I’m going through a sea-change in my thinking about the concept of “privilege.” I find the word so thoroughly problematic that I don’t think I can be effective in my work and continue to use it.
My friend Kiera Scriven has written that the word “privilege” is a misnomer. When we talk about “privilege,” we’re really talking about rights:
A “privilege” in this case is something unearned, correct? “Unearned privileges” is how we tend to conceptualise it. But let’s think about some of these “privileges”: 1) Not being automatically perceived as criminal 2) Being given the benefit of the doubt in these and all kinds of situations 3) Fairer housing practices (see: Wells Fargo settlement in Baltimore) 4) Seeing positive and powerful representations of yourself everywhere 5) Being deemed as “normal” 6) etc…
Are these things we want people to have to /earn/?…I think these are aspects of basic humanity that should be bestowed upon everyone simply for existing.
So feel free to call it whatever you want, but I caution you when your concern is the fact that majority groups have these things — these things they haven’t “earned” — as opposed to the fact that minority groups don’t have them.
Starting with Kiera’s formulation, let’s get clear about what people mean when they talk about “privilege.” To ground the conversation, I’ll get as specific as I can: What does it mean when people say that I have white and middle-class privilege?
It means that I live inside a political, economic, social, and cultural system that gives me power on the basis of my skin color and class — both accidents of birth. I get a whole lot out of that power: money, education, housing, food, clothing, medical care, medical insurance, and cultural authority. The police don’t look at me in the street as though I’m a criminal. I’m not stopped for driving while white. I don’t run much of a risk of being shot for knocking on someone’s door for help. I live in an apartment in a secure building and do not have to worry about a rental application being discarded on the basis of my skin color or income. I have clothing for all kinds of weather and medicine when I need it. When I economize at the grocery store, it’s by choosing between one thing I want to eat and another — not by going without nutritious food.
Are any of these things privileges? No. It’s not a privilege to have an apartment. It’s not a privilege to have clothes. It’s not a privilege to knock on a door and not get shot. It’s not a privilege to be treated with dignity. None of these are privileges. They are basic human rights to which every person on the planet is entitled, and they are basic human rights denied to vast numbers of people on the basis of not only race and class, but also disability, gender identity, sexuality, size, ethnicity, and religion.
When we talk about “privilege,” we talk about “giving up privilege,” and that’s when people with the “privilege” start getting defensive. When people go to that defensive place, I feel the exhaustion coming on, because if I have to keep beating against people’s defenses, I’m not going to be able to sustain the work. Beating against defenses doesn’t serve. The defenses just go up higher. Does it really help to keep using the same strategy?
If what we call “privilege” is really a set of basic human rights and the power to protect them, then no one with any sense or self-respect is going to give them up. And they shouldn’t. The point isn’t to give them up. The point is to make sure that other people get them. What if we started talking about the rank injustice of some people having more rights than others? What if I said that my race and my class enable me to fulfill the promise of my human rights, and that I have to use my resources, my time, my energy, and my life force to fight in solidarity with people whose rights are unprotected? At that point, the question of my losing anything goes right off the table, because the aim isn’t for me to lose my rights, but to use them to make sure that other people get what they deserve to have.
There is something deeply disturbing about a social justice framework that sees human rights as privileges and that sees the solution to inequity as one set of people giving up their human rights so that another set of people gets them. That’s basically the system we’re already in. It’s a system of a scarcity. It’s the same system of scarcity that makes people compete with each other at Wal-Mart for TV sets at Christmas. It’s the thinking perpetuated by our media- and commerce-soaked culture, in which there is never, ever enough for everyone.
That’s no way for human beings to think about human rights.
Much of the problem with a lot of privilege conversations is that they ultimately become shaming, because it is all about what we have and who we are by an accident of birth, and not about what we do. There are lots of dents that can be made in my social power– my disabilities make very big dents in it — but I still have power that I cannot lose. When people start talking about the “privilege” inhering in people by virtue of birth or social position — rather than talking about what people are doing with their birth and social position — shame enters the picture, and that shame is often immobilizing.
In social justice spaces, I have seen a kind of obsession with “privilege” among white and other social justice activists — a kind of distracting guilt about it that creates a lot of distortions. In fact, much of what I see in discussions about ”privilege” is deeply informed by a Christian paradigm in which proper belief is the most important thing, sin must be expiated, and we’re saved by virtue of the words coming out of our mouths, the thoughts happening in our brains, and the feelings going on in our hearts. As Andrea Smith notes in “The Problem with Privilege,” there is a confessional quality to many conversations about privilege, with the listener expected to grant some form of absolution. As a non-Christian, I watch that paradigm in play and simply can’t participate, because it is almost entirely foreign to me. My culture is all about praxis. Belief can inform praxis, but it means nothing without it. I don’t come from a culture that believes in sin, or that believes that we’re fallen, or that believes that we need to feel shame for the world we’re born into, or that believes that confession and proper belief will save us.
It’s immobilizing and useless to feel shame for the system we’re born into. There is no shame in being born into a human body and a world we did not create, and we should feel no shame for that. But we should feel shame for sitting on our hands in such a system and doing nothing. We need to be listening to people tell us what we can actively do and we need to join up with them to do it.
The point is not to grok “privilege.” The point is to not to wrest human rights from each other as though that will create justice. The point is to do justice. I’d like to hear a whole lot more talk about how to do justice in a system overwhelming in its violence, its distortions, its lies, and its cruelty than I want to hear about “privilege.”
I just can’t go there anymore.
Facebook. “On ‘Privilege.’” https://www.facebook.com/notes/kiera-scriven/on-privilege/448172575236421. January 7, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.
Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with ‘Privilege.’” Andrea366. August 14, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013. http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg