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Project X: Privilege, Part II

February 16, 2012

Welcome to our follow-up on Privilege, dear readers!

In our last post, we tried to talk about what privilege is, how it operates and conceals itself. Admittedly, that may have seemed a lil wonky and abstract to some, but that might be because 1) it’s freakin complicated, peeps!, and 2) privilege may have been getting in the way of clarity (e.g. having privilege makes it hard to see… privilege).

We hope that, despite the wonkiness, you were able to understand a little more about what privilege is (if not, please go back and leave a comment to ask for clarification). This week? We’re talking about how people get conversations about privilege, well, wrong – and what we can all do about it.

Let’s jump right in shall we – and start with unhelpful ways in which people discuss/understand/visualize privilege:

Problem One: Comparing Privilege(s)

First and foremost, if we all experience privilege, more than likely we all experience the shit end of that stick, too. And, you know, we tend to remember the shit end over the privileges we have. As Feminist Father points out: “…mom complaining about how a daycare treated her child doesn’t always need to be reminded at least she has daycare. Just as a dad complaining about how a daycare treats him with his child doesn’t always need to be reminded of how women have it worse, even when that is completely true.”

One way we react when forced to see we have privilege too,  is to jump-start  the Oppression Olympics. What, you’ve never heard of the Oppression Olympics? Well. It’s basically comparing privilege – typically, whether we admit it or not, to “prove” our situation is worse. While this is a fairly normal knee-jerk reaction, it’s also rarely constructive. For one, it devolves conversations into “yes, but” arguments that end up being about your shit and your shit alone. This never gets anyone anywhere, and instead tends to just give everyone some angry. For two, and more importantly, marginalization and discrimination at the hands of privilege is not about comparing. It’s not about who has it worse. As Ozymandias of No Seriously What About Teh Menz? points out – “The point is not to compare who has more shit, but to figure out where the shit is coming from and make it stop.”

Problem Two: Neutralizing Privilege(s)

Privilege is not a balancing act. Having this privilege does not negate that discrimination, neither does being denied that privilege mean you don’t enjoy another kind. For instance, Simone and my race and class privilege does not “balance out” gender discrimination we experience – but gender inequality doesn’t cancel out our race and class privilege either..

Now. Let’s pause here to combine Problem One and Two in order to point out the significant problem with arguments that inadvertently compare different privileges.  A good example? “In the US, a white woman has more privilege than a Mexican man.” While this may appear somewhat true on the surface, the woman’s privilege is about her whiteness, not her gender – nor does her white privilege neutralize gender discrimination she experiences. The statement is a strawman that distracts from conversations about white, male, or nationality privilege by comparing privileges that are different.  The appropriate comparison is the privilege a Mexican man of a specific social standing has compared to a white man of the same social standing.  Apples to apples, people.

Problem Three: I Don’t See Your Privilege (or Lack Thereof), Therefore I Am Evidence It Doesn’t Exist

Belonging to a group that is denied privilege does not automatically grant you the ability to see privilege in others. A vagina does not mean you always see male privilege, just as being Muslim does not mean you always see how Christians have it better. As we said before, 1) privilege is complicated, 2) privilege works to avoid being visible, and 3) we’re all subject to narratives that excuse and rationalize groups receiving or being denied privilege. Even if you belong to group X, you may live within the narrative that hides the privilege of group Y. And/or you may never have experienced a blatant presentation of privilege to Y when it was refused to you. These are the reasons you don’t see privilege – not evidence for the absence of privilege.

Moreover. If a woman says  “I’ve never experienced sexism, so it doesn’t exist!” or a Muslim man says “All my Christian neighbors are kind to me, so there is no religious discrimination!”, these people are using their specific and individual experience as evidence for the experiences of everyone else. In this way, they’re actually more like someone within the privileged group. How does this happen? Because their individual experience is supporting cultural narratives – narratives that say they are the truth about cultural experiences, when we know they are actually fictions. On the flip side, people saying things outside the cultural narrative, no matter how broadly their experience translates, have a much more difficult time being believed – because they are speaking against the narrative, not in support of it.

Problems One through Three are a few significant ways in which conversations about privilege and discrimination are derailed. They keep us from moving forward, from hearing one another, from ascertaining self- and cultural-awareness.

So. What to do?

Start Here: STFU and start listening

If you understand that we all experience privilege differently, that it is hard to see one’s own privilege, and that your privilege may seem like just normal life when it’s not for others, then it follows that you may not be aware of your own privilege. How to see it? Well, have someone else explain your privilege to you. Listen to what other people who aren’t you have to say. In other words, start by just. shutting. up. and open your ears instead.

Step One: Allow others to tell you about your privilege – even though it sucks

Despite our good advice, when you close your mouth and open your ears when someone tells you that you have privilege they don’t, and that this privilege hurts them, it can kinda blowand may feel false. You don’t recall doing anything to them, and you’re not racist/sexist/homophobic. And, actually, you kinda resent the implication! As such, it’s easy to react: pretend that person is paranoid, or they’re racist against you, or don’t like the menfolk, or need to stop attacking Christmas.

But look – it’s not about you, personally. Having privilege does not make you a bad person. It’s not to make you feel guilty. Really. It’s about society and culture (no one goes around earning privilege, remember?).

So. Take a deep breath. Really. It’s not about you. Understanding that helps with the sucky part – and should help with the listening.

Step Two: Avoid the pitfalls

OK. You’ve been listening and now you want to start engaging. As you do so, take time to be aware of and avoid the problems we talked about initially. If someone else is talking about their experiences, even if it is how your privilege hurts them, that is not the time to explain how some other privilege (even their privilege!) hurts you. In addition, while you deserve the space to discuss your own issues, don’t (for the love!!) use that space to explain/neutralize/compare away other forms of privilege and oppression.

For example: When a black woman tells a white woman that she believes her blackness causes her more discrimination than her gender it is NOT the time for the white woman to jump in that gender is still far more of an issue than race.  Yes, BOTH of these categories have their own sets of privileges or issues (depending on your side of the coin), and it may or may not be statistically true that women – as a whole – have it worse than minorities.  However.  To deny this person the space to discuss their discrimination – to steal it from them – is privilege talking, loud & clear.

Another one: men discussing how they are marginalized by society is really important – but it is not the space, nor the evidence, to say male privilege doesn’t exist. Ya dig?

These are knee-jerks we all have to talking about tough subjects, especially ones that feel very personal. No one is immune to it. Take, for example, the feminist response to “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” or flippant use of the N-word.

The End Game: Work to see your privilege and accept responsibility for it

It is work to see privilege – because we have to STFU, because we have to be willing to hear how others are marginalized and hurt by what we may take to be normal, and because we can’t use our own experiences to say they’re wrong. And all that kinda sucks. It’s hard. We are not trained, as a society, to do any of that very well. However. As a fine, upstanding member of a society, you still have a responsibility to address inequalities within that society. You have a responsibility to address your privilege – because it 1) is denied to others and/or 2) marginalizes others. And none of us want that, do we? No. No we do not.

One critical aspect to keep in mind is that privilege is not all “bad.” As we mentioned last time, some aspects of privilege are such simply because they are denied to others when they should apply to all.  When understanding the privilege you hold, it’s important to see what is positive advantage, that you want to spread to others, and what is negative advantage that causes oppression, and that we want to remove altogether.

Addressing these things means going further than listening and comprehension. As Peggy McIntosh states, “Disapproving of systems isn’t enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance is conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.”

See, it’s not just about working to avoid comparing, neutralizing, & dismissing, but it’s also about avoiding silence, avoiding denial – and understanding that all of this is going to work within society regardless of how you feel about it. We need to go beyond our disapproval, even if that is of our own privilege, because the constructs are working without our approval (still not about you!), and often without our full comprehension. Key to enacting cultural change is finding common ground around discussing, addressing, and transforming privilege, instead of remaining in circular conversations, arguing at each other from soap boxes. It is not fighting over who has it worse, but it is determining how we can work together to understand all that shit raining down. On everyone. And make it stop.

We can all change the system – but we need to  accept our responsibility & claim our right – nay our PRIVILEGE  – to do so.

Your thoughts? And thanks for reading!


Nikki & Simone

Recommended Reading

Peggy McIntosh ~ White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Kelly Oliver ~ The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression

Thanks Jackie.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012 6:49 pm

    Thanks for this Nikki. I am all about finding common ground, no matter how hard it is. And part of the problem with the yelling and screaming (as in the “oppression olympics”) — is just that it’s distracting from that which would be really helpful, like solving the problems.

    • February 16, 2012 8:28 pm

      Oh, I know first hand how hard you work at this. Yes – there is a lot we do to distract from the helpful conversations. Thank you for your hard work at moderating! 😀

  2. February 17, 2012 3:02 pm

    That was a lot to take in. It is difficult to keep from getting defensive when privilege is cited. I remember growing up and my father always telling me I had no reason to be sad or feel down because I had so much. Even though I did, it didn’t diminish the fact that I felt marginalized in certain ways. It’s all about accepting another person’s point of view and frame of reference. Sadly, it’s so easy to not do that.

    • February 18, 2012 11:59 am

      No it’s not easy at all – plus, we’re just not really well educated to be self-aware or self-questioning (even though we do in other ways all. the. time. – but maybe not publicly).

      The key is realizing that we need to hear each other, and acknowledge many experiences without comparing to see how to move past all the shit we all have. There is something major to be gained from finding common ground, and talking about how we can collaborate, instead of argue.

  3. Sigi1 permalink
    February 22, 2012 12:10 pm

    Female sexual privilege checklist here, thought the last three really got to the heat of feminist dialogue on privilege.

    42. Do you have the privilege of making long lists criticizing the privileges of the opposite sex while everyone pretends to not notice that you have a long list of none-too insignificant privileges of your own?

    43. Do you have the privilege of blaming your privileges on the opposite sex?

    44. Do you have the privilege of dishonestly insisting that you don’t have any privileges?

    • February 23, 2012 4:12 pm

      Well, this really wasn’t meant as a checklist, and certainly not a “female sexual privilege” checklist (not even sure what that is?). Our point is to discuss privilege in general – not specific privilege.

      As for your # 42 – 44… I am not sure these are really privileges. What I mean is, we can *all* do those things to each other. We can all talk about some other privilege as the only kind, or insist that our we have no privilege, or that we “blame” someone else for our privilege. Anyone can do that, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. That isn’t really privilege – and doing those things is exactly what this post is about. Or, rather, asking people not to do those things, and attempting to explain why doing those things are a problem.

      I kind of feel like the points we’re trying to make were missed…

  4. Mike permalink
    February 27, 2012 3:13 pm

    I’ve been really hesitant to reply here, mostly because I’m going to disagree with this whole project on fundamental grounds (years of economics education have taught me that “feminist scholarship” is an inherent misuse of the word “scholarship”).

    However, for the sake of having a legitimate conversation, I decided to try and share anyway.

    One of the primary reasons I do not agree with the theory of privilege is encapsulated in this sentence:
    “It is work to see privilege – because we have to STFU, because we have to be willing to hear how others are marginalized and hurt by what we may take to be normal, and because we can’t use our own experiences to say they’re wrong.”

    This seems like a fairly blatant attempt to end-run critical thought. We are not allowed to question privilege, because questioning privilege is “privilege talking” which is also apparently not acceptable.

    Can you imagine using this kind of logic anywhere else?

    “I’m right, and if you say I’m wrong, it’s really just because you refuse to see that I’m right!”

    Where’s the critical thought here?

    • February 27, 2012 5:22 pm

      OK. My initial thought is starting a conversation with “hey, I don’t think all the things even exist but I’ll give my two cents anyway” may not be the best way to start off. Especially if doing so is through a blatant insult. Just a thought.

      Because, ya know, saying feminist scholars are not only not scholars, but are *misusing* scholar to even call themselves such… yeah. No.

      Look. There is scholarship around ALL of these things – not just feminist theory – and they draw on ideas about all of our isms, from racism to religious intolerance to homophobia. Perhaps those things aren’t real either?

      Regardless, I digress. Because you’ve insulted me right off the bat.

      You can question privilege all you want to – in fact, I welcome you to explain why you don’t believe privilege, in all of its forms (let’s not just restrict ourselves to the “MRA vs. feminist” dialogue that I find tiresome and unhelpful) exists.

      Let’s start there, ok?

      • Mike permalink
        February 27, 2012 8:33 pm

        I apologize about the insult, I was writing quickly and didn’t realize how it sounded.

        I meant to make it sound like I am working against indoctrination just to get my head in the game. I’m really trying to hear what you have to say, but I have literally years of schooling telling me that it’s all wrong. If I sound thick-headed it’s because I’m working through a barrier that others might not have.

        But, in my 5 minutes between classes, I managed to make this whole idea sound like an insult, and I’m really sorry about that, I’ll have to be more careful in the future.

        To get to where you really wanted to start:

        I question privilege because it assumes a oppression-based relationship assumption, and then demands that this assumption be accepted without question.

        I’d like to use an example to illustrate:
        I go to the preppy-clothing-store. I have a size 30 waist. The preppy-clothing-store does not have a wide selection of khakis in a size 30 waist. The preppy-clothing-store does have a wide selection of khakis for sizes 32-40, but not my size. I develop two theories about why this is. The first theory is that this store has an idea about what “normal” and is committing a microaggression against me because I do not fit their conception of “normal.” I am made to suffer vis-a-vis a diminished selection of clothing because I fail to be normal in their eyes.

        The second theory is that the store simply responds to the purchases made by self-selecting customers. The other customers fail to purchase khakis in my size often enough for the store to carry a large selection of them. The store has limited space, and cannot waste it on khakis that it cannot sell, so they adjust their supply accordingly.

        Of these two theories, I can test the second one empirically. Indeed, I know from experience that it is correct. I cannot test the first one empirically, there would be literally no way to prove it, and even if I could demonstrate the store was acting against its own best-interests, there is no way to demonstrate that this was because of a belief over what was “normal” rather than simply ineptitude on the part of management.

        Yet the theory of privilege asks me to just swallow the idea about a “normal” narrative whole, without any evidence beyond anecdotes.

        Now, maybe there is something to privilege, it’s difficult for me to say. However, if we do not have evidence, if we cannot run tests, then we could be just as mistaken about any type of perceived privilege as I would be if I assumed that the hypothetical store above was responding to anything other than customer demand.

        The starting point in these discussions is never “Let’s test and see if privilege is statistically significant” but rather “This is what privilege is. ACCEPT IT.”

        What if I need evidence?

      • February 28, 2012 8:19 am

        Thank you for apologizing, and I understand where you’re coming from now. I agree that it is difficult to see others viewpoint – and I made a snap judgement as well, based on my own experiences. I appreciate that we can continue talking as opposed to getting mired down there.

        OK. I understand the example you gave, and I see what you’re saying – but privilege is a bit more than just being able to find the right jeans. Privilege can affect how you move through your life at very fundamental levels. Given your example, privilege may have more to do with your ability to get to the store in the first place, your admittance at the door or even access to do the door, and how the sales staff treats you. In addition, the cuts of clothing may be such that they don’t fit you, even if they’re in your size.

        Here’s a real life example: A divorced couple are attempting to sort out the custody of their children. The cultural narrative in our society says that the woman is the better parent (because we have the gender binary/social constructs about women as child-bearers/emotional/nurturing and men are the breadwinners/less nurturing etc). Therefore, despite the fact that the dad has a more flexible schedule (can stay home with kids more), and is clearly the better parent, the state awards custody to the mom. This, of course, is the wrong choice for the kids, and drastically affects everyone involved.

        The reasons the state made this decision have nothing to do with parenting skills and everything to do with our narratives around what men and women are *supposed* to do and be like. In fact, it may have hurt the dad to be so stay-at-home and nurturing – he’s going against societal norms about how he should act, therefore the state may have judged him for that alone, instead of seeing that as a bonus. Moreover, the privilege here is with the mom – she has done *nothing* but be born a woman to enjoy the privilege of being seen as a good parent and the better choice for her kids.

        Is that helpful?

        You see, I completely understand the difficulty here, and the idea that you want more evidence. I get it – my background is in the sciences. However, there is far more in our world that can dictate things – and sometimes qualitative analysis is important to how we understand that world. In the case of things we’re discussing here, the analysis and data may not be what you or I are used to, but that doesn’t make it less valid. In fact, there are decades of study on this, and I encourage you to check out some of the readings we recommend.

        To make this more clear, there are things in even the sciences that are difficult to study in the cut-n-dry way we’re taught, as I am sure they are in economics, too. For instance, we can both use mathematical models to test hypothesis, but there are outside forces difficult to crystallize into a specific variable – say, the impact of a society’s culture on their economic markets? For me, it is creating value to things that do not have a dollar sign – such as how much a person values being able to experience nature, like going for a hike or walking on the beach. How do you compare that with the value of, say, fisheries catch? I’m not saying this is a direct comparison to what we’re discussing here, but the point is not everything that is important can be turned into stark numbers and statistics… does that make any sense?

        All of that said – you should ALWAYS need evidence. No one should rest an argument on “just accept what I’m saying cuz it’s right”. The point Simone and I are making here is that we all need to learn to listen when people are explaining their evidence, and weigh that evidence, and understand that there are things we *don’t* know. For instance, the example of the couple getting divorced is evidence for female privilege. I find it hard to argue with.

        Am I making sense? Sorry – I’m not very concise!

  5. February 28, 2012 8:27 am

    [starting a new comment stream, just in case…]

    I wanted to belabor that last point a bit: Simone and I are not making the case here for different kinds of privilege – as we’ve said in previous posts, trying to do that would just be too big. Our point, instead, is the ways in which we keep from *hearing* the evidence for privilege and understanding privilege – because these things are complex, uncomfortable, and downright difficult to discuss. In this post, we’re trying to deconstruct ways we *avoid* having the real conversations about privilege (e.g. the evidence that Mike needs).

    It’s actually the constructive conversations where evidence is presented and discussed rationally that we think we’re missing, and trying to find them is what got Simone and I into Project X in the first place.

    Hope that’s helpful – and thank you to Mike for encouraging me to look at this a new way!


  1. Can’t we bang already?: Balancing social narratives & individual choice. « Women Are From Mars
  2. Project X: We haz a rant. « Women Are From Mars

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