Thursday, September 28, 2006

Privilege

Amp put up a list of privilege lists on Alas. For those not familiar with the format, most are based on Peggy McIntosh's White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.

When they stick to the specifics these lists can be illuminating - I'm probably not the only white person who had never had to think about the colour of 'flesh-coloured' bandages. But seeing all those lists together raised some real questions for me.

This is partly because I think there's a real problem with the way privilege is framed in these lists - anything which one group of people have and another doesn't is considered a privilege. I'm fine with describing a man who doesn't do his share of housework and has women around him picking up the slack as privileged. I'm much less OK with describing a man who doesn't have to worry about being raped, if he walks home after dark, as privileged. Not being afraid of rape is a right, not a privilege.

I disagree with the content of some of the lists. I think an extremely large proportion of the average sized person are not true for many women - whatever their size (particularly this one: I do not have to be afraid that when I talk to my friends or family they will mention the size of my body in a critical manner, or suggest unsolicited diet products and exercise programs - I find the idea that 'average-sized' women can be free from this fear almost ridiculous). The white-privilege list seems to assume that the white-people in question are middle-class. Some of the non-trans-privilege list also apply to many non-trans women (particularly the stuff about gender and medical care). This is from a social class privilege check-list: "There are places where I can be among those exclusively from my social class" - which suggests he's never been to a factory, poor neighbourhood, or a prison. I get that it's a blunt instrument, but a lot of these lists are obscuring more than they're illuminating.

I also think there's a real problem in treating different sorts of oppression as if they operate the same way. I've written about this before. But these lists, which are all based on each other in some respect really seem to suggest that privilege all works in the same way. For example, representation in media plays a part in most lists, but I would say the role media plays in upholding different oppressions is really different.

But most fundamentally I just don't have much time for analysing the world through privilege. It so often leads to individualistic non-action - to someone interupting a conversation to say "but even having this conversation is a privilege." On an individual level I think it's important to know where you come from, to know what you've been given, and to analyse how you benefit from this system. I absolutely think that everyone has a responsibility to not use the privilege, and power, society gives us - over people we know. But you can't give up privilege as an individual - you can just fight to end it by working collectively.

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Note: I've had a disturbing amount of support from right-wing assholes for this post. I think they glided over this sentance:

On an individual level I think it's important to know where you come from, to know what you've been given, and to analyse how you benefit from this system. I absolutely think that everyone has a responsibility to not use the privilege, and power, society gives us - over people we know.


I think I should make the point more explicit. I believe that when you interact with someone who has less power and resources tha you do you have a duty not to wield your advantages over them, or to act like you're superior because you have that power and those resources. Snapping at workers in the service industry? Absolutely unacceptable for anyone who believes in any kind of equal society. Asking why those in poverty get hire purchaces (when you can always get credit from your parents)? Equally obnoxious. Obviously in order to do this, you need to understand what power and resources our society has given you.

However, I believe this step is only a necessary pre-requisite for meaningful political action, it is not meaningful political action in and of itself. I'm not saying that you shouldn't realise what society gives you, it's just that realising it doesn't doing anyone any good at all unless you organise.

9 comments:

  1. Right on !
    The problem with the "privilege" framework is that it erases the question of oppression and exploitation. You can have a privilege and yet not oppress anyone. House slaves had the privilege over field slaves of sleeping in their master's house, but that doesn't mean they were oppressing or benefiting from the exploitation of the field slave. They were both oppressed and exploited by their master.
    Similarly a white person has a better chance of getting a job than a black person, but they're both exploited by the capitalist class.

    One thing the privilege framework does is put things in terms of individual moral choices as in "renouncing your privileges". But while renouncing your privileges is often necessary to conduct an effective fight against oppression and exploitation with other oppressed and exploited people, this collective fight should be the driving force, not the search to appease one's conscience by "renouncing privilege".

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  2. Gerrit6:49 am

    Great post Maia,

    I guess you need to make lists of all the wrongs in the world before you can start to make a todo list and start fixing them.

    I wonder though how many are based on stereotypical myths rather than facts. About 80% I would guess.

    The overwhelming sensation I got from reading all the lists was this is another example of a talking about problems without coming up with any answers.

    Hand wringing middle class claptrap. Almost like a guilt trip to make themselves feel bad.

    Noticed there wasn't a list for womens privilege.

    Which (defensively speaking) should be included.

    ilestre,

    Before you can renounce your privileges you would need to list them. I tried but got a very short list.

    Would it not be better to work towards a society where all privileges are the same for everyone rather then renouncing any you have?

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  3. "Privilege lists" would usually be better titled "White liberal guilt - isn't it embarrassing." For instance, I'm not sure to what extent having a "flesh-coloured bandage" more or less closely match my skin colour than black skin constitutes a "privilege", let alone whether it's evidence of anything more than being in the majority in my country.

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  4. Gerrit8:00 am

    rypbjPsycho,

    Do you think the middle class is predominately white or has it been defused enough now with maori, polynesian, indian, chinese, etc. to be called just middle class?

    White middle class seems another of those stereotypical myths.

    Middle class to me are the people who moan about the poor (and the rich) but do very little to actual make changes for the betterment of self or others.

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  5. Abdul el Razir8:23 pm

    i totally agree with all that was said, apart from the bits about exploitation and oppression and privilege

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  6. Well Red10:54 pm

    Gerrit

    It is okay to say to something is a problem without having an answer.

    First one has to recognise there is a problem before trying to present a solution - it is very hard to fix a problem without realising there is a problem. Once the problem is acknowledged then one should look to others to discuss the problem and try to come to some conclusion or answer together.

    The idea that you cannot complain if you do not have a solution is not helpful. It is not possible for one person to have all the answers but this doesn't mean they cannot recognise problems and promote debate to start the process of improving the situation.

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  7. curiousgyrl4:19 am

    thanks for this one--the privledge framework needs work.

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  8. Allison12:43 am

    I love finding old discussions about important social issues. Even though the discussion is probably "closed" I'll add a thought in response to the author's complaint about rape being on the list of privileges (a man's "not being afraid of rape is a right, not a privilege".) I believe this is the point of privilege lists; they point out that many entitlements we all should enjoy are granted only to certain groups, turning the entitlements into privileges. Everyone should be able to walk freely alone and not worry about rape, yet women specifically do not have this entitlement, therefore some are privileged to enjoy it while some are not.

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