By DJ Chele
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion and the first rule of rhetoric is “know your audience”.
You wouldn’t take your newbie skater friend to the skate park and suggest they drop into the vert ramp. Similarly, you shouldn’t drop radical language on uninitiated friends, family and strangers and expect anything but confusion and defensiveness to be reflected back at you. I’m making an assumption: that you care about the well being of your skater buddy. I’m also assuming that when you open your mouth you want what comes out to be understood by whoever is listening. If either of these assumptions are in question, please stop reading now!
“Privilege” is a word that is in high vogue in radical circles. Like many such words, it seems to be causing as much confusion, defensiveness and hurt feelings as it is helping people think in new (and better!) ways. If someone is into bullying people this might be cause for celebration but for anyone working for a better world it might be worthwhile to back up a few steps and examine our language use so we can communicate more effectively.
Here’s Webster’s on the matter:
1- the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.
2- a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud.
3- a right or benefit that is given to some people and not others.
I’d say that pretty much covers the “standard” use of the word. So what do radicals mean by “privilege”? How does it differ from Webster’s definition and how might we explain this new use of the word to help our brothers and sisters understand the social reality we share in a better way?
The newer use of the word Privilege goes something like this:
4- an unexamined and unacknowledged right, benefit or advantage that accrues to one person and not to another on the basis of race, class, sex, gender or other social factors, real or perceived.
While some might correct me (and you are welcome to do so), I’d say the “unexamined and unacknowledged” part is the key difference. I think this is why Peggy Macintosh uses of the word “invisible” to describe these benefits in her piece “White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack” which introduced many of us to this new meaning.
It takes time to understand things that have been rendered invisible by social normalization and it also takes time to process the meaning of those things, to integrate this new understanding into one’s world view. It also takes courage because this integration process inevitably challenges one’s identity. We should remember that expanding one’s world view is an ongoing, lifelong process for all of us.
One conceptual stumbling block with our new use of “privilege” is that it is often used to refer to things that should be considered basic human rights.. While the old word might signify access to country club memberships, Ivy League educations or other elite prerogatives, we are using the word for things like “being treated respectfully by the Police”, “having your voice heard in a group discussion” or “having your sexual identity respected”…. things that every human deserves and should expect to receive. This is PROFOUNDLY confusing to the uninitiated. It is particularly challenging when race is discussed outside of it’s intersection with class and the listener is a modest income, miseducated, hardworking white american (the single largest demographic in the USA) who just binged on a TV series about how Bill Cosby got away with raping countless women or a radio program detailing Barack Obama murdering innocent Muslims with drone strikes (go KPFA!!). One obvious conundrum is that while racism and white supremacy permeate American culture and are central forces in determining the trajectory of our collective and individual lives, not all white people are powerful and not all people of color are powerless. This is true of many structural social critiques, they often break down when applied to specific individuals.
Taking the concept of Privilege out of the personal realm and applying it more generally to the social structures in which we interact can help create common ground that doesn’t run roughshod over the particulars of someone’s story or hold specific individuals responsible for the actions of others and for social mechanisms beyond their control. I think the failure to do this is a recipe for communication breakdowns, non-productive conflict and hardening of ideological lines…. things we have way too much of already! Making sweeping presumptions about other people’s struggles and hardships is neither charming nor a solid strategy for eliciting open-mindedness. Lastly, any intellectually honest person can see that “privilege” is a nearly endless hierarchy. There’s almost always people above and below us on any question of privilege, the fact that you can read this being an obvious example. Acknowledging this while challenging structural inequity is a first step towards building community around language that questions the status quo and speaks to our shared desire to create a more just and equitable world for everyone.