I recently indicated that I wanted to criticise the concept of ‘privilege’ as articulated by feminists independent of the various framing devices used by them. The substantive portion of my recent comment over on Alas in response to Barry covers some of what I want to say, and, with a little minor editing, seems worth promoting to the status of a blog post.
Thinking seriously about systematic racism means that Whites have to admit that even if they don’t personally hate black people, they have almost certainly benefited from racism in some manner.
I’ve asked before how I’ve benefited from my alledged gender/race privilege, etc. The answers usually fall into two categories:
Firstly, I don’t suffer as much (or at all) as women/PsOC from things like racial abuse, the risk of rape, etc. I would dispute the ‘not at all’ contention. Even if I am not directly harmed or at risk, anything which directly harms or threatens my non-white and female friends and family is an indirect threat or harm to me. Also many of the identified ‘privileges‘ describe lower levels of direct risk and harm to me which are not zero.
I don’t dispute the ‘as much’ part with regard to race – I can not think of a single systemic comparative advantage enjoyed by PsOC over whites (other than initiatives such as AA, which are intended to ameliorate their comparative disadvantage) – however there are many systemic comparative advantages enjoyed by women over men which are trivialised and excluded from the discourse by framing devices such as ‘disadvantage’ vs. ‘privilege’ used by Barry and other feminists.
However not suffering as much as another person can hardly be considered a “benefit”. It’s a smaller disbenefit.
The other category is one of alledged positive benefits, such as enhanced educational and career opportunities. The argument usually goes that systemic racism/sexism tends to exclude women and PsOC, whether directly (an equally capable and qualified woman etc., isn’t given the position because she’s discriminated against directly) or indirectly (she never becomes qualified, and/or she doesn’t apply for the job, etc). Therefore there are more places available for white men such as myself.
I accept the premise but not the conclusion. It seems to me that for this argument to be valid, there needs to be another premise – namely that the total available opportunity is fixed, or at least is not significantly diminished by the systemic racism/sexism. This I do not accept. I would argue that giving women and PsOC, greater access to the productive economy would create more educational and career opportunities for everybody.
The argument I make here also appears to be logical equivalent to a position taken by some (many?) feminists and liberals (I believe Barry is one of them) with respect to immigrants/migrant workers. In response to complaints from opponents that these people are “taking jobs from American citizens and sponging off welfare”, liberals respond that they make a net contribution to the productive economy and thus do not harm the prospects of American citizens.
If you agree that allowing immigrants etc., (mostly PsOC if you so class Hispanics), access to the US productive economy would improve it to the net benefit of American citizens, then it is incoherent to simultaneously argue that allowing women and PsOC., who are already citizens greater access to that economy would not benefit white men too. And if you allow that white men will benefit overall, then you abolish the second category of alledged benefit from systemic racism and sexism. These -isms do not give white men men greater educational and career prospects. They just give us a larger share of a much smaller cake.
Update: Dianne points out, that “not every immigrant is the classic immigrant from a poor/oppressive country looking for new opportunities.” My understanding is that it is just this class of (im)migrant which is at issue in the immigration debate, so my substantive point stands. Mia Culpa, however, for an egregiously classist and racist stereotype.
Update 2 Originally in the above I used “POCs” as the plural of “POC” – Person Of Colour. I mentally sounded it as “pee-oh-sees”. It honestly never occured to me that it might be read as “pocks”, or even worse, “pox”. “POC” appears to be fairly standard in these discourses and I shall continue to use it, but I have amended the plural to PsOC – Persons Of Colour. I apologise for any offense this may have given. Thanks to JR at Feministe for pointing this out.
Updated (27 September) to add this list of links to the entire ‘Privilege’ series of posts, which I shall keep updated from now on:
“Privilege” and “Disadvantage” as sexist framing devices
Do white men really benefit from privilege?
More on Privilege
Selective Service – Privilege part 4