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.
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.
Mia 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.