Saturday, December 29, 2012

Phrases to Consider Retiring in 2013: 1. (White) Privilege

Nothing lasts forever. Gum loses its flavor. Welcomes are worn out. In the hopes of keeping critical edges honed, AintStudyingYou is sponsoring a discussion of which phrases, memes, habits, and tendencies to consider retiring for the 1-3. Please submit your suggestions (serious and humorous, personal and public) to the comments section and we'll see what kind of series we can come up with. 

My first nominee for forced retirement: (white) privilege...

This month, I have fallen down the rabbit-hole of privilege memes. Some (like this one on literacy) I found illuminating and forceful. Still, I find myself doubting that privilege is the most accurate or useful way of approaching social inequalities. In fact, I have lost faith in these exercises of cataloging privileged groups (whites, Christians, first-worlders, citizens, thin people, straights, cis-genders) and enumerating their ever-expanding privileges.

Therefore, be it hereby stated that I, AintStudyingYou, am perfectly willing to consider retiring  all variations on the term "privilege" (white, male, cis-gender, thin, etc), if certain stipulations are met.

There are serious questions to be raised regarding the effectiveness of privilege-spotting.

Problem 1
The act of "calling out" other people's privilege does not entail persuading those who grant or receive privileges to do so differently. It primarily grants the one calling out a sense of distance, objectivity, and innocence. She is innocent (or, at least, not as guilty) because now she sees her white privilege and points out that of others. Could we expect more than this, given the definition of privilege offered in Peggy Macintosh's foundational working paper on white and male privilege? We could not.

The privileged person cannot renounce privileges that are granted without having to be requested, and the fact that white privilege need not be requested to be conferred is its defining feature.† Likewise, the person who grants such privilege surely cannot fully master and reorient the ways that he accords competence, innocence, esteem and the like--let alone wealth and property. Addressing their distribution at the level of interlocking systems of property, pleasure, and power would be at least as difficult.

Is this store clerk, at present, treating me with more respect because I am male, because I'm thin, or because he is having a particularly good day? I can't know the answer to that. Perhaps he can't either. But even if I did know for certain that I was being granted some sort of privilege, what action does that then dictate? Should I inform him that he should treat fat and female customers better? Announce loudly that I have just been granted privileges (again) and try to give my "invisible knapsack" of privileges away as door prizes to unprivileged others? Report the clerk to management?  Even if I succeeded in shaming him or getting him fired and replaced with a female clerk, the sort of presumptions that lead to the granting of privilege (what Patricia Williams brilliantly called "innocence profiling") are diffused throughout the entire society. There is no guarantee whatsoever that a clerk from a different demographic would not assess my economic status, intelligence, and potential to do harm in the same ways.

What if I were to adjust my dress or speech to pass as some other ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality? Couldn't I then slough off my thin guy privileges or ensure they get transferred to my new alter ego? Passing would be a problem, first because I would have to activate a very static image of woman, Asian, or poor to be able to pose myself as a known member of that group, especially as one of those kind who are known not to merit social approbation. Second, even if I passed as "Asian woman" and, in that guise, showed some stereotype about Asians or women to be false, I would probably create an exception and not dislodge the belief in what those people are like. For, as with the former belief in witches, belief that each race or sex has its own distinctive character has proven remarkably immune to scientific correction (see Fields and Fields, Racecraft). Prejudices come before the evidence that confirms them and, therefore, they are more likely to re-sort and contort reality than to cede to it.

Problem 2 Privilege-spotting requires the isolation of one social identity from its complex interaction with others. For example, how much Christian privilege do gay Latinos have? They may be Christian, but outside of Churches and political strategy meetings, Latinos are assessed by their presumed language, class, and race/immigrant status. It seems difficult to derive a mathematical formula to calculate precisely how much Christian privilege such a figure has, adjusted for perceived race, nationality, gender performance, sexual behavior.

Given these qualms, I am considering proposing the following contract. In place of "white," can be substituted any of the proliferating identities on the privilege lists:

Whereas, in fact, some white people experience few privileges in an economy of stagnant wages, overpriced health care, and public cutbacks, and

Whereas the military and prisons are among the few expanding industries and those'll get you killed,

I, AintStudyingYou, am willing to suspend discussions of white privilege when the following conditions are met:

If white Americans--those real Americans of Palin's poems and Beck's and Boehner's tears--stop fighting like hell to maintain their "fathers' America," its sexual codes and English-only airwaves, and its robber baron economy,
Iwhite Americans who claim not to receive meaningful social benefits stop identifying upward with an almost entirely white economic elite who have no concern for their well-being except to the extent that they serve to protect elite property and investments (in the military, police and fire departments, and private security),
If said non-benefiting white people rearticulate their losses--of jobs, salary, health, or housing--as part of a fate common to 99% of us and not as some violation of white "dibbs" on the first fruits of the country's goods (that is, if rather than trying to recoup seemingly lost advantages for themselves alone, they seek to make them available to all).

These conditions being met, I will happily and without further reference retire the term white privilege and its cognates.* In fact, I will reclassify "privilege" as what it is: a fleeting but convincing illusion of absolute security in the present and prosperity in the future.

*NB: I must confer with my POC caucus and cannot guarantee full and immediate suspension of the term. Caucus mates, what say you?

† Peggy McIntosh's oft-copied and -quoted 1988 working paper on white and male privileges emphasizes that they arrive unbidden:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets [special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks] which I can count on cashing in each day but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious. .... A 'white' skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems (McIntosh, "White Privilege and Male Privilege" 2-3, 8).
I do not disagree at all with her analysis, what I question is whether conquering this obliviousness in now well-practiced exercises of "raising [self] awareness" and then "calling [others] out" is sufficient. In McIntosh's own writing, what the no-longer-oblivious person will do with her new knowledge "remains an open question" (19). Indeed, the bulk of the essay is dedicated to unearthing--or, rather, unpacking--unearned white privileges. McIntosh, like many in whiteness studies, imagines that white privilege will be undone by white people who "use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage," "use power to share power," and "use privilege to dismantle privilege" (19, appendix 4).

Most of us have come to embrace this vision of the white anti-racist, but, as Robyn Wiegman points out in her incisive, retrospective analysis of Whiteness Studies of the 1990s, these stories strangely posit white people as both the agents of oppression and the agents of black liberation (see Wiegman, "The Political Conscious" in Object Lessons). In the white antiracist model, white people can choose to be villains or heroes, making such choices in a state of conscious intention. The project of abolishing whiteness proceeds from the assumption that white people can somehow know that which is "invisible" or "hidden" from them, as a very condition of their socialization. They can obtain superhuman insight. And their choices can make all the difference. The contributions of colonized people to their own liberation are, if not ignored, then certainly moved offstage. Why nonwhite people cannot see or dismantle these hidden systems is not made clear in the theory. White heroism--whether at the level of the buddy film, the domestic melodrama, or the Total Revolution--remains the key ingredient.

In addition to not specifying precisely how a newly conscious white person might subvert her own privileged position, the diagnosis of white privilege also does not specify why she would want to do so. If people cling to white national belonging in the hopes of escaping racial violence and economic deprivation, why on earth would they willingly renounce whiteness and face what they know--from memory or from observation--awaits them once that flimsy protection is removed?

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of McIntosh's "invisible knapsack" of white privileges, people have been paying homage to her by expanding her list of privileged groups from whites and men to American tourists, cis-genders, thin people and many more. However, the new lists of privileges have still left McIntosh's most pressing questions unanswered: How can one refuse unearned privileges and, in a world with the concentration of wealth, health, and safety in fewer hands, why would one relinquish her few avenues of access to such things?

As I look back at McIntosh's contribution, it does seem to me that some class-consciousness has to come into play, by which I mean that the privileges of which McIntosh speaks are not evenly distributed, even among whites. They have to do with home ownership, representation in newspapers and in school curricula, reception from neighbors, experiences shopping and operating in professional (specifically academic) settings.

It also seems to me that asking working- and even middle-class whites to relinquish privileges accomplishes little. First, refused privileges are, quite literally, refuse: they are simply wasted. Second, to act valiantly on others' behalf does not necessarily position them as independent and self-determining. In some cases, it makes them dependent and beholden. The more important and more difficult task, it seems to me, is in reorganizing our social rituals so that more people experience expanded social and economic mobility. One of the most important aspects of this reorganization is that the agency for accomplishing it cannot rest entirely with the already-dominant group. A difficult dance of informing, encouraging, and ceding space are required. But stating I am doing this on behalf of the little people is a sure way to ensure that their power is contingent on your presence and continued advocacy on their behalf. Their power remains functionally yours.

I am not sure there is a finite amount of privilege--just as I am not sure there is a finite amount of wealth (which is not to say land). Consequently, it seems to me that the privilege model leaves much undone and, therefore, the best way to honor it is not to extend it, unmodified, to other identity categories but, rather, to address some of its basic blind spots.

An important start might be shifting from privileges (calling them out, refusing them, feeling guilty them) to needs. Ministering to needs gives us something concrete and absolutely useful to do. Identifying privileges might still be useful as a way of thinking oneself into what other people do not enjoy and therefore need. But wouldn't it be easier (and an important way of redistributing our time and attention) just to ask them? This is not to say I believe "we" should take "their" word for it. After all, one consequence of our unequal society is that some people don't even know how good other people have it. But I am having trouble seeing how current conversations about privilege--occurring primarily among the privileged--are doing much to redistribute public space and voice, one of the necessary steps toward full social equality.


  1. Not having read McIntosh's full work, it's hard to comment, but I think there is a tangible benefit to consciousness of privilege, and I think the term is important to continue. I think the conditions on which you are willing to retire the term cannot happen without a consciousness of white privilege. You are correct that some of the economic and social privileges of being white have been diminished, but the psychological privileges have not diminished as much (e.g. Although we have a black president, he is an anomaly. White men are still seen as "regular" politicians and leaders, and everything else is an exception). I agree with you and others that those with privilege are not responsible for "liberating" those without; however, consciousness of privilege creates space for them (us) to at best agree with, and at least not oppose, the efforts of those without privilege to balance the scales. Also I think that acknowledging the responsibility of power to make conscious choices in light of privilege is important, and it can be done without diminishing the agency of those without privilege.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Jeanne. McIntosh is googlable, so her work is easy to find should you want to read it in its entirety. My doubts when it comes to privilege-spotting have to do with 1) whether consciousness is, in fact, required; 2) how consciousness is induced; 3) whether action flows from consciousness.

      I did not mean to imply, in any way, that white privileges have been diminished. I was just trying to acknowledge that some white people have few privileges because of their class position.

      As I think about it now, I think one crucial point I left out has to do with the term privilege itself. What is at stake in redistributing "privilege" is relatively small potatoes--so much of it is about experiences while shopping or consuming media. If more people had their basic needs met as well as upward mobility, could count on physical safety, and had some access to pleasure in their lives, I think much of the touchiness about media representations would drop away. We live in a society that attempts to confirm the unfitness of "bad" minorities through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who have merit and character would be admitted into this university/profession/neighborhood. Therefore, those without it are necessarily on the outside. The right to exclude (or, better yet, to determine when and how to include) is one of the key aspects of property. Rather than privileges (as defined by McIntosh), it seems that we need to be looking at ways to ensure access to property. You can't even start talking about privileges (as in her example of being welcomed when she moves into a new neighborhood) without access to property.

  2. I second your motion, because it's useful to consider why we maintain the analysis of privilege and announce it, and I'm amenable (as a utopian!) to acknowledging that there may come a time and place when we no longer need the analysis of (white) privilege--either because our analysis gets refined to a point where we develop a better way to articulate what's going on when we "call out" (white) privilege, or because the historical conditions to which (white) privilege pertain are no longer in effect, notwithstanding the mitigating factors that operate alongside it...

    or I could grow old and die. whichever comes first.