Shit, I wanted to write a simple post about why the word ‘privilege’ bothers me. But couldn’t figure out how to make it simpler while still make the points potentially receivable.
I’m bothered by the way many people use the word “privilege” when they’re referring to things like whiteness, maleness or socioeconomic status.
Not because they’re not pointing to real social issues, but because the frame “privilege” sets I believe is counter-productive to the noble intentions of social equality, social mobility and freedom from oppression.
Ideas aren’t concrete objects. They are more like a network of concepts.
And the network of ideas that “privilege” represents is a rat’s nest of good and bad.
Let’s start with clarifying more of the good, lest my criticism light the rage and fury within your post-modern heart.
What ideas within the network of “privilege” should we keep?
Two essential ideas within “privilege” we should keep are “Advantage” and “Responsibility”.
Two bad ideas in privilege we should trash are “Guilt” and “Undeservingness”.
Yes, a 5 year old white boy born to a wealthy family has a lot of advantages. But lots of things are advantages. IQ (or innate intelligence) is an advantage. Good looks are an advantage. Charisma is an advantage. Those things are not directly correlated to conventional privilege categories of race, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Different things confer differing advantages in different contexts. Who has more advantage? An attractive, high iq indian woman or an ugly, dumb southern hillbilly? It depends on the context.
Taking an inventory of the advantage vectors people have within differing contexts allow us to break out of the polarized scripts and tropes of conventional privilege debates. Some subset of academics who write about privilege do acknowledge this multivariate nature, but most colloquial uses of ‘privilege’ do not.
Most importantly, though, speaking of “Advantages” instead of “Privilege” let’s us remove the shackles of “Guilt”.
There are a lot of problems with guilt. Here are two:
1 – You shouldn’t feel guilty if you didn’t do anything personally wrong. Being born white, and believing your bad because white people did bad things in the past, is fallacious moral reasoning that improperly supposes a kind of genealogical moral inheritance for your ancestors’ actions.
The complicated nuanced argument for why that is ethically unsound relies on developmental psychology and the evolution of human consciousness over time, and resisting the urge to project your level of consciousness on your ancestors when thinking what you would have done back then. War, racism, slavery and colonialism are an inevitability in the biological evolutionary journey from Ape to World Centric, Egalitarian Human. There is a point in human history when being Ethnocentric (And caring about all white people instead of just the 150 white people in your tribe) is incredibly evolved. It is a stage we inevitably pass through. Just as we inevitably pass thru the stage of being a reckless, naive teenager.
2 – You feeling guilty probably doesn’t make the world a better place. Many people who feel guilty end up feeling paralyzed in inaction and who is that helping? And feeling compelled to help people from a place of guilt isn’t a very productive thing, either. Other people may accept your facade of kindness but feel shitty about it. It’s kind of like getting pity fucked. And who wants to get pity fucked?
Where’s the dignity in that?
Academic activist, Peggy McIntosh described white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets”.
What are these assets? In 1935, Du Bois wrote about what he called the “wages of whiteness”, which he described as including courtesy and deference, unimpeded admittance to all public functions, lenient treatment in court, and access to the best schools.
Should we really call being treated with respect, having a fair trial, and having access to good education, an unearned asset?
Or should those things be more like Inalienable Rights in a 21st century human society?
The problem with the language of the “unearned asset” is it makes it seem like these are things one should feel undeserving and guilty for having. This emotional tone of this argument is more to take the Privileged White people down, rather than Raise Disadvantaged people up.
So what you should do with your “Advantages” and “Responsibility”?
How about committing to becoming the best You you can be, so that you can contribute the most to humanity that you possibly can?
Advantages should confer the Responsibility of living up to your potential, not of living with the burden of guilt and undeservingness.
Oh, and one other core idea traditionally a part of the “privilege” discussion that I didn’t address: whether society is a meritocracy or not. It certainly isn’t in the Ayn Rand-ian sense. Those people who believe they got to the top all on their own are much more a product of their environment then they care to admit.
(Obama was basically right when he said “you didn’t build that”, if a tad ineloquent at the end https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKjPI6no5ng)
Lastly, I want to point out the polarity of Eros and Agape. Many people who become gripped by the notion of “privilege” feel like the only way to meaningfully contribute to society is to give back, to enable others who are less fortunate to have the same freedom and access that they do. But this is only one vector of contribution. This is Agape energy. Agape energy could be seen as healing, loving energy that wants to lift all of society up to highest standard of quality of life that humanity has currently achieved.
But what about people who feel compelled to push the highest standard of life that humanity as achieved even higher? That’s the energy of Eros. The erotic energy that wants to birth something completely new, novel and revolutionary into the world. This is the energy that drives most philosophers, inventors and entrepreneurs.
We need both Eros and Agape. And people usually have one energy within them that is much stronger than the other.
Fuck guilt, undesrvingness and privilege.
Humanity needs people to take responsibility for the advantages they’ve been given in order to give the world the fullest, most unique expression of Eros and Agape that they possibly can.
“Give the gift that would be the last gift of love, the giving that would leave you complete in death, nothing left ungiven…” – David Deida