RevolutionZ

Ep 269 - The Concept Privilege: Barrier or Bridge for Social Justice?

February 18, 2024 Michael Albert Season 1 Episode 269
RevolutionZ
Ep 269 - The Concept Privilege: Barrier or Bridge for Social Justice?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Episode  269 of RevolutionZ considers the concept and practice of privilege as in, for example, white privilege, male privilege, and class privilege. Is to uncover, call out, and renounce privilege, a powerful tool for overcoming racism, sexism, and classism, or does this approach instead have unintended consequences that interfere with its own aims? In offering a controversial exploration of a widespread activist approach am I defending my own white, male, class privilege? Or am I trying to contribute to anti-racist, feminist, and economic justice? You decide. And by all means, then let me know your assessment.

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Speaker 1:

Hello, my name is Michael Albert and I am the host of the podcast that's titled Revolution Z. This is our 269th consecutive episode and its title is Is the concept privilege a powerful aid or a serious hindrance? I recently participated in a relatively brief email exchange about the concept privilege and it made me feel that a broader airing of the issues might prove worthwhile. So this episode of Revolution Z asks if the concept privilege, as in white privilege, male privilege and class privilege, helps or hinders our understanding of our way of communicating about and, finally, our efforts to overcome racism, sexism and classism. I should add, however, that the basis for my concerns about the concept privilege is only informed accounts from people about their own experiences with the concept's use, plus what I recently read in the various emails I replied to. I am no expert on this, so why do I worry that the practical use of the concept privilege often has harmful, albeit unintended, consequences, which, if true, we ought to avoid? A concept should demarcate things, relations, with a name to draw attention to and facilitate clear communication about that thing. In that light, it seems to me, to activists who want to understand the world, to change it, the word privilege should point us to phenomena that need our attention in a way that lets us discuss those phenomena without confusion. In this case, the phenomena that need attention are presumably oppressive differences in situations, access, possessions, options, etc. From one constituency to another. So we want a word that usefully directs us to such differences. Additionally, the word we choose should help us answer why such differences persist, what structures enforce them, why people resist support and this support or ignore those structures, and what to do about the oppressive differences in our conditions. For example, should those who have the better condition lose it or should those who have the worse conditions gain the better? Should the structures that enforce such differences be replaced and, if so, with what? And how can movement activists most usefully work toward the sought ends? By constructively addressing those who enjoy positive or who suffer harmful conditions? Okay, what differences do the phrases white privilege, male privilege or class privilege highlight, and how does calling those differences privileges enhance our efforts to address them in ways that further prospects for change?

Speaker 1:

I wonder if to say, for example as I think many who use the concept privilege do that not having to be ultra careful around cops, or that not facing hurdles when trying to get alone, etc. Are white privileges, or that to not be raped or burdened with excessive household responsibilities, etc are male privileges, or that to not be poor or bossed etc are class privileges, is helpful, and I wonder if these uses imply to many who hear the word privilege, even when it is not the intention of using the word, that these differences should not exist by way of no one having the better condition, rather than by way of no one suffering the worst condition. That is, I wonder how often the word privilege is heard to mean that those who have the better condition should lose it or give it up, and not that everyone should gain the better condition by no one being denied it. If a white listener, for example, hears that they should give up their white privilege, what do they think that means? Is it sometimes that they too should fear cops and they too should be denied loans, rather than that those who do fear cops and who do not get denied loans escape those conditions? If so, that's pretty weird. I presume that no one says that per se, but do people nonetheless often hear that To cause to shed white skin privilege and to shed male privilege or class privilege seemingly a personal, individual step, sometimes crowd out calls to replace institutions that impose race and gender oppression.

Speaker 1:

I assume the intent of the word privilege is instead to highlight and give attention to the dynamics that cause white people and males and members of dominant classes who are not overtly racist or overtly misogynist or overtly classist, and who even feel themselves to be anti-racist, feminist and in favor of classlessness, to nonetheless not perceive all the ways these oppressions manifest and even affect their own behaviors and beliefs. Yet, despite that intent, does the current uses have some harmful effects? Rather than always highlighting what needs highlighting in a way that facilitates usefully addressing what needs correction, even for simple acknowledgment of difference, is telling someone to give up their white or male privilege the best way to get them to acknowledge that those who suffer racism and sexism are denied all sorts of things that those who do not suffer racism and sexism enjoy? And in any event, what should the privilege give up? To give up privilege? Does looking for and calling out privilege orient activists to see what needs seen? Yes, we all have baggage, but don't most people already realize there are large unjust differences in circumstances? Or perhaps know there are unjust differences in circumstances but feel hopeless about personally affecting them? Or perhaps know there are the differences but say they are deserved.

Speaker 1:

It may be that I don't know what the word privilege refers to, but do those told they have privilege? No, is something called a privilege if one has it but others do not? Or, one step better, if some constituency systematically has something but another constituency symptomatically does not have it? In either case, though, isn't the thing that most needs to be conveyed, and that often isn't conveyed by talking about an individual's privilege, what some don't have, that all should have, why that is, and especially how to seek better. If I have a job and you don't, is that me having a privilege?

Speaker 1:

Why is it advisable to use the term white privilege, say, as a way to get white folks to see unwarranted, oppressive differences, when using the concept also gets some folks to feel that they are being told they shouldn't have these quote privileges, end quote which in fact all should have, or more so that the problem is mainly personal attitudes, behaviors, not institutional pressures that bring those about. Should unionized workers not strike for still more income while they also try to advance all their coworkers and even all other workers and ideally, everyone suffering any oppressive denial, because for the unionized workers to get more would lead them with still more privilege. I assume those who use the concept privilege don't mean that, but does what they mean do get across and does it focus on all that needs attention? If we say racism crushes possibilities for some people, so we should all fight it, including our not being racist, why isn't that better than to say, or even just to seem to say, hey, whites, you need to give up your white privilege of feeling safe on the street so you can usefully understand racism much less usefully, help get rid of racism? Is the intended meaning clear, given that much of the stuff called privilege is stuff everyone should have, not stuff no one should have? Does calling out privilege work as a tactic to reduce oppression? Does it point to oppressive structures? Build solidarity? One part of choosing words we use is, of course, that when carefully considered, when put in context and when heard as intended, they are accurate. But another part of choosing words is that when people hear them, in fact they hear what we actually intended to communicate.

Speaker 1:

With these questions troubling me and the reports that I hear from teachers and activists about what might be called practice guided by finding and understanding privilege, it seems to me there are two simple consequences of using the concept privilege that are potentially negative and a third that is a bit more subtle but also negative. The three are one I worry that when activists use the concept privilege to talk about oppressive relations, the concept tends to focus them on various personal characteristics, even to the exclusion of addressing institutional characteristics. This in turn tends to cause them to feel progress as purely a matter of personal characteristics, not institutional changes. This, of course, says nothing about any particular person's motives for using the concept privilege or about their understanding of oppression. It doesn't say the person who looks for privilege is oblivious to institutions, but it does suggest there may be a too frequent effect built into using the concept privilege in current times that causes, or tends to cause, minimizing institutions.

Speaker 1:

Two despite the good intentions of people who use the concept, I also worry that many who are told that they have male privilege, white privilege or class privilege feel that it means they have something that no one ought to have and that because of that, regardless of their actions and beliefs, they are an active supporter of racism, sexism or classism, which they believe to be false. More, if that occurs, I believe their assessment is not simply defensiveness but often a reasonable impression of what, the words they hear, and sometimes also what the attending tone they encounter means. I also fear that when additional content is provided to explain just what their privileges are and why they exist which sometimes doesn't even occur people who are told to renounce their privilege and who have heard that their privileges are mostly things that they and everyone should have as rights, feel that the idea of renouncing such things makes no sense. It seems to disparage and intimidate, but not communicate. 3.

Speaker 1:

I also worry that, knowing that defensiveness is a possibility which of course it is and also feeling a high priority to find and call out privilege and then to also resist what seems to be defensive privilege, too many people react to another person who disagrees with their views about something, for example about the usefulness of the concept privilege, by assuming that the reason the person disagrees is not that the dissenter has honest concerns but is because he or she is defending privilege or at best manifesting biases that derive from privilege. And of course, again, while that could be the case, it also might not be the case. So, in light of the three possible debits, I wonder what people think is the gain of using the word privilege and talking about renouncing one's own privilege if it doesn't communicate what they mean it to communicate. Of course we should realize that people, including ourselves, have better or worse circumstances depending on our position in society. But does that mean we should go into a workplace, university, church, household or whatever, meet people and say, hey, you there, give up your privilege, which people don't even know they have or don't even know what it is? Or does it mean we should instead say, hey, we need a workplace, university, church, household or whatever, where everyone has the following positive conditions, and then move on to say that to achieve that, we need to counter and replace sexist, racist and classist institutions, habits and biases.

Speaker 1:

So why do I have these concerns? As noted at the outset, partly it comes from things I read, but since my concerns are with the concept's practical application, mostly it comes from things I hear from faculty and students and activists who describe events in their classes, and from activists and people viewing activism who describe events in their organizations or their movement interactions. It is, for example, commonly taught that white coordinator class men have a stake in wanting to poo-poo the concept privilege, whether the stake is psychological or material or both. And, yes, that is one factor that could push an individual to feel the above concerns the ones I feel, and, yes, such possibilities are important to be aware of and to understand. For example, it is conceivable that right now I am poo-pooing the concept privilege simply to protect my privileges or, perhaps, more benignly, just out of ignorance or habit induced by my privileges. But it is also possible that I and others actually sincerely have these concerns.

Speaker 1:

A long-time activist, for example, might honestly disagree about the value of the concept privilege, and so might a white working class guy, each not due to racist, sexist or classist defensiveness, habits or beliefs, but simply because they sincerely think that when someone tells another person that he or she is privileged and that he or she ought to renounce their privilege, it tends to have avoidable negative consequences, they think, as an alternative, shouldn't we not jump to the conclusion that defensiveness isn't work? When someone disagrees with us, they think. Shouldn't we instead consider the disagreements sincere? Shouldn't we carefully consider the substance of the person's words and not just assume their words are mere defensiveness and thus without substance? Suppose a critic of the usefulness of the concept privilege doesn't have a lifetime of practice that suggests there just might be substantive reasons and not only or even mainly defensiveness or a narrowness of perspective at work. Still, even if there is no prior positive history at all, shouldn't we carefully consider the person's concerns and not dismiss them simply because the person is male or white, or coordinator?

Speaker 1:

Does looking for personal privilege and personal defense of privilege promote listening carefully, or does it promote dismissiveness, for that matter? Doesn't to communicate and get positive results, even when it is the case that defensiveness, bias or ignorance are at play, depend not only on one's own understanding being correct and not only on the intended meeting of words being worthy and applicable, but also on whether one is getting across what one intends to convey to the conversational partner and as well to those hearing the exchange from outside. If the three debits I have mentioned do often occur, then, even though they occur against the intentions of practitioners, shouldn't we try to accomplish the valuable aims of people who use the concept privilege, but without suffering the above debits of using the concept privilege? In the email exchange I was party to, it was suggested that trying to find good, effective ways to communicate to people who you have differences with is, of course, valid and important. But an added suggestion was that in trying to find a better way to communicate about oppression, first you have to acknowledge that the concept privilege is useful. And to do this you have to acknowledge that our positionality, place in society, informs how we think.

Speaker 1:

In part, this seems a little strange to me. If one wants to usefully question the wisdom of using the concept privilege, first one needs to acknowledge that the concept is useful. More like I think, and maybe this was what was meant if you are going to try and do better than using the concept privilege, you have to acknowledge that the aim of discerning oppressive differences in their sources, conceiving what to replace them with and learning how to effectively challenge them is profoundly important. And yes, I agree, but note that there is a catch-22 involved. If instead one says to believably pursue the aim of discerning oppressive differences, their sources and what to replace them with and how to effectively challenge them, when you want to question the efficacy of highlighting privilege, you have to accept using the concept privilege. So I certainly emphasize that the roles we play and the societal situations we have to navigate not only help inform how we think but also help inform what our interests, habits, biases and beliefs are. But then, despite acknowledging that and believing that and acting on that in light of that critical insight, can't I look at how the concept privilege is used and question it being a good way to communicate.

Speaker 1:

People who centrally use the concept privilege have, I know, reported that it is revealing to note that you won't find a lot of black, chicano or female activists who disagree with the idea of positionality and how it deeply shapes the way we see and understand the world, but that you will find white men who do, which they consider pretty telling. But I would bet that very few white men on the left would disagree that the roles we play and positions we have in society not only inform how we think, but also our interests, habits, biases, etc. And I would even bet that most people who don't ordinarily think about such things would, on hearing some explanation, agree as well. On the other hand, I would also agree that some white men, among others, don't take the observation far enough to see various true things about race, gender or class, including about their own views, and that that too is important to understand. I would suggest, and I wonder if people who routinely and often use the concept privilege would agree, that that shortcoming is also true for some black or Chicano men about gender, or for some white women about race, or for some white, female, black or Chicano people who are pursuing or occupying coordinator class positions about class For that matter. I wonder, perhaps more controversially, if people who often use the concept privilege and rightly believe the roles we fill and circumstances we encounter impact our views and beliefs, agree that the horrific circumstances and positions that women, blacks, chicanos and workers often endure do not inevitably guarantee them political wisdom about all things, and that nor does being white, male coordinator, capitalist, old or even all four together inevitably deny one wisdom. Can we agree that all these type results are real tendencies and are critically important when looking at whole constituencies, of course, but also that they are not inevitabilities, even for whole constituencies, much less for every individual? Can we agree that to determine personal motives is generally too complex for quick and inflexible rule of thumb conclusions?

Speaker 1:

So what makes up most of the things that people call privileges? Are they often just rights denoted by a new overarching name that carries some additional connotations, as it seems to me? When I consult writings that describe or list privileges and that sometimes very smartly describe their impact, or when I hear about classroom, workplace, household or organizing exchanges that involve calling out privilege, it seems to me that things called privilege are more often things we all ought to have than they are things no one should have. More some people having them and others not having them seems, as I view such lists, mostly due to the pressures of institutions, not due to individuals actively pursuing the advantages and denying them to others More what makes up most of the tone and import of engagements that I tend to hear about.

Speaker 1:

Most of those seems to quite often either begin at or gravitate toward implying or explicitly telling folks to well, when it gets extreme, be silent because they're being white, being male, being coordinator or anyone, or all three, prevents them from understanding conditions sufficiently well to say anything worth listening to, at least until they renounce their privilege, whatever that may mean To report in response that not every advocate of using the concept privileges uses it to quiet people, or even that most advocates of using the concept don't desire that. It's nice to hear and I assume it's true, but I am not concerned about the best use of this concept, nor even about its empirical claims, nor about people's intents when they use it. I am critical instead of how the concept use plays out in practical situation. So the good intentions, good meanings and even objectively good practices of many, or even all, who centrally use the concept are beside the point, if enough users of the concepts even just sound like they are trying to convey to those who they say are privileged that their instruction is to be silent. I have said that when I investigate and find what things are called privileges, it turns out they are overwhelmingly things we all should have, and thus things that might better be called rights, though, to be sure, many people do not have them because of systemic pressures that we need to eliminate. Here, for example, to bear this out is a highly respected list that I found. They are all real, of course, and the accompanying rich explanations, which I didn't copy over, are astute, netifying, though they tend to under-emphasize institutional causes. And I wonder, for the most part, do these privileges mostly identify circumstances that no one should have, when anyone doesn't have them, or do they identify rights that everyone should have?

Speaker 1:

1. I have the privilege of having a positive relationship with the police generally. The list of privileges was generated by a white supporter of the use of the concept privilege. 2. I have the privilege of being favored by school authorities. 3. I have the privilege of attending segregated schools of affluence. 4. I have the privilege of learning about my race in school. 5. I have the privilege of finding children's books that overwhelmingly represent my race. 6. I have the privilege of soaking in media blatantly biased toward my race. 7. I have the privilege of escaping violent stereotypes associated with my race. 8. I have the privilege of playing the colorblind card, wiping the slate clean of centuries of racism. 9. I have the privilege of being insulated from the daily toll of racism. 10. I have the privilege of living ignorant of the dire state of racism today.

Speaker 1:

I think most people who use the word privilege also believe, for example, that sexism is not just male privilege, but it's in part about more detail the idea of masculinity, unpacking the negative ideas of cheese moe and masculinity, bringing down those gendered divisions of labor and gender-driven institutional roles. I agree, but I nonetheless wonder about the efficacy of using the concept privilege as ubiquitously as it is now used, not because I am defending injustices, which I in fact agree must be overcome, but rather because, while its users tend to think that the practical use of the concept privilege helps to win people over to the task of undoing injustices, I worry that its practical use quite often does the opposite. More, it seems to me that identifying privileges can positively help reveal, which is mainly, that some people are better off and in some sense gain from oppressive hierarchies of benefit, as well as how this happens and how we are all affected and why, to some degree, we even have assumptions and habits that enforce what we despise. I think those positives can be accomplished just as fully, but without incurring the three problems I have mentioned, by simply using the concept oppression instead of privilege and starting from structures and only then getting to, when useful, personal traits. I assume no one has ever said that privilege means that privileged people should be oppressed too. I assume as well that no one thinks they should be and that no one has explicitly said they should be, but I do think the way that people talk about privilege and confront privilege often conveys, however unintended and even weird the ensuing message may be, that folks should not have the things that are called privileges, and since what is called a privilege is mostly things that are rights, this strikes the person called privilege as quite weird. If so, it is not unreasonable that people often feel like they are weirdly being told they ought not to have those rights. Renounce your privilege, well, okay, but how does an individual do that when the cause is systemic and the privileges are rights. To me it seems true but strategically irrelevant to say that confusion isn't any advocate's intention. Of course not.

Speaker 1:

My concern, yet again is not about intentions. It is instead about how using the concept privilege in real world situations affects some advocates and how it is heard by and affects a great many who are told they have privilege or who even just hear stories about such encounters. When told that they need to renounce their privilege, much less when told that until they do renounce their privilege, their opinion is unworthy of intention. Why wouldn't people get a wrong impression of what is intended? But that they get the wrong impression matters. Finally, I know that some readers may feel about this essay something like Michael.

Speaker 1:

Don't you agree it is worth considering how strategically useful it can be for white, male or coordinator class activists to try to discredit the work of feminist, anti-racist and classist activists by critiquing the discourse of privilege and its specific meaning and usage? Yes, sure I do, but at the same time I would reply don't you see that to a priori assume defensiveness is the reason for some individuals to question the attribution of privilege and to dismiss of their concerns on that account, is doing the thing I have suggested centrally using the concept privilege leads to people to do, which is to conclude that someone who disagrees with them must be doing so not due to an honest assessment, but instead due to the influence of their privilege. More specifically, isn't to suggest that questioning the use of the concept privilege occurs because it is strategically useful to discredit the work of feminists and anti-racist activists, the kind of unwarranted leap I am saying using the concept privilege tends to lead to. I also anticipate that some who hear or read pieces like this will think there goes another old white guy saying you know, these women and black folks just don't get sexism and racism, and thinking to themselves that, whether I like it or not, or whether it's fair or not, strategically my stance too is not a good look and perhaps even thinking hell, michael, how about you give up your white male coordinator class privilege to give modern day anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-classists the benefit of the doubt that they have been making a meaningful contribution to this work about their own oppression? Well, I certainly understand the sentiment and I get. It is sometimes true for some people.

Speaker 1:

So, okay, I agree that if my words cause people to hear me as saying you know, these women and black folks just don't get sexism and racism, then yes, I have to figure out how to change my words to better convey what I in fact mean.

Speaker 1:

And, of course, I think that for women and blacks and other oppressed constituencies to uncover the mainly institutional, but also interpersonal circumstances and dynamics of their oppressions and to envision what should exist instead and to explore how we should reach what should exist, are incomparably valuable things to do.

Speaker 1:

But since I also think accomplishing all that is undercut by using the concept privilege, I agree that I should seriously think on how my words could have caused anyone to read my contributions as an old white guy saying you know, these women and black folks just don't get sexism and racism.

Speaker 1:

But at the same time, I would feel remiss if I didn't suggest there is another possible cause for why someone might draw such a harsh conclusion from my words, that is, might someone see my words as saying something that they don't even get into the remotest ballpark of saying? Because emphasizing privilege, looking for privilege, excavating privilege and trying to undo privilege has a tendency to too often abet, and certainly not prevent, a general tendency to assume that the reason a person disagrees about privilege is not that the center honestly differs, but because the center is defending privilege or manifesting biases that derive from privilege, perhaps even to strategically discredit the work of feminists and anti-racist activists, and that therefore there is no need to consider said person's concern. And while we're at it, can you understand or see why someone who feels they are being told that would think it's unwarranted, might even be put off by it? I suggest it's the case. And that said, this is Michael Albert signing off until next time for Revolution Z.

Understanding the Concept of Privilege
Challenging the Concept of Privilege
Discussion on the Concept of Privilege