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January 18, 2011

I’ve wanted to write about privilege (again) for a while now.  A lot of women feel antagonized by a theory of privilege that, to their minds, places responsibility on individuals for what is in actuality a systemic problem.  I’m not sure, though, that these women actually believe that radical/lesbian feminists have ever been blaming individual women for systems of oppression.  I think in a lot of ways that this line of reasoning is merely a deflection – a way of dismissing radical theories of oppression as being somehow misogynist. After all, they generally accept that individuals have a responsibility for the behaviors and atmosphere that prevail in non-female groups.  Regardless of the coercion of an overarching office politics, for example, I think most of the women pooh-poohing the idea of female responsibility would support an assertion that men in an office are responsible both as a class and as individuals for any sexual harassment going on there.

So, I wanted to lay down my own thoughts about privilege – what it is and isn’t, how it fits into a larger scheme of oppression.  For me, whenever I think of privilege, I think of a sort of sliding scale of society’s preferences.  What I mean by “society’s preferences” is just a sense that certain qualities or experiences are preferred, or favored, over others.  Society identifies and empathizes with people possessing certain qualities or living certain experiences.  I think one clear way in which these preferences reveal themselves is just in entertainment – what are the qualities and experiences of the characters in the most popular books, tv shows, and movies?  What are the qualities and experiences of the highest paid actors?  The qualities they possess are those most likely to stir the sympathies and compassion of the public – and that’s kind of the point in that industry, obviously.

From this perspective, privilege is entirely separate from power, particularly any notion of individualized power.  A person can be relatively powerless in any given micro-context – as an employee relating to her employer, as a tenant relating to her landlord, etc. – and yet if she possesses enough of society’s preferred characteristics, most people would be more empathetic to her situation than they would to the person in the position of power if that person does not possess those traits.  And I think a lot of what people mean by ‘abusing privilege’ is the entitlement to the sympathies, compassion, understanding, and politeness of others, the expectation that simply emoting – making one’s feelings known – is enough to make others empathize with and feel for them.

And, of course, generally it is enough to make people empathize with them.  So, the way it plays out on the rare occasion when someone is not affected by their emotional demonstrations, or demands for attention and consideration, is that the “unfeeling” person is ostracized.  People with preferred traits know that they can almost always turn to some other “more reasonable” person and get them to see most situations from their perspective.  Their perspective is, after all, the one we’re all immersed in; it’s the one we’re all taught is objective, unbiased, rational, noble, good, and right.  Privilege, then, in addition to being guaranteed a certain degree of consideration (in all senses of that word), is in a lot of ways, for me, about the ability to write people with despised traits (as opposed to preferred traits) off as crazy or abnormal *and* have most people agree.

Anyway, this is not intended to serve as a complete summation of my thoughts on the matter, but simply as a starting point for what I hope will be a discussion on the subject.  I’ve seen so many conversations about privilege get derailed and diverted toward silly quibbles over the fact that ‘privilege’ in a lesbian feminist/separatist sense is different than ‘privilege’ in a legal sense (think voting and driving [insert eye roll]) that, despite my own reluctance to define what I think most folks who want to understand already get, I thought it might be useful in some way to discuss exactly what we mean when we say the word ‘privilege’ in lesbian feminist/separatist contexts.

  1. January 18, 2011 6:58 am

    No, I don’t normally watch this show but it must have been on while I was doing something. Anyway, I didn’t find the video piece of the white woman that I wanted to, but I did find the video of the black woman that was in the same episode. Apparently, there is a big deal about “false” hair, extensions, add-ons, or what have you, and a particular metal hair clip is used to hold the hair in and the jailers/police need the hair clips removed. With the black woman, I had no clue they needed her to remove her hair clips. Actually, it appears that the white woman jailer was annoyed that the black woman’s hair was in her face. It was not until afterwards the white woman jailer explains to the camera that the clips are dangerous.

    Later that evening a white woman is arrested and is politely asked to remove her hair clips. Not only that, most of the officers are commenting how unfortunate it is that this young white woman was caught soliciting. In fact, one even said something complimentary about how much the woman was charging, as if charging more made her superior to the other run of the mill “whores” they bring in.

    Nevertheless, I did find this below clip where they are being all sweet to a white woman drunk. In the meantime, I will see if I can find the video of the white woman with hair extensions and how she was treated so politely.

    • January 18, 2011 7:05 am

      Okay, I went through every video available and it does not look like they have posted that one on-line, proving my point further. I guess they don’t think little Ms. should be mocked on the internet. In other words, who is choosing which video clips to post (so viewers can look at them over and over and spread them like a house fire) and which ones not to?

    • January 18, 2011 8:16 pm

      Kitty, you always, always have the perfect real-life illustration, or picture, or musical accompaniment, etc. for my posts. This is exactly what I was saying. I haven’t been able to bring myself to actually watch the videos because it makes my stomach hurt to see people being deliberately humiliated. But I’m sure we can all think of examples of situations where someone with a preferred characteristic was treated more politely/compassionately than someone with the corresponding despised trait.

      Just recently, I had an experience that exemplifies what I’m talking about too. My girlfriend’s mother has been terrorized, humiliated, and bullied by her landlord. It’s gotten to the point where she’s afraid to even approach this white woman landlord for *anything* because the woman is always rude, condescending, and dismissive. All of the other Filipino residents feel the same way and have all basically been cowed into submission by this bully of a white woman. So, when my girlfriend’s mom’s remote for the gate to the apartment complex stopped working, she was prepared to just stay at home rather than go to this woman to try to figure out a way that she could get in and out of the gate with her vehicle.

      So, I went to talk to the landlord. I knew that the only reason my girlfriend’s mother was being treated the way she’s been treated is because English is not her first language, she’s not white, and she’s not from this country. The way it played out was – at first the landlord tried to bully me because I”m also not white, but in the end the fact that English is my first language, I have a “better” command of the language than the white woman bully, and I’m aware of tenants’ rights in this country won out, and the bully had to concede my points and actually do her job. My English speaking and writing abilities are *highly* privileged and often do a good deal to mitigate the disfavor of my obvious blackness.

  2. Linda Radfem permalink
    January 18, 2011 10:56 am

    This is exceedingly fucking excellent, Margaret. So often, I’ve been called upon to explain what I mean by privilege, and it’s really hard because privilege is implicit. Patriarchy doesn’t want it to be spelled out so we don’t often have the vocab to explain it. I guess it’s about having traits or beliefs that help sustain the status quo.

    • January 18, 2011 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Linda 🙂 I really thought this post would end up classified under “obvious statements of the obvious” so I’m glad folks find it useful.

  3. la redactora permalink
    January 18, 2011 2:28 pm

    Well I never got it before, so I appreciate the explanation. Unfortunately, people do mean different things when they use the same words, so I think it avoids a lot of confusion when everyone defines their terms beforehand. So, thanks.

    • January 18, 2011 8:19 pm

      Oh, redactora, I think you did get it, but I suppose you’re right that saying stuff outright can help to avoid confusion.

    • la redactora permalink
      January 18, 2011 10:09 pm

      Well, I *was* already familiar with the phenomenon you describe, I had just never thought of it as privilege, nor had I separated it out so neatly from ‘power’ as you did. I’m still mulling that one over. It will probably take me a few days to fully wrap my head around it (hey, I have never claimed to be anything but slower than a snail! 😉 ).

  4. Level Best permalink
    January 18, 2011 4:23 pm

    Privilege as a preferred quality or experience that attracts sharers’ (of the quality or experience)sympathy makes perfect sense and opens up my understanding of privilege considerably. I will be thinking on this.

    • January 18, 2011 8:19 pm

      I hope you’ll come back and share the thoughts you’ve thunk!

  5. January 18, 2011 8:30 pm

    This is so clear, it’s brilliant.

    I think a lot of the defensiveness women display when talking about privilege stems from the perception of privilege as an individual problem rather than a systemic one. In fact, I’m sure it is both individual and systemic, in the sense that the individual benefitting from/preferred by the system also has choices about how she wields her privilege/what privileges she seeks and wins through her own efforts.

    I think that because the system of privilege is inherently oppressive, we can’t easily separate the two things. One person cannot be privileged without another person being oppressed, because as much as conformity with the patriarchy is rewarded, non-conformity is punished. It’s a seesaw – when one is up, another has to be down. I think that this always plays into women’s defensiveness about privilege, because we don’t like to think of ourselves as oppressors of other women. Or perhaps rather, we don’t want to feel we have to do anything about it.

    So, a relatively powerless person can still be privileged over another person in terms of how they are treated, and to my mind, that makes the other person oppressed in this systemic dynamic (not saying that the first person is directly taking something from the second… but likely they are). So, does it make sense to think of privilege itself as a form of power over other people? Or am I getting confused? (Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense…)

    • January 19, 2011 5:52 am

      One person cannot be privileged without another person being oppressed, because as much as conformity with the patriarchy is rewarded, non-conformity is punished.

      Yes, exactly. Thin people cannot be presumed to be more deserving of sympathy and compassion unless fat people are presumed *less* deserving. I think another source of confusion (or, opportunity for plausible deniability, if you’re not feeling as generous) is the notion that somehow people who are privileged are simply receiving what, in a just world, everyone would get. The truth is that no one deserves automatic compassion and understanding. Everyone should have to earn trust.

      I’m not sure about whether or not privilege itself is a form of power. I think it could be, but then we’d have to have a conversation about what the different definitions of power are and explain exactly what we mean when we use that word. I wish I were kidding. But I think a lot of people think of power as being something that occurs only between individuals and which can therefore be negotiated or controlled – and that sort of power is I think different than privilege, though it’s not entirely unrelated. I think privilege is more related to power in the sense that one grows accustomed to occupying particular positions – powerful or submissive – in her class and individual interactions, due to a lifetime of experience (and/or lifetimes of “historical record” [in quotes because history is not unbiased]) being treated as a preferred or despised member of society. And that’s a different kind of power than simply being stronger than someone in a random encounter or whatever.

      I think I need to mull it over more…

    • January 19, 2011 12:16 pm

      Yes, I didn’t mean to throw a spanner in the works there! I think I’m mistaken to equate power and privilege, because on a systemic level they are distinct. Systemic power backs up systemic privilege. That is blindingly obvious when you look at how rape is handled legally, for example. But perhaps even more so, the system of privilege is a means of justifying and enforcing the hierarchy of power in society. That is its purpose. So it doesn’t make sense to say power and privielege are the same thing, unless, as you say, we clearly define the individual circumstances in which they might be acting in the same way.

    • January 20, 2011 1:54 am

      But perhaps even more so, the system of privilege is a means of justifying and enforcing the hierarchy of power in society.

      YES. So, when people with privileged characteristics/experiences/beliefs (who was it that said something about beliefs that support the status quo being privileged? That’s was a good insight) just so happen to be in overrepresented in positions of power, society’s preference for those traits – that is society’s belief that these traits make a person more likable, trustworthy, and responsible – is offered as justification.

  6. Linda Radfem permalink
    January 18, 2011 10:18 pm

    You raise a good point TBL. I’m thinking that privilege is not static, but fluid, and can change according to any given context. Still thinking…

    • January 19, 2011 5:56 am

      Yeah, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this. It doesn’t really seem to stem from anything TBL said in her comment, but maybe I’m just not reading it right.

      For me, though, I feel like Kitty – that there are constants when it comes to privilege. Of course, preferred characteristics change over long periods of time – to accommodate the changing conditions of the world, but I’m not sure if that seems like fluidity so much as evolution.

    • January 19, 2011 12:08 pm

      I think privilege/oppression is actually very rigid – it has to be, so that privileged characteristics can be presented as ‘unchanging’, ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘obvious’. But an individual’s experience of their own privileges may have more fluidity in it. For example, I’ve been less fat and more fat, and experienced different levels of privilege/oppression accordingly. But this is because I am changing to either get closer to or further away from the privileged characteristic. What is privileged, in itself, (in this case, thinness), seems pretty rigid and unchanging to me.

      Having said that, if someone has been thin all her life and then becomes fat, she has still had a lifetime of thin privilege, so whilst she may now be experiencing fat oppression, she may well have already made material gains on the basis of her privilege that life-long fat women are less likely to have achieved (better education, housing, job, pay, healthcare, etc). She is still therefore privileged. In the same way, a straight woman who comes out as a lesbian late in life is still privileged over lifelong lesbians. So I think even when we *experience* privilege as a fluid thing, it acts upon us in a rigidly hierarchical manner.

  7. January 19, 2011 1:02 am

    Using the static/fluid analogy, I feel it is necessary to assert that there are some privileges that are emphatically static, and in such cases, it is those static privileges that perpetuate oppression. To say privilege is fluid sounds too close to saying privilege (thus power) is based on individual circumstances without external interference/influence.

  8. Armina permalink
    January 19, 2011 6:24 am

    I always find it helpful to start with myself. I’m not white so I am less privileged than white people. I have a college degree and I have been a butch lesbian all my life, but having a college degree makes me privileged over non-white butch lesbians who did not go to college. Having a college degree may be of some value where I live but I will never be given the same opportunities that non-white heterosexual women or feminine lesbians get.

    “My English speaking and writing abilities are *highly* privileged and often do a good deal to mitigate the disfavor of my obvious blackness.”

    Margaret, I feel like black women who speak and write like you are more despised, because for patriarchy and white supremacy to persist, the darkest of females must be kept poor and ignorant.

    You may have gone to Stanford or even Harvard, for that matter, you left your dead-end job in America with nothing and moved to the Philippines to be with your Filipino girlfriend who has nothing, if you were white in a third world country, you wouldn’t even have to lift a finger to get a job.

    I am a non-white Filipino but I am also not black. And that is of great value. The poorest Filipinos would most definitely choose poverty over being black. And there are, in fact black Filipinos, but they would never allow themselves to be called black.

    Poverty does not absolve white people. They may be lesbian, butch, disabled, fat, they’re still white.

    Females are raped and murdered all over the world. There are far more non-white females in the world. But it is far more tragic when a white female is raped and murdered. The greatest tragedy, of course is for a white boy to be murdered.

    As individuals, we fight for the tiniest crumb of privilege.

    • January 19, 2011 8:25 pm

      As individuals, we fight for the tiniest crumb of privilege.

      I agree completely. The privilege system is a devastatingly effective way for the rulers to hold on to power.

  9. Mary Sunshine permalink
    January 19, 2011 7:47 pm

    Been thinking about this ever since you posted it, Margaret.

    Just when I think I might be getting a grip on it, it all slides through my fingers like sand.

    I have been simultaneously reading this,

    … to see if any of it might intersect with what you are saying here. (I don’t think it does. It’s great, just doesn’t intersect.)

    The virtually interchangeable use of the words “privilege” and “oppression” have frustrated me from the get-go of lesbian/feminist discussions.

    Dear linguist, press on! Your line of thought will certainly bear some nourishing fruit for us.

    • January 20, 2011 2:08 am

      I’ve been thinking about how privilege and oppression aren’t exactly two sides of the same coin myself. I mean, of course they are related, but I’m also not so sure it’s as cut and dried as saying possessing traits that are privileged is the same thing as actively oppressing someone.

      I do think, though, that the entitlement to everyone’s consideration and concern *is* oppressive, because invoking the social duty to empathize with people in possession of privileged traits means diverting concern and consideration from those who don’t possess them. And I have seen that happen quite frequently in online radical/lesbian feminist interactions.

      I’m thinking of a time when I tried to critique the way a white woman framed her nannying job to two boys as being somehow feminist and everyone chastised me for not taking her feelings into consideration, and even went so far as to say that I was only critiquing her actions for the sole purpose of attacking her rather than for any sort of discourse. I’ve also seen fat women cranked through the ringer when similarly situated thin women have been coddled. And I think that when women can see that they’re receiving preferential treatment and still accept that treatment as being something they deserve, then that is oppressive.

      I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are about the relationship between privilege and oppression. Mine are still quite muddled, as you can see, but I think I’m working through it.

  10. January 19, 2011 10:28 pm

    Kitty, you’re right that sounded a bit dodgy. I’m thinking not of the primary privileges like white, male, straight. I was thinking of, and I don’t have a word for it, the more subtle ways that privileges work.

  11. January 24, 2011 3:41 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this post while reading the great comments too, and I don’t feel like I have any concrete thoughts to add about some of the privileged traits/conditions, that haven’t already been said, and the thing that does keep popping into my head when I read all this isn’t news either, but it does keep popping up for me.

    I feel like people who grow up in the kinds of neighborhoods where public schools are better than any local private schools, where certainly some children are allowed to remain unassisted if/when they might need extra attention to achieve the same grade-level goals as others, that still there is a completely invisible privilege to that kind of education. It’s invisible to those who receive it, and invisible to a lot of people who will be judging them against others who didn’t receive it, for the remainder of their lives.

    There’s no way, when you grow up in such a rewarded class, that you can even conceive of school being anything different for anyone else. Well there was no way I could, for instance. I had certainly heard of and “learned” of the fact that “schools are bad” in poorer communities, often in predominantly non-white communities (I grew up in an all white community), but I didn’t understand what any of it actually translated to in real life (versus hearing information about it), until I was in my late twenties. I met someone who was clearly smart, articulate, could have been anyone I went to school with, including college, from how he presented. And then he wrote me a note one day, and at first I thought he was somehow trying to be funny with how he’d written it – it was all phonetics and no punctuation, not illegible, handwriting-wise, just…almost unintelligible at first glance.

    I don’t even know how to describe how it felt once I realized it was not a joke (there had been no reason, in the context of what he was trying to tell me in the note, to joke anyway, about anything, let alone to “jokingly” mimic functional illiteracy). Shame is about the only word I can come up with. Not guilt, and I hate it when people with certain privileged positions or histories mis-name other things as “guilt” (“white guilt,” “middle class guilt,” etc.), in order to dismiss the kind of thing I’m thinking of/talking about as unnecessary self-flagellation . But yeah, shame is closest to what I felt – ashamed that anyone was robbed the way he was, and the way I realized, from knowing him, that everyone he grew up with likely was robbed as well.

    And I feel like apologists of all stripes will write such things off as “well maybe he had a learning disorder,” and you know what, maybe he did, I don’t have any idea. What I do know is that he was black and he grew up in poverty in Chicago. And that other people in this country – white people, middle and upper class people – have been hearing about how horrible schooling is for children communities like his, for decades now. And still, every person who reaches adulthood while staying functionally illiterate, which will affect their lives in huge ways, opportunity-wise, each such person is an individual case and hey, some people grow up in poor communities and predominantly black communities and work hard and still learn. And yes there are schools and teachers and parents who work hard with very little and more kids in those circumstances have a better shot as a result. But my parents didn’t have to work extra hard with almost nothing. So why are “bright spots” in horrific systems pointed to as proof that it’s not hopeless, rather than as evidence that everyone in such communities deserves better, is more than capable of achieving better, than what they are currently given? Why is the presence or absence of any hope at all the thing that gets focused on, rather than the massive and often irreparable harm being done to all these people? Why should anyone have to fucking HOPE for a chance to not-be irreparably damaged by their schooling, rather than it being a given, like public schooling pretended to be about when it was first established, that children will be educated, period?

    I have more thoughts on oppression vs./along-with educational privilege, but have to jump in shower now. Thanks everyone for this thread, and thanks Margie for the post.

  12. la redactora permalink
    January 24, 2011 4:28 pm

    I went to one of those “good” public schools, and one of the ways they stayed so “good” was by stepping all over (and really, just not doing their *job* at all with) the students (and parents) who had less privilege and power.

    I will never forget the time I overheard one male teacher who was outright sneering at an obviously working class woman who had come in to discuss her child’s performance in the class. What a rat-bastard. He was humiliating her, and he was humiliating her in front of me and several other people.

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