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.

One thought on “Privilege theory: a political impasse?

  1. You make several good points here, and I appreciate your break down of the issues. As an educated white female, modern feminism’s obsession with intersectionality and white privilege as led me to reject feminism and leftist activism outright.

    Although I have participated in anti-war and pro-women’s rights events in the past, modern leftist activism is a toxic drag, a narcissistic circle jerk of pithy hash tags and witch hunts against intellectual infidels. I just don’t have the energy to care about “their” never-ending, ever-expanding pool of minor grievances, special snowflake groups, and immature identity confusion. Plainly put, the people that expose these views often sound like petulant children – “Shut up and do as I say!” they screech.

    The modern dialog about “white privilege” on the internet and in universities has about as much nuance as a sandbox fight in the elementary playground. “Sally has white privilege! We hate Sally! Sally is the source of all our problems. Shut up Sally and give us your toys because we think you don’t deserve them because we are jealous!”

    I’m not falling for this pathetic, academic leaky-pussy feminist guilt trip just because I’m a woman who is sympathetic to leftist causes. These women (Crenshaw and McIntosh) are idiots in the true sense of the word. They think blathering about race makes it so. What qualifications does P. McIntosh have for determining that all white women are self-absorbed, race obsessed, upper middle-class twats like herself? Has she done ANYTHING else? No, she is just a white academic evangelical that makes her money peddling the gospel of white guilt to young people who haven’t lived long enough to see how useless it is as an agent of change. And frankly a lot of the far left sound like Christian fundamentalists these days when it comes to the gospel of privilege.

    Or why does Crenshaw think white women should shut up and listen to her? Because she says so? How mature. I’m not too impressed with academics these days. Anyone can go to school (hell I have three degrees myself), and with gendah theory, any confused idiot can claim to be an expert on – uhhhh whatever the fuck gender people “study” these days.They expect people to bow at their feet and say, “I’m so sorry for being born to white people and knowing what sex I am! I will just sit down and shut up in the face of your glowing wisdom!”

    No, I don’t have to swallow such blatant nonsense in order not to be a bad person who is against progress and human rights. The main problem I see with leftist activism these days is how all or nothing it is. If you don’t embrace the entire cornucopia of fringe causes they just put you in the “racist” or “right-winger” box and effectively neuter you from doing any sort of activism until you recant your heretical views. Sorry if I don’t think fat shaming is like totes a huge issue or care about autogynephiles who comprise less than 1% of the human population.This is why “sit down and shut up” hashtag activism won’t get us anywhere.

    For instance, I’m an adult who will put my own interests first. Anyone who doesn’t put their own survival and interests first is an idiot who will starve when the group decides you are out. Many leftists, even so-called feminist activists, think women should lay down for every whack cause and live in a state of perpetual deference to others causes based on ephemeral and ever changing trendiness, but that is stupid. I was raised by christian fundamentalists and faced full communal shunning for leaving. Yet I left because I having freedom was more important than having community, so I know how hard it is to stand up for your convictions in the face of an angry, irrational mob.

    I have struggled my whole life growing up poor and succeeded in attaining an education and working a career, despite my fundamentalist family doing everything in their power to keep me down. What do I have to be ashamed of? Existing while white? Why should I look at myself as an oppressor when I have spent my whole life fighting and escaping real deal oppression? Yet in the working world I am harassed by certain black women (I work with other black women who are allies and friends) who want to push me out of my job because they think I’m privileged because I’m pale.

    Ironically, i make the same pay as these women and therefore we are on the same level as workers, yet they just don’t like me cause I’m white and they have preconceptions about what being white means. Shall I quit my job and go homeless because I have white privilege and it would make these certain black women feel better? These privilege theories are less social theories that are applicable in the real world than religious pronouncements intended to stroke the egos of academics and professional grievance mongers.

    I have to work and pay rent and buy food too last I checked. Not all white women are pampered princesses, but that is the popular trope exposed by these self-congratulatory, ivory tower arbiters of all things who tell others how the world works from their cushy offices in Gender Studies departments.

    If leftist activists actually want social change, they are going to have to quit trying to shove pseudo-science and emotionally charged illogical theories down allies and other adults throats. There is only so much screeching and guilt demanding from activists that actual working people will take before we just tune it out and move on.

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