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The Carletonian

Two Problems in Talking about Privilege

<ade school education did a decent job of shining a light on eras in our nation’s history when minorities were systematically and cruelly mistreated: we saw dramatizations of the Trail of Tears, pictures of internment during World War II, History channel Holocaust films and, of course, clip after clip of Bull Connor, fire hoses, bus boycotts and “I Have a Dream.”

However, we never talked much about anything past the 1960s. Racism and discrimination meant those bad guys who for the most part had died. The few idiots who still existed didn’t really wield much power and served for the most part merely as fodder for late-night comics. In any case, they were not us. We are good people. We voted for Obama, after all.

So, I was pretty unprepared for the discourse surrounding privilege at Carleton. The college did a decent job during New Student Week of getting us to stop using certain words so casually and consider a bit how our experience at Carleton will be different from that of some of our peers. But after that, as Samantha Sharpe and Gaston Lopez each discussed last term, discussions about privilege tend to be pretty self-selecting, populated predominately by those who have experienced being disadvantaged the most.

As with most things, the productivity of a conversation about privilege is roughly proportional to its intimacy. That means if you miss out on the rich face-to-face or small group discussions and events and the only time you interact with issues surrounding privilege is when absorbing moral chauvinism posted on the internet or pissy CLAP drivel then you’ll be even less likely to be motivated to take part in dialogue about it. But while it’s great that we have comfortable delineated classes, spaces and events for talking about sensitive topics, what is discussed is too important to be confined only there and so our community needs to continue to work toward raising these issues in healthy ways more broadly.

This is especially necessary since the strategies and theoretical positions of contemporary advocates of social justice are much different from those operative in the Civil Rights Movement that we learned about in grade school. The social movements of the 60s sought mainly to obtain rights such as voting and access for groups who had been systematically discriminated against. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t reject the idea of universal rights but only took issue with their insufficient application. It wasn’t a critique of the prosperity of white men but rather of the fact that other groups weren’t able to enjoy prosperity as well. Therefore, it was situated within the tradition of the Enlightenment that attempts to secure rights based on man’s essential sameness. That is, black men and white men ought to share the same fruits of freedom because they are both part of the common category called “man.”

The next stage in the battle for civil rights was the introduction of affirmative action, which aimed to translate the abstract extension of rights into reality. “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair,” President Johnson explained. “We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”

For a variety of reasons, the in-group was now eager to incorporate traditionally marginalized people into its system. Being more diverse is a form of validation, can erase a sense of guilt, not to mention that the in-group, with newly gained social consciousness, is genuinely trying to aid those suffering. But even if those in power have good intentions, they have different assumptions than the one’s they’re trying to help about what the problems are how best to help.

The current discourse surrounding privilege, as I understand it, has more radical goals than affirmative action. Rather than strive for all competitors to have an equal opportunity in the race (to continue Johnson’s analogy), it calls into question the concept of the race itself. Allowing historically disadvantaged groups to participate in a system they were once denied access to is a welcome step, but if that system itself is still one which was itself constructed by oppressive power then it doesn’t return to those groups alienated identities. Inclusivity isn’t enough.

The goal of the next wave of social justice advocates is to deconstruct race to show that what is supposed to count as “succeeding” in the race is not natural but rather the product of specific historical forces. That way we no longer force everyone into the same box or to bow before the same measures of success or normalcy.
It’s not that talking about privilege is a redirection of our focus from thinking about the disadvantages of those historically oppressed to an examination of the benefits of those in the in-group. On the contrary – those benefits only come to light when contrasted to the experiences of those on the social periphery. Only when seen next an alternative experience does the experience of whiteness become visible.

In an effort to identify persistent extra-legal inequality, Peggy McIntosh proposes we examine two types of privilege in her 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. One type, she says “gives license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.” That is, it prevents one from properly diagnosing and by identifying relevant considerations or knowing what obstacles to equality exist. Examples McIntosh includes are “being able to do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race” and “being able to remain oblivious to the language and customs of another culture.”

The second type of privilege McIntosh lays seems to me to be more problematic. These are privileges “that one would want for everyone in a just society.” One of her examples that might fall under this category is “I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.”
One is tempted to ask how is this any different from a right. How is her claim that such-and-such is something that everyone would want in a just society any different from previous claims by those with power to establish a particular norm as one that should extend over everyone? Isn’t this just a return of the Kantian universalism we were trying to banish in the first place? I think McIntosh is aware of this problem but doesn’t answer it in her essay.

McInstosh says that another problem with speaking of privilege is that by focusing so much on structures of power it is in danger of reducing every situation to the general relationship between an oppressor and an oppressed. Race, class, gender and so forth melt into one. We gloss over the intricacies of each issue, how the subjective experience of each particular oppressed group is different. One conceptual framework fits all. Diversity really means homogeneity. At least racist jokes, in their own cruel way, pay respect to particularities of different groups.

Post-modernity, in seeking to take apart the meta-narrative of universalism is always in danger of inadvertently dooming us all to an even more inescapable one. Deconstruction exposes white male subjectivity as a fiction but only by doing so to subjectivity as such. The very tactic used to free space for a marginalized group turns on that group and says that their claim to space is itself merely another instance of egoism. In the process of seeking to elevate a cultural identity it builds a community of allies that will exclude just as before.

“The effect of Law,” Derrida says, “is to build a structure of the subject, and as soon as you say, ‘well, the woman is a subject and this subject deserves equal right’ and so on – then you are caught in the logic of phallocentrism and you have rebuilt the empire of Law.” Viewed this way, feminism –and every other “–ism”– becomes philosophically incoherent.

However, our recognition of theoretical tension doesn’t need to sap us of the impetus needed to change the status quo. We can separate philosophical problems from ethical ones and make sure the latter always take precedence.

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