Thoughts On Privilege

by cacophonies

The other morning at work, a group of my coworkers congregated around one of the windows (we’re on the 17th floor), where we could see the AT&T building. Employees were picketing for better health care or benefits or contracts of some kind. I didn’t know all the details, but I knew it was healthcare-related. I went to lunch with imnotme and we walked past them, scowling and irritable, because imnotme had worked for AT&T in the past and knew their union’s benefits; neither of us can afford the benefits offered to us at the national bank that we work for. How irritating and privileged of them, we thought, to complain about their benefits, when I work 40 hours a week for a large corporation and earn a reasonable hourly wage, and still can’t afford medical insurance with their plan? I can’t go to the doctor without severely taking from my money available for monthly bills, because I cannot afford the $120/month plan my employer offers.

Then I realized that I have been in their position, in regards to a number of different issues, a million different times. I’m privileged, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to complain if conditions aren’t ideal. If my $3,000 poodle pooped on my $10,000 rug, that might be a more desirable problem than potentially starving to death, but don’t I still have the right to be upset about my ruined rug?

I realize that was a shallow example, and I certainly can’t afford a $3,000 dog or a $10,000 rug. But the point remains: do I not have a right to complain if someone else could ever, in any possibility, have things a bit worse off than I do?

Each one of us has certain privileges, and each one of us suffers from oppression. The degree to which each of us experience these vary, of course, but we can’t very well argue that there are some people with zero privilege, or zero oppression.

As someone who is very privileged in comparison to a great number of people and/or groups, I can say that I’ve been both accepting of my privilege and try to take necessary steps to make sure that that doesn’t negatively or unfairly affect others, and also that I’ve been simply resentful of any implication by anyone that I don’t have the right to complain, to feel oppressed, or to feel hurt by accusations that I abuse my privileges, when it’s not my fault that I have them.

People who feel “more” oppressed than others will often call people out on their privilege, which often yields a defensive and knee-jerk response from the alleged oppressor, which often makes the alleged oppressor shut down any openness to understanding. The alleged oppressors then anger the less privileged by making angry statements declaring that they, too, have rights, stop reversing the oppression/various “-isms.”

Where do we come to a common ground here? I think much of the problem lies in what we collectively consider to be privilege, and what we consider to be oppression. When engaged in a discussion about privilege/oppression, people often play what many refer to as the Oppression Olympics, comparing various ways that people are oppressed, how it’s worse than certain other groups’ oppression, how one is more deserving of attention than the other.

I’m privileged in a number of ways, and while I am very aware of that, I feel a biting resentment toward anyone who would say or imply that my experiences as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied female are less valid or deserving of consideration than others that come from someone less privileged than I am (in a general sense; who ultimately decides?). My knee-jerk reaction is to declare that the “more” privileged person is being silenced, being shoved aside and told they don’t matter. The response of the accuser is that people with less privilege are often shoved aside and made to believe that their experiences, perspectives, etc., don’t matter, and that that should be enough to make me shut up. To stop being so expectant of privileged treatment all the time, and let others have a turn.

I was raised by a single mother who was on welfare for a while, and that affected my perspective in a number of ways. Another female with an identical upbringing, but who happens to be a person of color, may be more oppressed than I was because of her race, but her presence (on the internet? in the room? On the planet?) doesn’t negate my experiences. If you want to follow the logic that it does, you’d have to follow it to the only one, solitary person who is the very most oppressed in the world, and it certainly isn’t you, so you’d better shut your mouth.

That doesn’t make sense. Do you think you should just shut your mouth? I don’t. I don’t think I need to complain every time I think something “sucks,” but I don’t think that I just need to shut up, either. I resent the implication that I need to be all-inclusive in my speech and behavior at all times, when the same isn’t required (or even expected) of everyone else. I resent the fact that, while it is a good idea to be all-inclusive as much as you can be, I’m a member of what seems to be the only group who is held accountable for that.

For example: mainstream feminists blogs won’t even touch the fact that the vast majority of black voters are against gay marriage. Mainstream feminist bloggers are nearly all officially in support of gay rights and effectively anti-racist, but for some reason they all shy away from criticizing any non-white person who behaves in a oppressing way toward other minority or disadvantaged groups. When someone else brings it up, they sarcastically and dismissively brush it off, saying something about not silencing oppressed peoples voices or how white people, both men and women, should be entirely responsible for changing everything, and everyone else is off the hook for helping to change our society, and even volunteers are suspect.

In a similar vein, a group of women talking about how all men are ass holes, violent pricks, rapists, etc., isn’t any better than a group of men speaking derogatorily about women as a whole. Just because they are understood to be part of an oppressed class should in no way exempt them from basic rules of respect when it comes to other human beings. It is unfair to hold only those who have relative privilege responsible for their infractions. The blatant hypocrisy ruins anyone’s credibility, for one.

The point I’m ultimately trying to come back to (believe it or not) is that, while privilege is confusing to deal with, oppression is uncomfortable to admit to being a part of, and no one knows what terminology to use anymore, we really do all have to try.

If I find myself noticing, for example, that 8 out of 10 people that I know and see every day claim to be bipolar, and I roll my eyes and think at least half of them are just being dramatic, that’s when I have to stop myself and remember that I’m not bipolar. I couldn’t possibly be so arrogant to assume that I know better than they do what is going on inside of their head. I think this applies to many other ways that privileged people can forget their privilege and effectively blame oppressed people for their oppressions, and not acknowledge how they, as a privileged class, are helping to oppress those other people, no matter how indirectly.

There’s no real attempt at understanding where anyone is coming from, there are accusations and declarations that the privileged just “know better” about what the oppressed individual or group is going through, or what they need to do.

It’s really as basic as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand what it is that someone goes through on a daily basis, and how you would feel and how your perspective would change it it were you. And remembering that, and acting accordingly.

I catch myself violating these rules, and I keep trying to eliminate that from my behavior and change my perspective when I find myself acting or thinking in a very privileged manner. Everyone should do this. It’s not a defeat or a concession. Think of the different ways that your voice isn’t heard, and respect the voice of others, because you know how it feels.

One thing that is hard for me, and many other people, is calling out racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic behavior when a member of my peer group expresses it, and it’s easily one of the most important and influential things that you can do to help raise awareness. Instead of rolling your eyes and chuckling at your friend’s “tranny” joke, even when you don’t think it’s funny, because you don’t want to start an argument or cause a scene, you actually say something about how it’s disrespectful and ask them to stop using that language, or think about what it is that they’re really saying.

All that said, acknowledging your own privilege doesn’t mean being quiet and letting people who are less privileged walk all over you, simply because they themselves get walked on all the time. That’s not productive and it furthers the problem.

I’m not even sure that I am comfortable with the current privilege/oppression model anymore, but it’s just the easiest to use at this point.

18 responses to “Thoughts On Privilege

  1. Personally I think that complaining about one’s problems is a key part of resolving them. Kinda like AA when they say acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. The key is not to get hung up in the complaining step though. Which is why I’ve never liked it when people try to shut me up from complaining by trying to tell me that someone has it worse. Be thankful for what you have but don’t let that thankfulness stop you from venting every once in a while.

    Question (Slightly off topic mind you): Do you think that the concept of institutional power should be brought into consideration when determining if someone’s actions where -ist or not?

    • Question (Slightly off topic mind you): Do you think that the concept of institutional power should be brought into consideration when determining if someone’s actions where -ist or not?

      To make sure I understand your question, do you mean, for example, that if a person of color speaks negatively or derogatorily about white people, that there could be a question about whether their behavior could be considered racist? Or, a woman complaining about men in general and making derogatory remarks about men in general may not be sexist, because of the institutionalized oppression that non-white people, or women, face?

      I’ll answer it as though that is definitely what you asked:

      I think it’s fair to say that there is a larger “racism” and “sexism” that exist beyond our daily interactions and experiences that influence the way that each of us lives our lives, in sort of a trickle-down way. I think that it’s fair to say that because of this, it’s not as possible for a, for example, black woman’s derogatory statements about white people to carry as much weight for white people as a whole, or affect them as much as it would if it were reversed.

      …However, I think that what many people would describe as “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” (regardless of how anybody feels about those labels) are also problematic and need to be addressed. One example that I used in the post about the majority of black voters being against gay marriage, and modern “blog feminists” refusal to acknowledge situations like that, is one good example of how members of traditionally or historically underprivileged groups are being allowed to “get away with” various -isms and not beheld accountable for them. I say it’s problematic because 1. it’s blatantly hypocritical, and people who would benefit most from understanding their point of view will not respond well to hypocrisy, and 2. because allowing any group to be, or behave in, an -ist manner only perpetuates the general idea that -ist behavior is ok. Also, where is the line? Do we allow under-privileged groups to be so -ist that we flip the oppression cycle, and then previously privileged people are now oppressed? Why can’t we figure out a solution that doesn’t leave anyone open to be allowably oppressed?

      I don’t have any suggestions as of yet, but I can’t see how the current structure, or the idea that oppressed people should be allowed that “venting” space that usually only amounts to -ist behavior, actually benefits anyone.

      Shorter answer: Yes and no, but I feel more strongly about the “no” arguments than the “yes” side.

  2. missincognegro

    Its a sticky wicket, isn’t it? Your post has really clarified for me what it is that the White male students at my place of employ feel. You’ve offered me a perspective that I had not fully validated, which is being made to feel that one has to shut up because his oppression isn’t as oppressive as the oppression of another. I often believe that in all of the talk re: power and oppression, we’ve forgotten hoe to be fully human. We’ve forgotten how to “walk in someone else’s shoes”.

    • White, hetero half of the kinsey scale, middle class male here. Hopefully, we all strive to be compasionate towards other human beings, however…

      I’m reminded by this discussion of a woman I dated who sometimes complained that it was unfair her parents paid her sister’s entire undergraduate tuition at a private university, but “only” paid her entire undergraduate tuition at a state university.

      Entitlement can be an ugly thing. I come back to the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality offered to me by my midwestern, protestant father…

      Perhaps, even though we have a cognitive understanding that a person’s plight is “not so bad” there is nothing productive about animosity about it. All we can do is hope to learn from one another to gain a more realistic perspective, a ” a more profound interpretation of the human condition — one that goes beyond the false dichotomies of expert knowledge vs. mass ignorance, individual autonomy vs. dogmatic authority, and self-mastery vs. intolerant tradition. ” (Cornell West)/ So that we can move forward together?

      • I’m reminded by this discussion of a woman I dated who sometimes complained that it was unfair her parents paid her sister’s entire undergraduate tuition at a private university, but “only” paid her entire undergraduate tuition at a state university.

        I agree that hearing someone complain about that would frustrate me and make me want to spew at her all of the ways that that’s a great problem to have. At the same time, do you think she’s not justified in her anger? Did her parents only pay all of her state tuition because she didn’t want to go to a private university, or because they chose the school for her? Did she think that she deserved something more on top of her tuition being paid, to balance out what her sister had gotten from them financially to make up for it? Like rent for a year, or a new car?

        In her personal situation, is it reasonable to say that she has a right, in her own little world of parents and sibling, to demand equal treatment from her parents? Does she not have a reasonable leeway to say that her parents treat her less equitably than her sister?

        …of course, there are a number of ways in which you could just call her selfish, frivolous, shallow, demanding, etc. Maybe it’s just the school she decided to go to, and her parents weren’t as well off once she got to college. That would be silly and, in my opinion, unjust for her to demand the same thing, in that instance.

        I come back to the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality offered to me by my midwestern, protestant father…

        If your parents were able (and willing) to pay for your entire tuition at a state or private college, would you say “no thanks” and turn down the opportunity to go to college for free? Doing so wouldn’t mean that you weren’t able to take care of yourself or be self-sufficient and independent. Why turn down a free education? I am not sure many people would do that.

        Furthermore, while I know that’s not necessarily what you were arguing, it’s not necessarily fair to tell a very disadvantaged person (your ex likely does not belong in this category, but the larger idea applies) that it’s entirely up to them to make everything good happen for them, on their own, when circumstances beyond their control may have caused the person to be so disadvantaged in the first place. There is certainly something to be said for personal responsibility, but we can’t ignore the fact that many people are dealt a much stronger hand and may not have the resources to know how to help themselves without the aid of other, more privileged people.

        • …To question myself for a moment, though,

          we can’t ignore the fact that many people are dealt a much stronger hand and may not have the resources to know how to help themselves without the aid of other, more privileged people.

          Are more privileged people responsible for aiding others, whether financially, socially, or otherwise? That’s a hard question to answer. I may be willing to be partially responsible, but is it fair for me to demand the same responsibility from my neighbor?

          • In society? I think its makes sense to do so. We’re investing in human capital instead of material capital like infrastructure.

            Ethically? I don’t really think so unless you/they played a factor in their disadvantage.

            Morally? My morals, yup.

        • EVERYONE is responsible for their own “destiny”, no matter how disadvantaged. As a society we must irradicate systemic injustice, but that does not alleviate any one person from responsbility for their own life.

          I do not mean to argue against measures that have given disadvantaged people some help, quite the contrary. Otherwise, we would be expecting those with potentially the least resources to do the most.

          A person still needs to take the help that is offered to them.

          • cacophonies

            As a society we must irradicate systemic injustice, but that does not alleviate any one person from responsbility for their own life.

            But what about, for example, the kid who was raised in poverty by a single parent who was addicted to drugs, school was never made a priority for him/her, and they lived in a terrible neighborhood and the kid had absolutely no good role model growing up, and therefore didn’t seem to know better about getting into a gang, which s/he may have seen as the only way to protect oneself, and it spirals from there?

            At which point in that person’s life do you declare that they are now officially Responsible For His/Herself? At 18, that arbitrary age (in the US) where you are legally an adult? Is that person guaranteed at that point to have had at least one experience or interaction that could have given them the insight to change their life path or make different decisions?

            This might sound like a stretch, but that sounds similar to what I always got out of evangelical (and/or missionary) Christianity: If you ever hear/are told about Jesus, you are responsible, regardless of the context in which you heard the “good news,” for knowing and believing that he is y/our saviour, and if you don’t own up to that responsibility and instead make a different decision, you are damned to hell.

            That’s even assuming that the person damned to hell even hears about Jesus in the first place. Or, to go back to the topic I was metaphor-izing about, has the tools necessary to make better decisions. If I remember correctly, people who do not know about Jesus are said to go to purgatory; would there be a similar route for disadvantaged youths with no better role model or example to influence them in a positive way?

    • I’m really grateful to hear you say what you did, because I was very afraid after writing this post that it would get a lot of negative backlash and I’d be considered racist/homophobic/etc because of the potential for sounding like an “oppressor sympathizer” or something.

      That said, it is difficult to walk in a person’s shoes who is more privileged, or feel like you should bother, and I can completely understand that and I experience it regularly. To use classism as an example, I know some people whose schooling is entirely paid for by their wealthy parents, and they don’t even seem to acknowledge the privilege of not having to ever worry about student loans or scraping by to get an education. It infuriates me at times, because I can only wish that that were the case for me, and if a free education were to fall into my lap tomorrow morning, I would be so grateful. Then again, though, and this is the thing I have to keep remembering to keep in mind, is that I can’t claim to know that I’d be any different if I were in their position. I would accept what I reasonably expected to be mine, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with expecting and anticipating a free education when living in the reality that that is a norm.

      I guess that’s where it comes down to whether or not someone acknowledges the privilege?

  3. That is just what I mean. (and sorry for not being more specific). I’ve never had a problem with people pointing out how some -isms are “larger” than others because doing so is a matter of bringing up historical fact. My problem is that when people take that history and try to say that said history excuses the actions of people from that group from being called -ist but is instead ____-based discrimination (the blank obviously being gender, religion, etc…).

    Example being sexism. I’m sure if you’ve spent time on feminist sites you’ve heard someone say that “sexism is prejudice plus power.” Personally I think that is a copout and an attempt to create a loophole to excuse the actions of people of that groups by only calling it discrimination. For a while I wasn’t sure of a reason why they would do such a thing until recently. It might not be the real reason why but I think it is worth wondering why groups go to such lengths to “prove” that their discriminatory actions are only discrimination but not -ist.

    Nothing wrong with showing why one -ist action may carry more impact than another but that is not an excuse to declare that some actions are -ist and some are not. (Sorry for the swerve off topic but reading this post made me think of this issue. ::crawls back to corner::)

    • I don’t think your comment was off-topic at all. I read the post you linked to, and I think you made some really great points. I really appreciated the scale analogy when discussing “-isms” vs. “prejudice.”

      My problem is that when people take that history and try to say that said history excuses the actions of people from that group from being called -ist but is instead ____-based discrimination (the blank obviously being gender, religion, etc…).

      I completely agree. It minimizes the effect that any kind of expressed discrimination or prejudice can, and will, have on the recipient.

  4. Good post.

    When engaged in a discussion about privilege/oppression, people often play what many refer to as the Oppression Olympics, comparing various ways that people are oppressed, how it’s worse than certain other groups’ oppression, how one is more deserving of attention than the other.

    I think a lot of the problems associated with discussing “privilege” come from people assuming that it is some kind of monolithic block, and, despite frequent disclaimers to the contrary, that “privileged” people are somehow responsible as individuals for general alleged group activity – i.e., being a heterosexual white male makes you automatically suspect as part of the “oppressor class”. Urgh, yuk etc.

    This kind of division of people into classes is one of the most damning indictments of the influence of the Marxian Left onto academic (and pseudo-academic) thinking; and I say that as a member of the Left not rooted in the Marxian paradigm.

    The fact is that classes are only a statistical tool at best, and that they are composed of individuals – if you cannot take an individual to task for his/her own failings, you shouldn’t criticise. We are all socially oppressed in some sense, and “privilege” is not a black and white, yes or no proposition. I am relatively privileged in some ways by being a white male who appears heterosexual (ftr – actually bi); on the other hand, I am disprivileged by being economically disadvantaged, subject to a history of mental illness and so on.

    Basically, we need to stop the kind of lazy thinking that says person X is a member of class Y, and thus is oppressing person Z; class-based thinking is lazy and creates more problems than it solves.

    • I agree with everything you said.

      There’s something to be said for compassion and understanding, but when it all comes down to it, we’re all privileged and oppressed in varying ways. It’s frustrating to be told that you need to take more blame than someone else does, and watch that same person (whose blame you helped shoulder) use oppressive tactics to intimidate other privileged people. While it’s not directly and immediately influencing the lives and freedoms of the larger group of whom I’m a part (because someone decided that I belonged there, based various vast assumptions about me, whether or not they actually am aware of my existence), it is equally as troubling, hurtful, and abusive. And that behavior, if perpetuated, will only change the roles currently inhabited by privileged/oppressed, not eradicate or equalize the problem.

      The personal is political? Anyone?

      • That’s really my beef with mainstream, big F, Feminism – it is far too influenced by Marxian thinking, and buys completely into the idea that -isms (e.g., racism, sexism etc) are class-based phenomena; the whole prejudice plus power shtick. I refuse to accept that paradigm – it’s effectively claiming eternal victimhood and eternal righteousness on the part of the oppressed group, it’s deliberately fucking with the language to gain political points, and, of course, it leaves us with a stunted viewpoint of what actually constitutes an -ism. It’s basically saying that only people (allegedly) in power are ever culpable, and that’s just insulting to everyone involved.

        I agree entirely with this:

        [T]hat behavior, if perpetuated, will only change the roles currently inhabited by privileged/oppressed, not eradicate or equalize the problem.

        This is dead on the money, and it’s one of the reasons I find the online radfems so repulsive. The world will be just as shitty and unpleasant if the power dynamics of gender or race are flipped around; it’ll just be shitty in a different way. Frankly, pretending that putting women in charge will result in some kind of better world (the old “If women ruled the world, there’d be no wars” canard) is disrespectful to women – it’s simply another kind of idolisation and putting them on a pedestal.

        When it really comes down to it, privilege and oppression are not a zero sum game – everyone has some of one and the other.

        • Frankly, pretending that putting women in charge will result in some kind of better world (the old “If women ruled the world, there’d be no wars” canard) is disrespectful to women – it’s simply another kind of idolisation and putting them on a pedestal

          I agree with you here, but I think it’s safe to say that even the most radical of radfems on the internet today don’t necessarily believe that we should simply flip the coin an have women or minorities in charge instead of white men. They can certainly come across that way at times, but mostly I thin they just want everyone to have a fair shot at it, regardless of gender, race, etc.

          – it is far too influenced by Marxian thinking, and buys completely into the idea that -isms (e.g., racism, sexism etc) are class-based phenomena; the whole prejudice plus power shtick.

          I am mostly partial to this paradigm, honestly, and it’s what made me *get* feminism, as a goal and movement. What I mean by that is the most basic idea that they’re attempting to sell, that there is a class of extremely privilged people who are in charge in one way or another (some in government, some in business, like in the US) who make it extremely difficult for anyone else to have a say in what happens in their country/region/etc. We can’t deny that, for example, black people are, as a group, most definitely oppressed, and that even though there are laws against discrimination in the workplace and various other areas in life, it is still allowed to happen.

          …On the other hand, there is just something about that model that makes me unable to fully accept it. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, although I think that what I said earlier about how acting as though oppressed people are given a free pass to act in oppressive ways (individual/ultimately irrelevant in the grand scheme of things as they may be) toward “the privileged” is just wrong and backwards, and helps no movement whatsoever, might be starting off in the right direction.

  5. Basically, we need to stop the kind of lazy thinking that says person X is a member of class Y, and thus is oppressing person Z; class-based thinking is lazy and creates more problems than it solves.
    Very much agreed and I think this is what is happening with people who are now trying to add institutional power to definition of an -ism. In the example you have here Mike a lot of people would say that Z cannot commit an -ist act against X simply because historically X’s class oppressed Z’s class. That’s some bullshit.

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