Does privilege theory offer an adequate lens to challenge oppression and help those it is intended to help?
While progressive critiques of privilege theory have grown considerably as the theory has risen in popularity over the last three decades, this article accepts the underlying thesis as true.
Setting aside deeper critiques for a moment and accepting that the theory is fundamentally sound, the question then becomes, what will be the most effective way of communicating these ideas to the people that need to hear them?
This is the essential task of all cultural activism. Effectively changing hearts and minds, raising awareness - comes down to conveying ideas in a language that people can hear.
Convey an idea one way, and one person may get it and another might reject it, depending on their cultural background and identity. The task for activists is to figure out ways of explaining concepts that the greatest percentage of the population can understand, resulting in the greatest level of minds changed. It also often means tailoring the message to fit the audience, and having multiple ways of explaining the same idea depending on who you're speaking to.
No vehicle or framework will likely be able to reach 100% of the people. No matter how effective an idea can be conveyed, a certain percentage will not be able to hear the message because the words used will trigger defensive reactions, which leads to the person rejecting the idea and no change of consciousness occurring. A failed attempt may also, in fact, strengthen the person's opposition to the idea.
In my experience trying to educate the public using the privilege framework, the results are mixed. For some, it's effective, and for others, the idea just doesn't get through. People get defensive, they disagree or become outright hostile or oppositional.
When someone reacts negatively to an idea that we promote on Films For Action, in the comments there will usually be someone who defends the idea and attacks the person for being too stupid or ignorant to get it, due to their privilege, racism or sexism. Of course, this makes the attacker feel good for calling the person out, but it immediately creates an antagonistic relationship where no true education or learning is going to occur from that point on.
So far as trying to raise awareness among the people that would benefit from learning about these anti-sexist or anti-racist concepts, I'd consider this a failure. I don't consider it a failure on the person's part to understand what I'm saying. I consider it a failure on my part to properly communicate the idea in a language that that person can hear it and understand it.
I try to have as much empathy as I can for so-called ignorant people who may have been socialized with racist or sexist beliefs, because by and large that is the default for most of society. It could have easily been me who was born into their environmental circumstances, socialized by the dominant culture without any alternative voices to guide me in a different direction.
Most people growing up in America were miseducated by the same educational system and mass media, which implicitly sustains and promotes white supremacy and sexism unconsciously, which gets further reinforced by family and friends. It could have been me on the other side of that computer screen, getting offended by privilege theory and making comments that make myself look bad.
Considering the odds, I consider myself profoundly fortunate to have been born into a family and friend circle that exposed me to alternative voices that led me towards the political and social consciousness I have now.
So I really try hard not to shame people for their lack of knowledge or unenlightened social consciousness. One thing I've discovered is that shame is not an effective teaching tool. It just doesn't work. Call out culture and the shame-based motivational logic that supports it I've seen just isn't very effective at raising awareness. It works sometimes, but it also can back-fire entirely and brings with it all sorts of destructive and counter-productive side-effects.
Because privilege theory has a limited efficiency as an educational framework (let's say 30%-40%), I have been thinking about alternative frameworks that can achieve the same educational goals using a language with a higher rate of adoption and acceptance.
The greatest conceptual failure of privilege theory that I've read about comes from Thandeka in an article called Why Anti-Racism Will Fail. In it, she describes acutely how the absence of oppression (or not having your rights violated) should not be considered a privilege.
Most of the time, privilege theory describes aspects of living in society which should be considered baseline human rights that should be the default for all people. Having this baseline shouldn't be considered 'extra' but rather, fundamental.
Framing these rights as privileges also seems to divert attention away from the people who are having their basic rights violated. The main problem with promoting privilege theory is that, rightly or wrongly, it often produces feelings of shame and guilt for being treated the way everyone should be treated, while not everyone is.
If the goal of our activism is to create more activists who are willing to challenge racism and sexism in our institutions and society, then it feels like privilege theory is going about this the wrong way.
As I read in one article which paraphrased the opinions of a former Black Panther, "Guilty people do not make good activists or good revolutionaries."
Interestingly, during the civil rights era, there was little discussion about white privilege. As Will Shetterly writes, "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."
Will concludes, "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."
For further reading, I would highly recommend Naomi Zack's new book, White Privilege and Black Rights, which argues that the fight for justice is ill-served by the language of privilege. Rather than focusing on the people whose rights are not being violated, she says we should be focusing on the people whose rights are being violated, and I have to agree.