“Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity

In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing. Privilege discourse is one of the most widespread methods for bridging that gap. It does this by pointing out the ways that certain people’s everyday experience is not natural, but is undergirded by a social structure that benefits some and hurts others. These goals are laudable, if limited, because making people aware of a problem is of course only the first step. It’s also been pointed out that certain privileged people view privilege discourse as a new form of political correctness, a way of policing their speech — so that they respond to this attempt to break out of the cycle of personal accusation as though it were a personal accusation.

For me, though, the biggest problem is that little word “privilege.” Why should precisely that be the key term? A privilege is something extra — and from a very young age, I knew that when something was referred to as a privilege, I was in danger of losing it. How does that make sense, for instance, with something like being free from fear of police harrassment? Undoubtedly, that is part of my privilege as a white, straight, cis, well-dressed man. But when it is called a “privilege,” my initial thought is that it is something unjustified that should be taken away — i.e., we should all have to be stopped and frisked. Something similar came up in my post about how I had some degree of autonomy and dignity in my work — do we really want to say that that’s a “privilege”? In both cases, aren’t we dealing with something more like a right that’s been denied to a great many people?

There are admittedly some cases where those implications of the term “privilege” very precisely describe the phenomenon in question. No one should be able to assume that their experience is the norm for everyone. No one should be taken more seriously simply because they belong to a particular demographic group. Yet there is no way to limit the term to those cases, and even here, perhaps a meme along the lines of “yet another oblivious white dude” would be more helpful.

More alarming to me, though, is the way that the term “privilege” plays into the rhetoric of austerity. We’ve all seen the dynamic at work, for instance when people talk about how teachers have summers off and a good retirement plan, etc. The response is always to say, “That’s unfair, that should be taken away” — never “my job should be like that too!” Deprivation is taken as the baseline assumption, and anything above that is an unfair imposition. There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down. The language of privilege resonates a bit too closely with this embittered hopelessness, fits in a little too neatly with the ideology of permanent austerity.

And so, privileged though I may be, I propose that we move beyond privilege discourse and find a rhetoric of hope and aspiration to replace this rhetoric of zero-sum despair.

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59 Responses to ““Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My alternative is already feeling like pretty weak sauce to me. I guess that can be read as part of the critique, though — if standard liberal bromides are preferable, then….

  2. bzfgt Says:

    “Privilege” is also a lame trope because it places the onus for the liberation/lot-improvement of certain groups outside those groups themselves (not that the “privileged” groups do not have a responsibility, but if we wait for them to “give up their privilege” we’d better have a good lunch packed), and replaces social-structural analysis with a politics of guilt and personal responsibility. The term is pretty well useless.

  3. ovaut Says:

    ‘There’s no hope that my situation will get better, and my only source of satisfaction is to tear others down.’ —if I read you right, you are saying this is a function of ideology? this makes me wonder: what is ideology such that it is detached from conditions to the extent that we can call it contingent?

  4. Matthew Cheney (@melikhovo) Says:

    In one of the central texts for privilege discourse, Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1988), the difficulty of the good-privilege/bad-privilege problem is addressed: “I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.” She then moves toward a formulation of “earned strength” and “unearned power”, and takes on the Combahee River Collective’s call for recognition of interlocking oppressions while also recognizing that oppressions of race, class, gender, etc. all have their own particular aspects. There are a few different versions of the essay that I’ve seen, but one is available here: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

    Which is not to say that everybody who uses the term “privilege” is doing so in the same way, or with the same reservations, as McIntosh, but I think it’s a useful text for seeing some of the intentions and ideas that helped the term become popular.

  5. ovaut Says:

    also, your reading of the ideology behind ‘privilege checking’ reminds me significantly of james wood’s reading of orwell. (wood argues that orwell wanted society to level down rather than to level up: he had distaste for the socially mobile middle class, for example.)

  6. Jesse Pals (@JessePals) Says:

    There is no reason for disadvantage to be the baseline appraisal of human dignity. I think your insight is accurate here.

    I’m curious about where you think hope and aspiration find their source? Or what relation does “privilege”, or the exalting of the lowly as you propose, have to participation in capitalist economies? Should those without the givens of compensatory rewards like summers off, retirement plans etc. acquire these as individual participants in capitalist relation?

    Privilege surely doesn’t communicate accurately the esteem that everyone is entitled to, however under the notion of privilege conscientious individuals at least have the ability to check it, informing him or her of how they benefit from inherited or ascribed status. If one alternatively conceives privilege in a rights-based formulation, by what path do the denied (under privileged) tread to get theirs?

    My logic is as follows; if rights are inherited by definition and privilege is ascribed (and potentially withheld as you note), when privilege is framed as a right, does the hand that has historically ascribed this ‘right’ vanish? (Is this why they call it invisible!?) Does the history of western imperialism then become a tale of a subset of rights-holders exercising their inherited status over and against those who have not?

    As you can tell by the amount of question marks in this comment, you’ve got me thinking! Thanks.

  7. Larry Garfield Says:

    Thank you! The term “privilege” pisses me off, too, although I didn’t quite get why until your post. “You have X and I don’t, so give it up” is going to make a lot more enemies and a lot fewer allies than “You have X and I don’t, I should have X too”.

    And that leads directly to ripping out public employee pensions, rather than restoring and properly funding private employee pensions. Exactly the sort of “austerity politics” you’re talking about.

    “He who must tear another down in order to lift himself up is the lowest of men.”

  8. David Kaib Says:

    I’ve been struggling with this problem too, and seeing you articulate it has been helpful. Basically, it’s not clear to me that a term that subsumes 1) things we should all have as a matter of right but only some of us have with 2) things no one should have, is helpful.

  9. redKevin47 Says:

    Adam Kotsko wants “hope and aspiration” when what we need is working class revolution and state power. No wonder we’re so fucked.

  10. redKevin47 Says:

    bzfgt: “…and replaces social-structural analysis with a politics of guilt and personal responsibility. The term is pretty well useless.”

    It’s not useless. That is its purpose. Reductionism is the cudgel of the new brownshirts.

  11. Ian 'Cat' Vincent (@catvincent) Says:

    Always worth remembering that privilege literally translates as “private law” – when used in that context, it makes much more sense. The privileged have a weaker set of laws to govern them, in any practical sense… be it white people getting arrested less frequently or rich people affording better lawyers (or controlling the actual creation and administration of laws).

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Wait, you’re saying the whole point of privilege discourse is to “replace[] social-structural analysis with a politics of guilt and personal responsibility”? I’m confused (sincerely).

  13. Will Shetterly Says:

    Thandeka does a nice job of dissecting “privilege” in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”. She’s approaching the issue from a religious angle, but much of what she says applies if you don’t care about the theological implications.

  14. ambzone Says:

    redKevin47 may be overstating the case but the methodological individualism inherent in much of current progressive discourse is an obstacle to organization. We should be clear that our politics aren’t about racist tax-dodging uncles, or any other kind of moralistic personalism. Let us leave that kind of folk-political myth-making to the Right.

  15. Talking About Privilege Feeds Austerity | Clarissa's Blog Says:

    […] Finally, somebody (other than me, I mean) managed to articulate one of the reasons why centering the current progressive discourse around the meaningless concept of privilege is a mistake: […]

  16. cskolnik Says:

    A lot of sense in this post. I feel the same way about urban environments. Access to green space should not be a privilege.

  17. Links 8/12/13 « naked capitalism Says:

    […] “Privilege” and the rhetoric of austerity An und für sich […]

  18. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    I can’t speak for all angles approaching race, and perhaps this post and thread are concerned more with popular liberal discourse on race. But I can say that, in Critical Race Theory, race theory more broadly construed, and philosophy of race, talk of privilege is precisely talk about systemic injustice. It is very much used in respect to social-structural analysis. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single theorist who emphasizes privilege in terms of personal guilt. Likewise, I do not know any activist for anti-racism that uses privilege in the way being discussed here. Perhaps what you’re describing is only the way that white liberals talk about it?

  19. Will Shetterly Says:

    I’ve seen an awful lot of anti-racism “activists” act this way. CRT was developed and promoted by liberals, so it only makes sense it would manifest in liberal-friendly ways. It’s why socialists like David Harvey and Adolph Reed Jr. criticize it as being extremely compatible with neoliberalism.

  20. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    And aside from one commenter everyone here is a dude. Not cool.

  21. Will Shetterly Says:

    Dude, the oddest thing about identitarianism is that the person expressing an idea matters more than the idea—unless the person doesn’t believe in identitarianism. Then a black woman like Thandeka or a black man like Adolph Reed is ignored by them.

  22. AcademicLurker Says:

    “Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single theorist who emphasizes privilege in terms of personal guilt.”

    Maybe, but terms have a way of taking on new connotations once they get out into the wild.

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The proportions were a little better on Twitter, but not by much. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake.

  24. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    AcademicLurker, no doubt. It just seemed that people were using “privilege” in a way that doesn’t speak to my own experience. I don’t doubt that Adam has encountered people who use the term in unproductive ways. I don’t doubt there are people who use it in reference to personal guilt. But, I do think that the term has other usages that can be productive. I suppose that since I spend my career working on issues of race/racism, I don’t want to see the term “privilege” to fall by the wayside. The term can still be quite useful for looking at the matrix of unjust social institutions, policies, and practices.

    Will, can you tell me which of the main proponents of CRT are liberal in the usual sense of the word? For instance, in what sense would you consider Derrick Bell a typical liberal?

  25. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Yeah, I have to say I think without a lot more work (which you are not obliged to provide) the throw-away appeal to aspiration should be thrown away.

  26. ASY Says:

    Mark Westmoreland is correct. Although terms such as “white privilege” and “male privilege” concern me (as I’ve written on my own blog), to assert that those terms, by themselves, entail a liberal or neoliberal outlook is simply wrong. Consider Cheryl I. Harris, one of the founders of critical race theory, whose critique “Whiteness as Property” enriches the Marxist tradition by demonstrating that the concept and distribution of private property in the US have followed a white supremacist logic. To my surprise, the term “white privilege” is all over it, but scrupulously applied to property relations and wedded to a call for radical redistribution (not just reducing everyone to common misery).

    It seems that what the author is referring to here is not “white privilege” but the particular form of negativity I’ve been seeing referred to as “negative solidarity.” That’s the “if I don’t have it, no one should” version.
    However, at its base, the critique of privilege does not say that mass misery is natural and just. Rather, in pointing out maldistribution, it is precisely compatible with the OP’s concern for “rights denied to a great many people.” Again, a founder of critical race theory–in this case, Patricia Williams–has already said as much in her “Alchemical Notes: Reconstructed Ideals From Deconstructed Rights.” CRT is not the impediment. And, unfortunately, there is no way of speaking that is immune to subversion. I say, use a term as long as it’s useful and then find other terms that can do the same work.

  27. PGD Says:

    Thank you! I’ve thought this for ages about ‘privilege’ discourse, it’s school-marmish, guilt-inducing, and as you point out a rhetoric of austerity. Compare for example the rhetoric of the 99%, which emphasizes that there is abundance but society is arranged so that it is hoarded at the top. Privilege rhetoric is applied to the majority of the society (whites, males), so it’s a lousy basis for building political solidarity. Are we seriously supposed to look at the situation of the median white male in the U.S. over the past couple of decades (declining wages and employment prospects, increasing insecurity of every sort) and approach with language that is better suited to an appeal to noblesse oblige on the part of the hereditary aristocracy?

    The threat that privilege rhetoric will justify the removal of so-called ‘privileges’ rather than their extension is very real. When the working class is constantly being whipped with threats of outsourcing and accomanying lectures about lower labor costs/regulation/harder work effort in poorer populations, it’s easy to see how privilege talk can play in.

  28. Will Shetterly Says:

    There may be more white male critics of privilege theory simply because it’s easier for white males to see how the theory fails. Though anyone who has noticed homeless white men ought to be able to figure out that it’s inadequate. Still, I’m very fond of Thandeka’s critique precisely because it’s impossible to dismiss her as rightwing, white, or male.

  29. Spring Texan Says:

    Yes, I have always been furious at the “driving is a privilege not a right” mantra. Clearly, driving is a human right NOT a privilege . . . odd though that sounds . . . and for example Saudi Arabia violates people’s rights when women can’t drive . . . or Israel the rights of Palestinians if they can’t drive on certain roads . . . and the US violates immigrants’ rights when they can’t get a driving license . . .

  30. Spring Texan Says:

    Similarly, I was repulsed when a co-worker expressed to me: “A college education is a privilege, not a right.”

  31. Will Shetterly Says:

    Late in life, Bell said, “I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since.” He was a well-paid academic who did not follow thinkers like Martin Luther King into a general criticism of capitalism; he was content to criticize the class system for being racially disproportionate rather than for existing.

    Adolph Reed Jr. addresses identitarianism’s compatibility with neoliberalism in “The Limits of Anti-racism”:

    “I’ve been struck by the level of visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism I’ve seen from this strain of defenders of antiracism as a politics. It’s not clear to me what drives it because it takes the form of snide dismissals than direct arguments. Moreover, the dismissals typically include empty acknowledgment that “of course we should oppose capitalism,” whatever that might mean. In any event, the tenor of this anti-Marxism is reminiscent of those right-wing discourses, many of which masqueraded as liberal, in which only invoking the word “Marxism” was sufficient to dismiss an opposing argument or position.

    “This anti-Marxism has some curious effects. Leading professional antiracist Tim Wise came to the defense of Obama’s purged green jobs czar Van Jones by dismissing Jones’s “brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group,” and pointing instead to “his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.” In fact, Jones was a core member of a revolutionary organization, STORM, that took itself very seriously, almost comically so.

    “And are we to applaud his break with radical politics in favor of a style of capitalism that few actual capitalists embrace? This is the substance of Wise’s defense.

    “This sort of thing only deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.”

  32. cskolnik Says:

    .In response to nothing in particular, I once described being a woman in the academy to APS as a Saturday Theology–being entombed. And now I’m a middle-aged woman–mommyfied? In my experience there is a significant difference between superficial assumptions and soul-killing arrogance, but I’m quite sure that’s not an issue of race or gender. I think it’s a pathology. More and more I feel I need a counter-sorcery to defend against the projections, though that might just be seeing arrogance as truly pathetic (deserving compassion) . . . in addition to setting boundaries.

  33. Will Shetterly Says:

    Marxists have observed the way capitalists use racism to divide us since Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” Privilege theory perpetuates the division of people in general while the few at the top of the economic pyramid—including those who are neither white nor male—laugh all the way to the bank.

  34. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    It seems that my last comment has been swallowed by the Internet Sarlacc. Here’s an abridged version.

    Will, are you claiming (a) that one is either a Marxist or a liberal? Are you claiming (b) that the only critiques of capitalism are those offered by Marxists? I don’t accept either of these. I’m not sure the Bell quote you cite is doing the work you think it is doing. Bell isn’t anti-marxist. There’s no way one can read his work and think that he didn’t read Marx or that he didn’t use ideas supported by Marx/Marxists. His point in the quote is not that he didn’t care for Marx but that he primarily relied on non-white authors, more specifically that he was carrying on a tradition of Black thought. Marx is secondary or even tertiary. Bell might ask “why must critique be from the purview of the white man (i.e, Marx)?” There are other useful sources (many of which don’t easily fit the Marxist/liberal paradigm you’ve presented).

    Certainly there are other critiques of capitalism besides Marxist ones. Bell, though, would agree that capitalism needs racism in order to perpetuate itself (akin to what Marx says in Capital I.31). Are you painting Bell a typical liberal because he doesn’t explicitly quote from Marx or use a lot of Marxist sources? This seems unfair. He was a lawyer working with a liberal legal framework within a liberal political order regulated by (neo)liberal economic policy. He spent his career showing how racism is fundamental to all three of these, particularly the legal framework.

    It remains unclear to me how Reed’s editorial in the LBO offers a critique of Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, Harris, or Williams.

  35. Will Shetterly Says:

    a) Liberals are capitalists. Marxists are socialists. So, yep, that’s a binary division I can support.

    b) No, I find anarchists and Christian socialists useful, too, and there may be another strand of anticapitalist thought that I like but am forgetting just now.

    Bell’s fondness for black writers who respected Marx and his indifference to Marx himself has long fascinated me, because he reminds me of capitalists who see Malcolm X exclusively as an opponent of racism and ignore what he said about capitalism and socialists.

    As for the neoliberalism angle, let’s switch to David Harvey, who wrote the book on neoliberalism:

    “Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.”

    And:

    “Civil rights were an issue, and questions of sexuality and of reproductive rights were very much in play. For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation; hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interest could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as a both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s.”

  36. ASY Says:

    Will, your invocation of homeless white men to disprove feminism and critical race theory is no more persuasive than a free-marketer’s invocation of Bill Clinton’s, Oprah Winfrey’s, or Barack Obama’s rags to riches stories as proof that anyone can become rich under capitalism. Just as capitalism has particular needs in terms of land and labor, so too do white supremacy and patriarchy. But as all of these systems operate within purportedly liberal-democratic states, token exceptions are useful in the project of denying that the overall system even exists. So, as long as the black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites in the US, I’m not convinced that a few black millionaires indicate a collapse of the racial elements of capitalism in the US.

    It is quite interesting that though you say race was a distraction created by white elites, you don’t cite any. Rather, you trace distracting talk of race to Derrick Bell and Tim Wise (via Adolph Reed). You don’t offer an account of how race–if created as a mirage by white elites–has been embraced as a banner of collective resistance by people of color. You’d have to believe we’re all both mistaken and stupid not to get that it’s “really” about class after all this time.

    If you’re right that race was an invention of white elites, its purpose was to give white workers relative liberties compared to black ones, thereby discouraging *white workers* from uniting with disfranchised black ones. But, really, that’s not *race* in toto–that’s one incarnation of whiteness. If this moment produced the tenuous promises of liberalism for white men, the invention of black and red was tied to devaluation, extermination, economic exploitation and physical assault. Black thinkers have been trying, in good faith, to account for the totality of black experience, and that experience–its pleasures and vulnerabilities–cannot be summed up by classic Marxism alone.

    For example, what does classic Marxism say to those for whom the workplace is a site of economic exploitation and sexual assault? This is not to discard Marxism, but to say that it is not a theory of everything. It is an excellent account, but it has its limits–the questions it did not ask. And if one cares about people’s actual struggles–moreso than defending the account of one’s big theory–then one must address the full account of their lives, not just the portion for which one’s own brand of Marxism fits best. (I don’t concede that CRT is not Marxist, because Bell and Tim Wise are not its sole representatives).

    The quotation you attribute to Adolph Reed pointedly does NOT pit class analysis and racial justice as alternatives. Therefore, you are not acting in the spirit of his proposal when you say that “privilege theory”–or, in other words, race talk–“perpetuates the division of people in general.” In my previous post, I offered some who are trying to consider the two in tandem. Many of them use the term white privilege, problematic though it may be. To broadly swipe against all “privilege theory” does not contribute to Reed’s goal. It seems, though, that rather than visiting this literature for yourself, you’d rather quote a black person who says you don’t have to.

  37. ASY Says:

    And, as for David Harvey, his is not “the (only) book” on neoliberalism. You might consider Lisa Duggan’s pointed counter, _Twilight of Equality_, if you wish to consider a social rejoinder that says that “identity politics” is not antithetical to socialist politics.

    Finally, Harvey is incorrect to say that matters of sexual freedom and identity were inherently “compatible” with neoliberalism. Rather, neoliberalism attempted to seize and assimilate movements that it did not engender. An example: a liberal could take your portrait of a multiracial elite and say, “See, we’re post-racial.” That would not have been your intent. Nor would the fact that they seized your argument indicate anything about the essence of your political aims. That’s just how political struggle works–it is a struggle over the meaning of terms and the direction of social change. So “antiracism” (which cannot, by the way, be subsumed under “privilege theory”) is not inherently un-Marxist or anti-Marxist, despite the fact that some people use it that way.

  38. Will Shetterly Says:

    If you’re interested in the history of race and racism, there are three short essays on the web that are good intros:

    “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy” by Thandeka

    ‘Race, class, and “whiteness theory”‘ by Sharon Smith

    “Slavery and the origins of racism” by Lance Selfa

    I don’t identify as a Marxist—I don’t feel like I’ve read enough Marx to qualify as one—but Marx and Engels were very aware of gender issues. Any history of feminism should include Engel’s The Origin of the Family.

    “The quotation you attribute to Adolph Reed pointedly does NOT pit class analysis and racial justice as alternatives.”

    Yes. That’s my point. They are not alternatives. However, the notion that “racial justice” is best approached through Critical Race Theory is very compatible with some strains of liberal thought, but it’s at odds with the traditionally universal approach of socialism. We don’t want an unjust economic pyramid that’s proportional in terms of race and gender. We want to level the pyramid.

    “It seems, though, that rather than visiting this literature for yourself, you’d rather quote a black person who says you don’t have to.”

    Actually, I’ve read a bit of the literature myself and found it unpersuasive. I quote leftist black thinkers because I’m tired of the ad hominem approach of so many theorists of privilege. If I’m irrelevant because I’m a white man, fine—confront the arguments of people who are not.

  39. Will Shetterly Says:

    When your tactics help your opponent, it’s time to rethink your tactics.

  40. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    This will be my last comment. I like Adam’s post and simply wanted to say that we shouldn’t be so quick to get rid of “privilege” talk. I fear that the comment thread has been hijacked in another direction. (Unless Adam says himself that his fine with this.)

    Re: (a) No, not all liberals are capitalists. No, not all Marxists are socialists. Some Marxists actually want to abolish the state entirely in order to bring about communism. There’s also an anarchist tradition. Besides, there are other political theories and types of regimes besides the two you’ve presented. I fail to see how certain people, e.g., Emma Goodman, Arendt, Foucault, et al., fit into your dichotomy.

    Re: (b). Then I don’t see why you’ve labeled Bell the way you have. It seems as if you don’t think he should have worked in legal studies and instead should have focused just on economics. Which readers of X focus solely on race and not on capitalism/socialism? In most the secondary literature I know, the connection between race and economics seems to be crucial feature.

    If one of your concerns is that we shouldn’t look only at race or only at class (etc. etc.), then I agree and Bell would too. But, people like Bell or myself (in a very different way from Bell) choose to emphasize race. Others choose to emphasize class. Good, let’s work together in combatting injustice.

    I’m glad to see that you’ve read Harvey. I don’t see how the Harvey quotes you cite or his work in general challenges the notion that there might be productive uses of the term “privilege.”

  41. PGD Says:

    Will, your invocation of homeless white men to disprove feminism and critical race theory is no more persuasive than a free-marketer’s invocation of Bill Clinton’s, Oprah Winfrey’s, or Barack Obama’s rags to riches stories as proof that anyone can become rich under capitalism.

    That’s an odd statement at best. Oprah or Obama are exceptions on a grand scale — literally one in a million success stories. In contrast, while white males are proportionally underpresented among the homeless compared to minorities, they are hardly a rarity. A 6 percent vs. a 12 percent unemployment rate for whites vs. blacks is certainly evidence that blacks are considerably more disadvantaged than whites. But it hardly counts as evidence that white poverty is rare; for one thing, it implies that there are many more unemployed whites than blacks. (And of course the well being of white males vs. white females is a whole other story; white females arguably are doing better than white males in a number of areas). Sometimes the way that identity politics types talk about white males is reminiscent of that old Eddie Murphy sketch where he puts on whiteface and people start stuffing cash in his hands.

  42. Will Shetterly Says:

    PGD, Yep. King said this in ’67: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” There are still twice as many poor whites. Privilege theorists talk about proportionality, and when they do that, they ignore the 2/3rds of the poor who, by their theory, must be doing their privilege wrong.

    Mark, sure, Marxists have many differences in how they hope to see the end of the state, and if you don’t think anarchism is a branch of socialism, okay. But in the US, liberals work to reform capitalism while socialists work to transform it. No matter how loudly rightwingers may scream, liberals are not socialists.

    I do think Bell should’ve followed King’s path. Instead, he followed the buck. A set of rich liberals love privilege theory for the same reason rich people love religions in which they acknowledge their economic privilege and keep their wealth: the admission of privilege now and then assuages their guilt. But it has no practical consequences. Identitarianism has been growing for four decades, and during that time, the gap between the rich and the poor has only grown.

  43. imma faque Says:

    Why is it that having white guys defend the idea that the way the concept of white male privilege is deployed is problematic, anymore than it would be problematic if it were mostly teachers and members of public employee unions chiming in to support the notion that a job with good pay and benefits should be considered the baseline of good working conditions, rather than a privilege? Should we also be wary of the idea that a more socialist America would benefit working and poor people if the majority of people who believe this are upper-middle class academics and economists (who make a living presenting this argument) and actual poor/working people tend to support libertarian or market-oriented notions of freedom as the way to the good life?

    Privileged is much more dynamic than it is made out to be. It is a constellation of powers that do not line up in a one to one relationship with individual people. I am a white male. And there is NO DOUBT I am provided with unearned rewards for this. Perhaps when competing for an apartment, say. But I was also born to a poverty-stricken, teen mother (not at all a rarity among white people, despite the fact that I and my kind are mostly invisible to white people with PhDs). And every person of color I got to know at university was from a family of far better economic means than my own.

    Any progressive idea contains the seed of its dialectical conservative opposite. So we must always be ruthlessly on the lookout for signs of its overtaking the original progressive gesture. Its important that people point out the conservative or reactionary elements in even the most useful progressive ideas. Political correctness is basically a refusal to acknowledge dialectics in favor of adhering to a sort of complexity obscuring party-line, which sadly nurtures conservative tendencies within progressive thought.

  44. Josh K-sky Says:

    Should we also be wary of the idea that a more socialist America would benefit working and poor people if… actual poor/working people tend to support libertarian or market-oriented notions of freedom as the way to the good life?

    Heckofa if there, i.f.

  45. Patrick Says:

    There may be twice as many poor white people as poor black people in the US, but there are MORE THAN TWICE as many whites in the US as there are blacks people. Moreover there are mechanisms of impoverishment that are racialized in their application, even if they are not exclusively applied to racialized populations.

    Nor can any attempt to address distributional issues move forward simply apart from recognition that the wealth of theUS was built by enslaved people on land confiscated from indigenous people who despite often explicitly genocidal policies well into the twentieth century, and attempts to extinguish their cultures which are ongoing.

    Capitalism itself may be a product of the colonial exploitation which proceeded it as much as it’s own system. It is

  46. Will Shetterly Says:

    Just came across something that seems relevant here: On youtube, there’s a smart lecture by Esme Choonara, “Privilege theory: who benefits from oppression?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSCvUN94Ado

  47. Adrian Says:

    Hi Adam, I very much appreciated this post. Particularly the opening sentence, “In an individualistic culture, it can be difficult to get people to recognize structural inequality without making them feel as though they are being accused of personal wrongdoing” made perfect sense to me. I am speaking as a white person (though not male) who was raised in a college-educated family, which is the background that serves as the image for white privilege – though as many commentators have already pointed out, there are many different kinds of whiteness (that intersect with class, sex, gender, etc). Frankly, I suspect it’s those of us from that (white educated) background who react to discussions of privilege with individual guilt. I’m not convinced the word is useless, though it may be helpful to develop a further vocabulary of discussion to actually incite understanding as well as action. I’m also convinced, though, that a lot of work needs to be done with (just to focus on race) white folk being able to identify with other folk who aren’t white – something which is not at all helped by the white supremacy perpetuated in media, advertising, literature, and this culture in general. Privilege doesn’t resonate if you think the other person deserves what they got.

  48. Will Shetterly Says:

    People “who react to discussions of privilege with individual guilt” are believers in privilege theory, much as their religious equivalents, the ones who insist we are all sinners, believe in their religion.

    The idea that we will identify with other folk by stressing our differences seems odd. Which may be why studies of attempts to impose privilege theory have generally found them a failure. See http://bjsw.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/3/297.abstract

  49. ASY Says:

    My goodness, Will. You do have a bee in your bonnet about this privilege thing. Unfortunately, in order to cast it as *the* enemy, you have to resort to a caricature that others have repeatedly corrected. As I have already offered some examples of thinkers who use your rotating list of invidious terms (“privilege,” “antiracism,” and “identity”) to advocate for causes you purport to support, I’m going to have to make this my last response to you. But, as a final note, lest others be persuaded otherwise, the concept of privilege need not be understood as equivalent to the doctrine of original sin. While original sin occurs has no historical remedy (and can only be cleansed by supernatural intervention), even the most clumsy user of “privilege theory” says that identity-based distribution of property, rights, and protections have historical beginnings points and political solutions. If the universalism you espouse were natural or self-evident, people would have picked up on it a long time ago. The reason that others who have wrestled with these questions have come to other conclusions is that social life is complex, its various registers not easily subsumed under one process (such as economics). It seems to me the more beneficial thing to do is to try to work with others committed to social change, even when their version seems incomplete. Two of my favorite studies (Popular Fronts and Upbuilding Black Durham) talk about the ways that social change actually occurs–in intentional or unwitting union with allies. I, for one, hope for more of that.

  50. Will Shetterly Says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen privilege theorists at, if not their worst, far from their best.

    Any number of people have pointed out that the problem with privilege theory is not that the problems don’t exist. They do. But the tools of analysis are badly flawed. Privilege theory suffers from Underpants Gnomes Syndrome:

    1. Make everyone check their privilege.
    2. ????
    3. A glorious new world!

    The reason people have not picked up on universalism is because capitalism requires a pyramid.

    And, yes, of course socialists work to oppose racism and sexism. The difference is that for identitarians, those battles are the end of the war. You only have to look at Martin Luther King and Derrick Bell: King moved on to criticizing capitalism, Bell got a cushy job promoting ideas that the capitalist left found very comforting, because so long as you only tweak the membership rules for the exclusive clubs, the members of the exclusive clubs will continue to enjoy the purest form of privilege.

  51. Will Shetterly Says:

    I’ve been so active in this thread because I found it while researching privilege theory. I just now came across an article that Esme Choonara wrote, “Are we all divided by privilege?” http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art/34096/Are+we+all+divided+by+privilege%3F It’s the quick version of the speech I mentioned earlier.

  52. janice joys Says:

    negative solidarity

  53. janice joys Says:

    btw my original comment in your academic job post wasn’t out of desire to “level” you “down” to those who don’t enjoy being able to do what you like for wages – in the “negative solidarity” sense. i recognise though envy there – misdirected rage, hopelessness etc…

  54. voyou Says:

    The irony is that the terminology of “white privilege” was developed by Marxists in order to criticise the kind of idealist identity politics of class that Choonara is putting forward in that article.

  55. Will Shetterly Says:

    Class is not an identity, though identitarians try to fit into their worldview. Class is a relationship to power. As a number of people have pointed out, the goal for identitarians is to preserve their social identities; the goal for socialists is to end the class system, thereby eliminating the poor, the rich, the working class, the owning class etc. so we are all simply people living together, respecting our differences while sharing our wealth.

  56. Will Shetterly Says:

    Oops, I haven’t had my morning coffee, which may be why I misread what you’re saying. Yeah, as those folks would say, “white privilege” was appropriated by capitalists, much as King and Malcolm X have been appropriated by Obama’s neoliberal fans. W.E.B. Du Bois did brilliant work; Derrick Bell removed the socialism, laying the groundwork for professional anti-racists.

  57. That Was the Week That Was (#334) | The Honest Courtesan Says:

    […] someone else wrote about the problem with the word “privilege” and came to almost exactly the same conclusions as I […]

  58. brennan Says:

    Andrea Smith’s essay “The Problem With Privilege” is helpful on this: http://goo.gl/t1Vq6K


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