Profanity warning: The upcoming post will contain synonyms for the word “excrement.” Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to clutch your pearls.
As always, I’ve been listening to the Best of the Left podcast. Recently, they’ve had a series of voicemails about how to discuss privilege, (despite barely escaping the depths of incredible privilege and probably still being a net “beneficiary” of it) and because I want to comment, but BotL doesn’t offer a skypeline so that people like me can avoid international calling fees, here is my response to the current episode:
Yes, all the comments are correctly understanding what privilege is to some degree, but they’re far too academic about it and don’t seem to be anywhere near annoyed enough.
One voicemail says that he “guesses you can do that” when he talks about people who want it to be acknowledged that they didn’t personally contribute to oppression of minorities. I’m going to disagree. Demanding that oppressed people – in this specific conversation, queers, women, and racial minorities – recognise that you did not cause their oppression directly is like a child demanding a gold star for not shitting in their cereal. Yes, it is a good thing to have an intact breakfast, but it’s only good relative to the alternative. It is in fact a normal thing to have an intact and fecal-free breakfast, at least in countries and families when you can afford one- we can perhaps say it should always be a normal thing, because we recognise it’s a standard all societies should aspire to. Likewise, justice and equality, the aims of all civil rights and social reform movements like feminism, queer rights, and racial rights movements, is a norm that we should aspire to.
Anyone who needs a gold star to start being our ally in that fight probably isn’t ready to be an ally in that fight, and I personally at least, would rather they sit on the sidelines and learn a bit from activists before they try to help.
Beyond that, most of us haven’t even earned our gold stars on equality and justice. We unwittingly stereotype oppressed communities- we see the disabled as either heroes or cripples, we see women as virgins or whores, we see queers as fabulous or freakish. We accidentally say insentitive or problematic things. There is a lot to unlearn and re-learn from a different perspective, and the good point made was that this is not your fault. Privilege is something you were born into. You live in a culture of injustice and it’s expected that even people with the best of intentions will absorb some unjust perspectives, even if they believe in justice.
Another says that it’s terrible to feel attacked for not earning what you have. And I have to say, I completely disagree with this framing of privilege. You should not feel attacked by equality advocates, you should feel insulted by proponents and inadvertent perpetuators of injustice and inequality. You can compete on an equal playing field- you’re a man, you’re white, you’re straight- if you really have so little faith in what those things mean to you or the communities they represent, then I don’t see why you’d even want to identify with them. The idea that people will suck up to us because of social narratives we don’t have any part in creating should be annoying, insincere, and just wrong to you. That is the only extent to which this injustice effects you: it demeans you, telling you that you need its help to be good. You don’t. You’re better than that.