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.