the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

On the Limits of Privilege

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Amongst people privileged enough to have discussions on social media about abstract concepts, discussions of privilege is a la mode. A quick rifle through its usages on today’s Twitter, turns up the following (spelling and punctuation retained as originally posted):

  • a Latina woman complaining about the colourism of “white/light latinxs” within Latin communities:

“they chose tha privilege they live with instead of bein part of our community” [150 likes, 75 retweets]

  • a white person sarcastically complaining that white people can’t do anything without a black person calling them out for racism:

‘So one of my coworkers got up and apparently went crying to the principal about me. Why? Because I took a can of coke out of the fridge before she could get to it. She said I made her uncomfortable & embarrassed with my blatant white privilege’ [46 likes, 13 retweets]Oxford so white

  • another white person’s enraged belief that mass insurrection in USA is kept down only by the fact of Donald Trump’s whiteness:

“President Trump defending a pedophile is another sign that white privilege is alive and well. Can you imagine if President Obama had done the same thing? There would have been fucking riots in the streets.” [112 likes, 42 retweets]

  • A white South African academic asking people to read his article “On gated communities and privatised privilege” [98 likes, 94 retweets]

  • A self-defined Xicana woman’s observation that:

‘nearly everyone has some kind of privilege, just acknowledge it and navegate it to contribute meaningfully to discussions instead of taking up space’ [49 likes, 24 retweets]

  • A black woman’s angry criticism of self-defined ‘genre-less’ American rap-rock-folk artist’s Post Malone’s comment that ‘if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop’:

‘this is the epitome of white privilege to actively participate in something that wasn’t originally made for you, then, criticize it the thing while contributing to the very problem you’re pointing out.’ [1200 likes, 850 retweets]

  • conservative black American radio host Larry Elder’s rhetorical comment:

‘”Stuart Foster, an American sociology professor who spent nearly eight months in a southern Chinese detention center…” –Where’s “white male privilege” when you need it?!’ [57 retweets, 100 likes]

  • And a white man telling shock-jock conservative US TV host, Tomi Lahren, who had tweeted that ‘I will NOT apologise for being white’, that:

“Nobodies asks u apologize, just admit u have been the beneficiary of white privilege 4 all of your pathetic life.” [no likes, no retweets].

I also learned about the existence of a ‘White Privilege Conference’ in Kansas.

Post Malone

Post Malone: “Don’t listen to hip-hop”

I do not cite these tweets to mock those who tweeted them. It is a broad and fairly random sample of usage, stemming from different political viewpoints (some of which I support, some of which I don’t) on a popular social media platform. I am interested in how its progressive core has been adopted, co-opted and adapted to the bounds of a neoliberal world.

I first heard the term ‘privilege’ in its current political context in the line, ‘check your privilege’. Linguistically it is an imperative – an instruction or command, rather like our Xicana woman’s tweet, telling people how to “navigate” social space. ‘Check your privilege’ is sound advice. Think after you’ve said something about what it might mean to other people in the room. Or, better still, think before you say it. Be aware that for all kind of socio-political-historical reasons, people do not have the same experience of social space, the same access to culture, employment and representation as you do. A case of positioning the feet in the shoes, as Q-Tip once said. And, being a handy phrase that was sound advice, simple and short enough to share, ‘check your privilege’ became something of a mantra.

And then, it seems, people really got into checking their privilege. They discovered that the closer you checked privilege the more micro-privileges you could find. They checked privilege with their privilege-checking microscopes and saw that even within the atoms of privilege there were the electrons, neutrons and protons of privilege, and they

HAADF micrograph of a copper and silver rich precipitate in an aluminium-based alloy

HAADF micrograph of a copper and silver rich precipitate in an aluminium-based alloy

checked inside them and discovered quarks. So you might be privileged because you had a university education, but not privileged because you were black, and were privileged because you were male and able-bodied, but weren’t privileged because you had depression and you were privileged because you were Western and light-skinned but you weren’t privileged because you are bisexual.

And so someone, unsuspecting, could use their research to rate themselves according to their privilege quotient and publicly confess their privilege sins. Or they could use it to prove that no one should be allowed to speak on any topic unless they had less than so-many points on the privilege charts.

As A. Sivanandan wrote, historically, “such fragmentation of struggle, while helping perhaps to overcome the personal paranoia that capital visits on different groups differentially, sends them off in search of their sectional identities, leaving capital itself unscathed.”[1]

John S Rock

John S Rock (1825 -1866), credited as the originator of the phrase ‘black is beautiful’.

Capital needs hierarchies of sex and race to justify exploitation, ‘naturalising’ the poverty of the Global South with concepts of racial superiority; ‘naturalising’ social reproduction and acts of care as ‘women’s work’ and thus less worthy of recognition or of pay than ‘male work.’ The work of ‘Black is Beautiful’ and subsequent campaigns for dignity, address what Sivanandan astutely describes as “personal paranoia” inflicted on people by institutional racism and patriarchy. However, this psychological violence is not going to be alleviated if we make all ‘privileged’ people apologise for their privilege. Toni Lahren, unfortunately, is right. She should not say sorry for being white, she should acknowledge the general facts of world history and personally say sorry for being racist.

Toni Lahren

Toni Lahren: “I will NOT apologise for being white”

It is also worth noting that ‘privilege’ as a description of the power and inequality inherent in whiteness, masculinity, youth, able-bodiedness, cis-genderedness, heterosexuality etc. is incomplete. Masculinity, as feminists have pointed out, leaves men deficient in a number of ways, notably in expressing emotion, and may in part explain the higher rates of male suicide. Middle-class people are often unable to talk honestly about themselves or to interact comfortably in certain spaces, a fact that has kept therapists in business. White people in many places lack the kind of community and culture that non-white communities have built, despite of, and in some cases as a direct response to, a common oppression. Being on the ‘privileged’ side of inequality allows access to certain spaces, jobs and opportunities which are real and significant advantages. It means freedom from want, from sexual harassment, from state violence, social stigmatisation and religious condemnation. And because of those facts, I cannot make equivalence between social discomfort and actual oppression. So, check your privilege but be aware that inequality itself is not good for anyone. As William Godwin observed, “Both the poor and the rich

William Godwin

William Godwin (1756 – 1836): “servility on the one hand and arrogance on the other”.

have their rational capacities sapped by servility on the one hand and arrogance on the other.” Masculinity, whiteness, straightness etc. are indeed political privileges, which a democratic society should work to counter, reduce and balance, but if we see them also as emotional-social impediments, then we can rationally point to the benefits of white straight males giving them up.

Privilege is a useful lens to view inequality and disempowerment. But to move from equality and power to privilege as our analytical framework means to focus on the individual experience rather than the social-political context. Privilege, as pointed out, has myriad slight differences, but equality does not mean sameness and does not deny individuality. It’s not even about people being “equal” to each other. Indeed, as Pyotr Kropotkin argued, if we treat people equally according to their needs, ‘needs cannot be satisfied without treating people differently’[2]. It is about, I think, people, in all their various differences, being of equal value and status in the world. Human equality, rather than creating what (in the popular Western imagination) characterised Soviet sameness, has to infer pluralism and difference because these are inherent in human existence. Thus, when Hannah Arendt writes that the holocaust was a crime against humanity, not just against its particular victims, she means that denying someone’s right to speak, to express their culture or identity or even, in the case of ‘administrative massacre’, to exist at all, “is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is upon a characteristic of the human status without which the very words ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.” [emphasis added][3]

Privilege, as our Latinx tweeter noted, allows the comprador class within an oppressed group to separate themselves from their less privileged cousins, but the use of privilege as an anaylsis also allows white racists to hijack it to complain of their own oppression (not being able to take the last can of coke from the work fridge, for instance). Privilege discourses often personalise more systemic analysis to make, e.g. Obama oppressed and Trump the sole enemy. The advice-form of ‘check your privilege’ (pertinent to men such as Post Malone) has, ironically, been taken over to denounce, castigate and attempt to excommunicate people not for what they say but for who they are saying it. Post Malone’s comment, as our tweeter points out, is a typical one for a white person to make, but is offensive not because he is white but because his comment suggests that art about black people’s lives says nothing ‘about life’.

black is beautifulVague calls for a generalised solidarity are not enough. Oppressions of different groups are particular in their character. It is right to acknowledge that the experience of being racialised as black is different from that of being gendered as female. And to be a black woman is different from being a white woman or a black man and these intersections of oppressions and oppressions-within-oppression must be acknowledged and allowed their distinctive character. Privilege is not a myth. To borrow a famous philosophical distinction: the privileges of my class, race, gender, nationality and sexuality give me more freedom from a number of oppressions and exploitations and more freedom to travel and love where and whom I like. So I should check myself in a number of ways.

But privilege is a symptom of the organising principle of society, not the principle itself. Struggling against white privilege would lead you to treat some of the poorest of Western society as perpetrators of structural inequality. Alternatively, you break white privilege down into its ever diminishing constituent parts until we are at the level of small groups of very particular oppressions fighting against the privilege of others or competing for their own claim and voice to be heard. Thus it denies the possibility of empathy, unity or solidarity, incapable of imagining the lives of others or standing alongside others different from ourselves. What is privilege-analysis’s positive core? Is it a flattening to a society of ‘no privilege’? Or a world where there is ‘privilege for all’? The truth is, it doesn’t seem to know. It has no solution or utopian horizon – other than white men should shut up. Perhaps this is a decent idea for now, but what then?

Let’s look instead at what creates privilege, i.e. the class system, racism and patriarchal norms. Modern (i.e. from the 16th century onwards) racism grew out of ancient tribalism, as a ‘Christian’ justification of slavery, to reduce people to commodities to be bought and sold, stolen and murdered, done unto as they would never have had done to themselves. Modern patriarchy took an age-old social division and massively amplified it, making work a male terrain, at a time when enclosure took peasants off their land and set men to work for a wage. Science and medicine became a professionalised male world, in the process destroying women’s oral knowledge at the burning buring at stakestakes of the witch-hunts and banishing women from sexuality and social roles other than mothers and child-rearers. Gay men became seen as ‘feminine men’ and thus lesser human beings than their heterosexual counterparts, lesbian women and ‘spinsters’ became ‘unnatural’ for not wanting to belong to a man.

Checking our privilege can help us see those inequalities and power imbalances that maintain the system and also to see in any particular struggle, a conception of the general. So let me rediscover my equality with others through meaningful solidarity, knowing that my ability to empathise with someone else’s oppressions should also inform me that I do not experience those oppressions in the same way that they do. We struggle together, however, because ultimately the goal of the feminist struggle is not to destroy men or to push (some) women up a hierarchical system, but to end a patriarchy built on the essentialising binary of gender; because ultimately, the aim of the anti-racist struggle is not just the promotion of diversity and cultural pluralism but also, far off as it might seem now, the end of race itself.


with thanks to my friends Darren Chetty and Sam Siva for checking the privilege of this article. All views (in all their limitations) my own.

[1] RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle, A. Sivanandan, Race & Class, vol XXVI, no. 4 (1985), from Communities of Resistance, (Verso, 1990; p118-119)

[2] From Anarchism and Education A Philosophical Perspective, Judith Suissa, (PM Press, 2010; p64).

[3] Eichmann and the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt [1963], (Penguin 2005, p92-93)

Written by angrysampoetry

November 26, 2017 at 8:40 pm

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