on privilege as a functionally useless concept
December 2, 2013
So it was bfp a while back who first pointed out how talking about white privilege was pretty pointless and that it is so much more useful to focus on white supremacy1. As far as I know, at least for ‘white privilege,” the canon thing people refer to is Peggy McIntosh”s “Invisible Backpack” article. Beyond the fact that this paper on race, by a white woman, is still considered important introductory material to understanding white supremacy…. people have largely taken what is, at essence, an exercise for self-reflection as some kind of authoritative and critical for understanding how to resist and dismantle white supremacy2. It suffers from the same kind of individualism that much of white rhetoric depends on, even as it is — ironically — meant to be a tool used to highlight how systemic and institutional white supremacy benefits white people. It is still all about ‘consciousness raising,” leaving the freedom of iapoc at the mercy of white ignorance.
In any case, it is pretty clear — at this point — that ‘privilege” has become one of the most diluted liberatory concepts around. We have a whole slew of made up privileges: binary, monoracial, cis ethnic, vanila, Western, sexual, and so on. People, in general, have forgotten that privilege is intended to refer to the benefits one group of people get by oppressing another. It is functionally useless, as concept, if it does not relate to any relationship or disparity in power.
And, of course, people are not simply content to make up privileges as a means to dilute discourse and cause confusion. Nope. Many of these made up privileges are used as weapons against already marginalized groups. ‘Western privilege” as something Black people living in white states have. ‘Monoracial” privilege as something used to marginalized mixed racial people (as if). Vanila privilege as a way for hetero kinksters to destabilize queer communities. And so on.
However, even before the dilution and weaponization of privilege, bfp was right to point out that it served no real purpose, other than to shift the focus from the oppressed to the oppressor. White privilege, for example, is just a by-product of white supremacy. White supremacy is and should always be what we focus on in discussion race-based oppression3.
This shift in focus leads to the situation, which many of us have been in, where when trying to discuss white supremacy but using the discourse of privilege, you always get oppressors claiming exceptions (eg, privilege denial).
“Well, I don”t have white privilege because I”m a woman”
“I wasn”t able to go to college because I was poor, so I don”t have white privilege”
No one wins in these interactions because the basic framing is flawed. And because this flaw means that, in discussing privilege, we spend too much time examining the individual experiences of our oppressors. Because, ultimately, it becomes about consciousness raising for our oppressors. About convincing them that, “yes, you are standing on my throat” instead of just focusing on how to get them to stop — willingly or not.
More often than not, discussions about privilege are draining and exhausting and, ultimately, change nothing for most of the oppressors participating. It can be useful in intra-community discussions for understanding certain aspects of our experiences (since, sometimes we can only define something by what it isn”t or by remarking on its absence).
Okay. I”ve reached that point of the post where I can”t remember how I wanted to finish this. Or what my central thesis was here. Er…
So anyway. Fuck the discourse surrounding privilege. It is largely pointless, imo.