Pages Menu
TwitterRssFacebook
Categories Menu

Posted by on Mar 8, 2013 in Skepticism, Uncategorized | 103 comments

Chuck Your Privilege

Privilege, we’re told, comes in many flavours, all of them bad.  White privilege.  Male privilege.  Heterosexual privilege.  Cisgendered privilege.  Ablebodied privilege.  First World Privilege.  Etc.  We’re supposed to check our privilege frequently, or—even better—unpack it from the invisible knapsack we carry it around in.  Those who have it are advised to shut up and listen to those who haven’t.  Those who don’t have it are entitled to be royally pissed off at those who do.  What none of us is supposed to do is question whether the invisible knapsack actually exists.

Me, I’m skeptical.

The privilege meme is not new, but its current incarnation comes out of Critical Race Theory, a politically hypercorrect socio-legal analysis that emerged in the 1970s, in part as a radical critique of the civil rights movement.   At the heart of CRT is the claim that Western society lies under a great miasmic pall of minority oppression, where simply to be born a member of certain in-groups confers valuable privileges that are denied to others, including the privilege of being normal.  And, since the system was designed to protect and perpetuate the interests of the white-skinned patriarchy, it cannot be changed from the inside.  It is unsalvageable, rotten to the core.

In Critical Race Theory, the unforgivable sin is being born in possession of a white skin.  According to its tenets, all whites are automatically racists of one subspecies or another—and, as with beetles, many subspecies of racism have been identified: individual, institutional, structural, old-fashioned, polite, aversive, everyday, environmental, democratic, new, liberal.  But CRT’s overarching definition of racism goes something like this:

Racism is a set of ideas that are socially constructed to establish and maintain the superiority of one social group – usually white Europeans – over another because of perceived physical, intellectual, emotional and cultural differences, together with the historical and institutional power to put these beliefs into practice in exclusionary ways.

Or, more concisely:  RACISM = PREJUDICE + POWER.

So this formula, virtually a holy mantra of Critical Race Theory, differs from the dictionary definition of racism by including “power” as a necessary element.  And, since CRT maintains that only whites have power in Western society, it is only whites who can be racist.  People of colour (POC) may be prejudiced, but by definition they cannot be racist.  (By the same reasoning, women cannot be sexist.)  Therefore, there can be nothing racist about the Europhobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, pseudoscientific, pseudohistorical and all-around vile sentiments and actions of groups like, say, the Nation of Islam.  

But how realistic is this Manichean view of power?  Very few of us are personally in any position to oppress anybody, even if we wanted to, since we’re all too busy being oppressed by the economic elites.  Honestly, is it valid to equate the power of the CEO in the penthouse, the office boy fifty floors down, and the panhandler on the street outside, just because all three are white?   That is clearly absurd.

And so, it seems to me, the idea of privilege was reincarnated from its earlier formulations in order to rationalize the hostility that is requisite to Critical Race Theory: white privilege, a mystical quality that magically infuses each and every white skin with power, whatever the owner’s actual circumstances; and incidentally turns the owner of that white skin into a by-definition racist, regardless of his or her personal beliefs or behaviour.  (For the critical feminist version, substitute “sexist” for “racist”, and “penis” for “white skin”.)

It gets worse.

No privilege-holder (PH) can ever understand or empathize with the experience of a non-privilege holder; even the effort to do so constitutes a form of oppression.  A PH’s positive impulses, even his or her activism in support of equality, are considered to be, not just condescending, but as racist and injurious as any Klanner’s negative impulses and activism in support of bigotry.  This is because even a PH’s positive feelings are inextricably mired in a system structured on white male privilege.

And it gets worse.  Any members of visible minorities—or women, for that matter—who are successful by normal criteria are liable to be ideologically suspect; this is because they can only have succeeded with the blessing of their privileged overlords, and are therefore helping to shore up the white patriarchal power structure.  This makes them collaborators, Uncle Toms, chill girls, traitors, bad role models.  They are not helping.  Unless, of course, they are Critical Theorists with book contracts and tenured academic positions, in which case they are above reproof.  

Overall, it seems to me there is no room in this analysis for actual goodwill and an sincere desire for social equality.  People of perceived privilege can do nothing right, except perhaps shut up and wallow in collective and historical guilt.  People without perceived privilege are obliged to be angry, to wallow in victimhood, to view every person born with a white skin and/or a penis as an oppressor.  In my book, the latter is not “reverse racism” – it is just racism.  It is not “reverse sexism” – it is just sexism.

I think there are two opposing metaphors for Western society in operation here.  The first involves a monolithic skyscraper: from the outside, it is a “shining city built on a hill;” on the inside, it is a battleground.  The lower floors are a seething warren of the unprivileged, kept in their place by barred doors, armed guards, and whites-only signs on the elevators.  The upper floors are the preserve of the privileged, who fight floor-by-floor to keep their sanctum inviolate, though a few tokens are allowed upstairs now and then to give the others false hope.  In this model, conflict is de rigueur, and the skyscraper cannot be saved.  It can only be torn down.

 But isn’t society less like a monolith, and more like a collection of buildings in various states of construction and repair?  Some of them may resemble the skyscraper described above; others may have different signs on the elevators; some may have no signs on the elevators at all.  Messy, diverse, both horribly and hopefully human, with areas where terrible things happen, and areas where the effort to build together is honestly undertaken.  In this model, the city on the hill may gradually be rebuilt into something better. 

CRT, along with its feminist and other counterparts, constitute an ideology that erects obstacles between people who might otherwise work together.  This ideology assigns collective guilt, with no hope of absolution.  It slaps pejorative labels—racist and sexist—on great segments of the population on the grounds of the skin colour and genitals they happened to be born with, and aims to radicalize other segments into a state of perpetual victimhood.  It holds cheap the observable progress of the last half-century.  As an ideology, it is as racist and sexist as any other we have suffered from in the long, painful history of our species.  It is not helping.

By the way, that invisible knapsack?  It’s not invisible, it’s imaginary.  And forget about checking your privilege.  Just chuck it.

103 Comments

  1. 10 points
    for Gryffindor! “Privilege” and its frequent companion “patriarchy”
    are concepts that need to be put out of their misery. Although they hint at
    useful phenomena like cultural and positional biases, they are one sided and
    more often used to assign blame than to explain or study behavior. As skeptics
    we should perhaps be troubled by how easily they are used and accepted, even by
    those who consider themselves skeptics. Now that the office of President of the
    United States is held by a black man, (a position often called the most powerful
    in the world or leader of the free world) the idea that if I were white I would
    be more privileged then even him is funny indeed. How would that privilege
    manifest, I wonder?

    • I wonder too. The stated aim of CRT and related fields, is not just to examine and describe society, but to change it – and yet, it pretty much ignores the changes that have occurred, and are continuing, because they do not chime with the CRT ideology.

  2. You’ve made some great points here. Another problem with assigning privilege is that there are so many indicators of privilege. For example, attractive people have privileges that non-attractive people don’t have. Ditto for people with higher IQs. Taller people have privileges. Stronger people. Funnier people. And so on and so forth. The point is that almost everyone has something that gives them privilege over others.

    • Good point. I’m reminded of that Kurt Vonnegut story, where everyone’s privilege had to be neutralized: beauty with a bag over the head, grace with chains and weighted boots, intelligence with a neural implant to disrupt any connected thinking.

      • “Harrison Bergeron”. Considering it was written in 1961, I thought it was a bit early (or prescient if you will) for Vonnegut to be cynical about social equality. However I agree that the word “privilege” is being abused. It seems to me the vast majority of cases of “male privilege” are really wealth privilege that hurts men as often as women.

        • Yes, that was the one! Vonnegut was scarily clear-sighted.

  3. The privilege card can certainly be overplayed (I’ve written about that here), but calling it “imaginary” is a bunch of steps too far, methinks. Just because some folk might abuse the accusation of privilege to avoid self-reflection, or to buttress some sense of entitlement through victimhood, does not mean that some of us are not genuinely privileged, sometimes acting in ways that betray an ignorance of that privilege.

    • I’ve read Rebecca’s post, your piece, and all three of John Scalzi’s posts about privilege. I have also been reading lots of explanations all over the internet about the concept of privilege. I have done my best to understand this concept, but I just don’t see its value.

      Privilege can’t be quantified except at the most superficial level, like Scalzi’s analogy to World of Warcraft. Straight, white men start at the least difficult level at the game of life when born. And? These superficialities say nothing about all the experiences a person has after birth and, therefore, they say nothing about that person’s ability to understand and empathize with those who were not born as straight, white men. Based on the superficial nature of the the concept of privilege, I feel it lacks explanatory power.

      Perhaps my lack of understanding is a result of my pragmatism. IMO, most people often fail to be introspective and empathize with others. I would like to see evidence that because someone is born as a white, straight man he fails more often, or more spectacularly, to be introspective and empathize with others than people who are not white, straight men.

    • Not to split hairs, Jacques, but it’s the knapsack that I’m saying is imaginary, the one worn only on white backs in CRT’s Manichean vision. Otherwise, I think we’re pretty much in agreement.

    • Yes, some
      of us do indeed benefit from privileges. And some groups do have a larger
      number of privileges then other groups (when taken as a group). So, *all other
      things being equa*l, it is better to be white-skinned then to be black-skinned
      in most circumstances (except maybe when trying out for the basketball team).This
      is mainly (but not solely) due to cultural biases. For instance, even in the
      total absence of prejudice and cultural preconceptions, deaf-blind-paralytic
      people will have a hard time getting in the basketball team.

      One problem
      with terms like “white privilege” or “male privilege” is when you attempt to apply
      the (general) characteristics of a group to every member of that group. Men are
      stronger than women. Does this mean that ANY man is stronger than ANY woman? Blacks
      in the U.S. are at an economic disadvantage relative to whites. How many whites
      are really better off then Oprah or Will Smith?

      Another
      problem, this time with how the terms are used: To short-circuit debate. “I disagree
      with you, but need not address your points on their merits or lack thereof for
      you are white/male/able-bodied/first-world/whatever else and hence privileged
      and hence automatically and irredeemably wrong. Point, set and match to me.”

      We are all
      familiar with our own circumstances and tend to assume that they are both “normal”
      and widely shared. We have trouble empathizing with problems we have never
      experienced. We tend to over-emphasize our problems and belittle our benefits. I
      believe this is not due to our “privilege” but rather due to our humanity. But
      what I believe does not really matter; what is, IS. If such a thing as “privilege”
      exists in the world, it should be empirically tested. Ultimately, we ought to
      be able to pick an individual at random, perform a few tests, and be able to
      tell them as much about their level of “privilege” as we can about their height
      or weight. I will not be holding my breath.

  4. You know what, there’s really nothing I can say.

    This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the atheist/skeptic community. The sort of privileged bullshit that led the Dawkin’s forums to actually consider and argue we should align with the Christian elements in Africa to curb the spread of Islam.

    You folks take the cake.

    • “You know what, there’s really nothing I can say.”

      The following sentences would strongly suggest otherwise.

      “This is a perfect example of what’s wrong…”

      I actually find the sentiments you express to be rather problematic for those who rely on skepticism and reason, notions that folks should just shut up and cede the floor the instant that those claiming to possess a lack of privilege* proffer it forth. The notion that discussion and debate should end the moment the unprivileged say so, or not even occur lest it potentially dismay the unprivileged is not conducive to achieving anything other than sterile dogmatism. It would seem privilege should just be unquestioningly accepted and never, ever analysed because that’s apparently privileged bullshit and we cannot be having that now can we.

      * – Funnily enough – nor am I the first to note it – this lack of privilege itself becomes a privilege, one to control the discourse and thus they become hoisted by their own petard. I guess no one gets to speak at all now.

      • The notion that discussion and debate should end the moment the unprivileged say so

        I said nothing like that or even bring that up.

        Work on your reading skills

        • “This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the atheist/skeptic community.”

          As you respond to a post arguing against the notion of privilege one can reasonably assume that your following example and the post itself are what you contend to be “what’s wrong.” Given the circus of the last year or two this general charge of wrongness is incredibly loaded, you ascribe refuting the notion of privilege to not just an error but ‘the’ root of the problem. Thus you implicitly indicate that the notion of privilege being argued against is genuine and arguing against it is the exemplar of wrongness, essentially not up for discussion. The further observation of, “you folks take the cake,” goes on to indicate that the blogger themselves, in addition to any supporting voices, are exemplars of this malaise you perceive within atheism / skepticism. You thus seem to be arguing for the validity of the whole privilege house of cards and from what I’ve seen that does seem to involve a cessation of debate from the privileged once the unprivileged speak. It’s really intrinsic to the concept, the privileged cannot possibly fully understand the unprivileged experience and have no right to refute the charge of privilege on them but simply accept it and listen intently to the unprivileged.

          I really don’t see any other intent to your words and nor was one proffered to subsequently indicate your actual intent and correct my erroneous first impression.

          If you were merely complaining about something on the RDF forum then you’re arguing against something of no relevance to the topic at hand and as the blogger observes, “content free.”

          Perhaps before you invite me to work on my reading you would see to your skills in communication.

    • In simple terms. Is not the messenger, is the validity of the message. This should not be a new concept for rationalist.

      • You people don’t even bother reading what you’re replying to, do you?

        • Define “you people” – in a non-prejudiced way.

          Or, continue to be judged on the content of your comments – as someone who practices not what they preach.

    • Nothing you can say? I honestly wish you would say more, in terms of pointing out which of my points are questionable; and making clear why you think this is parallel to the example from Dawkins’ forum, as I don’t see the connection myself. That way, we could actually have a dialogue. As it stands, your comment is content-free.

      • As it stands, your comment is content-free.

        You are a dismissive and overly self assured. What makes you think anyone would want a dialogue with you? You’ve already decided privilege is just a way for us brownies to beat you white people over the head.

        • Julian, you’re the one who came and made a comment on my blog. That rather implied you wanted a dialogue. Your last sentence – way to go. Thank you for the demonstration.

        • “What makes you think anyone would want a dialogue with you?”

          Said the commenter.

          it seems you’ve just given up the game. You aren’t here to have a discussion. You’re here simply to provoke and are not worthy of further engagement. Noted. You’ll get none from me and I hope no one else.

        • HAHAHA. What a beautfully, definingly typical FfTB-stylee comment.

          Perfection in a paragraph.

    • I don’t think much of that idea myself, but it’s interesting that you don’t mention the prominent ex-muslim, African-born, female atheist that has also argued in favor of it (and it might very well be that ‘Dawkins’ forums’ got the idea from her in the first place). Is it still “privileged bullshit” coming from someone with direct experience of the issues, like Hirsi Ali?

      • Would it be typical theistic bullshit when an atheist argues for accepting religious ceremonies in government spaces?

        • Could be, depending on the context. But the connection between “theistic bullshit” and “religious ceremonies” is much clearer than the connection you tried to draw in your original example.

      • btw, Hirsi Ali is wrong about 75% of the time. Especially since joining with the right wing elements of the UK. Most of the policies she’s pushed would hurt secular or moderate muslim groups. While she herself is still very much threatened by extremist groups, her blanket contempt for anything Muslim is not helping the situation.

        • Choose your own adventure:
          a) Check your privilege. Since you haven’t shared her experience of growing up as a Muslim woman in Africa, you need to shut up and listen.
          b) You make some good points. Perhaps we should focus more on ideas and less on the identity of the person arguing for them.

          • No, I don’t.

            And I’m not going to entertain you’re idiotic views of what discussions of privilege are like.

          • Julian: please remain civil. And substantive.

          • Substantive?

            You don’t even list competing theories on how to examine oppression or discrimination and you’re chastising me about substance?

          • I mean, you go on about it being impossible under these narratives for blacks to be racist, focusing on how one theoretical framework looks at discrimination and ignores all other discussions going on about its limitations or alternatives that might better address the situation.

            Even more insultingly you throw out this ridiculous “Everyone is racist” gibberish out of the head of some glamour eyed teen who’s sole understanding of race relations and prejudice comes form Glee and Tyler Perry movies.

          • Julian, my article is about CRT, not about other theoretical models. That is why I talk about CRT, and not about other theoretical models, or ice cream, or Tyler Perry. If you’re disputing the accuracy of my presentation of CRT’s tenets and definitions, please indicate where. As for the glamour-eyed teen thing – who are you talking about? Not me, surely. Decades past being a teen, have never seen Glee, and don’t know who Tyler Perry is. And just so you know, I will not be responding to any more rants – if you have points to make, please make them civilly.

          • You write as if there’s no awareness in any of this discourse of the potential for dichotomous thinking.

            Hell, we know there is. We see it all the time when white feminists impose a white narrative onto the experiences of black women (and what led to the split with womanism). We see it when gay men are asked questions about the whole of the queer, trans and gender queer community as if they’re representative of it. We see it when Western lesbians try to claim gender variant and trans women from other cultures under their own banner.

            You’re chastizing me for substance when you’re entire post responds to what is essentially a strawman?

            What a joke.

          • Now you’re being relatively substantive, but not very clear. My entire post was responding to (and critiquing) CRT and its sibs. So you’re saying CRT is essentially a strawman?

    • “The sort of privileged bullshit that led the Dawkin’s forums to actually consider and argue we should align with the Christian elements in Africa to curb the spread of Islam.”

      As they say on Wikipedia, [[cite needed]] on that claim. As evidenced by Uganda’s “kill the gays” legislation, Christian fundamentalism in Africa is as extreme, ugly, and “jihadi” as it comes, and I can’t imagine Dawkins or any atheist/skeptic with any kind of credo whatsoever saying we should line up with those people to combat the Islamofascists.

      What I do hear some secularists argue, particularly those of the more “accommodationist” bent, is that atheists should ally with Christian or *Muslim* moderates in an effort to combat religious extremism. Which is an argument that’s not beyond the secularist pale in itself, though I think accommodationism has its limits as a strategy.

      • One other poster remembers it.

        So if they (since unlike someone and their friends I don’t screenshot every post I ever come across on the internet) would you agree that’s an example of a Western bias leading someone to make a horrible assumption that would only serve to distress the people it aims t help?

        • I would agree that secularists advocating helping Evangelicals to fight Islamic extremism would be incredibly wrongheaded. But that’s a hypothetical – I have yet to see a concrete example of a secularist in fact doing that.

          On the other hand, I could give a number of concrete examples of feminists who openly ally with and praise Evangelicals in a misguided battle with the sex industry. I’d have to dig up the link, but I saw a video of Catherine MacKinnon saying exactly that at a conference only a month ago.

          • Yeah, feminist in the 70’s and 80’s made a lot of very (to put it mildly) bad allegiances that have carried over to today.

          • btw, T-foot did it in one of his videos (or at least said it was the lesser of two evils) if my memory serves me right.

          • In the case of Thunderfoot, it’s plausible he said something like that. He’s prone to extreme statements like that, and it’s why he doesn’t always have a great reputation, even among people who were behind him in his battles with FTB. On the other hand, I really doubt Dawkins has ever expressed a sentiment like that, unless you have evidence to the contrary.

        • If you mean me, I don’t recall the discussion from the forums, but I was pointing out that Hirsi Ali made the same suggestion so it’s a bit more complicated than “Western bias”. And I don’t think she was talking about allying with evangelical extremists either.

    • “There’s really nothing I can say.”

      You should have stuck with this premise, before you continued to say things that were not only a total non sequitur to the point of the post, but should have been logically excluded by your initial statement.

      I understand you’re hostile to the idea presented, and loving a good debate of ideas, I encourage you to debate the ideas.

      So: “This is a perfect example of whats wrong with the atheist/skeptic community”, how? Don’t just assert.

  5. Does this CRT stuff have anything to do with the CT of Max Horkheimer and the rest of the Frankfurt school?

    • Yes, that’s right, CRT is one of the many offspring of CT.

  6. Whenever any person or group tries to advance their political agenda by redefining normal, accepted, etymologically unambiguous words I know Orwell’s ghost is smiling. And I treat their devious nonsense with the contempt it deserves.

    • Ah, Jack, wouldn’t Orwell make a lovely book of it all?

    • Which assumes that there is no political agenda in how the “normal, accepted” words are defined now. Which is a pretty weird assumption.

  7. Just so much post-modernist nonsense, hollow noise to serve an agenda of self-loathing and dominance of a discourse through casting disagreement under a light of opprobrium to summarily dismiss other positions, one that seemingly rests on little more than assertions. Like how racism also requires power and thus all non-Caucasians cannot be racist and Caucasians simply cannot challenge this because they are intrinsically racist, therefore always wrong unless agreeing.

    Whilst there are instances where a genuine privilege may exist, my common experience with the notion deployed is as a misery pissing contest to see who is the most unprivileged, therefore entitled to the most important voice and control of a given conversation whilst the “privileged” must be respectfully silent and fulsome in their agreement; or an excuse to become sanctimoniously offended over some incidental detail unrelated to the topic at hand. Of course were the pertinent details about me known, I’d just be dismissed as privileged and saying anything to protect my privilege. It’s like a magic wand whose merest wave instantaneously renders the interlocutor so accused as wrong.

    • Alas, it’s widespread and quite fashionable postmodernist nonsense. By its terms, people like you and me are simply in denial about our privilege, and unaware of our own fundamental and inescapable racism. What I have never seen is any statement of what we’re supposed to do after shutting up and examining our privilege, other than platitudes and generalities…

  8. Thanks v much for this article, Rebecca. Lots to look into – I’ve wondered for some time where these ideas originated, and wasn’t able to tie it down to anything narrower than critical theory in general.

    The idea that bugs me most is that the oppressors aren’t going to know what it’s like to experience life as the oppressed, but the oppressed will apparently know what it’s like to be in the oppressor class as they have to understand it to survive.

    It’s funny then how often I’ve see feminists describe men in such an utterly realistic way. I guess that understanding of the oppressors by the oppressed doesn’t go as far as they’d like? I think if there is any viability to CRT as commonly practised it will need to involve an acknowledgement that regardless of whether they’re designated oppressor or oppressed, only the members of a given class can really speak for it.

    And if anyone wants to see how hilarious this concept is as popularly practiced, take a look on social justice tumblrs. There are some very…creative versions of privilege under discussion.

    • You know, believe it or not, I’d heard of tumblr but never gone there? So I went and had a look: wow.. I quite liked the social justice shark. :-D

  9. What?!? You’re a racist or a misogynist depending on your skin color or having a penis?

    Isn’t that denying agency to people in their lives? Wasn’t denying agency what constitutes objectification?

    • Exactly!

  10. Rebecca, I’ve been trying to get info for weeks on this whole Priviledge Checking Meme has become so dominant and this post and Jacques Rousseau’s have to be my top two favorites. I don’t even know how I missed the CRT origin. From my perspective, the manipulators of this idea [abu]used in a similar way than Russell’s essay “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”, As Jacques Rousseau pointed out.

    • Thanks, Axel, I’ll go back and have a look at Russell’s essay.

  11. What a gigantic strawman. As your definition states, “Racism is a set of ideas”. Hence, having white skin does NOT by definition make you a racist. What it DOES do is situate you in a complex system of social and cultural norms, of economic disparities, of divergent experiences which mean that you, in all likelihood, will not have the same experiences a person of different coloured skin is likely to have. For instance you are less likely to face racial discrimination in the workplace, or be sent to jail, or sentenced to death if you kill someone, or be attacked because of your race, or have your civil rights violated, and so on, and so forth. This means the experiences which inform your worldview are likely to be restricted or “blinded” by these disparities. This is privilege. Checking your privilege means recognising that your experiences and what you think you know about situations originate in a subject-position that has a certain, circumscribed relation to an existing system of oppression. It doesn’t mean you’re actively A Racist.

    • By “gigantic strawman”, are you referring to CRT and its sibs? If so, I would agree with you. But I suspect you’re referring to my post. So here goes.

      First, that was not “my” definition of racism; that was a standard CRT definition, which is (as Jack Rawlinson pointed out) positively Orwellian in changing the meaning of a word to suit a radical agenda.

      Your rationalization to the contrary, CRT does specifically and repeatedly define all “whites” as racists, not distinguishing between active and passive. If no other subdefinition will fit the case, then the default is “structural racist”, one who is willy-nilly
      and culpably benefiting from a system devoted to the perpetuation of white supremacy. I considered a number of examples to illustrate this, but thought the following was the most telling: workshop materials from an eminent, award-winning white educator, on how to teach about racial issues. Here is an excerpt, but the entire piece is worth reading for the flavour: http://www.stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Workshop_Materials_files/Teaching_about_Race.pdf

      “Never profess your freedom from racism. As a White person you are unable to escape complicity in racism. You can choose to fight this in yourself and others – individually and systemically – but you cannot decide not to be a part of racism. Acknowledge your own collusion in racism and how it moves in you. As a teacher never suggest you are free of racism.… [A] racist society in which White supremacy is a dominant ideology would mean that of course Whites have racism embedded in them.”

      Mea maxium culpa, in other words.

      Your comment also reminded me of how CRT et al use narrative as a major source of primary data; but what I saw in a survey of CRT textbooks and websites was that the narratives of POC are presented as truthful, insightful and significant, whereas the narratives of white respondents are heavily editorialized and reinterpreted. One is left with the impression that nothing really bad ever happens to white guys, and nothing really good ever happens to POC.

      • Precisely. It doesn’t distinguish between active and passive. “Passive racism” includes privilege blindness, and unknowingly propping up a racist system in a variety of ways. The rejection is just an outright denial of the very possibility of this, which is clearly false, as the presence of implicit racist (and indeed sexist) biases by people who wouldn’t consider themselves racist or sexist is well documented (by SCIENCE!)

        • “It doesn’t distinguish between active and passive.” Indeed, it considers both of those as equally culpable and inescapable, which is patently an equivocation. And simultaneously, it constructs the definitions so that POC cannot be racist, and women cannot be sexist, no matter what SCIENCE!! says. And it does so in the context of a monolithic view of Western society as rigidly white supremacist, rather than what it is in the real world: a complex, highly diverse society in rapid flux, doing a drunkard’s walk towards something more equitable.

        • Privilege is very interesting to look at. It is real, it is worth looking at, because people are diverse, and we are prone to making a lot of assumptions based on our own experiences and we aren’t very knowledgeable about how other people feel.

          Where it gets lost in the weeds is when others make ignorant statements based on their own privilege. “You are only saying that because you’re white.” This may be true, and may not be true. You don’t know, because you don’t know or understand me, and you have utterly failed to check your own privilege. It is worth mentioning from time to time, but as a basis to dismiss people, it can be used in a very racist way and ignorant way.

          As a general rule, instead of looking at privilege as a basis to dismiss everyone’s opinion but your own, use it as a tool to judge whether your opinions are based on fact or just your own ignorance of other people.

          • Sounds sensible to me, as part of what should be our general rule as skeptics anyway, which is to keep a careful, critical eye on our own assumptions. I’d have no objection to someone telling me “check your assumptions”.

      • *possession, not presence.

        you also talk elsewhere about “rational agency”, but as a skeptic, I would have thought you would at least be skeptic of an assumption as value-laden and poorly supported as *that*…

        • Would would have thought you would at least have thought to apply skepticism to your own passionate beliefs…

  12. “Honestly, is it valid to equate the power of the CEO in the penthouse, the office boy fifty floors down, and the panhandler on the street outside, just because all three are white? That is clearly absurd.”

    Every once in a while a scientist makes a statement or publishes a paper comparing average intelligence between different races. Commenters of various blogs instantly respond that intelligence is vaguely defined and difficult to measure, that the tests therefore say as much about the test designer as the test taker, and that the differences in the averages are insignificant compared to the standard deviations between groups, so making conclusions about intelligence based on demographics would be irrational, to say the least.

    But for some reason, when the word “intelligence” is replaced with “privilege” (another vaguely defined and hard to measure concept correlated to some definition of being successful; intelligence and privilege seem to be nature-nurture counterparts), commenters on those same blogs don’t hesitate to assume they can accurately measure it from only demographics. Thank you for being an exception.

  13. I’m pretty much in agreement with Jacques Rousseau here. I think your critique is half-correct, in that the concept of privilege, wielded as a conversation-stopper, is seriously overplayed by the “social justice” crowd. But at the same time, I really don’t think you can go so far as to dismiss the entire concept. Basically, if you’re in a situation where the status quo gives you an advantage, you have a definite cognitive bias toward supporting the status quo. And, the fact is, we live in a world where social inequalities of all kinds are endemic, and that means you’re going to have some groups that have advantages, and others that don’t, and, of course, many people who stand as advantaged in some aspects (say, race) and are disadvantaged in others (say, economic status). Those advantages or disadvantages are going to have a huge effect on how individuals in those groups are going to see the world, and real social problems are most likely going to be noticed by groups vulnerable to those problems rather than those with relative advantage, no matter how conscientious an individual in the advantaged group might be.

    “Honestly, is it valid to equate the power of the CEO in the penthouse, the office boy fifty floors down, and the panhandler on the street outside, just because all three are white?”

    Somebody who takes a very reductionist approach to the idea of “white privilege” might very well take that stance, but, in theory anyway, contemporary ideas on social justice is supposed to embrace the idea of ” intersectionality”, which is the idea that every individual has many aspects to their identity, which may fall in very different places on the “privileged/oppressed” scale. So while the three individuals named above might all have “white privilege”, they’d come out very differently in terms of class privilege or class oppression, and that combinations of advantage and disadvantage will play out in different ways. Sometimes, privilege in one area will blind people to common disadvantage in others – examples would be poor whites in the old South who carried out violence against poor blacks, or middle class and poor whites in the contemporary Bible Belt who vote against their economic interests because the desire to maintain Christian religious privilege ties them to a political alliance that very much goes against their economic class interest.

    Now before you go thinking I’m wholly defending the social justice crowd’s use of the idea of “privilege”, I’m not. I’m outlining where I think the concept is correct, but in the next part of my response, I’ll discuss where I think much of “privilege” analysis goes pear-shaped.

    • The downsides of “privilege” based analysis, if taken too far entail a number of problems, all of which I’ve seen going on in the current feminist/social justice/leftist milieu:

      * The worst excess, as I see it, is the use of privilege/oppression ideology to partially or even wholly deny the very idea of universal human rights. That is, the idea that we all have, or *should* have, the same inalienable rights before the law whether we’re healthy straight white men, or disabled lesbians of color. According to the kind of neo-Marxist view of the law coming from Critical Legal Studies, such rights are just a zero-sum gain, and need to be mostly taken from the privileged to somehow better the lot of the oppressed. Hence, you end up with ideologues like Catherine MacKinnon fighting for censorship based on an utterly bizarre notion of “civil rights”.

      * The constant reduction of those who are disadvantaged or otherwise lacking in privilege to victim status, and casting of those with advantage as always in some way victimizers, and the punitive ideas and policies that flow from that. Associated with this is the denial of agency to members of disadvantaged groups, hence resistance to the idea that one has any responsibility for one’s well-being if you don’t happen to be one of the privileged. You see this play out in extreme notions of sexual consent, such as the idea that one can withdraw previously-given sexual consent *without actually informing your partner that you’re no longer consenting*. If you call it rape later, apparently its the other person’s responsibility because they didn’t “check in” rather than your responsibility for not communicating the withdrawal of your consent.

      * Related to the above is the idea that those in oppressed groups have some sort of epistemic privilege, often in matters not directly related to their underprivileged status. In its extreme form, this can take the form of various kinds of science denialism or historical revisionism, such as the more woo-heavy branches of feminism, or pseudohistorical ideologies like Afrocentrism.

      * Further related to this is the routine invocation of “privilege” as a conversation-stopper. Of course, there are some places where privilege dynamics are relevant, (like, say, white people who don’t “see” racism when confronted with something like the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison, religious people who claim that atheists confronting religion makes them feel uncomfortable, etc), but clearly, some people are abusing the concept by routinely invoking in bad faith the “privilege” of those they disagree with as a way of silencing their opponent.

      * A view of power that is excessively dualistic and black/white. The other side of the coin to being privileged is being “oppressed”, not just underprivileged. Power advantage is never, say, 60/40, it’s always 100/0. Hence, the variation on Godwin’s rule, in which in any online debate on feminism, the likelihood of someone comparing the current status of women to that of African-Americans under slavery approaches 1.0.

      * The frequent hypocrisy and opportunism of those playing the privilege card. Middle-class white feminism is probably the worst on this, with some of the same people being downright Jacobins when it comes to gender issues, but digging in their heels when challenged by women of color or sex workers on *their* relative privilege. Notions of “intersectionality”, which often don’t go beyond lip-service, notwithstanding.

      Related is the fact that some sketchy people who just happen to fall into an underprivileged group can use this to deflect criticism. It’s no coincidence that one of the newer and more loud and contentious figures in the “Women in Secularism” crowd includes somebody who recently broke off from leadership in their local secularist org in Florida, in part over allegations of financial mismanagement.

      • Brilliant! Thank you for this expansion. There is one point I’d like to expand on further, but I’m planning to do so in another post, later this month – historical revisionism, melanin scholarship, and pseudoarchaeology.

        • Excellent. Moar archaeology posts please!

          • Got it, Chas! Comin’ up. :)

      • “You see this play out in extreme notions of sexual consent, such as the idea that one can withdraw previously-given sexual consent *without actually informing your partner that you’re no longer consenting*. If you call it rape later, apparently its the other person’s responsibility because they didn’t “check in” rather than your responsibility for not communicating the withdrawal of your consent.”

        Do you have an example of someone who actually argues in favor of this notion of consent?

        • I would have to dig for specific links on this, however, I do remember this line coming up in discussions about abuse in the BDSM scene by the “consent culture” movement. Which started out with a perfectly reasonable and praiseworthy campaign against things like safe words not being respected, and other rapey behavior. It devolved into some people saying that it was “blaming the victim” to criticize a sub for claiming to have been assaulted when that person didn’t use a safe word to have their partner stop. Which, of course, I find utterly insane – this person is taking part in an activity where consent is clearly negotiated, and there’s a clear specific way to withdraw one’s consent and stop at any time, *and the person doesn’t use it* and then claims to have had their consent violated. This was backed up by the usual argument that if the sub was young, female, whatever, and the top was male, more experienced, etc, he had “privilege” and hence the sub would be assumed to feel “pressure” not to stop.

          Similar stuff from the more extreme wing of the anti-rape movement, holding not only should one get affirmative consent for sex (which I agree with on a best practices level, though I don’t agree with the idea that without affirmative consent it’s automatically rape), but that the more “powerful” (typically male) half has a duty to “check in” periodically to see if consent is still being granted. That kind of ephemeral notion of consent seems pretty odd to me – not because I don’t think somebody can withdraw their consent at any time – of course the can – but because of the assumption that it automatically disappears unless actively reestablished over and over again.

          • The BDSM “community” is a very feminised (as in feminist) group. It is through the BDSM scene I first saw what Dr Warren Farrell describes as male disposability, male invisibility and female hypoagency in sharp contrast with feminist attitudes derived from culturally Marxist feminist theory.

            Female Dommes are at the top of the matriarchal tree being most in demand and least represented, then female subs -between these two groups most of the BDSM protocol is decided- then male Doms and finally male subs.

            Both male Domes and subs alike tend to only really be accepted into the fold if they have a partner. Single men are either invisible or suffer from the suspicion of the potential sex pest or rapist.

            The BDSM scene is chocked full of rules and rather puritanical views about sex created to protect women from the intrusive, pervy and socially unacceptable sexual desires of men.

            As it is in vanilla life the women pick and choose, the men compete; most female “Dommes” stay true to their biology and exclude submissive men as potential sexual or life partners choosing vanilla or Dom lovers instead.

            In a way the BDSM scene is a perfect little feminist hierarchy where the women have all the privilege, set the rules, move the goalposts and say they want one thing whilst choosing another and the blokes have to jump through hoops, tread on eggshells and politely suck it up or be ostracised.

            The idea that consent could be taken away without the use of a safe word -opening up the ‘man’ to an accusation of rape- would be accepted on the BDSM scene doesn’t surprise me one bit.

      • That was a very good analysis — both the pro/con.

        “And, the fact is, we live in a world where social inequalities of all kinds are endemic, and that means you’re going to have some groups that have advantages, and others that don’t, and, of course, many people who stand as advantaged in some aspects (say, race) and are disadvantaged in others (say, economic status). ”

        One of the major problems I see is much talk around privilege seems to take the above statement — which I would argue is fairly obvious and should be non-controversial — to embrace a radical subjectivism that is untenable and contradictory.

      • Orwellian, isn’t it, how uncritical Critical (Whatever) Studies have proven to be.

      • What a great comment, I agree with you on almost every point but one.

        Whilst the disproportionate number of black people in prison must partly be due to racism I think it is sloppy and incorrect the way most people on the left (both moderate & extreme) declare this inequality as unarguable evidence of a racist status quo.

        I think this issue is far more complicated than that and blaming it on racist police, courts, law makers & institutions misses the point. Not only is it wrong to simplify this issue as one of racist oppression, that narrative only serves to feed more young black men into the teeth of the prison system by reinforcing a sense of hopeless victimhood.

        The disparity in prison populations is almost universal from Los Angeles to London, from American states where most judges and a large proportion of cops are black to British and European justice systems which are steeped in human rights legislation. The geographical location, laws and ethnic backgrounds of the officials differ yet almost universally, in the West black people are being jailed far too much.

        There are many potential reasons for this other than racism; from poverty to a belief that the system is racist -therefore crime is the only option- to the hyper masculinity and gang culture which I believe springs from the oppressed/oppressor narrative.

        If a group of people are raised by parents and schooled by left wing teachers and social workers to believe the world is unanimously hostile to them because of something as basic as the colour of their skin; it makes sense that a significant proportion of that group would turn to crime and cultivate a hostile, invulnerable persona as a form of protection against the innate hostility of the world.

        I have some experience of this having been on the wrong side of the law myself.

        In my experience the reason why arrest rates are higher among people of colour has a lot more to do with the choices being made than evil racist cops arresting innocent black guys for fun.

        One point which is often raised as incontrovertible proof of racism is why the sentencing disparity?

        If the system isn’t racist why do black guys who get caught with drugs face longer sentences than white guys, why are black youths targeted by the police more than white youths when white people are just as likely to be sniffing coke or smoking dope?

        It’s a bloody good point and on the face of it it seems like the only answer can be that Western police forces and criminal justice systems are racist and rotten to the core right?

        I disagree! As with most things in life things are far more nuanced.

        In my opinion the answer to this question (whilst unfair) is simple.

        Violence and gang culture!

        Whilst there are some seriously dangerous white drug dealers and some harmless pot smoking black kids the likelihood that a white drug offender will have a violent gang affiliation is much less likely than the black drug offender.

        So whilst I agree that racism plays a role I know that it’s the choices people make that matter as to whether one goes to prison or not.

        If you just smoke dope you might stay out of jail, if you associate with violent gang members whist smoking your spliff you might unjustly be imprisoned (guilt by association rather than guilt by racial identity) and if you join that gang and arm yourself with a firearm whilst selling the drugs you increase your chances of jail time by a magnitude regardless of your racial identity.

        As long as we focus solely on the bogeyman of institutional racism the choices which lead so many of our young black men into the prison system are neglected.

    • Again, I’ll point out what I pointed out to Jacques, above: I’m arguing that it is specifically the “invisible knapsack” – the ironic new White Man’s Burden – that is imaginary. The conflation of the knapsack with the concept of privilege is one of CRT’s many fallacies. My CEO/office boy/panhandler example concerned power, not privilege: the CRT fallacy here is that all whites (and only whites) hold systemic power; but since they so manifestly do not, the concept of universal and systemic “white privilege” is brought in to magically empower them, in a way that trumps any of the finer intersectional distinctions.

      • Well, I think systemic “white privilege” is a real thing. Relatively speaking, somebody who’s poor and white is going to have at least one less barrier against them than somebody who’s poor and black. I’m not going to say this is necessarily true of poor whites today, but historically in the South, poor whites were used as the “enforcer” class against black people – essentially racial solidarity trumped class interest. Those kind of dynamics can play out with various kinds of privilege, and it’s reflected in the fact that one of the strongest blocks of Republican voters in the US are conservative Christians who are often poor or working class and benefit least from the economic policies of that party.

        This is not to say that the concept of “white privilege” isn’t overplayed and that there aren’t dynamics working in the other direction. The flipside of white privilege is that white people are not expected to be poor, and have a harder time getting help if they’re in a situation of endemic poverty. And in many cases, I think class disadvantage works far more against one that racial disadvantage. I think if you’re trying to get hired for a typical professional job, the stereotypical demeanor of either a “ghetto” person or of being “white trash” are going to very much work against you. But a person of color who comes across as middle-class and well-spoken is definitely going to do better than somebody who comes across as “white trash”, because certain markers of class, education, and so on are what’s going to help you in a professional setting, and are going to more than make up for any disadvantage from the color of one’s skin.

      • You have proven that not all white people are equally powerful, and that people who are not white are sometimes powerful. Congratulations, that strawman is pretty dead. When sensible people talk about privilege one of the central features of the discourse is that the social systems that assign power (and wealth and other things) favor privileged groups (such as white people or men) over the non-privileged.

        That DOESN’T MEAN that the favoring is absolute. Imagine a game using a 6-sided die. If the die rolls a 6 Player A wins, if it rolls 1-5 Player B wins. This game very strongly favors Player B, but Player B won’t win EVERY time. (This is not an argument for the specific degree of how unfair real world systems are)

        Instead imagine some teenagers, all from lower social classes in an urban environment. Turns out that the white teenagers are far less likely to attract police attention than the teens of color, and that when illegal behavior is detected the white teenagers are treated less harshly by the justice system.

        But it just gets better (read as: worse)! It turns out that through supposedly “color-blind” restrictions placed officially and unofficially on those judged criminal, that the justice system becomes a de facto barrier to social mobility for those people, who are, to a level disproportionate to their representation in the population at large, people of color.

        • This kind of argument is akin to “progressive”, “the Bible is metaphorical” theologists who argue that atheists’ portrayal of believers as dogmatic is a strawman and caricature – ignoring the empirically established fact that the overwhelming majority of religious believers do, in fact, hold dogmatic, literalist beliefs, and that the sanitized, theoretical “modern” theists the theologists portray represent a vanishingly small proportion of their peers, mostly isolated in ivory seminaries.

          The notion of “Privilege”, in practice, is overwhelmingly used blindly and thoughtlessly as a divisive, antagonistic weapon, used to attack the messenger in lieu of addressing message content, and as a cheap, knee-jerk excuse for prejudicial and silencing behavior – NOT, as apologists in academia tend to describe it, as a relative term to be thoughtfully, contingently and carefully applied.

          In my experience, it is also most often used by anonymous commenters who, ironically, turn out themselves to be privileged, mostly white and mostly male.

          They are, and act, just like born-again evangelists, far more zealous, dogmatic, unquestioning and aggressive in their newbie eagerness to prove their humility than those who have actually spent their lives in service of a cause.

          “Privilege” in a civil rights discussion is typically used as a means of cutting off activists’ nose to spite our faces, and then making sure we all bleed to death.

          • “This kind of argument is akin to “progressive”, “the Bible is metaphorical” theologists who argue that atheists’ portrayal of believers as dogmatic is a strawman and caricature – ignoring the empirically established fact that the overwhelming majority of religious believers do, in fact, hold dogmatic, literalist beliefs, and that the sanitized, theoretical “modern” theists the theologists portray represent a vanishingly small proportion of their peers, mostly isolated in ivory seminaries.”

            I suppose I have to just table my objections to analysis of religion that centers on the intellectual agreement with statements about “beliefs.” But even so I will have to insist that “literal” is a rhetorical move to try to make particular interpretations above dispute within the religious community. More importantly, however you’re already dodging my points two different ways. First you assume that if people who hold a particular view are a small minority within a community, their views can be dismissed. I’m not sure how that follows. But on an even more basic level you have chosen a metaphor where people who accept the notion of privilege to religious groups that, by definition are rejected by the skeptic community. It’s kind of a loaded metaphor.

            “The notion of “Privilege”, in practice, is overwhelmingly used blindly and thoughtlessly as a divisive, antagonistic weapon, used to attack the messenger in lieu of addressing message content, and as a cheap, knee-jerk excuse for prejudicial and silencing behavior – NOT, as apologists in academia tend to describe it, as a relative term to be thoughtfully, contingently and carefully applied.

            In my experience, it is also most often used by anonymous commenters who, ironically, turn out themselves to be privileged, mostly white and mostly male.”

            A-ha! it turns out that you were planning to equivocate based on your metaphor! You’ve stated that “believers” being “dogmatic” and “literalist” is empirically verified, but you haven’t made that claim for “people who think privilege is a meaningful concept.” But your post assumes that. just as your impression of “believers” is backed up empirically, that it must also be true for “people who think privilege is a meaningful concept.” It’s not at all clear this is the case.

            Further, even if it is, it’s still not clear why that’s definitive. Privilege is an analytical concept, wether it turns out to be a useful one or not. Any sort of conceptual framework, used badly, produces worthless analysis.

            “They are, and act, just like born-again evangelists, far more zealous, dogmatic, unquestioning and aggressive in their newbie eagerness to prove their humility than those who have actually spent their lives in service of a cause.

            “Privilege” in a civil rights discussion is typically used as a means of cutting off activists’ nose to spite our faces, and then making sure we all bleed to death.”

            So at the climax and coda to your argument your position seems to be that because commentators (who you claim are mostly “privileged” people) bully long-standing activists by invoking the notion of privilege, which creates dangerous or even fatal division of the activist community thus (ironically?) making real positive change impossible.

            The Bullying of activists (and even journalists and bloggers) by semi or fully anonymous internet harrasers is definitely real. Few if any of the cases I know involve the bullies invoking the concept of privilege, but my knowledge is hardly encyclopedic, it could be quite common for all I know. But knowing the presence of that invocation doesn’t mean we know the whole story.

            Well I don’t think privilege is a magic word, and it seems doubtful that bullying around the concept of privilege is built on supremely powerful rhetoric, so if this dynamic is playing out, what are the social structures that make it possible? What is the power-relationship between the bullies and their victims? What pre-existing norms govern socially acceptable behavior for the two groups? How invasive are these interactions? Do the bullies have some way of disrupting how the activists make a living? Are there implied or direct physical threats? If there was genuine risk of physical violence against the victims, could they count on the police to believe them and protect them?

            Now it’s possible I’m a rara avis, but I know to ask these kinds of questions because of my

        • You make a good point eloquently but as RandomReason points out “privilege” is used not as a -nuanced view of social structures- but as a blanket conversation stopper, whereby someones race or sex can be used against them as a trump card to silence dissent. As long as that person is white or male of course, anything else would rightfully be called racism or sexism.

          As for your well argued point about “privilege” as a group of “social systems that assign power” I believe you are still way off the mark.

          Our social systems are complex and whilst 60 years ago they undoubtedly did favour white men (whilst also condemning many white men to the horror of war and other deadly low paid tasks), today in most Western countries diversity and quotas are the name of the game.

          Western societies have not only got rid of the legal barriers and most of the shady old (white) boy networks which favoured white men; we have gone even further into positive discrimination.

          Actually creating counter privileges for women and minorities.

          (All of these measures I agree with. Diversity is good. Bring it on. We need more black and female Presidents and captains of industry)

          The only way you can argue that society is still based on some kind of hidden racist/sexist social structure -privileging white men to the detriment of women and minorities- is to look at the stats for top jobs, wage disparity and prison population then jump to that conclusion regardless of all the nuanced complexities.

          Complexities like the choices people make, the actions they take and the beliefs, emotions, biological needs and cultural/social constructs which bought them to those decisions.

          Maybe there aren’t as many female CEOs because women tend to choose time with family over work, when becoming a CEO is highly competitive and only the most dedicated succeed?

          Maybe part of the reason black teenagers disproportionately attract police attention is because -more black than white teenagers- choose to join violent gangs or be confrontational and hostile when confronted by the police? Maybe these terrible choices are being made because so many young black men are taught the erroneous narrative that they are destined to be oppressed by the injustice of white privilege?

          Most cops focus on areas of high crime not because of the ethnicity of the people there but because of the high rates of crime. Most cops arrest people for committing crimes not having the wrong skin colour.

          This is not to say that there aren’t racist cops, sexist boardrooms or instances where having white skin & a cock can advantage you, it’s just that today out and out sexists and racists tend to be in the minority and society as a whole certainly frowns on sexism and racism.

          The idea that society is some kind of hidden white male sexist/racist construct is totally bogus.

          • I’m no longer a believing Catholic, but apparently my Catholic upbringing has deeper roots than I think because “penance for my sins” is the only reason I can think of for engaging here again.

            What contemporary society objects to are open declarations of personal animus against people of color or women, and to a lesser extent gay or lesbian people. You mostly can still get away with open hostility to trans* people and to bi- or pan- sexual people.

            Even more strongly there are strong negative reactions when people, especially people belonging to traditionally marginalized groups, call out how structures, social pressures, policies, or selective enforcement impacts these groups in disproportionate ways.

            If you can look at how stop-and-frisk policing works, or how women who gain notoriety for calling out what they believe to be sexism on the internet face persistent threats of death and rape (which are inappropriate even if she is wrong), or how Voter ID laws which have disproportionate racial impacts are passed despite the form of vote fraud they would catch being basically non-existent keep being passed, or how mainstream Republican politicians blame their losses on “gifts” for minorites, or Arizona style anti-immigration laws, or how all the objection to drones is focused on citizens and not the horrors of signature strikes, if you can see all that and don’t see structures of oppression than there is no hope that you can understand why people who have any cogent analysis of society at all do use terms like privilege.

          • I’m not saying everything is perfect, there are some racists and sexists out there, especially in some of the Southern American states and more extreme members of the Republican party but they are an anomaly by Western standards.

            What you have to understand is, I’m not saying racism & sexism has been eradicated (eradication is impossible) but that the majority of our laws, institutions, governments and populations are in most cases the opposite of racist/sexist.

            We in the West are currently living in the most liberal and least prejudiced times in history. Ever!

            Dick jokes, clumsy chat up lines and porn are in no shape of form sexist or oppressive.

            The fact that Western feminists can find so much outrage over dongle jokes and internet trolling is testament to how liberated and un-oppressed they are. These university educated career women screaming oppression is just absurd.

            As for police practices like stop and search.

            They are not necessarily racist,

            Lets think about this logically.

            Either they affect minorities more in almost every Western country, across two continents from American cities run by black politicians with multicultural police forces to European countries with multicultural police forces and legal systems which are rooted in human rights legislation; because -despite the fact our laws forbid discrimination based on race and our streets are policed by black officers too- our society is so irredeemably racist, it incarcerates black men for no other reason than racial hatred.

            Or because there are higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods!

            Which is more likely?

            The police are reactive, they go to areas which have the highest crime rates regardless of the ethnicity populating that area.

            Now we can have a discussion about why crime rates are higher in minority communities but to call the police racist for policing the highest crime areas is just foolish.

            In London the black on black knife crime has become so bad that many people in the black community have urged the police to step up ‘stop & search’ because their sons and daughters need protecting.

            Try this thought experiment.

            Humour me for a sec and assume that police stats are correct and that there really is a problem of higher violent crime in many black neighborhoods.

            What should the police do if ‘stop & search’ is so discriminatory and oppressive?

            Waste man hours searching Chinese kids or white kids in areas with low knife crime to even up the stats or cease ‘stop & search’ as a practice altogether?

            The police are between a rock and a hard place. If they do their job they are called racist, if they cease doing their job for fear of being called racist they are accused of negligence and racism.

            Think about it.

          • The legal basis for stop-and-frisk is that the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the stopped person has a weapon. The vast majority of stop-and-frisk related arrests are either spurious arrests that lead to no charges or arrests for possession of illegal drugs. This is because the vast majority of young men of color the police have a “reasonable suspicion” are carrying a weapon, aren’t. But this de facto much harsher enforcement of drug laws against young men of color contributes quite a bit to the vast rates of incarceration of young men of color, and both the years lost to incarceration and the legal discrimination against those with criminal records (which evidence suggests is more strongly enforced against black and hispanic people) have an important role to play in keeping people of color disproportionately poor in the US, though they aren’t the only factor.

            It’s true that areas where stop-and-frisk policing have seen drops in violent crime since the 1990s, but then, so has the entire United States. Attributing this to increased stop-and-frisk usage is less than logical.

            As to sexism, assuming, for the sake of argument, that you are correct and none of the things typically called out as everyday sexism are sexist, are persistant rape and death threats for any woman who prominently disagrees non-sexist?

            When Zerlina Maxwell said that the approach to rape should focus on teaching people (mostly, but not exclusively cis men) not to rape instead of focusing on women carrying more guns, and received death and rape threats, is she complaining about nothing? Even though most rapes are committed by acquaintances?

            Is the situation for both people of color and women better now than it used to be, surely. That doesn’t mean that white cis het men aren’t still a group commanding privileges.

            Of course I already know you aren’t about to accept my arguments. I can’t change that. I’m giving in to my own worse nature by trying to get in the last word. I hope I’ve got that out of my system and can leave any further claims that our society isn’t tilted in favor of white cis het men stand alone in their wrongness.

          • If women were receiving an abundance of persistent, real time threats -not comments on internet threads- for speaking out against people who were actually carrying out real acts of harassment & intimidation (not asking them for coffee or cracking dongle jokes) I would agree with you.

            But that is not what is happening.

            These women are trying to enforce -by bullying- the most restrictive hard line feminist taboos onto the speech and thought of people within liberal communities who value free speech as a basic human right.

            They have taken to the internet and denounced their ideologically impure brothers and sisters as bigots, whilst confessing to the world just how sensitive they are to minor swear words and expressions of heterosexuality which fall outside of their very conservative feminist strictures.

            The whirlwind that these radical feminists are reaping is entirely of their own making.

            They have pushed all the wrong buttons with their natural allies and pushed all the right buttons when it comes to attracting trolls.

            They are not experiencing sexism or oppression they are experiencing human nature.

            When you bully good people they get angry and when you give bad people ammunition they use it against you. BINGO! Us against the world.

            These radical feminists are the equivalent of the kid who licks his finger and sticks it in the plug socket, accept the feminists don’t learn not to be so stupid next time. They call out the oppressive nature of electricity and proceed to prod electrical outlets whenever they can to prove the innate evil of electricity.

            Let me give you an example of how the anonymity of the internet works.

            In Thai culture the word “Thai” -when written in Thai script- is not like our word for England or America, It is sacred as it represents the King who is the Godhead of the Thai people.

            In Thai culture the feet -being the lowest point on the body- are considered not just dirty but the opposite of sacred; positively sacrilegious Recently my teacher posted a picture on facebook of an Australian who had had the word ‘Thai’ in Thai script tattooed on the heel of his foot.

            It received over 49 comments in 1 minute ranging from “he should have acid thrown in his face” to “I should tattoo his mothers name on my ass” and this was from both male and female professional Thais.

            Thai people are a very tolerant bunch, as testament to the fact that this Australian ignoramus came and left Thailand, oblivious to his mistake, without so much as an insult being thrown his way, let alone acid.

            Despite insulting Thai sensibilities in the most egregious way, his experience of Thailand and Thai people was positive yet the internet reaction to the faux pas was incendiary.

            My point is incendiary language and reactions are part and parcel of the internet and in no way can they be equated to real time behavior.

            Capice?

            As for the whole racism conspiracy. Lets try another thought experiment.

            From the twenties up until the nineties America had a serious problem with crime in Italian communities.

            Either the Mafia was a big racist lie conjured up by a prejudiced Anglo Saxon elite to legitimise oppressing Italians or the Mafia was real and the police were doing their job when reacting to it.

            Did Italians have to join the Mafia because of oppression or was the Mafia a cultural thing which had nothing to do with oppression?

            It seems to me quite absurd to assert that the Mafia was a lie created to legitimise oppression of Italian communities or that the Mafia was a reaction to oppression.

            But that is what most leftists assert when they see the high crime rates in black communities and the police reaction to it.

            The left either act as if there were no difference in crime rates and it was a racist conspiracy or that the crime rates are a reaction to an unfair system created to privilege whitey and oppress the black man.

            ”If only we could eradicate white racism/privilege all of the black communities problems would be solved!”

            Considering how most police forces today are multicultural, how human rights legislation is embedded into most Western criminal justice systems and how in most Western countries racism is a crime in it’s own right; the chances that black crime rates and the resulting incarceration is the fault of white racism is pretty slim.

            As the Mafia knew and Stringer Bell points out in The Wire, the police don’t tend to focus on criminality until the violence starts. “it’s the bodies they come for” not skin colour or even blunt smokers but gun smoke.

            The fact is Chinese, Irish and Italian neighborhoods where drugs are in abundance have less gun smoke and the police are like moths to a flame when it comes to that kind of vapour.

            Who goes to prison and who doesn’t has much more to do with choices than race and the awful truth is far too many young black men are currently making terrible choices.

  14. “Privilege” is a bad argument because it relies on stereotypes.

    It assumes that an individual, knowing nothing more than the color of his skin or the shape of his genitals, has had a certain kind of life. Why is this acceptable? If I were to assume an Asian was good at math but terrible at driving; or that an African was good at sports but terrible at reading; I would be regarded as an intolerably bigoted person and I would be disregarded.

    Why are positive stereotype tolerated??? Consider the following scenario:

    A man has been born into poverty. He is semi-literate, has no formal education, and has never had any serious counsel given to him about the path he should take in life. He has attempted, very often, to make a decent living, but in his circumstances, it’s difficult. He’s very strongly persuaded to take up something criminal for profit–selling drugs, perhaps. You don’t need to be able to read so long as you can count money, and you have to be willing to do dangerous things.

    If this man was black, there is some significant portion of the population who would bemoan him his personal tragedy and say that he was forced into this life of crime by circumstances beyond his control.

    If this man was white, that same portion would not give him such a kind outlook. Obviously, he’s white: he only got into dealing drugs because he’s an idiot, can’t make good decisions, and is worthy only of contempt.

    That’s privilege for you.

    • In short, the term “privilege” is itself most commonly used in service of thoughtless prejudice.

    • Ok, so you would prefer to be black, then?

  15. I agree almost entirely with your post regarding this, sorting out people by privilege has been known as something else for a very long time – stereotyping. Applying the general to the specific without individual analysis has always and will always be destructive to actually finding a solution to any sort of problem.

    Denigrating an individual, or their points, based on gender, race, etc is prejudice. Period. If it’s racism, its racism, if its sexist, its sexist, no matter whether the majority or the minority is doing it. I think both sides need to understand that before any sort of constructive dialog can be had, and I’m glad to see you get it, and that more and more people are getting it. Seems like the only people who don’t are those who write blogs and sell t-shirts based on the fact that they don’t get it.

    • Good comment. Yes, stereotyping is exactly what it is; and a very stubborn form of stereotyping as well.

  16. I’m on the same page as you regarding all this. The irritating thing is that this particular concept of ‘privilege’ is self-reinforcing. If you don’t agree with this idea of privilege, we are told, then that’s just because you’re privilege-blind, which proves that this account of privilege is the right one.

    By the way, do you know of a description of ‘privilege’ that is more defensible? I’m definitely privileged – pretty hard to deny when I think about the easy life (my sisters and) I’ve had, coupled with the fact that I’ve barely done any serious paid work (only part-time student jobs). Seems to me like that privilege comes from my parents’ backgrounds and careers, and they were similarly privileged (although my Dad never went to university). I’d be interested to know if there’s a concept of privilege that accounts for this without all that extra nonsense.

    • “The irritating thing is that this particular concept of ‘privilege’ is self-reinforcing. If you don’t agree with this idea of privilege, we are told, then that’s just because you’re privilege-blind, which proves that this account of privilege is the right one.” Exactly – a nasty form of “can’t win for losing”.

      Your question: check out the interdisciplinary field of “Working Class Studies”. Some interesting stuff.

  17. “And, since CRT maintains that only whites have power in Western society, it is only whites who can be racist.”

    Yup, and in Africa only blacks can be racists. To hell with “can be” – in Africa every black person must be a racist because they have the political power over there.

  18. I don’t doubt that things like privilege and covert racist attitudes exist and I think there is plenty of evidence for it in the US, but using those concepts to make people automatically wrong about any subject is ridiculous. “I don’t believe in privilege or racism” shouldn’t be answered with, “because you’re a privileged racist,” it should be answered with the evidence for it or an illustrative example.
    For example, a friend of mine in an affluent neighborhood was watching his parents’ house. He was alone at night when suddenly the security alarm went off. When the police arrived, they told him to sit in the back of a police car and closed the door. They also brought a canine unit and parked it right next to the car he was in. My friend is a black male and I’m a white woman. I’ve called the police for suspicious activity before and was never put in the car with doors locked while they investigated. This kind of thing happens often to black people in the united states.
    There is also statistical evidence for this attitude toward black men in the US. White teens are less likely to be put in juvenile hall than black kids. Some of these lines get a little more blurred when you look at affluent blacks in white neighborhoods, but every once in awhile you hear a story like that of Treyvon Martin, a black kid wearing a hoody in an affluent neighborhood being profiled, singled out and shot by a vigilante asshole who was tired of “those people getting away with everything.”
    Still, that doesn’t excuse racist attitudes toward the majority or give anyone a free pass for not backing up their claims.

  19. I realise what I am saying here is highly controversial, even among people who are deeply critical of cultural Marxism, ID politics and Critical Race Theory; because I am saying that I believe that the vast majority of people of colour who end up in jail or otherwise at a disadvantage tend to be in that situation because of their own choices and actions rather than societal/institutional or individual racism.

    When people hear this it seems people jump to the conclusion that I am saying people of colour are at fault -whilst I am saying an individual who goes to prison for committing a crime is at fault- I am not saying that people of colour as a group are at fault. That would be a form of ID politics and I reject that idea outright. If you read on you will see what I am saying is the opposite of racist.

    It’s not about race it’s about the software we are running in our minds.

    I believe that in this historically unparalleled time of tolerance and diversity one thing we must do is change the narrative to bring our dream of true equality closer to reality. I don’t mean changing the white racist narrative/software of yesteryear, which thankfully today is challenged and denounced on almost every front.

    The narrative/software which needs to be erased for us to achieve true equality is that of the leftist/anti racist ID politic, which divides humanity into {oppressed=people of colour + oppressor=white male}

    It is this narrative/software which is causing much of the inequality we see today by creating hostility and suspicion in the heart of otherwise liberal, multicultural communities.

    How can one succeed when one believes to their very core that they are the victim of a conspiracy so deep, so brutal, so Machiavellian and so long running it reaches back to the Atlantic slave trade and beyond.

    Indeed why would one even bother trying to succeed in a system which seems set up to achieve the genocide of people of colour?

    In my experience most humans tend to react to body language and other non verbal signals which we all consciously and subconsciously put out. If you tell me over and over again from my childhood that society hates me not just for who I am but what I am. That the people around me are oppressing me and I have to be tough, demand respect and never take any disrespect lying down.

    In other words, install the “oppressed/oppressor/victim identity software” I am going to be at a massive disadvantage (not only because I’m from a minority and might encounter real prejudice) but because my identity as a “victim” means whoever I come into contact with -be it police, a potential employer or a teacher at school- will be greeted with negative and adversarial body language and other non verbal cues.

    These teachers, police and potential employers are quite likely to return my negative and adversarial body language by excluding me, not hiring me or pulling me to the side and frisking me like a common criminal.

    Are they being racist or have my non verbal cues elicited their negative response?

    Whilst the software I’m running might deter genuine racists from picking me out as an easy target or assuming I am vulnerable, it will also work against me in so many ways.

    From increasing my chances of exclusion from school, decreasing my chances of getting a job and maximising the chances that the police will see me as worthy of attention. These disadvantages will only serve to reinforce the victim narrative and increase my hostility to those around me creating a vicious circle which in turn creates more white racism as otherwise liberal white people start to believe people of colour are hostile and criminal.

    We obviously have a problem with an over representation of people of colour in Western prisons. I think we can reject the racist assertion that people of colour are inherently prone to criminality as the racist junk it is.

    That leaves us with only two other options.

    1. That Critical Race Theory is correct and our society is a racist conspiracy designed by whites to privilege whites and oppress people of colour.

    Or

    2. The theory I lay out above that the “oppressed/oppressor” software/dichotomy is balkanizing Western society through a social justice narrative which is just as divisive as any white supremacist ideology.

    PS: I am not saying white racism doesn’t exist, it does but on the whole we have finally reached a time when it is being challenged on every front. We must remain vigilant for white racism and challenge it whenever it rears it’s ugly head.

    But IMHO what is more important is that the damaging theories on the left get challenged because they are currently getting a free pass just because they claim to be on the side of peace, love and unity.

  20. Holy crap, this is awesome. Reading through the comments on here is so much more refreshing and intellectually stimulating than reading the comments on FTB. I will have to give this site a go and read more from here.

  21. Perhaps ironically, I’m reminded of a bible verse:
    “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.”
    Romans 3:10

    It seems as if the innovation upon this ancient notion by CRT is to render this meme conditional upon race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. But once those lines are drawn, there can be none righteous on the wrong side of the line. There can be no redemption, and goodwill, kindness, generosity are irrelevant. I cannot escape how much the notion resonates with the darkest Christian interpretations. God was said to divide the sheep in humanity from the goats, bringing the former to glory and casting the latter into the lake of fire. The metaphor insists on an undeniable, essentialist difference between the righteous and the damned. Critical thinking does the exact same thing. In this way, it becomes positively fundamentalist.

    I’m grateful for your thoughtful critique of the deeply flawed model of privilege to understand injustice and inequality.

    • I meant, of course, critical THEORY does the same thing, not critical THINKING.

  22. This was a terrific essay and puts clearly, and concisely into words what I had found when I looked into CRT a few years ago.

    If you wanted to do a follow up, I would love to read what you have to say about Critical Legal Studies and its relationship to CRT. I still find it interesting and somewhat surprising to see various public pundits that have backgrounds and apparently still work with Critical Legal Studies.

    Many years ago, I was an anthropology minor and learned about privilege and as best I remember in the anthropologies of those days (’70s) it was used to help understand and appreciate different groups, it wasn’t intended to be a weapon to be used to dismiss ideas, and arguments, and people.

    Thanks again

  23. Privilege, like many other things, can be used in a good or bad way. It’s up to the privileged person how they use it. What I mostly see is people with privilege using it to keep others down, making those people believe they have less because they don’t work hard enough when the truth is they don’t have the same privilege.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Deshazte de tu privilegio | Teocidas.com - [...] es un post de mi compañera de la Skeptic Ink Network Rebecca Bradley sobre el meme de los privilegios …
  2. Making Sense of ‘Privilege’. | Notung - [...] SINner Rebecca Bradley wrote a post the other day about the notion of privilege that comes from Critical Race …
  3. What We Go Through » A Million Gods - [...] was poking around the net when I came across Skeptic Ink’s Rebecca Bradley and her take on “privilege” when it …
  4. The Problem with Privilege | Incredulous - […] Bradley’s discussion of the origins of “privilege” in Critical Race Theory (CRT) here. I am not addressing the concerns that …
  5. The Problem with Privilege | Skeptic Ink - […] own Rebecca Bradley’s discussion of the origins of “privilege” in Critical Race Theory (CRT) here. I am not addressing the …
  6. Privilege and the Skeptic Community | skepolitical - […] is it about this hurdle of acknowledging privilege that is insurmountable to so many Skeptics? Some blog posts and …
  7. Chuck Your Privilege | Mein Senf - […] Chuck Your Privilege. […]

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>