Oddly, while my own experience of reading blogs is that it’s liable to make me more depressed and despairing on my own (probably because of the silencing factor), combining it with writing relieves me and makes me angry and passionate instead of resentfully cynical. Maybe this is just because I am “the vegan,” so my passion for basic rights puts me at odds with most “rights activists.” It’s really rare that I read something I feel resonates within me so much:
It was the eighties. The atmosphere was ripe with immanent denunciations. Politics in the still-breathing lesbian community had begun to hollow out into a ritual called “name the racist (classist, homophobe etc).” Who would be next in line to confess her privilege? Once she confessed, she too could be admitted to the ranks of the righteous, entitled now to “call out” any others on their particular “isms” … She now had an Id-entity. Indeed the self became implicitly re-imaged a container-entity either filled or emptied of privilege-chips.
I’ve noticed this going around a lot, and I am deeply uncomfortable with this process in feminism. It’s not that I don’t realize I’m privileged in many ways; I’m also systematically oppressed in many ways, but those privileges and oppressions and their intersections are not nearly as clear-cut as people make them out to be. The way these things interact and play off each other would take fucking years to describe—and by then they’d have changed anyway—and I don’t feel comfortable, in any way, having the face value of my privileges and oppression determine how much I should be listened to.
Because that’s what the effect comes down to: your credibility is directly determined by your relative oppression and privileges. It’s a bizarre mathematical equation that I’m sure gives both the oppressed and the privileged on any given issue some self-satisfaction, but it doesn’t work.
I was born into an upper-class, not wholly white, partially foreign family. But that wealth was not shared with me: money and its privileges were seen as the exclusive benefit of our mother and any money given to children—even for social necessities like clothing, soap and food—was only done grudgingly. I’ve been shocked, again and again, at what kids from only middle-class families feel entitled to, because the privilege people assume I had I never actually received.
Most of my warped worldview comes from the suburbs, where the houses are large and spaced far enough apart so that the neighbors can’t hear the children being beaten—and even then, it’s not much of a feeling of entitlement: my upbringing solidified a sense of distrust in my own perceptions and experiences, so that I assume I am acting on an incomplete worldview. Whether that’s the product of the suburbs or the abuse I can’t say—though I’d consider the suburbs themselves a type of abuse.
But even aside from that—I’m not rich, and I haven’t been for years. I and another person (my best friend, my platonic life partner) survive off of roughly $1,000/mo for all expenses. I’ve been homeless. I’ve had to lift all my food. Right now, at this point in my life, I am so poor that I sneer at the arguments of how poor people can’t not buy junk food, because if I bought junk food I’d starve.
So which am I? Do I get to know what I’m saying or don’t I? Are my anti-capitalist beliefs less valid than a pro-capitalist homeless man, because I have shelter right now?
I’ve been told that it’s because of my privilege that I’m vegan—big fucking NOPE here alongside an explanation of animal agriculture-as-Western-colonialism and genocide/ecocide—and that I’m racist by saying that people of color shouldn’t be treated like animals because it’s wrong to treat animals like that in the first place. Because I’m white enough to pass on the street—though still not white enough to get a job thanks to Mexiphobia—even though I’ve been caged, dismissed, and compared to animals too.
When someone gets told they have privilege, it’s shorthand for: all of what you just said is invalid.
And instead of engaging ideas critically and actually picking them apart, everyone follows that idea—that if you agree with someone who’s oppressed on a subject tangential to their oppression, you’re more credible, too. It’s gone from: the fact is that, as someone who hasn’t experienced the life of a POC or etc., you have a skewed perspective and your flippant suggestions for how to solve XYZ aren’t accurate or useful. To: the fact is that, as someone who hasn’t experienced the life of a POC or etc., you know less than they do.
That’s where it ends. Just, “you’re privileged,” the end.
The trend that Kathy Miriam points out has been my observation, too.
One of the obstacles to critiquing individualism is that the latter, like all ideology, functions by obscuring itself and self-presents as “just the way things are.” It is the air we breathe, the element in which we swim, thus invisible. Because individualism is so naturalized as a belief system, it can disguise itself as knowledge—or invisibly form the preconditions of what is claimed as self-evident knowledge.
Because there’s never any discussion of, “Well, how do I change my privilege?” (at least, that isn’t short-circuited by I shouldn’t have to educate you!), privilege has become this self-evident, unchangeable reality. And so we shift our attention away from demanding rights and equality from the people in our community towards legislation, which has a limited chance of success and an even more limited effect on the people who still have to deal with it on the ground.
We’ve become so caught up in this idea of changing either the individual or the government that we forget that the media, capitalism, religion etc. all spew this poison into our lives. We take the media and capitalism and marriage and religion and everything else so much for granted that we forget that we can—and should—build communities for ourselves if the ones we live in will not accommodate our very real needs for safety, survival and belonging.
Instead we focus on one person at a time, and not even within our communities—we fight over the fucking internet, devolving into a big fucking fight where everyone’s screaming NO UR PRIVLEJD and, in light of all that, activism—real activism—withers and dies.
Privilege analysis is a damn good lens for social justice movements to use. But it can’t be the be-all end-all of analysis and the only tool in the cabinet, and just because you’re privileged doesn’t mean you’re not onto something.
In short, privilege makes you unworthy of listening to when you speak up in favor of a system that you benefit from or that does not directly oppress you. But having been oppressed does not mean you are smarter or a moral-o-meter that can tell the relative ethical worth of ideas, either. And while it’s nice to believe that you, personally, can tell whether or not someone’s been oppressed or privileged—e.g. that women are privileged by gender conformity norms instead of oppressed by them—no one has that super-power, sorry.
And in shorter, you can’t let discussion of privilege limit the ways you move in the world. Now, I’m going to go create some animal adoption posters. Go read Dialectical Spin now. Bye!