Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some Reflections on the Concept of Privilege

For many activists committed to ending all forms of social oppression, the concept of privilege (see here for a recent example) is as familiar as it is commonplace. But what is the political import of using this concept rather than others? What, politically speaking, are its drawbacks and advantages? What does it make clear and what does it obscure?

Political concepts are a key part of radical political projects. We can't understand the world (or effectively intervene and act within it) without them. Social struggles are often compelled to expand on certain concepts they've inherited or negate others, synthesizing and forging new ground along the way. Marx's way of thinking about exploitation did not arise ex nihilo; but it clearly gave new life to a set of grievances that had been expressed throughout the history of the working class movement for a long time. It was a conceptual innovation which drew on existing struggles while, at the same time, giving them new ways of understanding the world the better to change it. There are numerous other examples of conceptual innovations, rooted in concrete struggles, which subsequently advanced our understanding of oppression (the better to destroy it).

But not every political concept is as effective or illuminating as every other. Some concepts obscure things and distort our practices, others are practically ineffective or lack explanatory power. Some are contradictory and merely reflect existing social conflicts rather than pointing to a way of overcoming them. The only way to know which political concepts are worth their salt is to see what works and what doesn't in the course of social struggle, i.e. to aim to achieve a kind of equilibrium between political practice and critical reflection. Concepts which don't advance our understanding or capacity to fight back must be revised or rejected.


With this in mind, what should we say about the language of privilege?

In order to focus our discussion, let's stick with a specific example: the concept of white privilege. Before we look closely at the concept, it is worth reviewing one kind of controversy that the concept provokes, centered around questions like: are white people in fact privileged? We can imagine, for example, a white person with ruffled features responding, in a defensive and slightly aggravated spirit, that they aren't, in fact, privileged, that they simply worked hard for what they have, and so on and so forth. In these kinds of debates, it is rather obvious that the denial of the existence of white privilege is tantamount to denying, in effect, that non-white people endure racial oppression.

This denial comes in many forms, but it is frequently bound up with the racist ideology of colorblindness. According to this set of ideas, race is not important, so we should do our best not to notice it. Racism has mostly been overcome and race is no longer a significant political concern. Moreover, because race no longer matters, it follows the only racists that exist today are those who continue to talk about race or think that it's significant. Thus, rather than talking about race, we should only "see only the individual" and ignore race entirely. The mere mention of race is therefore illegitimate, "divisive" and tantamount to "playing the race card." The only sensible thing is to cease to speak about race entirely.

This whole set of ideas, of course, is little more than a silencing maneuver meant to prevent discussion of the contemporary realities of racial oppression. It has the effect of consolidating the claim that we live in a "post-racial society", thereby putting anyone who challenges the racist status quo on the defensive.

Of course, it hardly needs to be said that these ideas are toxic and distort reality. They destroy movements. This sort of denial of white privilege is just racist, and that's all there is to it.

But there are other ways to take issue with the language of privilege that don't involve giving an answer to the question "are white people privileged or not?". Rather than answering the question as it stands, another approach would be to step back and ask a different question: how does the concept of privilege help us understand what racial oppression is and how to fight it? Or to put it in a slightly different way: politically speaking, how does the language of privilege advance the struggle against racial oppression?

In what follows I want to reflect a little on the concept of privilege by attempting to answer some of the question posed above. My reflections will, on the whole, be critical of the concept of privilege. But I shall not try to say whether the concept is wholly inadequate or not--I mean to leave it an open question whether there are particular contexts in which the concept is both useful and clarificatory. All I shall offer are particular reflection on what I take to be relatively discrete drawbacks of talk of privilege.

Of course, whatever we say, however, criticisms of privilege hardly leave us in the position of needing to invents an entire alternative to the language of privilege out of whole cloth. We have only to glance at the history of struggle against anti-black racism in the US, for example, to gather gather together a rich vocabulary, including (but not limited to) concepts like: oppression, domination, power, colonization, imperialism, exploitation, marginalization, subordination, dehumanization, cultural imperialism, and so on. The concept of privilege is one among a large field of political concepts at our disposal and it is by no means obvious that it is the most illuminating.


One drawback of the language of privilege is that it can often carry with it individualistic components that are problematic when imported into social and political contexts. Given the way that the language is sometimes used, it almost sounds as if members of dominant groups (e.g. men vis-a-vis women, hetero people vis-a-vis lgbt people, etc.) simply need to accept responsibility and offer verbal repentance as individuals in order to do their part in changing the status quo. That is, the language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play a role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on.

Social relations are never isolated, particularistic or self-standing. They are always embedded in some kind of social system, i.e. in a set of material social institutions (whether they are legal, economic, political, cultural, informal, otherwise). A materialist approach to oppression here is crucial.

Oppression does not come to be as the result of uncoordinated individual attitudes. Oppression is an ongoing social process whereby certain groups are systematically criminalized, brutalized, marginalized, exploited, or denied access to the necessities of life. So our task isn't merely to strike up this or that individual attitude toward this state of affairs; our task is to talk about how this social process works so that we can build social movements to decisively smash it once and for all.


Let us illustrate this last point by way of example. Take the specific problem of racist police brutality (set aside all of the other awful things that the police as an institution do--from sexually assaulting women to breaking strikes).

As a white person, I do not expect to be harassed or brutalized by racist police in the same way that black and brown people of my age and gender do. It is an understatement to say that police racism directly affects my sisters and brothers of color in a way that it doesn't directly affect me. That is a fact in a racist society where the cops are a key part of a prison-industrial complex that reproduces and exacerbates racial inequalities.

Now, some would say that we should understand this fact in terms of privilege. We could say, for example, that I am privileged and, once I acknowledge this privilege and recognize that others have it much worse than I do, that there's nothing more to say or do.

But this would be politically inadequate and misleading. At its root, the basic problem isn't that I'm "privileged" by not having to directly endure the effects of racist police violence. The problem is the racist police violence itself (and the social system that both creates and sustains it).

Now, to be sure, it's of immense importance--especially for white working people--to be unequivocal about the fact that racist police violence occurs every day. It also needs to be clearly stated that, because it is racist police violence, that it specifically targets racially oppressed groups. In an era of colorblindness, it's absolutely crucial to fight against the racist denial of these very real social facts. And it's even more important that everyone--again, especially working white folks--to see racist police brutality as an injustice that they themselves have an interest in struggling to defeat. Anti-racist activists should never pander to the sensibilities of racist whites, or dilute their demands to appease those under the sway of racist ideas. Racism must be taken head-on in an uncompromising way. But the question remains: are these goals well-served by the language of privilege? I don't see that they are.

Compared to other frameworks--e.g. thinking in terms of socially structured forms of oppression rooted in certain material conditions--talk of privilege can make it sound like the job of whites is done once they acknowledge that they aren't directly subject to racist police violence.

But by zooming in and staying at the individual level, we don't bring the big picture into focus. We miss the forest for the trees. We also fail to make clear that white working people have an interest in being a part of the collective struggle to completely dismantle racial oppression--in all of its material and institutional dimensions. In many registers, it seems to me that the language of privilege papers over this crucial fact. At worst, it threatens to make it possible to take existing structures of oppression for granted while recommending various sorts of individual attitudes toward it. At best, it merely offers one way of accommodating it that is, to be sure, better than the racist denial that racial oppression exists, but nonetheless inadequate for those who want to change the world.


Another potential drawback of the concept of white privilege is that it can encourage us to make the mistake of thinking of white people as an internally undifferentiated mass with identical interests. But whites are internally divided as a group: along lines of gender, sexuality, and, especially, along class lines. It's not the case that white working-class single mothers have the same interests as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

As Michelle Alexander argues at length in her excellent (and must-read) book The New Jim Crow, it has often been the case throughout US history that racist forms of social control have been used by dominant groups to divide and conquer black people and poor whites. She discusses, for instance, Bacon's Rebellion and Populism, but there are numerous other examples where elites used racism to prevent a movement from below that could challenge their power. Of course, even though it grew out of a need to legitimate chattel slavery and colonial domination, racial oppression has long since taken on a life of its own and it has infected social life in many ways--not all of which stem from the conscious interventions of a ruling class intent on dividing and conquering. But we fail to understand the history of racial oppression in the US--and the movements which have sought to fight back against it--if we completely ignore the way in which the ruling class at different periods has benefited enormously from racial oppression and racist ideology. The language of privilege, it seems to me, can lead us to do just that.

After all, as Marxists have long argued, the efficacy of divide and conquer is neither inevitable nor natural. Whether "racist bribes" will be effective for ruling groups always depends upon on the political consciousness and level of struggle on the ground. To say that racism in the contemporary white working class is a barrier to solidarity is not to say that solidarity is impossible--it is merely to draw our attention to the current challenges we face in building a mass movement against both racial oppression and class exploitation. The potential for such a movement is great, especially today. We would be cynical and defeatist if we give up the fight for it. Barriers to genuine solidarity are subject to change through consciousness raising, political argument, and social struggle--radicals have to be part of all three.

The language of privilege does not provide us with any help in thinking practically about how to build such struggles. It leaves a lot out. For example, as Richard Seymour points out:
"I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the ‘universal class’ hinges partially on this strategic insight."
But this strategic insight--that the more subaltern one's situation, the more potentially universal one's interests--is not visible if we have only the language of privilege at our disposal to make sense of a social field shot through with various forms of oppression.


Another difficulty I see with the language of privilege is that can easily devolve into what Marxist-influenced radical theorist Iris Marion Young calls the "distributive paradigm". According to this paradigm, racial disparities are nothing more than a pattern of distribution of certain goods or advantages. To be privileged, then, is to possess some thing that others lack. Accordingly the solution to the problem is to make sure to allow others to get their hands on what privileged groups have. As Young puts it,
"The distributive paradigm implicitly assumes that [what matters is] what individual persons have, how much they have, and how that amount compares with what other persons have.This focus on possession tends to preclude thinking about what people are doing according to what institutionalized rules, how their doings and havings are structured by institutionalized relations that constitute their positions, and how the combined effect of their doings has recursive effects on their lives."
Now, it's not that distributive issues don't matter. Racism affects the distribution of advantages, privileges and material benefits. So fighting racism means fighting to change those distributions. The fight for reparations is clearly an instance of such a fight for distribution (although it also contains elements of the demand for recognition of historical injustices and all the harms and injuries--material as well as symbolic--that accompany them). Nonetheless, unequal distribution is not the root of racial oppression, it is merely one of its effects. As Marx argues in the Critique of the Gotha Program, any pattern of distribution always presupposes some organized system of production, a division of labor, power relations, institutional structure, and so forth. Understanding racial oppression means examining how all of these material factors in all their empirical richness. But if all we talk about is how privileges are distributed, how some possess or lack privileges, we fail to critically engage with the oppressive social relations that produce such unequal distributions in the first place.

Take the example of slavery in the US. Of course, slavery meant that masters enjoyed all sorts of material advantages and privileges (e.g. education, better housing, leisure, medical care, lavish meals, etc.) that slaves were denied. But we won't have gotten very far if we only critique the way that these privileges are unequally distributed between master and slaves. The root of the problem, after all, wasn't one of distribution. Rather, it was the oppressive and exploitative character of the master/slave relationship itself. This power relationship does not change when masters give slaves certain privileges or benefits that they previously lacked. A kind slave master is nothing but a kind oppressor. As Fredrick Douglass put it:
"My feelings [toward slave masters] were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all. It was slavery—not its mere incidents—that I hated."
Talk of privilege doesn't capture Douglass's point, which is fundamentally about an oppressive social relationship. This problem comes out even more clearly when we examine the word "under-privileged". It suggests that a person is only suffering from a lack of "privileges" that others enjoy. This language fits neatly with individualistic talk of "social mobility" as the answer to social injustice. It makes it sound as though we only need to make it possible for some fraction of the "under-privileged" to be able to fight their way into the camp of the "privileged". But this perspective obscures the way that racial oppression is constituted by materially structured social relations of domination. Instead, it focuses our attention only on things that people possess or lack.

But even if some groups were given more than they have now, this wouldn't necessarily change the basic relations of power in our society. It would be worth fighting for nonetheless, because it would improve the well-being and political confidence of the oppressed. But it remains true that "if they can give it you, they can take it away". Distributive struggles are crucial--but they are not the whole story. The root of the problem has to do with certain asymmetrical relations of power. Instead of "underprivileged individuals" or "under-served communities" we need to talk about racially oppressed groups who stand in need of full liberation and full social equality, not merely a bundle of goods and privileges that they presently lack.


The language of privilege is hardly the worst framework out there for making sense of oppression. Compared to the racist prison-house of colorblindness, it is a clear improvement because it attempts to bring questions involving (but not limited to) race and gender to the fore. This is important. We live in an era of colorblindness--in which myths are entertained on the left as well as the right that we live in a "post racial" society.

But it is radically false to say that the concept of privilege is the only way that we, today, have to make sense of racial oppression. The history of anti-racist struggle equips us with a far richer set of possibilities. It should be an open, practical question which concepts best advance understanding and political struggle. But, given the drawbacks and limitations discussed above, the concept of privilege is more trouble than its worth.

To get to the root of problem, we need to understand oppression in terms of oppressive social relationships that are built into the basic structure of society. The focus on the basic structure of society--where various forms of oppression intersect and reinforce one another--suggests a way out of the antimonies of the framework of privilege.

At the end of the day, talk of privilege does not suggest a way of understanding or overthrowing the prison/industrial complex (i.e. the "New Jim Crow"). It does not suggest a way of coming together to fight back against austerity--which is crushing people of color more than anyone else. It does not point to a way of stopping foreclosures, evictions, mass-layoffs or police violence. It does not suggest a way of fighting for an end to a system that ruthlessly exploits human beings for profit, which thrives on imperialism, neo-colonialism, racism, sexism, and suppression of all kinds. We need a way of thinking about these problems that generalizes the experience of particular struggles and links them together to build the kind of bonds of solidarity that can challenge the system itself.


Jon said...

A question for you, t, somewhat unrelated to this post. I picked up a copy of "Against Capitalism" by Schweikart on your recommendation. It was extremely helpful for me in understanding just basic economics concepts. Obviously the weaknesses of Capitalism and strengths of Socialism. One of the most enlightening books I've read probably in years. I'm actually working my way through it a second time. My question to you is do you have book recommendations on other subjects?

Let me give you a sense of my background so you can understand what might work for me and what I'm looking for. Basically I'm a former Rush Limbaugh loving right winger. I listened to a lot of the people he highly recommended, like Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams. Coming from that background I have to admit that as I approach leftist thinking I basically think I know what it's about but really I don't. For instance just take the basic concept of Socialism as contrasted with Capitalism. I would have thought I knew what it was. Capitalism is free markets, less government intervention. Basically freedom. Socialism is nanny state, rent control, government meddling, and all the other idiotic ideas that cause so many problems.

Europe is generally socialist, China is communist/socialist, etc. You know this makes no sense, but this is what I'm thinking. So coming out of that I think maybe I'm just a slow learner. Maybe everybody already knows better. But I've been doing a little test now that I've come to understand this better. I spend a lot of time arguing with my friends who remain right wingers. I ask them what Socialism means. Do you know I haven't found a single person that knows? I'm talking about people that read economics books and pay attention to economic related debates a lot. They have no idea what really makes Capitalism different from Socialism except the kind of differences I thought mattered described above.

My opinion is that this is not an accident. On Capitalism you have a tiny minority that has the bulk of the wealth, doesn't have to do the work, and obviously they like it that way. The idea of Socialism causes people to think about that. Why do the non-workers who don't actually contribute to creation get most of the money while the hard working people struggle? So obfuscating the meaning of the terms is useful. The rich of course have the greatest ability to project their messages and view of the world. So we live in a world where people are just dominated by confusion. They don't even know the meaing of basic terminology, so how can they possibly take the next step of challenging the authorities?

This is a roundabout way of saying that if I pick up something written by Marx I have to admit I can barely even understand what is being said. Can you recommend something that can express his thought in a way that someone like me, who may not even be equipped with the vocabulary needed to grasp the concepts? Are there other books on other subjects that you would likewise recommend for someone in my position?

I'm not a total newb. The Schweikart book was a bit dense, but tolerable. And I'm prepared to stretch myself a bit. So I'm not looking for a childrens book. But something on the order of Schweikart.

t said...

Hmmm. Lemme think. For a nice (contemporary) introduction to Marx's ideas, Terry Eagleton's new book "Why Marx Was Right" is quite good. Paul D'Amato's book "Meaning of Marxism" is also helpful. David McNally's book "Global Slump" provides an excellent introduction to Marx's economic thought in the context of the present economic crisis. David Harvey's work is also excellent, rigorous and accessible in terms of contemporary Marxist economics. This might give you a taste of what his work is like:

The series at called "Marx Matters" is really excellent as well, providing lots of short, succinct articles on general topics relating to Marxism and socialist politics. See:

On what socialism is (and what it isn't), I recommend David McNally's essay "Socialism From Below":

Also, good is this article answering the question "does socialism exist in the world today?":

Many of Marx's texts are indeed difficult to read, but not all of them are. "Wage-Labor and Capital" and "Value, Price and Profit" are relatively accessible, clear overviews of his economic thought. You can read them online here: