Sep 15 2011

Privilege: making it up as we go along


I’m not sure how much background everyone reading this has had in the concept of privilege. I recognize that atheists, for example, have been recently introduced to the term as feminist voices within organized atheism have become more vocal. Those of you coming from anti-racist or feminist blogs could probably teach me a thing or two about privilege and how it manifests itself. Those who stumble on this blog from somewhere else may be facing the term for the first time (if that is legitimately the case, you should probably start with this article). Privilege, briefly, describes the set of advantages that one has merely by being a member of a group, operating through how society perceives that group. So if, for example, you are a man who is firmly trying to make a point, you are seen as ‘assertive’; if you’re a woman, you’re ‘bitchy’. Those two evaluations for identical behaviour put one group (men) at a significant advantage compared to those others, due to nothing more than how we stereotype that group.

One of the most insidious aspects of privilege is that, if you have it, it’s practically invisible. Privilege is most often held by the majority group, meaning that it is simply seen as ‘normal’. Whenever you look around, your explanation of the way the world works matches pretty much everyone else’s. It’s what’s in the media, in the classroom, it’s the way your friends and family see things – there’s very rarely any disconfirming evidence. Unless someone takes the time to point it out to you, there’s really no reason to suspect that there’s any other way of looking at the world.

On its own, privilege might not be so bad. Yes, it represents an inaccurate and nuance-free view of the world, but that on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. Where the negative aspect arises is when we use our privileged position to explain the world around us. If we’re trying to construct a narrative about how we came to be where we are, and by extension where we are headed or how we should behave, we need to ensure that we have our facts straight. When all of our facts come from a single perspective that necessarily neglects the number of other valid perspectives in existence, we get an incomplete picture. Thus, any narrative we build is going to neglect big chunks of information.

Even that on its own isn’t that dangerous. Any narrative is going to be missing pieces of information. After all, we can’t possibly know everything. What’s the big deal if we’ve missed a couple of perspectives, so long as we keep our facts straight?

Earlier this year [Michelle Bachmann] told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions.” She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a “resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn’t matter the color of their skin … [or] language … or economic status.” She was on a roll: “Once you got here, we were all the same.” Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.

It’s easy (and fun!) to pick on Michelle Bachmann, because her relationship with reality is one of those late-night booty call arrangements where they don’t see much of each other, and when they do there’s nobody else around. It’s fairly unnecessary to pick on her specifically, since I’m sure everyone reading this already more or less agrees with my stance on her. What I will do, however, is use her as an illustration of exactly how dangerous it is to be so blissfully unaware of your privilege.

Bachmann’s positions are polluted by ‘research’ from ‘historian’ David Barton, who had an idea fixed in his head and then went out and found evidence to support it. Her approach is the same as his: decide what is true, and then backfill an explanation for how it came to be. Of course, my position on backfilling is pretty clear: if you do it, I stop listening to you. This is something we all do from time to time, out of convenience. After all, we’re not all historians, and we don’t always have all the facts. It’s a useful heuristic when used sparingly and only in cases where the stakes are low. However, when trying to decide national policy that will affect millions of people, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you presuppositions are accurate.

In Bachmann’s case specifically, and in the case of privilege generally, there is the potential to do serious damage when employing this tactic. After all, if Bachmann’s assertion of fundamental equality upon arrival in America is true, then we have to assume that everyone who isn’t successful is that way through their own laziness (which is certainly the way those on the right explain racial disparities). And when you are as ignorant of history as Bachmann is, then you wind up saying really stupid stuff:

Bachmann says that European immigrants “did not come here for the promise of a federal handout … or a welfare payment.” Instead, they came here for the “limitless opportunity” that the “most magnificent country” in history afforded them.

Well, actually, European immigrants did get special federal handouts in the form of white-only citizenship rights: Germans, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians were never barred from the “white only” military, voter rolls, juries or federal jobs, unlike people of color. Keep in mind that citizenship itself was limited to “free white persons.” When more than 90 percent of black people were enslaved in the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 gave millions of acres of land to white immigrants. Yep, federal handouts.

The bootstraps myth is a pervasive and powerful one. Its appeal is that it removes the onus of having to do anything to reduce disparities from those who are at the top. Despite their repeated calls for “personal responsibility”, this myth requires everyone else to be “personally responsible”, while allowing the myth-holder to hang on to all the advantages they’ve gained through privilege. It permits us to crane our necks such that we don’t see the scales as tilted in anyone’s favour, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

So we can (and should) deride people like Michelle Bachmann and David Barton for their eager willingness to abdicate any professional responsibility to ensure their depiction of history is based in fact rather than ideology. But we should also use them as an example of what happens when we allow our own privilege to run away unchecked. The picture of the world that remains when we remove the blinders of privilege might be much different from the one we’re used to seeing.

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