One of the most powerful tools we have when trying to parse an argument is the analogy. We can take the elements of a position, plug them in to a different context, and then press ‘play’ to see whether or not the argument still logically follows. So when a religious apologist talks about the perfect love and perfect mercy of YahwAlladdha, we can ask if it would still be considered ‘loving’ to lock your children in the basement and torture them (for any amount of time, let alone eternity) if they disobeyed your rules. We can point out the absurdity of demanding that atheists ‘play nice’ or ‘leave well enough alone’ by pointing to the similarities between ours and other civil rights movements, and show how active engagement in the public sphere is vital to progress.
Accustomed as we are to the incredible usefulness of this tool, there are cases where it goes horribly awry – namely, those cases in which privilege plays a significant role. At once, argument by analogy becomes completely derailed, and to the person drawing the (flawed) analogy, it seems as though the “privilege card” is being pulled out of nowhere. The argument seems to be, to them, that one is wrong simply because ze is white, or male, or cisgendered, or whatever dominant group identity is germane to the conversation – that the mere fact of being in the majority immediately disqualifies your arguments. Then out come the waterworks: “you’re just as bad as those you criticize - my opinion is being dismissed as you complain about people dismissing yours!”
Let’s just jump ahead a few paragraphs to the end of the argument and state unequivocally that your argument is bad, and you should feel bad.
Now that everyone who needs to learn this lesson has stopped reading, let’s forge ahead, shall we?
The problem is emphatically not that white people are forever disqualified from discussing race – it’s that the privilege of their perspective makes them underqualified. When you’ve lived your entire life seeing the world from only point of view, you necessarily miss out on a lot of relevant details – a passive omission that reveals itself when you bring out a seemingly-airtight analogy that instead tries to plug only the convenient pieces of the argument in before pressing ‘play’. While such cherry-picking of fact may seem malicious (and perhaps sometimes it is), it is equally likely that it’s simply the result of not being able to see all of what is important.
“So what?” you might be saying. “Maybe people of colour are the ones missing the relevant information. After all, if I as a white person can’t see what the minority perspective is because I’ve only ever been white, maybe Crommunist can’t see all the relevant information because he’s only ever been black!” This response, incidentally, is a near-perfect illustration of the phenomenon I am talking about. What relevant information is this attempt to argue from analogy missing? Let’s ask Greta Christina:
It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.
Believers, on the other hand, are not soaking in atheism. Many atheists are trying to change this, of course, and are working to make atheism more visible and harder to ignore — but there’s still a huge amount of ignoring, and of ignorance. And far too much of this ignorance is willful and deliberate. People ignore us, even when they’re supposedly trying to figure us out.
While it is possible for an atheist to have once been a believer, and it is not possible for a person of colour to have once been white*, the point generally applies. We live, at least here in Canada and the United States, awash in a culture that has always been dominated by the white viewpoint (this, incidentally, is what many scholars of race including myself are talking about when they refer to ours as a “white supremacist” culture). As a result, members of a minority group are in fact well-versed in the values, practices, and expectations of white people. It exists all around us at all times. The inverse simply cannot be said for the vast majority of white people – I make an exception for those few places in which a white person lives in an area largely populated by folks of colour (although even then, you’re rarely more than a cab ride away from an area where white folks are a statistical majority again).
So, when we try to draw analogies in discussions of race (or really any conversation in which there is a privileged position), we end up drawing incredibly selective ones because we simply do not have access to both sides of the equation. Frustratingly, this single-viewer perspective can also rob us of the ability to see the flaws in our own argument, and we are left to contend with the only remaining logical conclusion: that we are being unfairly excluded because of the fact of our majority status. In so doing, we miss the real reason that we are wrong: our majority status operates on our viewpoint.
Once again we see the way in which privilege can skew the way we see the world. On one side, those in the minority can see our position quite clearly in addition to their own. However, on the other side of the glass, we cannot see anything aside from our own view, reflected in such a way as to rob us of the ability to accurately perceive reality. Only by listening carefully and inspecting the issues closely can we hope to see through the illusion of the supremacy of our own positions and begin to appreciate what’s going on behind the one-way mirror of our privilege.
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*Strictly speaking. Since race is socially constructed, it is technically possible for a person of colour to experience (or lose) racial majority privilege by moving to a completely different part of the world – in the general case, however, you don’t get to switch races.