advantage that ought to be conferred onto everyone” is pretty much the definition of a right, so why do we insist upon calling it a privilege?

In fact, the number of entries that fall into McIntosh’s second category — those that “give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive” — is fairly small. I only count six (1, 6, 7, 16, 18, and sort-of 5). And furthermore, using the term “privilege” seems rather inaccurate, because it implies that all or most white people — all people, for that matter — do and should want these. In fact, a great many people — perhaps most of them — are either indifferent or hostile to them.

One could argue that whether someone wants something is not relevant to whether it is a privilege, so long as it improves their well-being. But even by that definition, it’s very difficult to call these entries “privileges”, because most of them don’t substantially improve the well-being of white people. Most of them actively restrict one’s worldview or keep one in ignorance. And even if you don’t believe that those are inherently degrading to one’s well-being (and you probably should), these often materially harm the people who “enjoy” them in several ways (see the section on the Rape Epidemic for one example). But most of the entries are just bad things that don’t happen to white people.

“Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States,” McIntosh writes, “think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color”. But that’s just the thing — it doesn’t affect them. I know it’s considered very enlightened and outside-the-box to say that systematic prejudice is right there in front of straight, white, male, and/or cisgendered people, if only they were wise and good and progressive enough to see it. But that’s just false, it’s not right there in front of them, and that’s a huge part of the problem — prejudice can continue largely because it’s invisible to most people, precisely because it doesn’t happen to them. Unacceptable things are happening to other people that the majority generally do not see. That is what’s happening, and that is what we need to be telling people.

[As a side-note, McIntosh and I seem to agree that "privilege" is a misleading term, though apparently for different reasons.]

It’s said ad nauseum in discussions about privilege: “Privilege is invisible to those who possess it.” Well, yeah, but the reason for that is actually very simple: Most of what we call “privilege” is not actually privilege. It’s the absence of someone actively shitting on you. Privilege is not something, it’s the lack of something. It’s the fact that you don’t have to worry about being beat up by the cops (usually). It’s the fact that you don’t have to worry about being raped. Take this to its logical conclusion, and most of us should be making sure to check our “not-actively-being-mauled-by-a-bear privilege”. Clearly “privilege” is not an accurate way to describe the problems here. “Injustice”, “racism”, “sexism”, “institutional prejudice”, or just “wrong” — these are the kinds of words we should be using to describe these problems. Because that’s what they are.

Send out a resume with the name “Jamal” and it will consistently get roughly 1/3 the responses as the same resume with the name “Greg”. That’s injustice. Black people are incarcerated for drug possession at thirteen times the rate of white people, despite the fact that their rates of drug use are nearly identical. That’s injustice. For that matter, the fact that anyone is being incarcerated for decades and saddled with a felony record for possessing a goddamn plant that is less harmful than alcohol — that’s injustice. It is also so thoroughly idiotic that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. Only 9% of reported rapes result in jail time. That’s injustice. Violence against transgendered people is widespread and is not generally discussed. That’s injustice. These are the sorts of things we should be showing people, not making vague, generalized statements about “[insert non-marginalized group here] privilege.”

And this causes real problems for us. Because we’re basically pointing furiously at something that no one else can see, and then demanding that people help us defeat it — which generally makes one appear mentally unstable. If we tell people that unacceptable, unjust things are happening somewhere they can’t see, we’re at least telling them something believable. But if we tell them that injustice is occurring right in front of their faces and they don’t see anything there, they’ll conclude that we’re talking out of our asses — and they’ll pretty much be correct. Meanwhile, the real problems continue unimpeded in the background. It’s as though there actually were real giants destroying the Spanish countryside, but Don Quixote decided that the wooden ones with the rotating arms were the ones he really needed to go after.

Okay, that metaphor was just fucking pretentious, I apologize.

Anyway, this language impedes good causes in a number of other ways. One is what it says about our end goal. There are 2 obvious ways to interpret the project of trying to end “X privilege” (where X is heterosexuals, cisgendered people, etc.):

The first is that we are trying to secure that same privilege for Group Y (where Group Y is some marginalized group). But if we describe our attempts that way, we surrender our claim to the moral high ground. If we present ourselves as working to end injustice or discrimination, or as working to protect someone’s rights, we gain a certain (deserved) degree of credibility. When we present ourselves as trying to secure privilege for Y, that credibility evaporates. We no longer claim to want what’s best: we just want what’s best for “us” (whoever “us” happens to be).

The second way to interpret an opposition to “X privilege” is that our goal is to make things worse for X. I hope the problem with this is obvious. If we were to present this as a means to an end, this would be fine, but we aren’t, by and large. Instead, we are presenting “X privilege” as the problem (or at least a large part of the problem). When we do that, we necessarily imply that the solution is the removal of X privilege — in other words, making things worse for Group X.

For those of us in the Middle or Upper Class, this pill is fairly easy to swallow. We have our own serious problems, but even we in the Middle Class should understand that, regardless of how many X’s or Y’s we have on our scorecard, we have it pretty damn good compared to most others in the U.S., let alone the world.

But the Middle Class are not, by and large, the people we are failing to convince. Backward and regressive ideas certainly have a significant presence here, but it’s the Working Class that tend to be the hardest to win over on most of these issues. And tens of millions of working-class straight white male cisgendered people — many of whom are one serious illness or round of layoffs away from being unable to make rent — are hearing from us that one of our primary goals is the elimination of their “privilege”.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the impression this leaves. Much has been made of the defamation of social justice advocacy (Feminism in particular), and there’s a lot of truth to that. But no one had to convince straight white male cisgendered people that we were their enemies, we’ve been doing a fine job of that on our own. And it’s language like this that does it.

What makes this problem thoroughly absurd is that it’s almost completely unnecessary. And that brings us to another problem with the word “privilege” as it’s used today. It promotes a very widespread and incredibly bad idea, and the idea is this: “social justice is zero-sum.” By equating male privilege with women’s oppression, white privilege with systematic racism, heterosexual privilege with homophobia, etc., we imply that a loss for one group is necessarily a gain for another — that, for example, the world would be a much better place if more white people were unfairly denied loans.

That sounds ridiculous (because it is), but ask yourself how many times you have heard the following in response to complaints about institutional racism: “well, white people deal with racism, too”. The response tends to be a denial of this assertion, but that misses a greater point; whether or not white people experience racism is thoroughly irrelevant to the problems of systematic anti-black racism. There is nothing incompatible about a world in which white people are (hypothetically) thoroughly detested by all other members of society and black people are locked away for decades en masse for “crimes” that barely qualify as such. Indeed, those two phenomena probably fuel each other — which is pretty obvious if we consider it for even a moment. And yet so many people seem to believe that one of these somehow magically cancels the other. This ridiculous attitude hurts our attempts to solve these problems, and the way we speak of “privilege” lets this attitude flourish.

I am beginning to suspect that the oppression of one group doing net harm to the supposed “privileged” group is the rule, rather than the exception. As another example, let’s consider the Rape Epidemic. This problem is frequently described as a problem (at least partially) of “male privilege”. Yet as I’ve discussed, the Rape Epidemic is largely the result of teaching men some very insulting and degrading things about who they are and how they ought to behave, and then holding their status as men psychologically hostage if they don’t conform to those thoroughly bad ideas. So to describe this as a problem of “male privilege” is grossly oversimplified at best, and thoroughly insulting at worst. And it’s certainly not helping us solve the problem.

I suspect — again, “suspect“, not “know” — that this zero-sum fallacy is also why so many members of “privileged” groups are reluctant or even hostile toward social justice movements. As soon as the topic comes up, people who a moment ago were their friends are mysteriously transformed into their enemies, and they into brutal oppressors. Because, the fallacy goes, they are “privileged” by their systematic persecution. If we could show these people that racism, sexism, transphobia, etc., are a net loss for them too, we might get substantially more support — and, to their credit, some advocates have.

But apart from all these reasons — inaccuracy, bad strategy, etc. — there’s a more important reason that using the term this way is counterproductive and insulting: It makes the problem seem much less bad than it is. We do not generally speak of “human privileges violations”. A privilege, by definition, is something that people can reasonably do without. That is not what is occurring here — and pardon me, but now I have to actually get serious.

People are being thrown in jail for decades for the use of a drug that has never killed anyone. People have to live with the fear — or the reality — of being raped. People are harrassed by the police force daily, sometimes assaulted by them. People need to disguise their displays of affection for one another, for fear of being attacked. In the wealthiest country the world has ever seen, people have to sleep outside, or go without food.

The correct phrase for all these events is not “withholding privilege”. It is “human rights violation.”

And we are obligated — all of us — to use language that fits that reality.

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13 Responses to The Trouble with “Privilege”

  1. Chris Martin says:

    “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

    – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

    This post is part of the willful ignorance McIntosh describes in her essay. By discounting the private, interpersonal marginalization caused by privilege as less important than political oppression, you’re contributing to that marginalization. Your only argument that it’s less important seems to be that “the majority” and “tens of millions of working-class straight white male cisgendered people” have difficulty seeing it, but that’s the point. There can never be a fully democratic society, or a fully democratic movement to achieve a just society, without dialogue and reconciliation on an interpersonal personal level. Getting people to acknowledge their unearned power is the first step in collapsing hierarchies of power at any level, and the refusal to acknowledge it only makes it stronger.

    McIntosh argues that the willful ignorance or invisibility of privilege protects the myth of meritocracy, but you seem to be saying that acknowledging it or making it visible is what helps the status quo. Being able to say these problems don’t matter or don’t even exist is part of the “embedded forms” of oppression, the “colossal unseen dimensions” of social systems that McIntosh identifies. As white males, we are “taught not to see” the effects of our own privilege, and this post is just part of that culture of denial. Your resistance to the concept of privilege is a function of your acculturation as a privileged white male.

    “I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.”

    “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.”

    “For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great…”

    “They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see.”

    “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here.”

    – Peggy McIntosh, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

    • Hsere says:

      “This post is part of the willful ignorance McIntosh describes in her essay.”
      -“Willful ignorance”? — that’s a pretty serious accusation. It indicates that not only am I uninformed, but I’m actively trying to remain uninformed. I don’t see where you’re getting that.

      “By discounting the private, interpersonal marginalization caused by privilege as less important than political oppression, you’re contributing to that marginalization.”
      –I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here. What “private, interpersonal marginalization” do you think I should have addressed that I didn’t? Unconscious bias? The fact that essentially all individuals hold unconscious bias is thoroughly established, there’s basically no reasonable doubt about that. But it’s a cognitive distortion that many, many people would much prefer to lose, and it doesn’t particularly help the individual holding it, in most cases. So I don’t see how it makes sense to describe that as “privilege”, either.

      “McIntosh argues that the willful ignorance or invisibility of privilege protects the myth of meritocracy, but you seem to be saying that acknowledging it or making it visible is what helps the status quo.”
      –Well, no. I’m saying that “privilege” is a bad way to describe these problems, because it *doesn’t* help to make them visible. And because it’s largely inaccurate.

      “Being able to say these problems don’t matter or don’t even exist is part of the “embedded forms” of oppression, the “colossal unseen dimensions” of social systems that McIntosh identifies. As white males, we are “taught not to see” the effects of our own privilege, and this post is just part of that culture of denial. ”
      –The post cites statistics that clearly show a gross racial discrepancy in incarceration rate, an unacceptably low rate of conviction for rape, widespread violence against transgendered people, widespread inequalities in hiring, and a host of other problems. Please explain to me how I am “saying that these problems don’t matter or don’t even exist.” I’m very eager to see how exactly that works.

      “Your resistance to the concept of privilege is a function of your acculturation as a privileged white male.”
      –1. This is an ad hominem attack — if you think my arguments are bad, or I’m operating based upon falsehoods, criticize my arguments or my evidence, not me. Make statements about what’s wrong with my arguments, not about what you imagine led me to make those arguments.
      –2. Even as ad hominem attacks go, this one is pretty lousy, because it assumes that you know my race, when in fact you have no evidence whatsoever of my demographics, beyond being male and middle-class. And before you even ask, I prefer not to reveal my ancestry, for precisely this reason; I don’t want people going “well, he’s black, so maybe we should/shouldn’t listen to him”, or “just another privileged white male complaining”. I want my statements to stand or fall on their own, not backed or hindered by my demographics. The only reason I even revealed that I was male was because it was necessary for a prior post.

      EDIT 2013-05-26, 9:23 UTC: Added quotation marks to clarify which segments are mine and which are Chris Martin’s

  2. elijah says:

    There can never be a fully democratic society, or a fully democratic movement to achieve a just society, without a revolution. I’m all for navel gazing, but if I have to wait for you to become a dumpster-diving vegan (or a guilty liberal), societal change is never going to come. The general strike of Black slaves is what decided the Civil War, Black folks marching and protesting and organizing is what achieved the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, etc. The 8-hour day wasn’t won with people checking their privilege, it was won with people joining criminal syndicates (aka trade unions) and fighting the good fight.

    Insofar as the trade union movement was racist, it weakened itself and created internal divisions. Instead of fighting their exploiters for higher wages, workplace democracy, shorter working days, etc, whiteist trade unions wasted energy fighting to keep people of color oppressed and excluded. As Michael D. Yates points out, more democratic, egalitarian unions consistently win more and better for their members. A “whites-only” union is demonstrably weaker than a multiracial or anti-racist union – “white privilege” is, in other words, a sad consolation prize gotten for policing the superexploitation and oppression of PoC, women, etc.

    Every “Whites Only” sign is another division of humankind. Whites didn’t benefit from Black communities having shittier schools and utilities and such. Period. And having nice facilities and schools isn’t a “privilege”. It SHOULD be seen as a human right, and nothing less. To say that my neighbor is privileged or “benefits” from me being pulled over for driving while Black, is just stupid. An injury to one is an injury to ALL, not a privilege for the uninjured.

    So many movements and struggles for greater social justice have been cleft in two (or more) because white workers identify more with their white masters than their fellow workers. To say that whites “benefit” from white supremacy, to me, seems about as ridiculous as saying that I somehow “benefit” from LGBT people being unable to marry. As our writer above says, most of the “privileges” McIntosh lists are less privileges, and more the lack of someone actively shitting on white folks (or straight folks, or men, etc). Case in point: “24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.”

    See, I’d like there to be a multiracial, multiethnic, multigender, etc movement against racism and capitalism, against the war on drugs and the militarization of police and the prison industrial complex, and against insurance companies and for universal health care, etc. Insofar as whiteism divides movements for justice, it’s a curse, not a privilege. As Holly Sklar writes, “AFDC accounts for 1 percent of federal outlays and 2 percent of state yet a poll of 1994 voters found that one out of five thought that welfare was the largest federal expense, larger even than defense,” Aid to Families with Dependent Children being the highly-racialized “welfare queen” program that actually helps out white folks more than anyone else. Derrick Bell talks about the “white self-interest principle”, which is where whites tend to support social programs only when they feel that whites are the primary recipients. Once a program becomes racialized, whites stop supporting it, even if they’re 100% wrong in their assessment. That doesn’t seem like privilege to me, it seems like delusion.

    Living in an egalitarian society free from racism (and sexism and heterosexism, etc) is a human right, and anything which divides and deludes people away from fighting for that goal is oppressive. As Richard Wilkinson points out, societies with greater social and economic equality do better on just about every measure (from life expectancy to prison populations to stress to school bullying to…) than societies with hierarchy. The average person in an egalitarian society is typically better off than a “privileged” person is in a more unequal society.

    That “Whites Only” sign benefits no-one.

  3. Chris Martin says:

    This distinction between privilege and rights is in McIntosh’s critique: “We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.”

    I don’t see anti-racism and class struggle as competing goals. The OP seems to say attention paid to one means less attention paid to another, as if racial and economic justice were a zero-sum game. I see the two as inseparable in the historical context of the US.

    Overcoming interpersonal privilege is essential to building effective movements for change. As Robert Jensen, author of The Heart of Whiteness (2005), argues, the struggle against white supremacy and white privilege are one and the same.

    • Hsere says:

      “The OP seems to say attention paid to one means less attention paid to another, as if racial and economic justice were a zero-sum game.”
      –I’m not saying that, that would be idiotic. We’re in agreement that racial and economic justice are inseparable. My point is that the way we use the term “privilege” hurts both causes.

      • saturnite says:

        Exactly. The phrase “white privilege” makes white workers want to side with the system, it makes it sounds as if they are gaining extra benefits that the end of racism would take away. By definition, a privilege is an extra that can be taken away, and a right is a minimum that everyone should expect. Whites don’t get extra benefits from racism; rather it is people of color having their rights denied. It’s as absurd as people saying race is about how people’s feelings are still hurt by slavery — there is so much discrimination still going on, if it was just a historical memory it would not be the big deal it still is.

        • elijah says:

          Hey, riddle me this. Do you think McIntosh would say that the neoliberal attack on unions is a progressive move against “the overprivileged”?

          Gotta take away some of those benefits, y’seeee?…

    • saturnite says:

      So to build effective movements, we have to overcome interpersonal privilege — what does that mean in practice? What exactly do “advantaged” people have to give up in order to be seen as overcoming their privilege?

    • elijah says:

      You’re reading the distinction between privilege and rights into McIntosh’s article, when she doesn’t mention rights at all. I assume that you’re equating “positive advantages” with rights, and “negative types” with privileges. Yet, “privileges” can be spread (successive waves of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Arab, Southern and Eastern European, etc – were seen as foreign invaders before “white privilege” was extended to them), and “rights” can reinforce present hierarchies (such as the rights that corporations enjoy).

      For most of the history of whiteness, whites have been talking about white skin privilege. As Abraham Lincoln said, “while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Or, as George Wallace said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” What McIntosh adds to the conversation is liberal guilt, and nothing more.

      McIntosh, Lincoln and Wallace all believe in the zero-sum game which Hsere mentioned. The idea is that there is only so much “benefit” to go around – if you do something which benefits whites, it harms people of color. What McIntosh is asking for, is to split the benefits-pie exaaactly down the middle, so that everyone gets the same amount of benefits. Except she provides no tools with which to slice that pie, telling people instead to stare, long and hard, at the different-sized pie slices, and to feel guilty or indignant, depending.

      With wages stagnant to declining, good jobs flying overseas (or just plain disappearing), and social services being privatized or defunded, telling white workingfolk that they are overprivileged and need to give up some of their benefits, is not an appetizing argument.

      As I pointed out above (Yates and Wilkinson), more equality is better for EVERYONE. Instead of framing the issue of white supremacy (et al.) in terms of needing to disempower oneself, we ought to frame it in terms of basic human rights, rising living standards for all, and of freedom for all. Loving one’s child doesn’t mean loving one’s spouse any less, and sharing your knowledge with others doesn’t cost you anything. Seeing everything in terms of scarce resources keeps us competing for table scraps, when we could be sharing all the world.

      • Hsere says:

        Fully agreed, but for two things:

        1) “and ‘rights’ can reinforce present hierarchies (such as the rights that corporations enjoy).”

        I would argue that extending rights is universally positive by definition — the “rights” granted to corporations are a mis-use of the term.

        2) In fairness to McIntosh, I’d say she does distinguish between rights and undesirable privileges, and she even flat-out states that the word “privilege” is inadequate for our needs. But she doesn’t really suggest an alternative — she just lets that inadequacy lie there and moves on.

        Other than that, I think you’ve got it dead-on.

  4. Pingback: Notes on Privilege |

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