The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down)

Part two of a series, evidently. Told you I had more to say.

From Buy one today! (If you're privileged.)

So you’re white. So you’re a man. So you’re well-to-do. That surely doesn’t make you evil! … OR DOES IT!?!?

People honestly don’t seem to understand what it means to say that there’s a privilege problem in the skeptical community, it seems. Nor what it means if they’re one of the lucky few majority who have this privilege. Nor what to do when someone calls you out on it. Nor pretty well any aspect of actually understanding the situation and its implications that might allow for normal social interaction on a daily basis without blowing up half the damn blogosphere every time someone points out a behaviour that’s damaging the way Rebecca Watson just did. I’m assuming inadvertently, since she’s pretty damn good at building networks, and she’s well-respected in skeptical and atheist communities enough for this to matter.

I mean, hell, all it took to touch off this particular firestorm was Rebecca complaining that a guy ignored one, if not two direct statements of intent in order to flirt with her — in one of the most socially awkward ways imaginable, indicating he was wholly oblivious of the implications of his environment — to provide the powderkeg. It took someone like Stef McGraw, a public figure as a member of a leadership organization at her school, completely missing the point of Rebecca’s complaint and doing so in public on her organization’s blog, to provide the fuse. Rebecca daring to rebut in public at a conference in which Stef was attending lit the match. Everything that’s happened since has been people of all stripes sticking their noses into the conversation as though it merited more than the back-and-forth that Rebecca could have damn well handled on her own. The explosion happened through three incidents, and everything else has been people picking through the rubble either trying to score rhetorical points or trying to triage the injured parties. (I said parties. I don’t mean Rebecca specifically.)

People including me, a white male taking advantage of his privilege to be heard on this one.

You see, privilege is when you are a member of a non-marginalized group in a region — like, say, being white and male and Christian in North America. Not only do the marginalized people get explicitly marginalized, there are some creeping and insidious ways that the privileged group gets advantages that they themselves might not be aware of. For instance, a man might get the benefit of the doubt when he approaches someone somewhere at some time and invites them for coffee. When that someone is a woman, and that somewhere and somewhen is an elevator at 4 AM, and that invitation for coffee is a thinly veiled invitation for sexual congress, the woman might get a little freaked out. People everywhere and of both sexes scramble to excuse the man, especially since he did nothing wrong, and therefore the woman is freaked out for nothing.

Except one of the ways privilege works is that the people with the privilege often try to solve the problems inherent in the power dynamic by suggesting that the underprivileged protect themselves. You know, because the onus of responsibility is on them to keep from being abused. How many times have you, as a man, been told to avoid dark alleys or elevators or going out in the middle of the night because you might be raped? How much rape avoidance do you have to practice? Sure, you have some small amount of necessity to avoid these areas because you might be mugged, but not statistically more than a woman might, even though women are on average physically less capable or less willing or more acculturated to simply not fight back. Males don’t have to practice avoidance the way a woman does. And a woman does because we excuse behaviour that indicates predatory isolation techniques in men, whether they cause any actual offense or not afterward.

I’ve already written a post for a secret project in which I discuss how I (only slightly, she’ll say) hurt my dear friend inadvertently by using too many of my own words, rather than simply pushing traffic to her words instead. I’ll happily include the post in this series when said secret project is fully operational, but until then, suffice it to say that as a guy, I have the ability to post more inflammatory things with less flack from the audience, and I automatically get more hits whether my words merit them or not. I recognize and acknowledge this privilege, and I accept it, and I’m even willing to apply this privilege to noble ends, especially if it means eroding at the privilege in general to provide the less-privileged with an equal shot in this world.

I have privilege, in being white and in being male. This does not make me a racist, nor a sexist, especially where I recognize that my position does actually give me societal advantages that I don’t necessarily deserve. It doesn’t make you a racist or a sexist either. But lashing out at someone who simply wants to point out where someone is taking advantage of a privilege — in this case, the privilege to flirt despite clear signs of pre-rejection — that’s just wrong.

It’s wrong because you, as the forum troll that makes comments like these or these, sense that some “right” is being taken away from you, but you don’t even know what it is. You assume that Rebecca advocated that the man in the elevator was a rapist — never mind all the rape avoidance techniques these women have been taught to employ as members of the unprivileged that include this exact scenario, and that she never took it beyond a complaint of the behaviour being generally creepy. You assume that people who support Rebecca are man-haters who want men to never flirt again, but you ignore the fact that they simply want you to pay more attention to them before diving into the sexual come-ons, especially right after you got done talking about how uncool those cold-opens are. You assume that anyone who disagrees with you on any minor picayune point is from “another tribe”, a different in-group, and therefore worth derision and total lack of respect. And once you’ve made up your mind on anything, come hell or high water you’re sticking to your guns.

Those of us who appreciate a little bit of reality in our discourse might simply recognize that when a woman says “don’t do this specific thing”, you probably shouldn’t do that specific thing. If not simply with her, then at least let it give you pause and search for indicators that the behaviour is acceptable with your next target. Flirting with women in elevators is fine. If you’ve known them for longer than thirty seconds, and respect if they tell you to back off, anyway.

Like all things, interpersonal relations are nuanced. Stop trying to make this a binary issue, because it’s not.

By the way, Jen at Blag Hag says much the same thing specifically about Dawkins. Yeah, he’s not a misogynist either. He’s just misusing his privilege to tell someone that their complaint is useless, just because it’s a “first world problem” so to speak. This is, of course, misguided. But don’t dare tell him so while including the word “fuck”.


  1. says

    “but you ignore the fact that they simply want you to pay more attention to them before diving into the sexual come-ons”


    Actually, this entire post would be worth quoting verbatim. You’re very right. Not realizing that something is a problem doesn’t make Dawkins (or the men who have attacked all of the women who have posted commentary on this subject) necessarily misogynists. It just makes them blissfully ignorant and privileged. Unlike what they seem to think, I don’t hate them for that. There are a few of those men around me for whom I have a great deal of tenderness. I hate their attitude, and I will continue trying to make my point known, but it doesn’t mean that they’re evil, horrible men. They just have no context within which to put the experience of a scared, exhausted woman on an elevator alone. Maybe by being there and speaking up the people who have commented can help give them a context.

    Everyone, men and women (myself included), need to step back and consider how we’re acting and reacting in regards to other people. I think that the people who have had the best comments on the situation have been ones like John Rennie and Kiyomi D (as well as yours), who have taken a step back from the gender issue to look at how people in general need to be more aware.

    Part of me wishes I had been able to take a step back and think it through from this perspective rather than posting one of the things that will undoubtedly be (and already has been) denounced as a ‘shrill, feminist screed’, but I think the sadness and frustration need to be voiced too. Much like any other episode of consciousness raising, this fight won’t be won by one voice, but by a chorus of many different ones, harmonizing and playing off one another. And yes, even squabbling and trying to outshout the others. It’s all of these tactics that give a movement its force. Thank you, for adding your voice as a privileged white man, into the building swell.

  2. says

    I’m having trouble believing that this is actually a topic of controversy–and in the twenty-first century at that. Rebecca Watson had a legitimate point–and by the way, did not make a big deal of it, or place undue emphasis on it. Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, appeared to have no point at all, except that horrible things are going on in other parts of the world and how dare anybody be concerned with something less important–or, as he condescended to explain later on, of no importance at all. I actually don’t know anything about Richard Dawkins except by reputation, never having read anything substantial by him, but these comments seem unworthy of him–or at any rate of his reputation. To me at least they seemed almost Fafarmanesque in their trollishness and obdurate obtuseness.

  3. says

    I agree, sbh — they’re just so tonedeaf. I can’t understand why someone as versed in the inherent privileges the religious have in this society would think to delegitimize someone else’s struggle just because it’s not as bad as some other region’s, considering how he fights for science and atheism to be accepted in our society even though we heathens aren’t in danger of being stoned to death. The parallels are ridiculous.

  4. D. C. Sessions says

    I can’t understand why someone as versed in the inherent privileges the religious have in this society would think to delegitimize someone else’s struggle

    Seriously? I mean, seriously?

    The remarkable thing to me is when someone actually manages to generalize from their own experiences on the “wrong” side of a privilege divide to other situations where they have the advantage.

    Wolf-whistles from the union members on a picket line are, like, iconic.

  5. says

    Yeah, I’m probably pretty naïve in expecting that people actually fighting for a cause might recognize others in the same position. I guess I thought someone enlightened in one aspect of privilege might recognize privilege elsewhere, but perhaps the concept of privilege isn’t fully fleshed out in Dawkins’ mind as a concept unto itself.

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    I guess I thought someone enlightened in one aspect of privilege might recognize privilege elsewhere

    See, it’s this whole cultural blindness issue — possibly related to snow blindness or some other Canuckistanian thing. You could have broadened your awareness by growing up in a family descended from poor white trash. It’s no fun being a sharecropper, but it at least you can spit on the darkies. And wimmin.

  7. says

    Very nice post – I should have just linked to it in a recent conversation I was having, in which the words of a privileged white man might have carried more weight than mine. I’ll keep it bookmarked for next time! :)

  8. says

    I think it’s because all us Canuckistanians are actually underclass to the moose. No matter who you are, or how powerful, you have to watch out for moose on the highway. They *always* have the right of way.

  9. D. C. Sessions says

    Interesting hypothesis, Jason, but that would imply that folk in the Mountain West (notably Arizona) should also have some clueth, thanks to the noble wapiti (aka Elk.) Not quite the size of a moose, but quite capable of totaling anything smaller than an 18-wheeler.


  1. […] The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down) Not only do the marginalized people get explicitly marginalized, there are some creeping and insidious ways that the privileged group gets advantages that they themselves might not be aware of. […]

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