Privilege theory: a political impasse?

On the 1st May 2014 (International Workers’ Day) I attended a session titled “Intersectionality” at the launch event of the Free University of Sheffield. The strap line to the session – “checking our own privilege” – was a more accurate descriptor, since the session itself advanced privilege theory rather than explored intersectionality. Ideas on intersectionality seem to me to offer a potentially creative political exchange, whereas the current popularity of privilege theory, bound up with intersectionality discussion, appears to lead activist milieus into a political impasse (see also my post On privilege theory and intersectionality). The (black) woman leading the session problematized an image used by the (white) organisers of the Free University of Sheffield to advertise the event, an image which she described as black African children holding a free education poster (the actual image is below). She deemed this as an ignorant appropriation.

photo(1)I spoke up: while we must be sensitive to the temporal and spatial specificities of such images (social, cultural, economic, and political), there is something universal here. She replied: what could I possibility think I had in common with the people in the image? I suggested: the universal struggle for free education, for starters, also, the universal struggle for free health care, the universal struggle for independent trade unions…

Nothing concrete in terms of political activity came out of this session, unless the well-meaning musing and ultimate entanglement on the part of the predominantly white audience count. Some looked pretty concerned by their accidental but privileged appropriation of an image of the unprivileged. I, by the way, was one of two non-white participants, the other, of course, was the session leader. I sensed that my outspokenness might have been less tolerated had I been white, in which case I might have been expected to look pretty concerned too.

Moving from an encounter of privilege theory in practice to the theory itself, in Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she states:

“Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended. Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege, which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. […] the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.”

Privilege theory views society as a seesaw: you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down. It is a personalised dual camp – us versus them, me versus you – perspective on social relations that is devoid of independent class politics, and is prone (dare I say it?) to unproductive anger.

seesawMia McKenzie, writing about ways to push back against privilege, declares: “The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.” Speaking from the vantage point of a black woman, her advice to the privileged is:

1. Relinquish power – “If you are in a position of power and you are able to recognize and acknowledge that at least part of the reason you are there is your (white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, class, etc.) privilege, then pushing back against that privilege means sharing that power with, or sometimes relinquishing it to, the folks around you who have less privilege and therefore less power.”

2. Just don’t go – “If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it. […] Pushing back against your privilege often requires sacrifice.”

3. Shut up – “This one is so, so important. If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up.”

4. Be careful what identities you claim – “If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. […] Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience.”

As a blueprint for political action, it is the gist here that troubles me. For instance, in terms of anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, it is harmful to naturalise the idea of ‘race’ (see my post Racism 101: what is it?) and with that invert the seesaw of privilege theory. There is a passivity and political impasse to privilege theory that Mia McKenzie ironically demonstrates. She says, it is not enough to be aware of your privilege, you must push back; yet her four points for pushing back entail little to nothing that is actively or proactively political. Given that we are all, in one way or another, according to this theory, privileged and unprivileged, advantaged and disadvantaged, we are all left naval gazing.

Maxime Rodinson on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

The independent Marxist and Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson is praised by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) for his “extraordinary achievements” and his “methodological self-consciousness”. For Said, Rodinson was one of an exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines.

Rodinson wrote the following books: Mohammed (1974), Islam and Capitalism (1977), Marxism and the Muslim world (1979), Israel and the Arabs (1982), The Arabs (1985), Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1988), Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (2001), and Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (2001).


(Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Rodinson states, in the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), of Said’s Orientalism:

“Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.”

See also, my post: Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

For more on Maxime Rodinson, see: Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’Maxime Rodinson: A Marxist historian of Islam, and Some thoughts on the death of ‘anti-Marxist’ Maxime Rodinson.

Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.


II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.


III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)


“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)


IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.


Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles