So one particular night I went on a knowledge binge and spent 9 hours reading about privilege theory. Below you'll find excerpts and links to most of the articles I read.
My extremely brief conclusion is that PT is definitely helpful to understand and is useful up to a point but there are many ways in which it can be taken too far, applied improperly, and can end up creating a lot of counter-productive side-effects that harm the issues PT is intended to help.
In the excerpts as well as the full articles, you'll find a range of perspectives both supporting and critiquing PT. If we can apply PT at its best while avoiding the pitfalls, I think our activism will be all the better for it.
Why Privilege Theory is Necessary
"Privilege is an important concept to understand because it has a useful explanatory function, and correctly perceiving the world we operate in is necessary for operating effectively. Those who say “I don’t see race” and “I’m color-blind” are hindered in their effective functioning in the world just as much as literally color-blind people who can’t tell a red traffic light from a green one. Race and gender are real-world phenomena with very real material effects; so failing to perceive them is not a state of affairs to celebrate."
"Casey Given also suggests it’s perverse to treat as “privilege” many of the items included in the standard checklists of white or male privilege — most of which simply involve a normally unexamined sense of feeling welcomed, normal or safe in most daily social situations. After all, these are things that social justice activists should consider the minimum acceptable standard for everyone.
[The] answer to fixing such inequalities is not to put down people who rightfully enjoy its privileges but to prop up those who do not enjoy them through political action.
But that’s just it. The point is not to treat feeling welcomed and normal, not “othered,” as anything less than what everyone should experience in a just world. It’s to recognize that there’s a cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-class differential in how fully or whether at all that entitlement is realized."
What’s wrong with privilege theory?
"Can those who are not oppressed be part of the battles for liberation? Are all white people complicit in racism or can they be part of the fight for the emancipation of black people? Can gay and straight really unite against discrimination? Can men be part of the struggle for women’s rights? These are just some of the issues at stake in discussions about privilege theory and oppression."
"Because privilege theory’s primary focus is on the inequality between individuals it cannot arm us for a fight that is ultimately against the system as a whole. But the damage is not just in the way it limits the horizons of struggle; it also risks hampering the battles against prejudice and discrimination that are taking place here and now.
Take, for example, one of the most pressing issues facing the left and all those concerned with injustice—the vicious wave of scapegoating of immigrants being whipped up by politicians and the media. The only way to drive back this poison is a struggle that combines white and black working class people, most of whom are not currently being subjected to the same abuse from the Tories and the hard right. But privilege theory tells us that many of those we need to mobilise are either consciously or unconsciously complicit in racism and “white supremacy”.
The current wave of scapegoating is not the result of the “privilege” of white or British people, but of the needs and opportunism of a vicious ruling class determined to divert blame for economic misery. Understanding this creates the potential for winning an argument for class unity as the most effective way to resist. "
Why Anti-Racism Will Fail
1. Absence of oppression is not privilege.
The second problem I have found in anti-racist strategies [is] the errant assumption that white America works for white Americans. Any one who cares to look will quickly discover that it doesn’t – at least, not for the vast majority of them. The privilege that, according to the anti-racists, that comes with membership in white America, actually belongs to a tiny elite. Let me illustrate this point.
Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it's the privilege of not having one's left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite.
To speak of such a privilege -- if we must call it that -- is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse -- and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.
My point is this. Talk of white skin privilege is talk about the way in which some of the citizens of this country are able to avoid being mutilated – or less metaphorically, having their basic human rights violated.
The problem with privilege-checking
"The left, it’s fair to say, has a long tradition of infighting. Groups with only a hair’s breadth difference in ideology splinter off into rival factions, aggressively defending their interpretation of the One True Path. It’s the perfect example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”: communities with adjoining territories and seemingly identical goals who engage in constant feuding, striking outlandish poses to differentiate themselves from one another.
For a time it seemed like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the internet might usher in a new era of protest: one more communal, less reliant on the old dogmas. But in the individualistic, free-floating, frequently anonymous world of the internet, modern progressives have stumbled across an even more effective means of dividing themselves: privilege-checking."
"Why does this matter, you ask? The answer is simple: it matters because privilege-checking has thoroughly infected progressive thought. While large swathes of the left are obsessively pouncing on verbal slips on Twitter, the right are acting: systematically deconstructing not just the welfare state, but the state itself.
Privilege-checking plays into the dangerous postmodern fallacy that we can only understand things we have direct experience of. In place of concepts like empathy and imagination, which help us recognise our shared humanity, it atomises us into a series of ever-smaller taxonomical groups: working class transsexual, disabled black woman, heteronormative male.
Worse still, it emasculates political activity. A very talented blogger friend of mine read Owen Jones’ Chavs and said it made them “very aware of my middle class privilege”. Personally, it made me want to burn down the Department of Work and Pensions. My friend is deeply involved in activism, but for many simply being aware of their privilege has taken on the same function as an online petition, a way of feeling like you’ve made a difference without actually getting involved."
"Meanwhile, back in the real world, the NHS is being dismantled, large swathes of the public sector are being outsourced, social care is about to be cut to ribbons, the bulk of the cuts are yet to hit and even abortion rights are being undermined. Rather than problematising everything that comes out of one another’s mouths, let’s put aside our differences and start fighting back."
Standing in opposition to the dominance of privilege
"We must be willing to be radically different from those in power if we are to avoid alienating those less privileged than ourselves. It is utterly urgent that we listen to those who we claim to be fighting for and avoid contributing to any continuing oppression. "
The Problem with Privilege Theory
"Do black people want white privilege? Do women want male privilege? The questions should sound silly, but they follow logically from privilege theory, which divides the world between those who have identity privilege and those who do not. The problem with privilege theory is it takes a useful idea too far. It’s like noting that salt is tasty and using salt as the only criteria for judging food."
"Search the documents of the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll find the word “privilege” rarely occurs. In the 1960s, we saw a three-tiered world: the majority had rights, the rich had privileges, and minorities were oppressed. We wanted to end oppression and privilege so everyone would have the same rights."
"When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” to give Critical Race Theorists and middle class feminists an umbrella to work together, the result was the simplistic worldview of Privilege Theory: There are no rights. Everyone’s either privileged or oppressed, so those who are not oppressed are privileged.
Rev. Thandeka points out the flaw in that logic in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”: “Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it’s the privilege of not having one’s left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege—if we must call it that—is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse—and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.”
Privilege Theory follows the binary logic of identitarianism: women vs. men, people of color vs. white people, GLBTQ people vs. straight people, Muslims vs. Christians… The model for privilege theory is fundamentally racial, because it centers on groups that cannot change for biological reasons or do not wish to change for cultural reasons."
"In the US’s most recent social struggle, the fight for GLBTQ rights, no one argues that serving in the military or getting married are privileges. We argue that they are human rights which every human deserves—and that continues to be the winning argument."
Privilege Politics is Reformism
"It is crystal clear that white supremacy exists. It seeps through every pore in our society. It infects every social relationship. It obviously affects Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone knows the wealth divide, the incarceration numbers, gentrification, the education gap and more are part of the class and racial oppression of the United States. All this is obvious. More politically contentious matters are the social interactions, which are racialized in negative ways in society and specifically in OWS. It is always painful, because at best we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms. However, it is not a surprise that even in movement spaces people experience white supremacy. Our society is saturated with it, so to expect non-racialized human relations in the movement would be utopian.
The combination of structural oppression based on race and class, the history of white supremacy and capitalism, and how that affects people’s interactions with one another, has led to a school of thought called Privilege theory.
Privilege theory recognizes structural and historical oppression, but has an undue focus on individual behavior and thoughts as a major way of addressing white supremacy (and other oppressions, but I will tend to focus on white supremacy and class).
Privilege theory has a set of basic principles:
a) Privilege theory argues that movement spaces should be safe for all oppressed groups. One way to make such a space safe is by negotiating one anothers’ actions in non-oppressive ways. For example, this means straight white men should talk less or think about the privileges they have when discussing an action or political question.
b) Privilege theory justifies that militancy and political sophistication is the domain of a privileged elite based on class, gender and racial privileges.
c) Privilege theory roots political and strategic mistakes in the personal privileges that people bring into the movement.
d) Privilege theory seeks to deal with these issues primarily through education, teach-ins and conversations.
This piece will point out key failures in all four principles of Privilege theory. It will tentatively lay out some ways forward, while recognizing more research and, more importantly, more struggle is needed to resolve some of the outstanding problems facing the movement."
"[Privilege theory] fails in its ability as a theory of struggle and actual emancipation of oppressed people. In fact, it locks in people in the very categories capitalism assigns them by only focusing on their oppressed category: whether it be Black, woman, Queer, worker or student. It fails to develop actual politics, organizations and strategies of liberation, because it was never meant to do that. Privilege theory is the politics of radical sociology attempting to struggle."
"Our generation has few older revolutionaries to learn from. Their wisdoms are largely being forgotten as they pass away. For this purpose, I paraphrase a conversation I recently had with an ex-Black Panther. I outlined the basic points of this article and his responses were the following...
First this Panther was against politics of guilt. The Panther felt that privilege theory created such a situation and people who are guilty are not good revolutionaries. The Panther off handedly also mentioned the politics of guilt are the bedrock of the Catholic Church.
Third, the Panther said that one should not focus on the little things. That the goal of politics is to achieve big things: general strikes, smashing the state, getting rid of the police, ending patriarchy etc. Perhaps the Panther was also saying out organize such people. Make them irrelevant by your organizing skills."
The Paralysis of “White Privilege”
"Essentially, her argument amounts to this: 1) social-justice minded white people (all described as middle class) should not and cannot identify with victims of racism like Trayvon; 2) white people, including antiracists, can only identify with homicidal racist maniacs like George Zimmerman; 3) people of color are multifaceted individuals capable of independent thought and action; white people are an undifferentiated mass of privileged racists who must constantly resist the urge to oppress racial minorities — no matter what they do, say or think they think, all whites are racists and benefit from racism.
This is a rather bleak picture of race and class in America. It is also a completely inaccurate description of and response to a rising tide of multiracial unity in the face of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and Troy Davis’s execution before it."
"Perhaps the most telling thing about this “white privilege” argument is that many radicals have had their sights for justice set so low that it has come to be thought of as a privilege not to be gunned down in the night on a snack errand while wearing a hoodie because of the color of your skin. Isn’t that simply a human right?"
Checking Privilege Checking
To call someone “privileged” is to say that his or her successes are undeserved. It’s a personal insult posing as social critique."
"Use of the term “privilege” has, I’d argue, actually set back the cultural conversation about privilege. It's not just that “privilege,” when used as an accusation, silences. It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room. Thus we've arrived at “blessed,” but also the “first-world problems” disclaimer. The goal of both is to appear self-aware and grateful, rather than to challenge the unfairness that led to whichever unearned advantage."
"Having the privilege conversation is itself an expression of privilege. As Conor Friedersdorf succinctly put it, “Well-versed-in-the-subtle-ways-identity-issues-are-discussed-among-meritocratic-elites privilege is a thing.” It’s not just that commenting online about privilege—or any other topic—suggests leisure time. It’s also that the vocabulary of “privilege” is learned at liberal-arts colleges or in highbrow publications.
A certain sort of self-deprecating privilege awareness has become, in effect, upper- or upper-middle-class good manners, maybe even a new form of noblesse oblige, reinforcing class divides. When Fortgang’s classmates admonish him to check his privilege, what they’re really doing is socializing him into the culture of the class he’ll enter as a Princeton graduate. Failure to acknowledge privilege is very gauche, maybe even nouveau riche. (Do the Real Housewives own their privilege?)
Or, because “privileged” is essentially an epithet, it ends up encouraging privilege denial."
Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse
"There are power structures that shape individuals’ lived experiences. Those structures provide and withhold resources to people based on factors like class, disability status, gender, and race. It’s not a “benefit” to receive resources from an unjust order because ultimately, injustice is cannibalistic. Slavery binds the slave, but destroys the master. So, the point then becomes not to assimilate the “underprivileged”, but to instead eradicate the power structures that create the privileges in the first place."
"Unfortunately, I think our use of the term “privilege” is no longer a productive way for us to gain a thorough understanding of systemic injustice, nor is it helping us to develop collective strategies to dismantle those systems. Basically, I never want to hear the word “privilege” again because the term is so thoroughly misused at this point that it does more harm than good."
"Dr. Tommy Curry says it more bluntly, “It’s not genius to say that in an oppressive society there are benefits to being in the superior class instead of the inferior one. That’s true in any hierarchy, that’s not an ‘aha’ moment.”
"Conceptually, privilege is best used when narrowly focused on explaining how structures generally shape experiences. However, when we overly personalize the problem, then privilege becomes a tit-for-tat exercise in blame, shame, and guilt. In its worst manifestations, this dynamic becomes “Oppression Olympics” and people tally perceived life advantages and identities in order to invalidate one another. At best, we treat structural injustice as a personal problem, and moralizing exercises like “privilege confessions” inadequately address the nexus between systemic power and individual behavior."
On Privilege: A Leftist Critique of the Left
"As an example, consider responses to a recent article in The Harvard Crimson, “How Gay Pride Backfires”, which criticizes movements such as gay pride on the basis that they reinforce “the sharp distinction between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ […] that perpetuates a notion of otherness, when all sexual affinities should be understood as part of the same spectrum.”
In the flood of responses to this deeply ideological article, two general camps of leftist criticism emerged. The first argues that the privilege associated with author’s ‘straightness’ is the reason for his opposition to gay pride, because it prohibits him from understanding the importance of pride parades to the empowerment of sexual minorities. The second argues that the article serves to reinforce straight hegemony because it implicitly argues that middle-class, conjugal, heterosexual ideals of ‘sexual decency’ should trump more open, fluid, and expressive experiences of queer sexuality, such as those expressed at pride parades.
The first criticism is an ad hominem privilege framework argument, while the second has the form of an ideology-based critique. The privilege-based critique assumes that the author’s ideology stems from an essential feature of his identity—his ‘straightness’—and that his argument should be discounted or disqualified on that basis. Notice that both the privilege and ideology critiques concur in their denunciation of the argument. However, while the former uses the author’s identity as a proxy for the power of heterosexual privilege that it finds operative in the argument, the latter demonstrates how a certain ideology—one that favors straight sexual expression at the expense of the distinct sexual expression of queer minorities – pervades the argument, without reference to the sexual orientation of the author.
My argument is twofold. First, I am arguing that no one’s participation in public discourse should be denigrated by appeal to essential features of their identity.
If we, as leftists, want to be unashamedly critical of discourse—as we should be—we should do so with reference to structures of power, such as heterosexual hegemony, rather than with reference to essential identities, such as the ‘straightness’ of particular individuals.
The mode of argumentation associated with the privilege framework invokes an era of right-wing political thought that is both dangerous to democratic values and divergent from the ideals of inclusion, representation, and equality at the core of leftist politics.
Second, I am arguing that to situate ideology in identity can not only be malicious, but also fallacious. If a self-identified queer person were to have written “How Gay Pride Backfires”, the privilege framework would collapse as an explanans, as it would no longer be able to appeal to the heterosexual privilege of the author to explain the danger of the argument. Importantly, however, in this alternative scenario, the queerness of the author would not render the article any less ideological and detrimental to the interests of sexual minorities. Ideology critique, through its understanding of false consciousness, is better equipped to demonstrate how both the privileged and underprivileged can be complicit in marginalization and oppression, without depending on the intentionality or identity of particular individuals.
This elucidation brings further light to my admittedly strong and provocative claim that the privilege framework shares a root with totalitarian thinking, and that it ultimately perpetuates the power structure that it attempts to expose.
The collapse of power and identity is characteristic of totalitarian thinking—a mode of thought that categorically excludes certain classes of people from discourse by appeal to insurmountable limitations of their identities. By assuming that the identity of a person can shed insight on the structure of power pervading her argument, the privilege framework—even in its milder iterations that avoid an explicitly ad hominem form—finds itself awkwardly aligned to this mode of thinking.
While its aim is to expose how a seemingly universalistic argument neglects to consider the experience of an oppressed or marginalized community, the privilege framework establishes its claim by invalidating or diminishing the privileged interlocutor’s participation in discourse by appeal to an essential feature of her identity. Although its objective is inclusion in discourse, it formally mimics the exclusion that is central to totalitarian thinking. Insofar as the privilege framework endeavors to expose power in discourse, it is thus self-contradictory, as it merely substitutes one form of exclusion with another.
To be absolutely clear, my argument is not that left-wing activists are totalitarians; to distort my argument in this way would be to misunderstand the distinction between political forms and modes of political thought. I am by no means claiming that those who use the privilege framework are totalitarian in the sense of endorsing the political and institutional forms of totalitarianism. Instead, I am highlighting that the privilege framework mimics the identity-based exclusionary politics unique to totalitarian thinking, and that, therefore, we, on the left, ought to be extremely wary of its uncritical use.
Ultimately, I am not proposing that we evaluate arguments in a vacuum; that would be simply to perpetuate ideology. No one can deny that public discourse is both embedded in, and has embedded within it, systems of oppression.
I am instead suggesting that we evaluate arguments with reference to dominant power forms, rather than with reference to the subject positions of particular interlocutors. In other terms, I am appealing for the preservation of a strong power-identity distinction in leftist discourse analysis. Only in this way can leftist critique avoid the often fallacious (and frequently malicious) assumption that entire social groups have determinable relationships to power that manifest in the arguments of their members.
It is true, for example, that whiteness or patriarchy are real power structures that are often unnoticeably exalted in public discourse; however, it is methodologically dangerous to appeal to the whiteness or maleness of a particular interlocutor as a proxy for the power structure assumed to be latent in his argument. Likewise, it is equally dangerous to validate the discourse of a person of color or a woman by assuming that her ethnicity or gender exonerates her from perpetuating the power structures of whiteness or patriarchy. We are all potentially culpable of false consciousness, just as we are all capable of enlightened thinking. It is for this reason that the mainstream left must reject categorical, identity-based exclusion from public discourse as an acceptable means to achieve the inclusion of the marginalized classes—a goal which I applaud wholeheartedly as the central legitimate endeavor of leftist critique."
Chuck Your Privilege
"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."
"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."
Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
"Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is."
A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory – from the Women's Caucus.
"A large part of the resentment of the term "privilege" within class struggle movements comes from trying to make a direct comparison with ruling class privilege, when this doesn't quite work. Somebody born into a family who owns a chain of supermarkets or factories can, when they inherit their fortune, forgo it. They can collectivise their empire and give it to the workers, go and work in it themselves for the same share of the profits as everybody else. Capitalists can, if they choose, give up their privilege. This makes it OK for us to think of them as bad people if they don't, and justified in taking it from them by force in a revolutionary situation. Men, white people, straight people, cisgendered people etc., can't give up their privilege - no matter how much they may want to. It is forced on them by a system they cannot opt out of, or choose to stop benefiting from. This comparison with ruling class privilege makes many feel as if they're being accused of hoarding something they're not entitled to, and that they're being blamed for this, or asked to feel guilty or undergo some kind of endless penance to be given absolution for their privilege. This is not the case. Guilt isn't useful; awareness and thoughtful action are. If you take nothing else away from this document, take this: You are not responsible for the system that gives you your privilege, only for how you respond to it."
"So if they didn’t choose it and there’s nothing they can do about it, why describe people as “Privileged”? Isn’t it enough to talk about racism, sexism, homophobia etc. without having to call white, male and straight people something that offends them? If it’s just the terminology you object to, be aware that radical black activists, feminists, queer activists and disabled activists widely use the term privilege. Oppressed groups need to lead the struggles to end their oppressions, and that means these oppressed groups get to define the struggle and the terms we use to talk about it. It is, on one level, simply not up to class struggle groups made up of a majority of white males to tell people of colour and women what words are useful in the struggles against white supremacy and patriarchy. If you dislike the term but agree with the concept, then it would show practical solidarity to leave your personal discomfort out of the argument, accept that the terminology has been chosen, and start using the same term as those at the forefront of these struggles."
"A black, disabled working class lesbian may not necessarily have had a harder life than a white, able-bodied working class straight cis-man, but she will have a much greater understanding of the intersections between class, race, disability, gender and sexuality. The point isn’t that, as the most oppressed in the room, she should lead the discussion, it’s that her experience gives her insights he won’t have on the relevant points of struggle, the demands that will be most effective, the bosses who represent the biggest problem, the best places and times to hold meetings or how to phrase a callout for a mass meeting so that it will appeal to a wider range of people, ways of dealing with issues that will very probably not occur to anybody whose oppression is along fewer intersections. He should be listening to her, not because she is more oppressed than him (though she may well be), but because it is vital to the struggle that she is heard, and because the prejudices that society has conditioned into us, and that still affect the most socially aware of us, continue to make it more difficult for her to be heard, for us to hear her."
The Problem with “Privilege”
"In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.” It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were. It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege. It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege. Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.
The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral. For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness. The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.
Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist. One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.” Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege. Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed. Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered. “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.” Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible. These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building. "
"This kind of politics then challenges the notions of “safe space” often prevalent in many activist circles in the United States. The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege. That is, once we have confessed our gender/race/settler/class privileges, we can then create a safe space where others will not be negatively impacted by these privileges. Of course because we have not dismantled heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism or capitalism, these confessed privileges never actually disappear in “safe spaces.”
Consequently, when a person is found guilty of his/her privilege in these spaces, s/he is accused of making the space “unsafe.” This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space “unsafe” as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism. Our focus is shifted from the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe, to interpersonal conduct. In addition, the accusation of “unsafe” is also levied against people of color who express anger about racism, only to find themselves accused of making the space “unsafe” because of their raised voices. The problem with safe space is the presumption that a safe space is even possible.
By contrast, instead of thinking of safe spaces as a refuge from colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, Ruthie Gilmore suggests that safe space is not an escape from the real, but a place to practice the real we want to bring into being."
"However, in this space, while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis. Thus, this space did not create the dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession. Instead, we presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and that we would need to work together to undo them.
Consequently, in my experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess.
The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability."
The Unicorn Ally
"I’ve come to the conclusion that the combination of the contradictory messages we use to put our allies under scrutiny makes ‘succeeding’ at being a good ally a theoretical impossibility – merely leaving allies with the possibility of different contexts and gradients of failing. I feel like I’ve been trying hard to be a good ally for a relatively long time, and that it’s a permanent losing battle. Instead I’m coming to prefer returning to my previous roles of ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘friend’. ‘Fellow human being’. That sort of thing. They’re things I feel I do ok at."
"So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon.
The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression.
The latter relies on a process I think of as Oppression Top Trumps. Oppression activists do tend to genuinely stick to the principle of paying the most attention to the people with the most experience within a particular axis of oppression, and I think this totally makes sense and I think is really awesome. It should be women talking about women’s lib, etc. rather than other people putting words into their mouths. So, to avoid getting my head bitten off, the first process I engage in, in order to speak, is justifying how issue x is one that’s personally affecting me – winning Oppression Top Trumps – which then lets me pick the words I use without anyone telling me they’re the wrong ones. In fact, having won Oppression Top Trumps on issue x, I then gain the right to correct other people’s words on an ad hoc basis. I do not, in general, write about issues that I can’t win Oppression Top Trumps about, because even if I care about them and I’ve researched them lots, etc. etc, I will by somebody’s definition probably get them wrong. In fact, the only reason I can possibly get anything right, is by being oppressed enough that my ideas are not open to questioning. "
Come one, come all! Feminist and Social Justice blogging as performance and bloodshed
"Call out culture, a phenomenon that casual readers might not even notice, is to me, the most toxic aspect of blogging. Not because it is set to correct wrongs and engage in meaningful ways to actually enact change. No, call out culture is toxic because it has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric violence. Its intent, at the root, is seemingly positive. Constructive even. It works more or less like this: I say something ignorant. Perhaps I make a statement that can be constructed as bigoted or maybe “problematic”. A favorite word in call out culture, problematic is more often than not, used to mean “I didn’t like it” or alternatively, “I disagree with you”. But instead of saying you, the audience disagrees with me, you will call my statement “problematic”. And because we have established that we are at once consumers and producers of media content, you create a blog post or a tweet or a Facebook update “calling me out”. And more often than not, in your post, you tell your readers, other prosumers, to please join you in this call out. BECAUSE THIS IS A SERIOUS WRONG THAT NEEDS TO BE CORRECTED! Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness. This performance of acrimony and reproach turns into the “pile on”. And I will have to apologize for what I said. At this point, since I am nervous and probably anxious because I am being called THE WORST PERSON EVER, my apology will not be stellar. I might dig a deeper hole even, because hey, I cannot properly articulate when I feel that I am under duress. I might, at this point, say something that is truly, really “problematic”, not just perceived as such, but, to put it in plain words, I might say something shitty. AND OMG at this point the “call out” will escalate out of proportion. Now I am not just THE WORST PERSON EVER but since we have established that I was “a known feminist blogger” (and if I wasn’t up to that moment, I am now because my name is all over the internet!), then, it will be known that I, on my own, HAVE RUINED FEMINISM FOR EVER. And I, alone, will be proof of ALL OF FEMINISM’S PAST FAILURES. FOR EVER.
Call out culture might, at times, dangerously resemble bullying. However, it is not exactly the same. It certainly shares its outcome, however, unlike bullying, call out culture is part of the performative aspect of blogging. Unlike bullying, a call out is intended for an audience.
And here’s the thing, on the surface, call outs are done “for good”. Of course shitty statements need to be challenged, nobody would deny that. Of course those who are hurt by shitty statements deserve to be recognized in their grief and deserve a sincere apology. But that’s not at the root of “call out culture”. The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”."
"Fourth Act: in which there is no Deus ex Machina but the ultimate artifice is revealed and we all lose but the kyriarchy, as usual, remains triumphant over all of us
No. Really. We all lose. Because all of this performance and the cycles of abuse and the outdoing each other for entertainment get us nowhere. They are distractions and, more often than not, they obscure most structural analysis. And what is worse, they end up silencing valuable and meaningful people who burn out from participating in this, our culture."
Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable
"What happens when thousands of people who all “get it” come together and everyone knows something about “the work”? We lose all compassion for each other. All of it.
I witnessed all types of fucked up behavior and the culture that we have created to respond to said fucked up behavior."
"So, what exactly is “calling in”? I’ve spent over a year of trying to figure this out for myself, and this practice is still coming to me daily. The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform."
"I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
And yes, we have been configured to believe it’s normal to punish each other and ourselves without a way to reconcile hurt. We support this belief by shutting each other out, partly through justified anger and often because some parts of us believe that we can do this without people who fuck up.
But, holy shit! We fuck up. All of us. I’ve called out and been called out plenty of times. I have gotten on people ruthlessly for supporting and sustaining oppression and refusing to listen to me. People have gotten on me about speaking to oppressions that aren’t mine, being superficial about inclusion, and throwing in communities I’m not a part of as buzzwords. But when we shut each other out we make clubs of people who are right and clubs of people who are wrong as if we are not more complex than that, as if we are all-knowing, as if we are perfect. But in reality, we are just really scared. Scared that we will be next to make a mistake. So we resort to pushing people out to distract ourselves from the inevitability that we will cause someone hurt.
And it is seriously draining. It is seriously heartbreaking. How we are treating each other is preventing us from actually creating what we need for ourselves. We are destroying each other. We need to do better for each other.
We have to let go of treating each other like not knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.
And we have to remind ourselves that we once didn’t know. There are infinitely many more things we have yet to know and may never know.
We have to let go of a politic of disposability. We are what we’ve got. No one can be left to their fuck ups and the shame that comes with them because ultimately we’ll be leaving ourselves behind.
I want our movements sustainable, angry, gentle, critical, loving — kicking ass and calling each other back in when we stray."
Liberal bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport
"For those of you who like to fight the good fight for social justice and language sensitivity online, before writing that Tumblr missive or firing off that privilege-checking comment, I'd love to encourage you to take a moment to ask yourself these questions:
- Am I living my values with this exchange? If my goal is tolerance and sensitivity, am I embodying both those values in this conversation?
- What are my motivations here? Do I want to make a difference, or just feel like I'm right? What would "making a difference" look like in this context?
- Is this person an ally? How can I best communicate with them to ensure they stay that way?
- What is my ultimate goal in my activism? Is this exchange the best use of my time to achieve that ultimate goal?"
Critiques of Intersectionality, Privilege, and Identity Politics
"In a February 1957 article in Christian Century, [Martin Luther King Jr.] summarized the basis of nonviolent direct action in the struggle for civil rights:
2) Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. ...
3) This method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery, Alabama: "The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for 50,000 Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust."
4) Nonviolent resistance avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.
You can check out my extended reflections on privilege theory here.