By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.
The notion of privilege has by now become entirely mainstream. Listening to someone discuss their privilege, watching as someone is told to check their privilege, hearing about someone acting in a typically privileged way… all of these experiences are by now familiar, especially in progressive circles. There is a network of activists who work as facilitators to raise public consciousness of privilege – one proud member of this group refers to himself, a bit tongue-in-cheek, as part of the “white privilege brigade.”
What does it mean, that privilege has become a preferred way to discuss structural unfairness? How does using its vocabulary affect the way social patterns are understood? How does it influence the way people talk to each other, and the way they treat each other?
The popularity of ideas can become a barrier to understanding them, as people become reluctant to ask questions about behavior that everyone else seems to find normal. In the case of privilege language, proponents consider it a straightforward description of injustices permeating society, while opponents may be able to articulate a critique but often seem simply irritated by it.
However, once one starts to think about it, very little about privilege is obvious.
Any history of the modern concept of privilege discusses a 1988 talk by Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (see here and here). According to McIntosh, she started brainstorming about ways she was unfairly advantaged by being white. She compiled a list of 50 things she could count on that she believed African-Americans she knew could not count on.
Reflecting on her “invisible knapsack of advantages” forced her to make painful psychological sacrifices – she now felt obligated to give up on the myth of meritocracy. She in fact concluded that it was appropriate for her to be seen as an oppressor. She went on to challenge her audience to use their unearned privileges to “reconstruct power systems on a broader basis.”
Tools for Understanding the World
McIntosh urges facilitators presenting her work to
help participants or students to think about what it is to see society systemically and structurally, rather than only in terms of individuals making individual choices.
Participants learn to think of oppression as not involving merely actively wronging others, but also as benefiting from advantages others do not enjoy – hence the slogan “privilege: the up-side of oppression and discrimination.”
The Problem of Definitions
Critics have responded that it is not clear what is and is not a “privilege.” Does the term include benefits enjoyed by any majority population, such as the ability to speak a language fluently? Does it include physical attractiveness? Does it include literacy? Does the term include advantages that are actually human rights that everyone should enjoy?
McIntosh does not reject such critiques. Already in 1988, she allowed that
[…] we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties [of privilege] are only what one would want for everyone in a just society [while others are more negative]
She has, however, not gotten around to carrying out this taxonomy herself.
When the blogger Will Shetterly made his own attempt to unpack the idea of privilege, he began by classifying McIntosh’s examples of white advantages into four categories:
1. Items that have some objective truth
2. Items that do not apply to the white working class
3. Items that were no longer true when McIntosh wrote
4. Items that are purely subjective
One might however wonder whether this nitpickiness is missing the point. After all, isn’t the important thing here a recognition that other people might suffer in ways that we don’t fully understand, partly due to benefits we unthinkingly take for granted? And that many social advantages are distributed in ways that are demonstrably unfair? Why get hung up on specific list items or on precise definitions? Isn’t the aim of all of this more heightening of moral sensitivity than carrying out careful sociology?
Privilege and Moral Reasoning
The Invisible Knapsack is in fact full of a sense of moral urgency. McIntosh expresses her disappointment in those who are not “truly distressed” about “conferred dominance,” alerting her audience to how certain privileges can “give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.” She instead encourages white people to realize that “we are justly seen as oppressive,” even though they are probably like her in that, before she constructed her privilege list, she “did not see myself as a racist.”
Should we then conclude that the Invisible Knapsack is more about fostering contrition and a consequent moral awakening than about descriptive precision? According to McIntosh, absolutely not:
My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.”
Instead, the goal is
observing, realizing, thinking systemically and personally.
It is to strengthen “intellectual muscles,” make “people smarter” and to foster “accurate thinking.”
At this point, we are going in circles.
If privilege is a language designed to help people acquire a deeper and more thorough understanding of the world, then whether or not its terms have a consistent meaning is important, and privilege lists should be designed to be as accurate, nuanced, balanced, and nonrepetitive as possible. If it is more about thinking systemically than about moralizing, it should eschew imprecise and tendentious language in favor of respectful clarity.
But if this is really not what privilege is – if it is more about inciting people to rise to a higher ethical standard of behavior – then why deny it so fiercely? And in any case, why would using charged terms in amorphous ways be more conducive to fostering good behavior than careful sincerity?
The Upside of Confusion
And yet, McIntosh herself seems to think that it is. In her 2010 instructions to facilitators, she describes precise definitions as a “trap”:
Do not get trapped in definitions of privilege and power. They lack nuances and flexibility.
What McIntosh means by “nuances” is not immediately obvious – it is difficult for an undefined, “flexible” concept to be “nuanced.” But McIntosh’s preferences here are at any rate consistent, going back decades.
Three years before writing the Invisible Knapsack (in Feeling Like a Fraud, 1985), McIntosh lamented the fact that the conventions of expository writing insist
that one make a case which is cohesive and clear, an argument which has no holes in it
and throughout that speech she used the word “clear” with negative connotations.
McIntosh appears to see a certain degree of conceptual confusion as a positive value. Applying this point to the edifice of privilege itself, we start to wonder if the curiously oscillatory ideas we find there might not be the result of enthusiastic carelessness so much as something else, something more akin to a modus operandi.
How This Could Work
The general system of the Invisible Knapsack starts by identifying things some people can do, including mundane ones, that other people cannot. Most of her list items begin with “I can,”and so highlight those who “cannot.”
Including an item on the list does not depend on an analysis of where the disparity comes from, only that a disparity exists. For example, the item “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race” might or might not be absurd if its message is that music by black people is disproportionately hard to come by. However, the general principle illustrated here is that if typical music stores have few selections that can be classified as of a given ethnic group, then that group should include this fact as an item on their list, without further ado.
It is in this sense that privilege discourse is non-moralistic and only about thinking and observing.
Lists are only made for groups, so the items on the list are generalizations rather than individual experiences. The most common group distinctions discussed remain race and gender, although sexual identities have become more frequent and other axes of distinctions can come up as well.
It is in this sense that privilege discourse is about seeing “society systemically and structurally,” although these words signify not that any structural analysis will take place but that the analysis will focus on groups of people.
Once the framework has been set up, key vocabulary words are attached to the possession of advantages on the lists: privilege, racism, oppression, and many others (unearned, unfair, discrimination, dominance, etc.).
These are of course not neutral, descriptive words – they connote injustice and many of them imply a high degree of intentionality.
Many people are willing to acknowledge that they enjoy advantages that others don’t, and that these advantages are not ideally distributed. Fewer are willing to proclaim that they consciously perpetrate injustice.
It is here that avoiding precise definitions can become highly functional. If “privilege” signifies – flexibly – anything from possession of advantages to deliberate oppression, then the person who gets to decide which it is holds a great deal of power.
What dynamics are possible within this structure? Here is one way things could play out:
Everyone in an “oppressive category” lives under the knife of responsibility for their privilege. But those who defer to privilege culture can still hope that their privilege will be considered largely formal. As they painfully acknowledge their privilege, describing their advantages as intentional faults for which they know they should make amends, others may (hopefully) see their privilege merely as advantages distributed by a flawed society, without this circumstance reflecting negatively upon them.
The ratchet is turned in the opposite direction for those who resist the premises of privilege culture. They are at the very least oblivious of their privilege and lack empathy for those hurt by societal injustices. If they do not desist, their oppression and racism will be treated with the full ordinary connotation of those terms: as callous and intentional infliction of wrongs upon the innocent.
If verbal acknowledgements of the reality of oppression inherently represent progress, then the model of privilege discourse described above is undeniably effective at eliciting such acknowledgements. It is therefore a valuable strategic tool.
If we are concerned not just with words but the psychological state behind the words, the balance is less clearly positive. Participants in the system described above are punished when they try to attach a consistent meaning to words instead of following the cues of those already integrated into privilege culture. The incentive structure does not foster empathy for those with whom others don’t empathize, but tense conformism.
This is a model. Is it how privilege discourse is actually deployed in real life?
At least sometimes, it is. In its most methodical form, it becomes a sort of machine, with minimal thoughtful content, that seeks principally to replicate itself. It sets itself up as the way to talk about disadvantages faced by groups and defends this niche aggressively, training its adherents to treat dissenters without empathy.
Is this, then, all that privilege represents?
I will argue no. A strong case can be made that something else is going on here. The language of white privilege was born out of a set of sincere, deeply felt concerns, and echoes of these can still be discerned within the culture that has grown up around it.
As it happens, these concerns had nothing to do with empathy for black people.
This post is part of a series. The second part will appear tomorrow.