Sunday, June 17, 2007

This Post is Privileged

Barefoot Bum had a good post on the general concept of racism a few days back that finally got me thinking about this again, so I decided to try and post this today (hopefully I can finish this before my daughter wakes from her afternoon nap).

I have wanted to do a post about this for a long time. Apparently I was not "privileged" with enough time to do it until now. This is a post about privilege, and the overuse of the word I see in race and gender studies, in particular, at least from what I've read online in the various communities that take those issues seriously. I see the word often used as a weapon, usually to shut down discussion, or to shut my voice out. I've had several comments on self-identified feminist sites responded to with the claim that my even saying anything at all was evidence of special privilege (this despite the fact that the comments were open to everyone). So the claim of "privilege" was there used as a weapon to shut out my voice. I could safely be ignored because I was a white male who was somehow "privileged" for offering my two cents on something where comments were specifically asked for from anyone. Somewhat ironic, then, that those who shout the loudest about how horrible it is to ignore someone's voice for their gender or race then explicitly belittle someone's voice for their race and gender. Oh wait, they can't be racist or sexist, again by definition. Only I can be, because I'm an evil white male. Ok, enough on that.

Specifically why I wanted to post was to analyze this post that goes through 50 apparent "privileges" that "white" people have over "people of color." I read through the list and found almost all of the "privileges" to be rather amorphous things that really don't seem to be so much about privilege at all, but instead are about demographics. For instance, these alleged "privileges":

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.

What do they all have in common? They are all something you'd expect to find in any society anywhere where you are comparing a demographic that is the majority of the population versus one that is, at most, only 1/8th of the population. Even in utopia world where there is not now and never was any racism, unless there was an exactly equal number of every race, you would have everything in that list happening. If you live in Germany, you are going to find Germans everywhere you go. This is not some conspiracy to favor Germans, and Germans are not 'privileged' by this - it is just a function of demographics. And so already, for almost 20% of this author's list, we have a general failure of logic.

Looking over the rest of the claims of "privilege" What hits me generally, having read through these alleged "privileges" is that there is also an underlying assumption that you have to be fully aware basically of the minute differences between every culture on the planet or else you are somehow "privileged" not to have to think about it. Which, of course, is utterly ridiculous.
How this is listed as a "privilege" is that the "dominant" group doesn't have to think about an individual "non-domonant" group while the reverse is taken to not be the case, presumably because the "non-dominant" group has to learn how the "dominant" group does things to get along in the world. However, there is a very basic problem with this idea, when you really dig down deep. The problem is that there is not just a single "dominant" group and there certainly is not a single "non-dominant" group. Instead, there are thousands of overlapping groups, some of which are dominant or not depending on the particular circumstances. And even if you think there are lots of groups that are never "dominant," you still then have lots of "non-dominant" groups, more than would necessarily meet the eye at first glance. So if there are thousands of "non-dominant" groups other than the one (or likely more than one) that you happen to inhabit, odds are pretty good that you also have essentially the same "privilege" as the "dominant" group - you don't have to think about any of those thousands of other groups, or their plight, either. So really, if that is a "privilege" it is one shared to some degree by EVERY group, because EVERY group has the "privilege" of ignoring most other groups in most situations.
The other problem with the concept is that there is more to life than race. Or gender. Or any other thing you can think of. You may look at a white male and decide that he must be a member of the "dominant" group. And yet, if it turns out that he's an atheist, openly gay, and has a physical disability, then suddenly he's far lower on the ladder, probably lower than a Christian straight black woman in our society in the eyes of much of the alleged "dominant" class.

Several of the "privileges" listed are equally applicable to everyone, regardless of race. Others are patently untrue. Like for instance: 39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race. I'm sure if the meeting included even a single non-white person in it, that person might attribute a white person being late in itself as some special privilege - in other words, they could attribute the lateness to race, even for a white person, though perahps for different reasons than what the author of the article was imagining.

And finally, there is one claim of "privilege" that is just repeated over and over phrased differnetly, the idea that if you are in the "non-dominant" group that your voice is maligned or ignored or singled out for retribution. And yet that really isn't even true. Watching political discourse in this country, for instance, what has hit me is that people don't get shut down by the powers that be for ANY demographic characteristics - they get shut down for one reason and one reason only - questioning the powers that be. White males who have done so are made into villains. Black women who support Bush are held up by the neocons as saints. It is all about power and protecting the power of a very tiny group, a group that could care less about your race or gender, so long as you are appropriately loyal to the "great leader."

In short, I reject the whole article. Perhaps if she had focused on one or two real privileges with real data to back it up, I would put more stock in the concept. Instead, it seems to have reduced and diluted the concept of "privilege" to things so vague and generally useless that it starts to look like one more reason to beat up on "white" people (and for another way for guilty-feeling white people to beat up on themselves in a self-flagellation that perhaps they feel will "cleanse" them of the evil of being "white" so they can interact with people of color guilt-free).
Privilege, for it to mean something, needs to be about tangible, measurable things, or else you are just basically arguing about whether Mighty Mouse can beat up Superman. It really is meaningless.

If you could show, for instance, that being a white male made me get more money in my position, that would be something. Of course, since I know my salary is exactly identical to everyone with the same level of seniority, I guess that one is out for me right now. Did it get me my house cheaper? Hard to say, since it was built based on a lot of estimates by people who had no idea what race I was. Did I get a better loan? Again hard to say because my initial mortgage financing was arranged over email so again, no notion of race in there. One certainly couldn't tell from my name. And my good credit is based on acting responsible, never buying something I can't afford, even if it means I lived for many years with a crappy old TV or without much furniture and with a very old car. My parents grew up dirt poor, so no advantages of wealth for them, though they certainly helped me at least stay out of debt starting out. So, show me something tangible, and maybe I'll consider it a "privilege."

But I'm not going to just accept a blanket assertion that someone is "privileged" just because of some rather all-encompasing demographics like race or gender. Paris Hilton is sure as hell far more "privileged" than me. Hell, her dog probably has a higher net worth than I do.

Ok, I wanted to wrap this up better than this and say a few more things, but duty calls (in the form of a high pitched voice) so I'll have to leave it here. If nothing else, there is room for discussion.

Oh, and one last thought - I'm sure someone will be tempted to accuse me of "privilege" for even daring to question this without fear for my life or something like that. I guess if that happens, "freedom of speech" is somehow a privilege too, despite the millions of non-white, non-male voices on the blogsphere (many many of which are much more widely read and respected than this tiny blog ever will be). Perhaps if people stopped comparing "victimhoods" and stopped trying to come up with more reasons to denigrate and scold people for having the awful audacity of being white or being male (or heaven forbid, being both), we could have a more rational conversation about real problems we could solve together instead of coming up with more 'us' versus 'them' issues. (Thanks Thorne for pointing out that particular point).

There are some areas I've had an advantage over others in my life. I had the advantage of having smart, responsible parents. I had the advantage of having half a brain in my head that I worked hard to develop. I have also had disadvantages as well. I won't go into them, simply because I am not looking for sympathy for them, just to point out that everyone has obstacles - even Paris Hilton (who is now in jail) - though some are self-made. I recall reading an article on luck, once. It said basically that people who are lucky don't have any better luck than others - they just have a different attitude about life and, in essence, make their own luck. Setbacks are seen as opportunities. I recognize that others have had things rougher than me in life, for various reasons. But bashing me isn't going to help them. Helping them "make their own luck" would probably have better results. That's part of why I'm so libertarian - I want everyone to have an opportunity to make it, without the uneven field of being kept down or having others unfairly elevated (for instance by special subsidies by government that favor the friends of those in power - and no, that doesn't include me - I have no real power and neither do my friends).

Ok, now I'm really rambling and my daughter is really insistent on some attention, so I have to go. Hopefully there's some sense in here somewhere. (I say this just to make clear that, as always, though I might sound like it, I really don't claim to have all the answers nor do I claim to always be right - well, except for my posts about Bush, Gonzales, and Nifong. All three of them definitely have got to go!)


hedera said...

I perceive that Ms. MacIntosh teaches at Wellesley. I live in Oakland, California, a city in which there is no clear majority - here are the stats from the 2000 Census:

The racial makeup of the city was 35.66 percent African American, 23.52 percent White, 0.66 percent Native American, 15.23 percent Asian American, 0.50 percent Pacific Islander, 11.66 percent from other races, and 4.98 percent from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 21.89 percent of the population.

My ability to choose companions of my own race in public is somewhat more limited than hers, I suspect. I also sometimes feel unwelcome in the company of the plurality black population.

It's all in your point of view.

DBB said...

These days I generally am just at work, where I am shut in an office by myself most of the day, or I'm at home, where I'm either with just my daughter or my wife and my daughter. And I see a handful of friends once or twice a week.

So I guess, to a great degree, demographics aside, I am generally just in the company of family or no one at all. But then this would be true no matter what my race was.

hedera said...

I question your assumption, "since I know my salary is exactly identical to everyone with the same level of seniority", on the basis of your earlier post complaining that salary information should be transparent and is not. You may be correct; you may not. I do know that at one point in my career, I (a female engineer) was making probably $12,000 per year less than the "going rate" shown in salary surveys and "best job" articles. It is a valid assumption in the data processing industry that the gender of an average engineer is male.

My salary situation was rectified during the dot-com boom in 1999, when my management became terrified that I (and others) would run off and work for startup companies, and gave us all raises so we would stay around and deal with the Y2K bug. But my pay didn't reach parity due to anything but my management's fear of being left high and dry with a damaging bug (which didn't actually exist).

I can't speak for racial discrimination, being white myself; but I do tend to assume that women, on the whole, are paid less than men in the same jobs, except in unusual cases.

DBB said...

I think a lot of the gender pay gap is more myth than reality these days. As someone else pointed out, if you really could get a woman, equally skilled, for only 70% of the cost of a man, why the heck would anyone hire a man?

My work situation is, for the time being, unlike my previous corporate jobs, one where we all know each other's salaries because they are all set based on position and seniority, period. Interestingly, also, 63% of the attorneys in my office are female (a reduction from what it was almost 80%, though that perhaps a short statistical aberration).

So yes, at my current job, I know for a fact that everyone is paid exactly the same for position and seniority. But that is not the norm.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Many of the items you list are often false-to-fact or are subject to positive correction.

I can't, for instance, be "pretty sure" (24) that the person in charge is going to be of my race, sex, sexual orientation, or have similar religious beliefs. This is simply not true, I don't expect it, I'm not at all surprised when the person in charge is not a straight, white atheist male.

I'm an atheist, one of the most hated and underrepresented minorities in America. If I want to hang out with atheists, I go to the SF Atheists meeting; if I want to watch atheist TV, I turn on the Discovery channel.

There are certain items in the list, though, that deserve attention: We should, of course, talk about the contributions of all races in history and contemporary civics, and we should look honestly at our historical sins, notably the genocide of the American Indians, the WWII internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, and, of course, the centuries-long enslavement of black people.

At a party recently, some of my wifes cow-orkers were talking about race. They asked me what race I thought they were and I said, "I don't know; you all look like Americans to me." Unless I'm giving a physical description, choosing a pronoun or trying to play matchmaker, I just don't give a shit what anyone's race, sex, or sexual orientation is.

Thorne said...

DBB, I like your exploration of the concept of priveledge, and agree that it can be a wishy washy sort of too-inclusive term,but I don't believe that it necessarily negates the concept completely. I read the article to which you refer above, and it seems to me that the author is using the term to come to terms with her own possible status as priveliged, which can only be a good thing to explore, no?? I find that using it as a term to shame or blame or silence (as you mention) is the problem. I hope I'm not just wasting space here, but did you happen to see the quoted text below from the "Thorne in my side" thread over at FC? I'd be interested in your reactions to my theoretical understanding of privilege in this example.

Just how this confers gender-privilege on Albert the floor-sweeper is rarely articulated, (and never coherently).

Hmm… It’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have an answer any more coherent than anyone else. Let me start by saying that it’s not terribly clear to me either, but for the sake of exploring the concept, I’ll give it a shot. (With the caveat that I am exploring, not explaining or justifying.)
My feeling is that even if “Albert to floor-sweeper” is not privileged in the greater arena of political or economic power, the chances that he is still priveliged within his community/family/cultural context is reasonably high. I have no doubt that there are many exceptions to this hypothesis, and have no idea whether or not this in any way reflects the justification of feminists in general for assigning gender-privilege to all men.
(here comes an offering of insight into part of my personal context) :) For instance, I live in a small desert community in So. Cali. that can be demographically described as primarily white/caucasian. It is far outside of the usual positive generalizations one can make about a Cali. town/community. If I take this community as my basis for making the above generalization, the majority of white males here, independent of being educationally, politically and economically privileged, are generally privileged within their families and this community.
This is obvious in their families, which they are the self styled “Heads” of, their behaviors in the community, the female slutshaming and male promiscuity, to name a few.
This is especially obvious as well as personally relevant in regards to my partner, who works as an experienced carpenter here and is paid less than less experienced white men she works with, as well as being personally undervalued or dismissed and belittled in a “friendly” sort of sexist categorization as “an alright gal (for a dyke)”, or “a good lil worker (for a woman)”.
*parentheses the implied text
I think there is a good chance that the local male immigrant population may suffer equally within the community, and am not really sure if their possible privilege within their family structure isn’t negligable, but that begs the question to how the immigrant women experience the possible priviledge of their men. And I digress, if we are staying with “white males”.
Similarily, we are often allowed to be the “exceptions” to the sort of community generalization of “dykes”. Even though for some strange reason (familiarity of perceived roles, perhaps?) it seems that our Butch/Femme dynamic makes us easier for these men to take. Rarely are we used as an awakening regarding their (white males) preconceptions. (Once, to date, to my knowledge.)
It has been our experience that we remain the friendly exception to the mysogynous rule until we assert ourselves in a social or business disagreement, at which time we revert to being “Those dykes (You know how “they” are)”.

DBB said...

Thorne - Thanks. And And I agree, some people do have advantages over some others in certain situations, but I reject the notion that they always apply and they can be based solely on a characterstic such as race or gender.

To answer your specific question, I think what you are talking about (correct me if I'm wrong) is that no matter how for down the totem pole someone is, they still might be "master of their own domain" - their family, for instance. And that's true enough, but again, that doesn't necessarily hold.

To use your example, it could be the case that Albert the floor sweeper, after being at a soul-draining job all day, where his boss yells at him all day long and he can't respond because he needs the job and can't get another because he is uneducated, then goes home, exhausted, after being kept late by his sadistic boss and then driving a two hour commute, and instead of being happy to see him, his children yell at him because they want new designer clothes and he can't afford them and his wife yells at him for not getting home sooner, ignoring his protestations about his boss with 'be a man and stand up to him', then she dumps the baby in his lap and tell she took care of the baby all day and now it is his turn... and then when he takes care of the baby, she hovers over him and critisizes him for not doing it "right" (which consists of doing it exactly the way she does it, regardless of whether or not what he was doing was ok), then yells at him about not having enough money, pushes him to get a raise, etc. etc. In other words, it could be the case for Albert that, like many millions of men, he feels helpless at work and then he feels helpless at home and not in control in either place. Sorta hard to find the 'privilege' in that. Especially when it is topped off by him dying probably ten years sooner than his wife (statistically speaking).

On the other hand, looking at Albert's wife, I'm not saying she has it easy either - but at least she has what you imply Albert might have had - she's at least master (mistress?) of her own domain. She runs the household. Even if Albert were attempt to be the one to do so, he's gone half the day, so truly, how could he? That's another benefit of being a stay-at-home parent - you are your own boss if for no other reason than there is no one looking over your shoulder all day - you do what you want, when you want - sure, you have lots of things that need to be done, but you get to decide when to do them, in what order, how to do them, and can watch TV while doing some of them or otherwise make the tasks as pleasant as possible. Yes, I speak from experience. Staying at home as a parent was a lot of hard work, but I really really really liked not having to answer to anyone. Sure, my wife could say something when she got home (and occasionaly she did), but that just isn't the same thing as having a boss looking over your shoulder who has the power to immediately terminate you.

So Albert can be a white male and pretty much have no priviliges of any kind at all. I think that point gets lost in the discussion on privileges and 'isms'. Sort of like how demographics of those in power (most of them white males) is emphasized while failing to note that there are far more poor white people than there are poor in any other demographic group (by the numbers). Which means that anyone of any minority who isn't poor is doing better than the largest population of poor - white people.