Saturday, September 1, 2012

What privilege could be

I had two immediate reactions in college when another student brought up and explained the essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" By Peggy McIntosh.

The first was that no one could come up with a subtitle that awful without a lot of effort. The second was that it was a complete surprise that the article actually made some really good points.

White privilege is a series of things I don't have to think about but a person of another race does. Privilege examples are always compiled in lists. I don't find some of the examples compelling, but others are undeniable. Here are some of the better ones:

*I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race. 
*I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race. 
*If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. 
*I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race. 
*I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race. 
*If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

This really opened my eyes to the idea that a black person has no choice but to "be black" all the time, whether they like it or not. There are situations that can be troublesome for other people that I am completely oblivious to. The essay title is still awful, but there is real wisdom here and privilege is an entirely legitimate concept.

Unfortunately, that valid point has nothing to do with the way privilege is typically used in modern discussions.

Claims of white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege or some other variety has become a way of silencing dissent on discussions about identify politics not by refuting arguments, but by attempting to disqualify the speakers based on accidents of birth.

Say I were to criticize a policy supported by some feminists that would give money to mothers who leave their husbands, saying it creates a financial incentive that would break families up. A supporter could respond by defending the policy and attempting to show it will help more families than it hurts. That's the old-fashioned, legitimate way to discuss an issue.

Using the "vulgar privilege" tactic, the supporter would simply say that I have male privilege I am unaware of and declare the discussion over. What's worse, in that person's mind, that's a compelling argument. They would walk away believing that was a perfectly reasonable way to defend their view.

Only a person who can't fathom that their beliefs could be wrong can use this tactic. What's more, they are suggesting that personal experience is more important than logic, reason or research.

The type of privilege being invoked is often completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Brandon K. Thorpe wrote a great essay about the politicization of the Trayvon Martin shooting within the gay community, calling out writer Akiba Solomon on her wandering criticism of Kevin Naff. Naff said gay groups were jumping on the Trayvon bandwagon and Solomon wrote:

Essentially what Naff has done is cast the struggle for LGBT human rights and equality as window dressing for his own demands for white male privilege... 
I don’t know Kevin Naff so I’m not going to accuse him of pandering to angry white males. But I know this much is true: LGBT organizations belong in the conversation about racial profiling. No amount of his seething white male privilege masquerading as gun control advocacy can change that fact.

Thorpe didn't miss those wild shots about "male privilege" in the Trayvon Martin case. He wrote:

Note the last line, with its telling use of the word “masquerade” and the out-of-nowhere use of the word “male.” Unless Solomon mis-typed, she is accusing Kevin Naff of masquerading as a citizen concerned about firearm proliferation and the stand-your-ground law so that he may surreptitiously go about his real work — venting anger toward black people and women.

Yes, women. Otherwise, the word “male” in Solomon’s paragraph is meaningless. Note that Naff never mentioned sex or gender in his article. The presence of the word “male” in Solomon’s says less about Naff’s opinions than it does about a common pitfall of identity politics: Get too far in, and you start piling cant atop cant until the accumulated weight crushes whatever good point you began with.

I talked to Thorpe shortly after he published this piece and he said that people sometimes get on a roll when they start talking about privileges, which is why you see Solomon swinging so wild.

The legitimate point about the concept of privilege is being unfairly tainted by the simpletons mucking up the word. The unfortunate association between these two different uses harms the reputation of the valid version. Cries of "privilege" has become the thoughtless bleating of sheep, an automated reply for people too lazy or too slow to draft a serious argument.


  1. Interesting article. Something about the word 'privilege', and the way it's used (particularly in the left-wing skeptics/atheist movement) makes me extremely uncomfortable. I think it's the accusatory undertones that are implied alongside it.

  2. Well said, every time it's brought up there's an implication of shame.

  3. Amused, I really like your comments and agree with most of what you say. The phrase "white male" always has a bit of a sneer behind it.

    I'm not sure what you meant in your final paragraph? Are you saying I compromised for saying the original version of "privilege" is a valid concept? I hold that view firmly (although I have a future post to write about issues such as female privilege and liberal privilege) and make no apologies.

  4. Hi Michael.

    Yes, I was expressing regret that your usually sound instincts failed you, at least in my opinion, not because I disagreed with you but because you, as a libertarian, ended up agreeing with a Marxist point of view.

    Cultural Marxism, which is what we're dealing with here, is an offshoot of Marxism but it's Marxism after all.
    If you demonize people based on race, instead of class, solely based on factors of median economic success then that is the politics of demogogoues.

    I do not want to sound alarmistic here, in part because I don't see things getting out of hand in the States, but as a general principle, all major genocidal conflicts started with a slow, burning de-legitimization campaign.

    Again, speaking as a Jew, you couldn't have a Holocaust before decades of slowly eroding the Jewish reputation as a bunch of schemers out for their own kind who exploit the rest of us.

    Again, Michael, I ask you to see the parallels here. It's much the same rhetoric and while I again repeat that I do not foresee somekind of ethnic holocaust in America under any reasonable circumstance, the rhetoric is nonetheless strikingly similar.

    And besides, should we wait before any major conflict breaks out, if it ever did, before criticizing this kind of hate speech?

    The campaign on the left, against Europeans, is based on the same Marxist analysis I mentioned earlier; that because of societal success you are per definition a shady, evil and exploiting group.

    Also, notice what's typicall Marxist here. It's the group, not the individual that counts. Whites as a group become demonized.

    That Whites hold most of the economic power is, frankly, irrelevant for 2 reasons:

    1. White births are now less than minority births.

    2. Affirmative Action will over the long run even things out as I predict it will become more and more draconian(see Brazil for a recent example).

    Second, I'm talking about America when you and I will be in our middle age, so a lot of things can change.

    I reject white nationalists' arguments simply because I do not believe in confrontation based on race, nor do I accept a paranoid world view where races are in constant conflict with each other.

    But I also recognize that while white nationalism has been stamped out, and good riddance I say, the cultural Zeitgeist is much more leaner on minority nationalism and as whites become a minority for those who are new-born, we have an obligation to keep the standard even for everyone.

  5. Second, regarding the issue of white privilege.

    Aside from the comments I already made, the term is problematic because it's racial.

    Yet if you went to Japan, you would have Japanese people, especially men, dominating the cultural and economic life.

    Part of it is sheer numbers, part of it is cultural history and so forth. Cohesion also plays a part.

    The United States is a little bit different from a place like Japan, but among the minority groups you have Asians and Jews who have basically gotten up to - and in many cases ascended beyond - whites.

    But we're about 7 % of the population, and both groups are highly likely to intermarry, which blurs the lines further.

    This means that even if the country is theorically more diverse, the elite is still overwhelmingly white/Asian/Jewish.

    Have these groups cheated? Also, if North Europeans were so awful, how come Asians and Jews do better on most socioeconomic variables, like education, income or unemployment? Including if you only look at native-born and discount highly educated immigrants.

    The argument has been made that Jews were able to 'pass' for whites. Really? Anti-Semitism was pretty significant up until at least the 50s in America. Yet it passed.

    Asians are even harder to explain. A population group with a different language, culture, sometimes religion(Hinduism, Buddhism etc) as well as vastly different looks. They are different on almost all scales.

    Yet they've done very well.

    This is part of the reason why, if you actually take your time to look at the 'white privilege' argument, it becomes clear that it's very easy to pluck apart completely.

    Privilege can exist, but my point is when do you draw the line between a dominant ethnic group based on tradition/numbers/arrived status(like whites in America and Jews to some extent too), or the Japanese in Japan etc, constrasted with a genuine level-playing field in which the stakes are truly rigged from the beginning.

    Because that is privilege. And I'd say that it exists. Look no further than at the children of very rich people.

    But that the average white, or Jew, has an instrisic racial advantage over a black or a hispanic is a very smelly argument for all the reasons I've outlined above, especially when the racial undertones are added(it becomes venomous). Yet you indicated support for it, which is why I indicated disappointment.

    Also, the whole discussion of 'well minorities are born poor and are underserved' is another problematic argument. Go to NYC and look at working-class Asians busting their asses to get into top public schools. Often they work part-time because their families are so poor.

    Jews is another example, the people who came here 100 years ago were not exactly the elite, it was a lot of lower-class peasants and clerks. This also shows the importance of hard work.

    Conservatives can sometimes be too blind to societal factors but their instincts are correct. The racialized Marxists are venomous in their arguments and they are poisoning the well of racial relations for the future, not to mention that their arguments are factually challenged.

  6. I think you are jumping to conclusions I didn't make.

    I didn't say because privilege exists we need to do X, or we should treat person Y with contempt. You are making an argument from final conclusions here. I simply said there are some things that don't go through my mind because they are invisible to me.