Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Privilege Is (and Is Not)

pic link and h/t to Cynical Nymph for randomly sending me this

This post is a paragraphs long whinge about Black History Month and why don't I get Irish History Month blahblahblah. It's offensively tone deaf and borderline bigoted and I see a post just like it about once a month. (Quick answer: every day is White Guy Day.) So, being deeply concerned about educating the ignorant masses*, I suggested he take a quick look at Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, the invaluable guide to white privilege.

Renaissance Guy apparently ignored my advice. Or he has terrible reading comprehension. (ETA: As it turns out, he did eventually read it, and feels that Will Smith means there is no privilege. There are none so blind as those that do not wish to see and all that.)

In response, he posted this, in which he says that being poor never made him feel privileged, and he had this one black friend who was rich, therefore no privilege, QED.

Please feel free to headdesk repeatedly.

In the interests of education**, I actually hand wrote this post last night. During the Eagles/Redskins game. (Did you see that game? Wow!) Yes, I was that annoyed concerned with education.

(For the purposes of this discussion, I am dividing the world into black people and white people. I am well aware that race is not binary, nor is privilege binary, nor is white the privileged race in every culture. However, it makes the issue significantly easier to write about, so simply assume "white" means "whatever racial group is privileged in the particular culture" and "black" means "whatever racial groups are not privileged in the particular culture.")

Let's assume RG is being honest in his second post. RG presents that he experienced poor nonprivilege, which canceled out all possible white (male, straight, cisgender, able) privilege and his black friend, Angel, experienced rich privilege, which canceled out all black and female nonprivilege . . .


RG is being disingenuous. At best. In his case, poor nonprivilege canceled out white privilege, but in Angel's case, rich privilege canceled out black nonprivilege. You can't have it both ways, RG. Either privilege cancels out nonprivilege or nonprivilege cancels out privilege, but not both. Those two things are mutually exclusive. I don't need to explain "mutually exclusive", do I?

As always, however, the truth is more complex.

Privilege is not a guarantee. White privilege exists, but that doesn't mean every white person's life is all candy and puppydogs all the time. Nor does every person experience every type of privilege simultaneously. For example, my privilege and nonprivilege:

privilege: white, cisgender, straight
nonprivilege: poor, disabled, female

I am privileged in that I can marry whom I actually want to marry, I can use the bathroom that suits me without upsetting anyone and that whole white privilege thing sure makes life easier.

I am nonprivileged in that doors are frequently too heavy for me to open, I am always the bitch, and poverty sucks.

All at the same time. Life is complicated, get used to it.

Let's examine RG's (possibly hypothetical) "friend", Angel. We are presented with a rich, black woman. That's two nonprivileges and one privilege. (We'll ignore issues of gender, able, etc.) Let's take a few examples of white privilege from Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and see if being rich changes anything for Angela, or if being poor changes anything for RG.

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

I can, off the top of my head, think of four different sections of the city that I live in where this is possible. It happens every day at work for me. Also at the Dunkin Donuts, the pharmacy, the grocery store. My town isn't especially white, either. We have a higher proportion of minorities than the average city in the US.

So, more than likely, poor RG can do this, rich Angel cannot.

I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

Poor RG gets shows and movies filled with white people. Rich Angel does not. Rich Angel gets the token black guy and maybe one or two movies a year featuring a majority black cast. Poor RG gets all the rest.

When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my
color made it what it is.

When I was little, I honestly thought minorities didn't arrive here until the 1960s. You know, when the Civil Rights Movement started. Things have gotten a little better, but not much. So, a win for Poor RG, a loss for Rich Angel.

I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their

My (black) nephew used to start the year by flipping through his textbooks to see if there was even one black face in them. Most of the time, there wasn't even one. He's 16. White privilege wins again.

Have we had enough?

People like RG fight long and hard against the concept of privilege. For one thing, privilege is invisible if you have it. That's just the way the world is. You only see it if you don't have it. Imagine privilege as the removal of doors. To me, as a white person, there is no door. There is just an open space in the wall. I don't ever see the door that keeps the black person from entering. The same goes for any other type of privilege. RG keenly sees the rich privilege Angel enjoyed, but is, apparently, unable to see the white privilege he himself enjoys. You only see the doors closed to you, not the doors closed to others.

People like RG are also very opposed to Affirmative Action. It upsets their sense of fair play. "Those black people are getting something I am not getting, and they're getting it just for being black! That's not right!"

White privilege, any kind of privilege, ensures that you get things other people are not getting simply for being born a certain way***. Simply being white removes barriers, doors, if you will, that bar the way for black people. You cannot ignore the fact that being white entitles a person to opportunities and removes barriers and that being black removes opportunities and creates barriers.

In other words, white people, as a matter of course, get the benefit of a culture-wide affirmative action program their entire lives. Most people do not want to admit that their successes are at least partly due to the benefits of affirmative action. This does not change the facts: Every day is White Guy Day. Put your hands over your ears, close your eyes and sing LALALALA as loud as you can, it's still true.

*Not actually true.

**Or serious annoyance.

***Leaving aside the privilege of wealth for the purposes of this discussion. Not that I'm willing to cede that wealth is generally "deserved" in our form of capitalism, or that such wealth should entitle one to privileges above and beyond the common person. Another discussion for another day.


  1. Things like the feminist movement, black rights, hispanic rights, basically any minority's rights, rights for the disabled, rights for different sexualities, etc. would be less threatening to the average straight, able-bodied white guy if they didn't carry the names of "opposition."

    I'm perfectly able to understand that, "Oh, feminism is a fight for equality," but most men are borderline retarded (or mentally challenged, for the thin-skinned). The average guy sees "feminism" and focuses on the "fem-" part. He sees women organizing under a woman banner and thinks, "Wait a second, they're trying to treat me as badly as they've been treated!"

    I think this is why men who can recognize there is inequality are sometimes simultaneously hostile towards the empowerment movements.

    Plus, what guy is going to want to be a part of something called "feminism," or what white person would want to join in the fight for "black rights?" Clearly very few, because you have to be very secure in yourself in order to identify with someone different from you, and straight, able-bodied white men are not secure, and why should we be? We don't deserve our lot in life, and if all those people we stepped on suddenly get treated as equals... what will be our fate?

    I think the privileged fear losing their privilege because they worry that those they stepped on will treat them the same way. In some respects, this is a valid concern, unless you honestly hold to the myth that non-white, female, disabled and homosexual people are somehow better. They aren't, they're exactly the same, and the potential for them to flaunt privilege is there.

    If anything, you should be insulted by white men like me who are not in the least bit threatened by the adorable attempts to fight an impossible battle. I'll even join in on the opposition's side because I like an underdog, but I don't honestly beileve there will ever be equality. Equality is a fine ideal, and if I could snap my fingers and make it so I would... but something tells me we will always live in a world where some have more, and that they have more because they're good at keeping other people down.

  2. I will work for a better future, even if I don't think it will happen, because to aim for less is to ensure less, and to stand aside is to ensure no change at all. (I'm guessing both MLK and Ghandi said it better than that, but there you have it.)

    And you refer to feminism as an "adorable attempt" again and I will be . . . displeased.

  3. It is cute, what with all the pink stuff. And I'm not suggesting we don't try.

  4. [Re the Picture: there is white entertainment television. What do you think Fox News is? it's fear theatre for white people.

    Black people don't need that shit because they have enough real things to worry about.]

  5. I think a big problem with trying to teach people about privilege is that, to the privielge, "you're privileged" sounds a lot like the accusation "you did something wrong." Speaking as a white lesbian who is privileged in some ways and discriminated against in others, I've come to learn that "you're privileged" really only becomes an accusation when a person denies privilege- as that only entrenches inequality. A person also has to let go of the ego a bit by conceding that maybe everything good in your life wasn't the Product Of Your Own Hard Work. Honestly, many people aren't wiling to do that, especially those who were born on third base but mistakenly believe they got there by hitting a triple.

    Relatedly, I got into a, um, interesting conversation at a blog run by gay men where the general attitude was that they don't have male privilege because they're also gay and that, in fact, it was bitchy and wrong of me to "accuse" them of having privilege and therefore I should have retracted my comments.


    Kyriachy. Look it up, people.

  6. Fannie: Maybe that is why atheists seem to be more prone to accepting the idea of privilege. Christianity (especially Protestants) have the misguided notion that everything they have, they deserve and/or earned.

    born on third base but mistakenly believe they got there by hitting a triple.

    Oooooh, I like that. I'm using it.

  7. It's not really the focus of this post, but there are some sections you touch on that are fairly dangerous here PF.

    Whilst it is indeed a problem that certain races/groups/whatever get privileges over others due to weight of numbers, you cannot fix this by asserting the opposite bias in the opposing direction.

    Two wrongs do not make a right, countering racism/bias by implementing an equal racism/bias in the opposite direction in favour of the minorities just means everyone gets affected with racism/bias and that real bigots now have a genuine argument...

    Either everyone is treated equal or nobody is. The former is FAR better than the latter :)

  8. Bret - Your first (and second) attempt at humour really makes me think about how we conduct ourselves online. Surely you would get punched in the face if you said that in public.

    Anyway - I always find that those who don't think the 'battle' is worth fighting because we won't succeed are generally the ones who are best off with the status quo.

    Great post as always PF.

  9. I agree with Boganette: you need to watch your choise of words, Ginx. I acknowledge your viewpoint (that true equality will never happen due to humanities inate tribalism): and to a certain extent I agree with it.

    But "adorable" is an arrogant, condescending way of saying "naive," which is a pretty arrogant and condescending word already. And fighting a hopeless fight for a better world, even with no chance of winning, is many things, but it isn't naive.

  10. Oh and this version of the Privilege Denying Dude works well for this post: http://tinyurl.com/36g4pkj

    It's pretty much my most favourite meme ever BTW: privilegedenyingdude.tumblr.com

  11. Hyper-sensitivity strikes again...

    Surely you would get punched in the face if you said that in public.

    Never happened before, and I say plenty of offensive things in public. Maybe this is because in the real world, we don't go hitting people for exercising free speech, and when someone does, they are arrested for assault. Not like internet whiners who can threaten violence from afar without having any means of backing it up.

    It's pathetic that you can't just hear a different opinion without thinking violence is the answer. It's also pathetic that you can't see that I support equal rights, even though I can also admit it's a pipedream. It's like working for world peace; we probably won't get it, but we should still try. That doesn't make it any less adorable.

    And fighting a hopeless fight for a better world, even with no chance of winning, is many things, but it isn't naive.

    Maybe that's why I didn't use that word, while you did. Don't be daft. You don't have to put any words in my mouth, I have plenty in there already.

    Also, I'd like to point out I didn't call feminism "adorable." I chose to run with it when PF decided I was singling that out, but I originally said:

    If anything, you should be insulted by white men like me who are not in the least bit threatened by the adorable attempts to fight an impossible battle.

    The message of that is not that you should take the word "adorable" and see me as some condescending jackass (though you're free to do so, it won't hurt my feelings), but rather that those with privilege who fight for the disenfranchised are perhaps as insulting as those who stand against the wave of progress.


    Several simple reasons, really. No one needs white men to do anything for them, for one. White men often trt to then "own" these movements, like LBJ did after he signed the Civil Rights Act (even though he was an overt racist). White men like him were not in the least bit threatened, because these token displays of miniscule charity masquerading as "equality" are insulting in their aim, results, and overall spirit.

    What's more, why should an over-privileged piece of shit like me get to feel better about himself and his stance in the world simply by saying "I support rights for [insert group]?"

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  13. I have to disagree, Ginx. You made it clear that you thought both feminism and race-equality were impossible battles, and then you proceeeded to call the "attempts to fight an impossible battle" "adorable". It might have been implicit, but you definately called feminism "adorable." And there are many, many connotations that come with that word, the strongest of which (and one of the least insulting) is "naive." But even if you don't accept this, there is no way you can look at the term "adorable" in the context of fighting against a serious violation of equality, that's complimentary.

    I don't think you're a condescending jackass, but I do think you're acting like one.

    And I think you seriously misrepresent the allies of those movements. Sure, maybe there are some people supporting the movements solely because it assuages their guilt, but guilt is a lousy motivator. I think the majority of pro-feminist guys support feminism because they truly believe the world will be better for it. I do.

    And finally, I'll suggest that if the only reason you support feminism (or civil rights or gay marriage or allowing left-handed people to live) is to make you feel better about yourself, then you're not pro-feminist, for all that you pretend to be...

  14. Ha! Nice mansplaining there chap! You've pretty much proven my point so I should thank you for that. Calling people who disagree with you hypersensitive proves you're a condescending jackass. And I highly doubt "in real life" you speak to people the way you do on here.

    And considering you want to play the victim after trolling for a reaction - I didn't threaten violence. I merely stated that I'm surprised your attitude towards people hasn't come back to bite you in the ass.

    It's awesome that you've decided to come here and play the role of privilege denying dude when that meme is the image on this post. Thanks for that. Would you like a cookie?

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