On the discourse of privilege

[Addendum, Jan 11: Based on the nature of the critiques against me on the post I cite below, there seems to be some confusion on the relationship between this post and my comments there. To clarify, this post is not an expansion on the arguments in my comments. On the contrary, it is something I decided not to address in my comments (with the exception of a brief question, as a separate paragraph, in the first comment), both because they were long enough already and because (rightly or wrongly) I saw this point on privilege discourse as relatively tangential to the main thrust of the post.]

The discourse of white privilege is one topic that a recent discussion over at Ortus Memoria has touched on. A fellow commenter has well-articulated one of the general claims about privilege discourse: “that leftist white people [having] the capacity to call themselves out on their privilege does not do enough to fundamentally dismantle the structures of white supremacy from which they benefit.”

I agree with this argument. People recognizing themselves as privileged, on its own, does not accomplish anything. However, I disagree with a supposedly consequent claim (made directly by the original poster, but not by the commenter): that this means that the discourse of privilege has failed. This is because I understand privilege discourse as an effective tool for introducing people to problematic power dynamics. At the same time, I do not think it is useful on its own for effecting a transformation of society; this is not what it is made for or how it is supposed to be used.

We live in a society full of unjust power dynamics, with racism and sexism naming two of the most common injustices of our society. In Canada, we are far from figuring out how to heal our (not so distant) colonial past and we are far from having built institutions (including schools and parliaments, to follow only the most recent news cycle) where women are not regularly objectified and treated violently. Likewise, in the United States, recent police shootings have illustrated once again that the systems of white supremacy are alive and well. However, at the same time, our laws are not formally racist or sexist. Indeed, they are explicitly against discrimination, no matter the extent to which they might implicitly be otherwise. This marks a difference from other past and present societies whose laws officially discriminate and discriminated. We can disagree about which systems are better and worse, but hopefully the difference between the two is clear.

When living in a society whose laws are officially non-discriminatory it is difficult for many people to see that such a society is in fact racist and sexist. It seems counter-intuitive, for example, to many white men to say that our society is racist when they are looking for jobs and on job applications see many written disclaimers that the employer has a preference for minorities. This is where the discourse of privilege comes in. Naming the ways that skin colour, gender, sexual preference, and social background provide privileges that are not shared by all reveals the ways that injustice remains in our societies, despite our laws to the contrary. If it is quite a common discourse, I suspect that this is because it is so effective at helping those who could not see to see.

Now it is true that this ability to see does not automatically effect transformation, either on the part of society or the individual. However, I don’t see that it makes sense to say that the discourse of privilege is at fault for this. Privilege discourse is not there to show us what to do once we can recognize the unjust ways of our society, but to allow for that initial and ongoing recognition. Privilege discourse has not failed if it does not accomplish what it is meant for. It may be that many “leftist white-people” have turned privilege discourse on its head, in using it present it is a sort of status quo, and thus enable themselves to “tragically” hold onto their positions of power. Even in such cases, however, I would argue that the fundamental problem is not the failure of privilege discourse, but the void of other discourses of hope, transformation, and justice. We’ve learned that the discourse of progress is both unsupportable and deleterious. We no longer trust the discourse of (liberal) human rights, even as we still attempt to cling to it. And there isn’t anywhere left for many of us to look to when we learn of unjust power dynamics (even as the fact of being “stuck” in this way is also an indication of privilege, which still doesn’t help).

We need other discourses, not as replacements, but as complements for the discourse of privilege. Let me suggest two from my Christian tradition: conversion and truth.

Conversion implicates us personally, telling us that it is not enough to simply see, behold, or know the truth, but that to truly see we must drastically transform our own lives, “selling all we have and giving it to the poor.” The discourse of conversion combats our cultural despair, telling us that each individual life matters and that there are robust ways of living contrary to the status quo. A powerful sense of (or experience of) conversion turned Romero into an advocate of the poor after the death of his friend Fr. Grande; it made Las Casas free his slaves and become a fierce advocate for indigenous people rather than sit in paralyzing despair; it gave Dorothy Day the strength to overcome her own despair to reveal a new way of living radical Christian discipleship.

And then there’s truth. For some, discourses of truth can only serve violence; in saying what is good and not good, “truth” can only support what the powers that be say is true and not true. But, of course, truth also allows us to name untruth and violence in the powers that be. It is the prophet (not the state) that is the truth’s closest friend (which may explain why so many contemporary Christians are so uncomfortable with the prophetic texts). Without the ability to at least begin to name what we see as good or not good, learning to see won’t help us much, only further feeding our apathy.  It was with a powerful sense of prophetic justice and truth, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. was able fight for the rights of black Americans.

All of this is not to say that discourses of conversion and truth are without their problems and their need of nuance, qualification, and additional discourse. I also don’t mean to suggest that there are not other discourses capable of dismantling the destructive powers of our time, and perhaps they need no help from conversion and truth. At the same time, I do think conversion and truth are inseparable from Christian confrontations with racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of discrimination. This is, in part, because trust in God (rather than trust in oneself or other idols) must animate the Christian’s response to oppression. Whatever else this involves, when we trust we are brought (converted) into a (truthful) relationship that defines everything else that we do.

Returning to privilege, I have one more comment. The original discussion references white privilege, whereas I’ve aimed my argument at privilege discourse more generally. This is primarily because I am more familiar with conversations on male privilege. Most often, it has been this discourse (on male privilege) that I have witnessed to be effective and that I see a need to defend. White privilege and male privilege have their similarities and differences; conceptually, as two privilege discourses they will share much even as differences will remain. Is it possible that the differences between white privilege and male privilege are where my argument falls apart? Is it somehow the case that the discourse of white privilege has run its course while the discourse of male privilege has currency yet?

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6 thoughts on “On the discourse of privilege

  1. I have never thought about the rhetoric of privilege primarily as a tool for naming and (mostly) deconstructing. This is what your argument points at: “Privilege discourse is not there to show us what to do … but to allow for that initial and ongoing recognition.” This part of your argument shows privilege-rhetoric as naming (and re-naming) and deconstructing ideologies and systems and just that. But privilege-rhetoric rarely (if ever) acts apart from the persons it is used by. The person engaging in a rhetoric of privilege is likely to move into different ways of being; the rhetoric of privilege often does show more helpful and less dominating ways of being in the world. All this is to say, naming and deconstructing ideologies and (sexist, racist …) systems shows something.
    Take Peggy McIntosh’s classic “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible backpack.” The first sign of white privilege McIntosh writes down is: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” Through her naming of a simple presence (i.e. convenient meetings with same-race folks who are privileged) she implies an absence (i.e. difficult and, at times, impossible meetings with same-race folks who are marginalized and less privileged). In the implied absence, McIntosh shows us another way of being. She shows whites that one way to combat our privilege is to step-back from all-white gatherings and, when welcome, to join meetings with people of colour. McIntosh also shows what a space looks like that is not dominated with white privilege: a space where persons of Colour can meet with other same-race persons at their convenience.
    Lastly, the rhetoric of privilege makes space for people to speak and share their knowledge in ways that had rarely, if ever, existed in the larger public. And sometimes, often, this space and rhetoric of privilege is not open to all of us. But, as privileged people, it is damn near impossible to recognize a space we are not needed or welcome. So we ask questions that nobody answers cause we were never let into the space we think we entered in.

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  2. Being a white person and talking about white-privilege is a weird thing. It is something that us whites need to do more often but it is strange to do it in such a public way as this. And I wonder if that feeling of strangeness over the form of this conversation speaks of a particularity of white privilege.

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  3. I think you are right by saying that the discourse of privilege is helpful way to introduce and maintain ideas. I like the fact that you say that the discourse of privilege is not supposed to be the end, but more as an introduction.

    But I think that a crucial, if not the central, thrust of privilege discourse is missing, namely, who is speaking and the power, or lack of power, that the speaker has in communicating the “use” or “saving power” of privilege.

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  4. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, but I’m inclined to understand your point as complementary to what I was trying to say rather than opposed to it. I agree that much privilege discourse points quite clearly to action that should be taken. However, my observation is that often, rather than taking such action, people upon learning of their privilege’s either fall into a sort of cultural despair that allows for no constructive action or else use their knowledge of their privilege ironically, such that while seeming to critique themselves they are actually reinforcing their place in positions of power. I think that for people McIntosh, this sort of reaction is so far off the radar that they just assume that their use of privilege discourse is bound up with other discourses calling for, enabling, and pointing towards constructive actions. Does that seem right?

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  5. Joel, I agree with you also. My education in privilege has come primarily from women – online, in books, and in living experience (mostly this last one). The message I’ve gotten from them is not to sit down and let them continue to educate people about privilege. Rather, it tended to be more along the lines of “I am tired of showing how things are to privileged men. This is not my job. Now that you see, if you do, you go out and spread this message.” (And I’ve seen this work; for example, I’ve seen many white men go from a vague distrust of affirmative action to full support for it.) Given this message, I’m hesitant to quickly believe that the discourse of privilege has failed. This is also why I included my last paragraph.

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