An invisible adjective

I’m still thinking about “privilege” and its discontents. It interestes me, for several reasons, not just the ones that have to do with Ron’s talk at Women in Secularism 2 and the disagreements and battles that ensued.

Sometimes (often in fact) people hear things that aren’t intended in the use of any particular claim or word or phrase. Words and phrases can be used in many ways, some of them less reasonable than others.

Is that enough platitudes to get us started?

I do have a point. I’m thinking that one thing people who bristle at the word “privilege” hear is an added “unearned” in front of it. That can be massively annoying if one has in fact earned the privilege in question (or the privilege one thinks is in question even though in fact it isn’t).

Maybe you can see where I’m heading.

Often these discussions happen between men who have some power and influence and women who have much less. The tricky part there is that usually the men have the power and influence because they’ve earned them. Not always, and even less always all of it – the more power and influence you get, the more you can leverage it to get more and to squelch people who are trying to compete with you, sometimes in illegitimate ways. But apart from inherited “nobility” and people born rich and the like, usually power and influence (and piles of cash) have been earned at least to some extent. In some cases they’ve been earned with real talent and effort.

The word “privilege” can sound to such people like a denial of the earning. Sometimes it even is that.

That’s got to be annoying. You know? “Yes, I’m Mr Big, but I’m Mr Big because I’ve written ten critically-acclaimed best-sellers about science and atheism. Is that a bad thing? And by the way I’m not preventing you from trying to do the same thing. Go ahead!”

So that’s one item. I’d say more but I have an appointment, so later.


  1. says

    Writing ten critically-acclaimed best-sellers about science and atheism is a fantastic achievement, and I seriously doubt that I could do it even flat-out, downhill, and with a following wind. Still and all, it’s less difficult to write an excellent book if you’ve had an excellent education and you’re not expected to get up at 2 am and feed the baby. And regardless of the quality of the book, people are more likely to buy a book about science and atheism by a white male due to unconscious biases.

    It’s not that it’s easy for a man to get power and influence. It’s that it’s even harder for a woman.

  2. otrame says

    I think another thing that gets (unintentionally or not) conveyed with word like “privilege” is “deliberate” and “wanted”. For any decent person who has privilege, an implication that they want, have actively pursued, and have delighted in their privilege is an insult.

    I think we need to be more careful about stressing that wanting, actively pursuing, or delighting in privilege is not what we mean when we talk about privilege. It is not your fault that you have privilege because your society is shaped in a way that gives that to you simply for existing as white, or male or well-off or whatever. If a person accuses you of unacknowledged privilege you should not assume that you are being insulted. At worst, you are being reminded of something you already know.

    That is not to say that flinging “privilege” around isn’t sometimes intended as an insult, and an unfair one at that. That is not to say that it isn’t sometimes used with the intention of ending conversations. We need to acknowledge that this is true and make sure that when we say, “there is your privilege” we are arguing in good faith. We need to say that the way we tell a friend their fly is open before they get up to make a presentation, i.e., not to embarrass but to help a friend avoid embarrassment.

    We should also not use another’s privilege as an excuse to ignore what they have to say. They may be wrong, their view may be distorted by the privilege they can’t see but they may still have something to add to the conversation. That they are wrong and have displayed unexamined privilege does not mean they are not arguing in good faith. Nor does it mean that every PoC poor trans* woman is arguing in good faith. As always, evidence, reason, and willingness to consider the other’s point of view are the hallmarks of honest discussion, even when the person in question is white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-off, neurotypical…(whatever else).

    And on reading this over I want to make sure no one thinks I am excusing the behavior of some of the assholes who get so hostile and aggressive when accused of privilege. For instance, I think it was understandable that Michael Shermer was taken aback when confronted with the sexism of his remark. It probably embarrassed him–it certainly should have. That he has privilege he did not consider in that remark is an act of lack of self-awareness than any of us might be guilty of. How he reacted to it is what really tarnished his reputation, not the original mistake. So remember, it is easy to tell when you are being an asshole: when you act like an asshole, assholes will call you brother.

  3. says

    This article screams “Dawkins” as the case in point. “I’ve done great work in toward humanity’s understanding of evolution, so that obviously means my opinion on gender equality is more betterer than yours, Ms. Muslima.”

  4. smhll says

    We should also not use another’s privilege as an excuse to ignore what they have to say.

    I deleted most of what I wrote and started over, because this touched a nerve for me. The weather is hot here, and it’s easy for me to get angry.

    Most of the time when I see one person in an argument being told they are privileged this happens right after they have said something mean and stupid and opinionated (not evidenced). Sometimes the person who wrote the sentence doesn’t see the harm in it because it doesn’t hurt their feelings. People tend to say “check your privilege” after they’ve read something that they find offensive. I don’t like the phrase “shut up and listen”, but once someone is offended, continuing to insist that they listen as you reinforce the presumed logic of your offensive statement isn’t going to work. Listening to understand why they are offended may help. Not dismissing their POV out of hand is usually better than the alternative.

    The problem is that when we personally have sore toes about “stop and frisk” policies or being demeaned for being emotional or “alien” then we are more sensitive. We have sore points. We hear the dog whistle, and we think through the policy implications of someone’s proposal and feel them personally. We weigh the price if we are going to pay it. (e.g. abortion legislation like the 20+ week ban being a visceral issue for fertile women.) Being more sensitive is not the same as being too sensitive.

    Privilege is like the shield or the teflon that lets certain insults or unfairnesses not get through to you and hurt you. (For “you”, feel free to read the word “oneself”.) When someone tells a commenter that they are exhibiting a privileged POV, it usually comes from feeling/thinking that they have been insensitive or unaware.

    I think I understand that when one is not intending to be blatantly rude it can be shocking to be yelled at.

    So remember, it is easy to tell when your are being an asshole: when you act like an asshole, assholes will call you brother.

    I like the sentiment. 🙂

    But actually, I’m starting to think that maybe it is NOT easy to tell when you are being an asshole when privilege shields you from something like street harassment. Apparently it is very easy for someone who isn’t usually an asshole to say something that is really full of shit and not be able to smell the stink unless they try very, very hard. I mean I know that many assholes are unaware of their qualities. But I think even fairly nice people who overvalue their own opinions, can drop a real stinkbomb unintentionally. And then be indignant when people call them out.

    (Overvaluing your own opinion tends to imply undervaluing the opinion of your opponent.) (And I think my argument just circled around like a Mobius strip.)

  5. cassmorrison says

    smhll – on the G+ Feminism community that’s called sleepwalking sexism. Not intentional at all, simply there.

  6. savagemutt says

    The phrase “check you privilege” is also prone to misunderstanding. At any rate, I didn’t understand it the first time I heard it. I thought it was a command to stop one’s privilege (“Hey, stop being privileged!”) rather than a request to review what privileges one has. I’m a partial, but not complete idiot, so I imagine at least some people have made the same mistake.

  7. says

    savagemutt @8 – I do think “check your privilege” is prone to misunderstanding. But I also haven’t seen it hardly at all outside of things like comment threads at feminist sorts of sites. I think it basically qualifies as jargon. And mostly gets used just in places where people are expected to be familiar with the jargon.

    For an example, and some advice to people generally: If you’re not an engineer, and not familiar with engineer jargon, maybe when you’re joining in a discussion on an engineering forum you should take a little extra care to make sure you understand something before jumping in to your own conclusion and getting all pissy about how insulting your interpretation is.

    It does seem to me many of the anti-feminist types are all upset about how insulting their version/interpretation of feminist jargon is. (For the ones actually being remotely honest.)

  8. Pen says

    I think you are right, Ophelia, but I think there is more to it than that. Obviously, it takes the glow off one’s achievements to be told that they’re less self-earned than previously supposed, but it also takes a fair bit of glow out of one’s relationships with others. We’re brought up to place a high moral value on justice, equality and free and equal relationships with others. No wonder if it’s pretty humiliating for someone to be told their relationships are marked by inequalities in which they have the advantage. I don’t like that in my relationships, does anyone? What kind of man wants to be in a loving partnership with a woman, knowing he is privileged with respect to her, and is very likely a direct channel of society’s disprivileging outcomes into her life? If he believes it how does he reconcile to that? So I can see that there is a huge motivation for people to deny this morally repugnant* aspect of life and attribute other people’s complaints and representations to envy or spite or appeal to roles based in nature or religion as opposed to society.

    *I mean it is morally repugnant because it goes against our deeply held values, not because people in privileged positions are necessarily ‘bad’ or personally immoral in any way.

  9. karmacat says

    I am wondering about the people who hear they are privileged and think it is an insult. I grew up very privileged with parents who love me, who had the money to send me to college and some of med school. It doesn’t diminish the fact that I got into med school and graduated. Although, I am not sure how challenging med school was. It was a lot of memorization and I never got hang of the renal system. Of course, no one did all the studying for me (as much I kept hoping someone would give me an extra memory system). these people may be insecure about their achievements or themselves..
    I can recognize I have a lot of privileges because I am white. My son’s father keeps worrying our son will have a hard time because he is a white male. He doesn’t realize how much money makes things much easier. We can send to a good school, give him piano lessons, etc.

  10. says

    I think the “born on 3rd base, but thinks it’s a homerun” metaphor actually works well; you still have to make it to home base, so you’ve achieved something just not a homerun; but it’s entirely likely that when this person hears “privilege”, they might well hear it as denial that they made it from 3rd to home base at all.

    We should also not use another’s privilege as an excuse to ignore what they have to say.

    there’s a difference between “ignore” and “dismiss immediately because you’ve heard it 1000 times before and it’s not gotten any more convincing since”. As it happens though, most privileged folks think they’ve just given some unique and valuable insight when they’re actually just repeating well-worn arguments. It’s like the creationist who thinks “2nd Law of Thermodynamics!” is a clever argument because they’ve only just read about it; to a anti-creationist activist though, it’ll probably be the 2nd time that week that they get to hear it, and they can likely recite why it’s bull in their sleep (which they may chose to do, but may just as likely decide to just laugh at and focus on more interesting parts of the conversation; or just dismiss the whole thing, if they’re feeling burned out ATM)

  11. iiii says

    Miscellaneous thoughts on privilege:

    Privilege is what you get for showing up looking like a straight white guy. Entitlement is believing you deserve that treatment.

    Privileged people suck at pattern recognition. Partly it’s because we don’t have to look at a lot of the bits that make the pattern. Partly it’s because we’re actively dissuaded from seeing the pattern by our peers and mentors. All isolated incidents, we’re told, and we believe it.

    A lot of people, I think, get all bent out of shape at the mention of privilege because they’ve been led to believe they’re getting ahead solely on their own innate awesomeness. Someone points out that the game is rigged, and they’re demoted from oh-so-deserving to only-wins-by-cheating. Of course they feel personally attacked. I sure as hell did. But we need to get over that, because the game is demonstrably rigged, and we can’t pout that away. Only way to find out if we’d win fair and square is to un-rig the game. (You’d rather whine than make the game fair? Tells me what you think of your real chances.)

    I agree it’s not all that useful to tell newbies to check their privilege. They don’t know what it means, and to the extent that they do know what it means, they feel personally attacked by it. Maybe link them to Harriet J instead?

  12. bad Jim says

    People will go to enormous lengths to deny that they’ve done anything wrong. Cognitive dissonance is pretty powerful stuff; “it’s not my fault” is one of the first defenses we learn. You might suppose that critical thinking would let us avoid it, but it’s not enough to turn a critical eye on yourself, you need another’s perspective, telling you things you’d rather not hear, to which the instinctive response is defensive: “But I’m not wrong!” It’s hard to get past that.

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