Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scratching the Privilege Itch

When people start using the meaningless word "privilege" in a political context, they soon slip into the depths of ridiculousness without ever noticing it. They start publishing endless posts and articles that attempt to construct profoundly weird hierarchies of privilege without ever stopping to question the validity of the word they use more often than an indefinite article.

Who is more privileged, a fat Asian transgendered heterosexual male or a thin white visibly disabled gay woman? A cisgendered working-class able-bodied Latina or an upper-class white gay transgendered invisibly disabled man? Protracted debates around these questions occupy so much time of the pseudo-progressive privilege-pushers that no real political activism takes place.

The reason why I write so much about my annoyance with the privilege-analyzing folks is twofold. For one, this small minority of jargony pseudo-Liberals make the entire progressive movement look ridiculous. If a reasonable, progressively minded individual reads a post like this one, how likely are they to take anything coming out of the Liberal camp seriously? The answer is obvious. Another reason why this masturbation around privilege bothers me is that it occupies the space where meaningful political discussions and genuine activism could take place. It creates an illusion that people are doing something important while in reality nothing other than a senseless parsing of a meaningless concept occurs. 

The self-righteousness that the privilege-pushers unanimously possess comes from their deep conviction that by owning up to something as non-existent as privilege they have confessed their deepest sin and can now receive the absolution from the Liberal community and rest on their laurels. After that feat is accomplished, they start policing those of their progressive brethren who have managed to resist the allure of scratching their self-aggrandizing privilege itch.

P.S. Now, whether you agree with the ideas I expressed here or not, wouldn't you say that this is a very well-written post? I kind of think it is. I need to go and examine my privilege of somebody who writes well.


j. said...

Am I weird that the whole privilege debate reminds me of conversations with Evangelical Christians (oh man, how much would they hate THIS comparison!)--where it's all about "are you saved" and "I need to be saved" and "gotta save more people" and not about actually then figuring out what you're going to do with the rest of your happy Christian saved life. These endless round and round privilege debates just don't GO anywhere. I'm a privilege, you're a privilege, my privilege is bigger than your privilege, she can't see her privilege, she talks about her privilege but is obviously blind to her privilege by the way she refers obliquely to someone else's privilege, AAAARRRGH.

Then again, I'm just some pearl-clutching starched-petticoat white woman. (Wait...I don't have pearls. Or petticoats...) So what do I know?

Clarissa said...

This is brilliant. The best comment ever.

Tim said...

I always get the feeling that the word privilege implies that I have it better in every situation in life.

But it obviously does not work like this. There are certainly situations in which women are 'privileged'. Or homosexual people. And so on and so forth.

And when you have argued that pretty much everyone gets favoured in some kind of situation then there isn't much difference between saying nobody has any privileges or we all have them.

Society expects us to work towards stereotypes and the more we comform with them, we get rewarded and our life gets easier. And when we swim against the stream we face discrimination.

Eva said...


You do know that by challenging the concept of "privilege" you're actually demonstrating just how privileged you are?

And you are by definition racist, because only a racist would deny her white privilege.

Oh, and you have "internalised" sexism. (Didn't Uncle Karl call this "false consciousness"?)

It's terrifying, really, this stuff. But taken to its logical conclusion it must "collapse under the weight of its own inherent contradictions."

Because only the marginalised are the experts on privilege, those who are privileged must, to use Ms Martin's words, "shut up and listen". A hint of privilege makes one's view illegitimate, which ultimately means that only the view of the most marginalised person can count.

As for the "activism" you mention ... I'm just waiting for someone to turn up here (or elsewhere) and complain about your "whiteknighting". How dare you try to make life better for anyone who isn't you? How can you speak for them or act for them?

And thus does "social justice" eat its children ... because somehow I don't see the Right quaking in their expensively-tailored boots at the prospect of being tackled by the commenters on that post, do you?

Clarissa said...

The privilege-pushers always come here to make the exact same jargon-ridden cliche-filled statement. It is not surprising that people who rely so heavily on meaningless concepts would all repeat the same thing like sad little parrots.

The point is, Eva, that if we start measuring whose privilege is more privileged, you just might lose to me. Have you ever considered that, my dear privilege-lover? I'm an autistic who is an immigrant from a 3rd world country. What do you have to show in terms of privilege? Are you sure that your marginalization trumps mine?

Do you see why this whole discussion is ridiculous?

Rimi said...

Clarissa, I disagree with you absolutely on this. You've appropriated the use of a very useful concept in the demonstration of socioeconomic inequality, placed in a ridiculousl flippant context, and then used that context to dismiss it entirely. Very Republican of you.

This comes as a particular surprise because you're not exactly Glenn Beck, and have in the past shown remarkable common sense when critiquing the universal application of such ideas as democracy, 'freedom' or the motivating factor behind marriages across cultures. Now, certainly you're under no obligation to be well-informed on things you talk about, and you have every right to your opinions and broadcasting them, but I must say -- as someone who spends every single day in a society rife with jagged cliffs of casteist, linguistic, ethnic, religious and financial privilege -- I find this amateur and glib critique rather irksome.

Clarissa said...

Can you give me an actual example of "financial privelege" since this is one I never heard before?I went to school with people who had trust funds, factories and expensive real estate. They were extremely disadvantaged by all that in comparison to, for example, me. So where is the "privilege"?

Clarissa said...

Unless you believe that it is always better to be a man than a woman (or vice versa), always better to be rich than to be poor, always better to be heterosexual than gay, always better to be American than not in every single situation everywhere, then there is no privilege. None.

There are just some different situations where some things are better and some are worse. And then there are more different situations.

Rimi said...

A very strange argument, and misguidedly ego-centric. If I were the queen of all I surveryed and the arbitrator of reality, being somehow different from me would not matter because exalted, fair-minded me would see to it that it didn't.

Since this is not the case, however, my personal ideals or yours matter precisely nothing. We're really that absolutely irrelevant to the structure of the society we live in. And this structure is defined in terms of who gets better access to resources by virue of constructed privileges (born to rich families or ruling castes, being white during the colonial era, having enough money not to enter into commerical apprenticeship at 10) and who inevitably is penalised for their benefit.

In fact, this very comment exchange is a demonstration of privilege. I am intellectually privileged because I have the ability not to block out everyday realities from my analysis, and therefore have access to a more comprehensive picture of the society I live in. And you, apparently, don't. Or are pretending not to to elicit a heated debate.

Eva said...


Um ... sorry. I typed this post late last night (I'm in Europe) and clearly didn't express myself coherently.

I thought my last paragraph, and the one beginning "it's terrifying..." showed that I'm entirely with you on this, and my other statements were intended to hold the concept (especially as it's used in some circles) up to ridicule.

If it's that difficult to distinguish between a piss-take and the real thing, though, then your point is all the more valid.

There really are people who say that to critically think about these things is intrinsically racist/sexist or whatever; they really do think that only the most marginalised voice counts and that anyone with privilege is automatically wrong.

Except they don't really think that ... you can be privileged and Good (though never as good as a marginalised person) if you talk about how you're constantly checking your own privilege, and you can be marginalised and Bad (though never as bad as a privileged person) if you've "internalised" the kyriarchy's narratives.

Graham said...

If you are right, then I, a white, middle-class, professional, privately educated to university level, heterosexual male, can ignore any suggestion that I am privileged.

I believe that I am privileged.

Some seem to believe that this gives them a moral claim over me. For example, Eva thinks I should 'shut up and listen'. I believe that we should all listen to each other, not because we are more or less privileged but because we are human.

At the risk of sounding pompous, I pay tribute to you for allowing yourself to be called 'racist' on your own blog. I would have drawn the line at that point.

Clarissa said...

Graham: I think you should, indeed, ignore such a suggestion. Don't you feel that there is a lot of baseless condescension to people whom you assigned the role of less privileged than you?

Eva: I'm sorry that I didn't get the irony. On this topic, I automatically expect people who like to raise their self-esteem by bemoaning their "privilege" in a fake manner to start going off on endless diatribes. They often remind me of kids whose favorite toy is being taken away.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: of course, I speak from my own experience. Whose else's should I speak from? I'm trying to understand if you think that these people who "get better access to resources by virue of constructed privileges" are really in all cases 100% better off, happier, more fulfilled than those who don't.

In my country, after the events of 1991, a group of people remained with most of the resources while the rest got access to none. Incidentally, the extremely high rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide also went to the group that hogged all the resources. I'd like to see a concrete explanation who is "privileged" in this concrete situation and who isn't.

I never get any concrete examples from people who believe in "privilege", just a lot of vague verbiage about society in general.

Pagan Topologist said...

OK, here's an example. In the 1960's, white males were most definitely privileged among people who wanted to travel into space, or even to the moon. No one else, whether in Russia or the U. S. had a chance, no matter their qualifications.

Generally speaking, I am unsure to what extent I agree with you here. I was certainly privileged by being white and male when it came to my educational opportunities. My first wife applied to grad school in physiology at the University of Chicago in 1965. Even though her academic record was outstanding, she received a letter saying "We do not accept women from small liberal arts colleges into our graduate program."

They might not phrase it the same way today, but I strongly suspect that the institutional bias is as strong as ever, which is why I would never suggest that any student apply to this university.

Pagan Topologist said...

I apologize. i forgot that there was a female Cosmonaut in the 1960's.

Clarissa said...

Valentina Tereshkova was a hero. We do, of course, have a very unique history of gender relations in our countries. I still struggle to explain its complexities to people.

Pagan Topologist said...

My observation still is valid for the U. S. and also for race.

Clarissa said...

Couldn't you think of quite a long list of things that women could and men absolutely couldn't do in the 60ies?

Rimi said...

Clarissa, since you asked for an example of financial privilege and I never do things by half measures, here is a post on it.

Pagan Topologist said...

Blogger Clarissa said...

"Couldn't you think of quite a long list of things that women could and men absolutely couldn't do in the 60ies?"

Yes, of course. And this fact establishes that privilege existed then. The idea that it no longer exists is suspect. The fact that Oprah is a billionaire does not change the fact that in many ways the deck is stacked against women and against people of color, economically.

Clarissa said...

Pagan Topologist: I don't think I understand this at all. If one's gender brings both benefits and disadvantages at the same time, then how can anybody talk of gender privilege?

el said...

Rimi, I wanted to comment in your blog, but couldn't. Is there a way? Hope you'll put up what you think about body-soul relationship too.

If one's gender brings both benefits and disadvantages at the same time, then how can anybody talk of gender privilege?

Clarissa, it's what outweighs the other. The same way everybody has both good & bad traits, yet we feel fine judging people as not being equally good (or bad).

I am not sure choosing to be working class would be a good idea. Some high class women had salons, wrote poetry, had political influence, enough food for numerous children in the era without reliable birth control, etc. Working class without minimum wage laws, without pension in case of being disabled on the job (!), with many working class women being raped and abused... Just recently there were numerous posts about the fire on the factory with women jumping from the windows to their death to escape death by fire. And factory owners not being punished at all! Were those women workers just as priviledged as the factory owner's family since they worked?

You implied you could always work. Not true without safety standards (work conditions) and health care. Invalid working class woman with numerous children on the street isn't where I would want to be.

Clarissa said...

el: I'm not prepared to make generalized judgments on which benefits outweigh other benefits in terms of gender relations. Are you?

Nora said...

I think the term "privilege" can be useful as a succinct way of saying "not systematically targeted by [insert ism here]." Like, as a white person, my life might be better if racism were abolished. But I certainly am not *oppressed* by racism, so in that way I'm privileged over the people who are.

It's not a terribly difficult concept, and it doesn't communicate as much as some activists seem to believe it does. (The "who's more privileged?" game you referenced is a sad, sad reality among some people). But I think that, as far as terminology goes, it's pithy and occasionally useful--particularly when trying to understand where other people are coming from.

Also, hi! I'm a long-time reader, first time commenter. I'm sorry to be introducing myself in such a contentious thread :P

Clarissa said...

Hi, Nora! I'm glad to have you here. Your comment is very insightful. This is the kind of usage for the term that I would find it easy to accept.

2nd Nin said...

As a tool to actually understand the differences in societal treatment of people the feminist 'privilege' concept is rather broad and over used. If you read the feminism 101 blog you note that it is inconsistent with itself (privileges vs advantages vs benevolent gifts, and their negative versions) as well as requiring structural support to be true (but only in certain cases).

If you take something relatively simple like wealth privilege - most people would rather have money than not have it. At the same time there reaches a point (on an individual basis) where having wealth becomes problematic. So while wealth > poverty generally wealth itself can cause other issues that the simple wealth > poverty doesn't cover. If we then consider intersectionality with other privileges we start to have major issues actually seeing anything for the haze around it.

Then you have to consider privileges as a whole, they apply to a class of people but only some of them apply to some of that group. The famous male privilege checklist of Ampersand is filled with very situational and limited entries most of which are heavily dominated by class issues. Further the white privilege checklist combines dominant racial group, dominant social group, and other subsets of privilege because it is American centric. How much white privilege exists in Japan, why are southern Europeans sometimes considered white and other times not... it's just a mess.

The concept of privilege is useful up to a point, but it is too broad. Most groups will likely have something like a bell curve of privilege and it is the overlap and spread we are looking at really but instead we focus on the few people who have all of the privileges and then back apply this to the whole group. Male privileges as an example don't tend to consider the 10% or so of the male population in prison in the US, the bad parts of privilege are simply ignored.

el said...

In my previous post I tried to defend the concept of privilege itself in general, not in gender. Didn't explain it well. Personally, I use 2 criterions:

1) Who is supposed to achieve (at least lower levels of) Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which are food= resources= money= employment ? F.e. with all the perks of being a woman in the 50ies & before in US, entrance to well-paying, well-respected jobs wasn't open. If a husband left her, she would be SOL (Sadly Outta Luck). In short, financial independence by being given possibility to work, without relying on one's spouse or, as was in 17th (?) century f.e., father or brother.

2) Who fights to change the status quo? There was a feminist movement, not men's movement "we want our wives be lawyers too and take more financial responsibility". Isn't it logical to conclude women as class liked status quo less?

Clarissa said...

Are you trying to convince me that feminism makes sense? :-) I'm with you there 100%. However, the fact that each gender carries both punishments and rewards is undeniable. You and I might not want the traditional rewards of our gender but they still exist. And to be completely honest, I use some of them. On a daily basis. Honestly, I wouldn't want to be a man for anything in the world. because I'd lose all these rewards and I don't want to be without them.

Rimi said...

El, it must have been Blogger playing up, which it does often. Please try to comment again if you have the time, it's good to hear every possible point of view :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

ARRRGHHH!!! The plural of 'criterion' is "criteria', and may it never become 'criterions'.

Clarissa said...

el is not a native English speaker and she doesn't live in an English speaking country. As it is, I think her English is phenomenal.

Pagan Topologist said...

Oh, OK. My apologies. (Although criterion is a Greek word, I think, and so should universally use a Greek plural form in my opinion.)

el said...

Pagan Topologist, first I want to thank you since I prefer people correcting me to help improve my English. Unfortunately, they rarely do. Actually, I even googled the term before using it and somewhere found only "criterions". Can't find where, but here the form is mentioned too:
Well, if it's on Internet, it doesn't mean it's correct.

Never studied Greek or Latin.

If somebody sees any glaring mistakes in my posts, I am always glad to learn.

However, the fact that each gender carries both punishments and rewards is undeniable

I agree. However, I believe that if one goes to the roots, radically, only one gender has real power, according to traditional values, and this gender isn't ours. Real power isn't defined as manipulating people as long as they let you, but as forcing them do what you wish. Look at Saudi Arabia, where "all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian". Look even at Egypt. I definitely wouldn't want to be a woman there.

If so most women have been unhappy with "traditional rewards of our gender" (f.e. depressed housewifes in the 60ies in USA despite good economy), then those rewards haven't been adequate for most, not only for a few outliers.

If men weren't eager to give those rights, then they didn't see the exchange as beneficial to them.

--> My conclusion: traditionally, men indeed got more benefits. I hope most of traditional rewards disappear and we get full equality instead, not only in the law books, but in the hearts and minds of average "people on the street". Are those rewards worth attacks on abortion and even birth control? Insulting remarks from colleagues? Even if one puts them into their place with words and complaints, it can't change how they view women.

I am sure that most women would gladly accept full equality instead those perks, but many men wouldn't. It's easier to give flowers and pay for a date than cook and clean after coming from work every day. Easier not to be put on a mommy track.

In practice, many women are afraid to embrace feminism since they don't want "half-cooked version", aka the worst of both worlds:
You do all the work at home as before only now plus full time job.
You get to have sex before marriage, yet you feel guilt due to cultural messages, many men don't care about your pleasure and now, unless you're religious, you're expected to perform as a p*rn star or be dumped.

Clarissa said...

"You do all the work at home as before only now plus full time job.
You get to have sex before marriage, yet you feel guilt due to cultural messages, many men don't care about your pleasure and now, unless you're religious, you're expected to perform as a p*rn star or be dumped"

-My friend, if there are still women in civilized countries who have such experiences, it is only because that is what they choose.

"I am sure that most women would gladly accept full equality instead those perks, but many men wouldn't. It's easier to give flowers and pay for a date than cook and clean after coming from work every day."

-Those perks include not having the obligation to succeed professionally or financially and support a family. Those perks include not having your gender identity tied into whether you succeed professionally and financially. I'm not talking about silly things like paying for dates. I'm talking about NOT having the obligation for your entire family in terms of finances because if you let that obligation slide and don't perform well enough, you don't feel like you are a man.

el said...

not having the obligation to ... support a family.

Imo, the lines are already blurred. F.e. not long ago I read Israeli woman minister saying it's OK to be a single mother, if you can't find a suitable man, but not OK ask government to help you afterwards. She didn't say "go find a man", but "earn money".

Many men want "an independent woman". Even mention that in dating profiles. Independent = money = work. Great numbers of men would run away from a date, who said "I want to be a housewife". The only exception I ever seen was somebody, whose own mother stayed at home, and he said he intended to have similar family model. And here I am talking about secular Jews since haredi Jewish women are expected to support their husband and children to enable him learn Torah.

And, of course, women don't have to support a family only if their men earn enough for them & children. In many, many families it isn't the case. I guess in most families it isn't so.

Yes, the "official" stand still isn't equal, but in practice many (most?) men I see & hear about wouldn't date not "independent women". We're hopefully in transitional phase between "unnecessary to work" and "as much as men". Thus, women still get some of traditional perks. Since I don't believe long term stagnation is possible (or desirable, but it's another matter), I hope we move towards full equality and not in the opposite direction.

Btw, when you said you wouldn't want to lose female privileges (not wanting to become a man part I agree with), I thought neither you nor me ever seen what truly equal society would look like. There the privileges would in practice be more than now, since women are already expected to work and serve in the army (in Israel).