08 March 2014

Privilege - its not the problem

Response to:

I absolutely love its general premise, and could not agree more - though perhaps for slightly different reasons.
I have long questioned the entire idea of "privilege", and especially the focus on it.  If you are lucky enough to be middle class, its fairly easy to see inequality in terms of having some privileges or not.  One of those privileges is being able to (pretend that you) live in an insular world where an individual being culturally insensitive to another individual is one of the worst aspects of racism.
As a African American, who has lived most (but not all) of his life in poor, high crime, high minority urban areas, the entire sub-culture of race activists has always looked very shallow and meaningless to me.  It has always seemed much more about being able to say "I, in contrast to all those other (white) people, am enlightened."

What, exactly, does white people or men or straight people or whoever, acknowledging their privilege actually accomplish?
Lets say every single European American was fully aware, fully acknowledged, and fully internalized that they have privilege relative to other people.
Would that somehow instantly, magically, cause wealth and income inequality to disappear, so that whites were proportionately represented among the extremely poor (and I'm not talking "can't make car payments" or "home foreclosure" poor - I'm talking "can't afford a halfway decent bicycle" or "choose between rent and food" poor) - or better yet, make it so that everyone who has the ability and desire to work could live (what we currently consider) a middle class lifestyle?
Would it end the dramatically different levels of violent crime victimization?  For all the talk about police brutality, young black men are murdered by young black men somewhere on the order of 100 to 1000 times more often than they are shot by cops.  If enough white people acknowledged their privilege, would that stop?

Even from within this essay - its a great suggestion to make a point of having a non-college educated person speak for every college educated person.  Of course, given the context of the essay, doesn't that take it as a given that college graduates will be disproportionately white?  Of course that is true - why not work on changing it?  How would inviting non-college educated people to speak help to equalize the education gap?  That's a much bigger problem, one that effects many more people, much more profoundly, than who gets a chance to give a talk to a room full of people.
The entire concept of privilege, of race awareness, of cultural sensitivity, it is all the masturbation of activism: it feels good for the people doing it, but it doesn't accomplish anything.

So, overall, I'm glad this was written, glad it is saying what it is saying.  I fully agree with and support the basic premise.
That said, there are some particular things that stand out to me that I disagree with.
It is repeating / reinforcing the nearly universal assumption (among activists) that inequality today is caused by "structural forms of oppression" and "systems that enable these privileges".
My response to that is much the same as my response to the idea of privilege - how would dismantling any current system actually make anyone's life better?  More over, exactly what "systems" and "structures" would those be?  This is not 1900.  This is 2014.  Racist and colonial systems have ALREADY been dismantled.  And yet race disparity still exists.
That racism is explicitly illegal does not end the problem.  But it does change the problem - yet so many people are stuck thinking in terms that are no longer relevant.
Thinking that disabling oppressive structures will solve problems is like ending slavery (with not even the meager restitution which was initially promised) and expecting former slaves and their children will simply catch up via hard work.  It would take specific pro-active steps.  If every single boss and teacher became color blind, if every prison were closed, if every nation-state were dissolved, there would still be a culture of drugs and violence in the poor black community.  There would still be massive wealth and education inequality, and it would continue to go from one generation to the next. 
There was a time when activists realized this, which is why the Panthers created preschools, economics classes for adults, free medical clinics, and drug rehab programs; its also why, more recently, the program to try to at least begin to address education inequality was called "affirmative action".  Unfortunately, now that name has been taken, but its what we need - not reactionary and destructive dismantling of existing structure, but affirmative action

Much of the specifics are concerning not racism, but colonialism.  I find the portrayal of young American's returning from foreign lands with their "insights" as absolutely spot on.  But I find the suggestion that there is no clear way to deal with it rather odd - it's simple: leave other cultures alone.  Give them access to the knowledge of technology IF they want it, and otherwise leave them the hell alone.  You don't need to go and have your personal profound experience, any more than they need you to come in and save them from their lifestyle and choices.

The portion on nation-states strikes me as having an anarchist ideology at root which makes assumptions about what a nation-state is, which are not necessarily true.
Assuming that without them there would be less violence, less fighting over land, less oppression of one group by another, shows a profound lack of knowledge of history.  The nation-state has only existed for a few hundred years, but those problems have been far worse for most of history than they are today.  This is not to say that the specific methods of action discussed are not absolutely wonderful, positive developments.  Its more that, if the community movements talked about were to expand, and eventually make the state irrelevant - that means they have become the state.  And that's ok.  In fact, it is amazingly positive, because it would have meant a peaceful revolution, which brought (real!) democracy in from the ground up.  That is what needs to happen, all over the world (including America) - actual democracy.  Not what the US calls "democracy", which really means "open markets", but the kind where the people make the decisions of how the state will run and how economic structures will be organized.  That can happen just as easily within the model of a nation as it can without discrete borders.

As far as "safe spaces", my suggestion is this: get over yourself.  These issues are way way bigger than whether your feelings get hurt.  This is stuff that actually impacts millions of peoples lives in very tangible ways, and in order to address problems, sometimes people need to be real and direct and to the point.  Sometimes that means not being "politically correct" and sometimes it means not being "culturally sensitive".  Its not about you.  Deal with it. 
The essay is right to point out that being in an oppressed group does not automatically make you incapable of doing wrong, and a structure designed by an oppressed group is not automatically "oppression free".  People are people, and if you want to form something free from inequality or harm, you have to start out admitting you are not perfect, and then make a conscious effort to recognize and correct for your own biases and assumptions.  No one is immune to them, regardless of race or sex or personal experience.

Again; "as the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement."
Yes.  This is true. And it is a problem, because it distracts people who are aware from doing anything useful.
Overall, my criticisms are relatively minor compared to how much I support the overall point.


  1. Re colonial rule, may I suggest you read


    Actually the US was 'discovered' because Europeans were trying, at almost any cost, to reach India and its legendary riches and civilization.

    Thank you

    1. This is true, but I'm not really sure how its directly relevant... I was responding to a critique of a modern phenomenon.
      Not that history isn't generally important and relevant to understanding things that happen today, but in this particular case, your comment seems a bit... irrelevant


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