I don’t like the way that Privilege is used in the discussion of equality issues on the Internet. The common usage of Privilege is used as a tool for marginalization, instead of as a keystone for creating a rational approach to culturally enforced inequality. The current usage is a sad perversion of the original intent that enforces sexism, racial inequality, and paternalism.
First I am going to give you the history of the term. Then I’m going to spell-out what I see as being the flaws in how Privilege is being used. Finally, I’ll cover what is damaging, and regressive about how it is being used.
TL;DR History of Privilege
- It started as White Privilege: in1965 Theodore W. Allen and Noel Ignatin championed the idea that whiteness came with a full set of invisible cultural privileges (this was an extension of ideas from Black Reconstruction in America, by W. E. B. Du Bois ). Wikipedia
- Over time Privilege became multi-faceted, to be applied to a wide variety of dominating cultural groups (male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), so White was dropped. Here is a well presented example of Privilege that is relatively objective.
- The intent of describing Privilege is to stop the dominant group being used as the normative standard. Inequality is NOT the result of people not being White-Male-Heterosexual-Rich-Christian, rather, it is the result of implicit cultural and explicit governmental valuations being incongruously applied to all people.
John Scalzi wrote a great piece about Privilege with video games as the metaphor. If your stats are you as a person your Privilege is the difficulty setting. It hints at how complex the whole problem is.
What My Problem with Common Usage Is
Privilege is not monolithic. Most of the time I see Privilege being discussed it is a woman saying that a man needs to acknowledge his Privilege, or white people being told to acknowledge their Privilege. But, the reality is that everyone has cultural privilege, even the marginalized groups. There isn’t anyone who has all the Privileges.
Privilege is not unidirectional. Some privileges are actually negative. Because I am dark skinned and a man no one actually expects me to be a good father. Even though this is a negative stereotype it can confer positive results.The reality of my life is that one of my best educational opportunities did not come from my positive Privilege, but rather, from someone taking an interest in helping me escape the systemic and systematic racism that I was suffering. I was given an opportunity because I was oppressed, not because I was privileged.
Privilege is intersectional. I am Black, Male, A Certain Age, Economically Advantaged, From the West Coast, etc. This has brought me a very specific set of privileges. Some of privileges that one group brings me are nullified by another, some aren’t, some are amplified. You are an intersection of privileges too. When you reduce a person to one of the many axises you are ignoring reality.
Privilege is external. Privilege is created by the culture you are in. What is expected of you and afforded to you is determined by other people. No person is responsible for their Privilege, most of the time they are born into it. Most of all, your interpretation of what privileges people are party to has zero connection to their actual experience.
Privilege is inconsistent. Like I mentioned earlier just because one aspect of a persons characteristics implies an experience it doesn’t mean that they experienced it. If you grew up in the United States and move to China your experience of Privilege that makes you and your acceptable behavior and expectations are very different. Some people don’t recognize what you perceive to be their Privilege because they LITERALLY did not receive that Privilege during their upbringing, because you either misjudged their history, or because their actual intersection of characteristics did not avail them of that Privilege.
Privilege is interpretational. You may see the fact that people applaud my parenting sight-unseen because I am male as a Privilege I reap; I do not see it that way. It is patronizing, particularly when taken in conjunction with the racial undertones. I see it as a negative in the life of men who love their role as father.
Privilege can be bought. One of the most consistent Privilege sets, both within and across cultures, is socio-economic class. Regardless of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. there are fairly consistent Privileges that simply comes from money–either yours, your parents, or your spouse’s. You can also take on the affectations and buy the clothes that indicate a specific class to be treated more like that.
An Example of What Privilege Looks Like On The Internet
Someone makes the argument that movies from the 1980s show a distinct misogyny and that growing up watching series like Lethal Weapon and Predator have made men of my era see women as objects. Consequently, I should recognize that society privileges me as a man by tacitly condoning swagger in my treatment of women, even if I don’t personally display swagger.
The first part above is a very supportable argument, the second is not. Because I don’t identify with Mel Gibson, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I identify with Danny Glover who is dedicated and hardworking; in one franchise he is a family man, in the other all but asexual. I’m not going to argue that there isn’t pervasive misogyny in movies from the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean a given individual has reaped the benefits of that truth.
The down and dirty of that example is that most people don’t, or wouldn’t, even think I was black the first time they meet me, because my name is Carlos. Writing in comments people immediately go to Carlos Mencia or Carlos Santana to construct their vision of me (if you are trivia buff maybe Carlos Norris or Carlos Esteves). Discussing Privilege on the Internet almost always comes down to one persons assumption about another persons life.
So here is the problem…
By virtue of venue (the Internet) all of these arguments are happening between people that functionally benefit from the same core Privilege of socio-economic class. They are, in fact, arguing about which one of the top 10th percentile of the world has to be hobbled in the discussion because of factors that they don’t control.
All the while, the very location of the discussion keeps most actually marginalized people out. Also, arguments about Privilege on the Internet are consistently made from a framework that enforces marginalization by holding individuals as proxy for their category. When members of any select Privilege class attempt to enter the discussion they are summarily told that their opinion is NULL because of their state of being. In the discussion of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (a world entrenched deeply in Identity Politics) it is frightening that people are being categorically marginalized based on the loudest members of the discussion assessing that category’s history and inherent value to the conversation.
The Internet is unfortunately dominated by, and over representative of, certain groups; however, that does not change the fact that simply by showing up for a blog argument you all share much of the same Privilege.