Is There a Better Way to Discuss White Privilege?

February 28, 2015 at 3:20 am 2 comments

I’ve previously discussed my problems with the term “privilege”. I think there are basic human rights that every person should have, regardless of gender/race/ethnicity/class et al. See: United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (discussion on the political status/significance of this document will be saved for another post) When one person is denied basic human rights and dignity, and another person is given those things without question due to a difference in what social category they belong to, then the second person is not so much “privileged” as being treated like a human being, whereas the first person is having their human rights denied- they are being oppressed.

Privilege on the other hand, is some type of social “bonus” you are given, on top of humane treatment. The usual connotation is that this privilege is conditional and can be taken away upon a person’s violation of laws or even non-legalized social norms of behavior. Many of us become familiar with the second case as children- when we are warned by parents or other authority that bad behavior will result in loss of the privilege to watch TV, go to recess, eat dessert and so forth. In a legal context, a driver’s license is a privilege that can be suspended if a driver violates traffic laws, does not pay tickets etc. Interestingly, while voting is generally seen as a right, it becomes a “privilege” once someone is convicted of a felony.

But in postmodern academic-activist social justice discourse- privilege is both basic humane treatment plus extra social bonuses that people get based on what social categories they belong to, due to the social, political and economic structures that are in place. But since, most of us are not sociologists, economists or historians we are going to have a pretty limited understanding of those structures. Imagine you are a white, heterosexual man with a high school education living in a small town in Iowa that is almost entirely white (though you think of them as German Lutherans and German Catholics)  consisting of mostly farmers, farmhands and shopkeepers. You think of yourself as nice, fair-minded person who treats everyone with respect, regardless of their gender or skin color. You are politically moderate, and vote in each election but aren’t very involved beyond that. You understand racism and sexism mostly as individual acts of discrimination and bigotry. But then you start hearing more and more about racism and sexism, as well as other isms that are less familiar, like ableism and homophobia. You thought many of those problems, were for the most part resolved in the past, and are upset to hear that they are arising again. Out of concern, you join an online anti-racism group, and quickly grow confused about what other people in the group are saying. They are using all these terms that are unfamiliar, like “micro-aggressions”, “gaslighting” and “intersectionality”. You try to look up what these words mean, but they only seem to lead to even more unfamiliar concepts. Meanwhile, some of your questions and comments that you thought were innocent and well-intended are met with accusations of “micro-aggressions” and “tone-policing”. Your attempts to explain yourself are met with people virtually yelling “Check your privilege!” You don’t think of yourself as that privileged, and that term brings to mind images of various Ivy League-credentialed Presidents and candidates. You’re definitely not like them! So you leave this group, shaking your head. You turn on the radio, and hear a voice complaining about “political correctness”, the assault on middle-class American family values, the farm economy and so forth. You start nodding.

*By the way, I am not specifically making fun of Iowa- I used to live there, and I got the “pig-farmer” jokes when I moved to Minnesota. I’ve also lived in Montana, Idaho and Kansas. This scenario is based on various failed conversations I’ve seen and participated in both in person and online between educated,  urban left-wing activists and people who are often less educated, from very white areas, and with more moderate or conservative political views. And Particularly in the Heathens United Against Racism group on Facebook. Good, well-meaning people, don’t get me wrong, but like I said there are huge communication problems and need to educate in *multiple directions*!

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ubenmaat  |  March 2, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I think the idea is that, in a society where many are treated inhumanely, being treated like a human being IS a privilege.

    Reply
  • 2. caelesti  |  March 6, 2015 at 4:00 am

    Exactly, but the people who take that treatment for granted don’t realize it, and when you talk about privilege to them, they often get mad thinking that you’re implying that they didn’t work hard to get where they are in life. Which is a big mis-understanding, but I’m trying to find ways of framing it differently.

    Reply

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