Trying to tread privilege

One of the most frustrating phenomena in the realm of talking about out-group discrimination, whether that be racial or gender or otherwise, is the common appeal to “some”.

“Why do you say ‘white people’ have privilege? Not every white person has racial issues! Shouldn’t you say some white people?”

“Why do you say that men objectify and abuse women? Not every man does that! Shouldn’t you say some men?”

“Why do you say that atheists have to be more welcoming to women? Some atheists are women! Shouldn’t you say some atheists?”

It is a particularly stubborn and tedious argument to have. A large chunk of it is people’s failure to distinguish between universal and general statements. This is a very superficial explanation, though. After all, we have no problem when someone on the news says “New Hampshire went to the polls today.” There aren’t any pedants who jump up and down screaming “don’t you mean some people in New Hampshire? Not everyone in the state votes!”

Most anyone can parse a general statement from a universal one. When describing a behaviour that occurs predominantly or exclusively in a single population, the presence of those who do not necessarily engage in that behaviour is not refutation of the statement. So when, for example, a blogger talks about the things that men call her, the fact that the majority of men don’t engage in that behaviour does not obviate the fact that it is (nearly) exclusively men doing it. The implication that all men say these things does not follow from the statement.

Another common counter-argument against the appeal to ‘some’ is the fact that as soon as you open a tiny crack for exceptions, the entire population slides right through it.

“Well if it’s only some men, and I am clearly not one of them because I’m not a bad person, I can safely ignore this problem.”

“Yeah, that’s awful. Luckily I’m not one of those racist and privileged white people, eh?”

This is rooted in a central misunderstanding of how things like racism and sexism work. We are taught, or we come to believe, that these kinds of attitudes are held because of a central character flaw, or some kind of deficit of compassion. Racist attitudes are held by bad people. Luckily for us, we’re not bad people. Therefore, we could never do anything racist or sexist, and when someone makes statements about a group we belong to, it seems like an unfair broad-brush condemnation.

The issue is not rooting out ‘bad people’; it is recognizing bad ideas. Racism is a supremely bad idea. Sexism, transphobia, homophobia, other irrational prejudices are bad ideas. They are antisocial and destructive, and usually built on a foundation of fallacies, cognitive failings, and misinformation. Being susceptible to bad ideas doesn’t make you a bad person. The measure of a good or bad person is how they act on their ideas, and how they respond when someone points out the problem with those actions.

But because we want to see ourselves as good people, we fail to make this crucial distinction. We then seek to back-fill our explanations for why we couldn’t possibly be in the wrong:

People in my group do something that is racist
Only bad people are racist
I am not a bad person

Therefore (A) it is unfair to talk about it as a phenomenon of my group, or (B) the statement must be amended to some members of my group to allow me to escape.


I can certainly sympathize with this view. After all, it was not too long ago that I was using the exact same argument to deflect from having to recognize my own male privilege. I couldn’t possibly be sexist – I loved women, I had many female friends, I didn’t have any problem working with/for women… I was pure. They must have been talking about those other men; the ones who saw women as sex objects and were abusive and said those nasty things that I would never say.

It took a while, but I eventually learned to see issues of racism, sexism, other outgroup prejudices as a product of cognitive biases, steeped in societal acceptance of certain bad ideas. If we re-ran history, with a couple of changes we might live in a black supremacist world in which white people’s recessive genes ‘explained’ their poor work ethic and failure to thrive in the urban housing projects of the Kampalan metropolis.

The fact is that, unless we are part of the minority group, it is incredibly difficult to understand their perspective, or why some seemingly-innocuous behaviour ‘qualifies’ as full-blown racism. It’s hard to see the little, nuanced stuff as carrying the same weight as the full-blown Big Bad of prejudice – after all, that would make us bad people, and that couldn’t possibly be the case.

The fact is that we exist in a society where these ideas float through the ether. They live, independent of the character flaws of human beings or the intention of well-meaning people. They flow past us like a gentle breeze or a river current. If we have our heads well above water, we don’t notice that we’re moving along with them towards the rapids of overt, destructive prejudice. Our fellow swimmers shout warnings to us, but we simply do not see the danger of drowning. After all, the rapids are all the way over there, and we’re happily treading water over here where everything’s fine.

The longer we allow ourselves to remain content in our ignorance, the greater our peril becomes. The tide of bad ideas all around us move us ever closer without our active participation in them. Simply bobbing in place would keep us in the same safe spot if there was no inexorable force pulling us toward danger; ignoring it doesn’t keep us safe. We have to learn to become active participants rather that looking for excuses or explanations that allow us to escape having to confront the consequences of our own behaviour.

We have to learn to stop treading privilege, and instead find ways to swim upstream.

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  1. unbound says

    I’m not really convinced of your argument here. If racism/sexism/outgroup is a bad idea, then why is the subject of any group being brought up?

    The problem with universal and general statements is that it, by default, creates the very condition you are trying to avoid (that little crack by which everyone slips through). By making the description conditional on the other group being bad, the specifics is exactly what should be discussed.

    We (this community of atheists) do this pretty regularly when discussing theists to the same result. A theist knows the general statement is not true (e.g. all xtians hate thinking), so they become very free to ignore the argument…which they should, because the argument is invalid and is, in the end, ad hominem.

    Discuss the specific value / behavior, and why it is not a good value / behavior, and you have a valid discussion point. The moment you bring in “You theists / whites / men / whatever do this”, you start going down the path of oversimplifying which almost never a good path to follow.

    “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde

  2. says

    “All Christians hate thinking” is not a general statement. It is a universal one. Saying “Christians oppress homosexuals” is a general statement, not a universal one.

    Also, the recognition of outgroups is absolutely not the same thing as racism/sexism. This is a common derailing tactic. You’ve also ignored the substance of the post (that we need to examine our own behaviour rather than assume that criticisms don’t apply to us), which is probably contributing to your rejection of the argument. After all, if you don’t read the whole thing, especially the point, it’s kind of hard to understand what I’m saying.

  3. EmuSam says

    Would it be fair to say that we’ve been brainwashed by being human, and in order to create a more perfect society, we need to learn to recognize and overcome the brainwashing (un/subconscious biases)?

  4. Matty says

    OK I hope I can put this clearly without coming across as a dick.

    I’m a white(ish)* English man and I really don’t want to engage in or encourage racism or sexism. I do understand, or try to, that I have advantages, privilege if you will that others don’t and that merely not discriminating isn’t enough to counter the fact that these are part of a system that gives other people disadvantages.

    My question then is what should I be doing, as a white person to combat racism, as a man to combat sexism?

    *I’m 25% Vietnamese but since no Vietnamese culture has survived in the family and I’ve never been subject to prejudice for my ancestry I don’t know how relevant this is.

  5. says

    Well that’s potentially two different questions. The first is “what can I be doing to combat prejudice in my own life?” This requires you to adopt an anti-sexist/anti-racist mindset, just like you’ve (probably?) adopted a skeptic mindset. You have to learn to scrutinize your own behaviour and be open to the possibility that some of your behaviours may be irrational and may contribute to the prevailing climate of sexism/racism/so forth. Listening is a big part of that.

    The second question is “how do I combat prejudice in the world”, which is a much harder task. Once you’ve learned where your own blind spots are, you can help those around you to recognize their own. That’s part of the reason I started this blog – to discuss the issues and try to provide people who are new to the discussion with some language and concepts to build on. You have to decide how much of this you’re comfortable doing.

  6. says

    “Brainwashed” usually implies some kind of intent, whereas I think in the case of sex/race supremacy, the snake has no head. But yes, we have learned some bad ideas, and being humans with flawed brains certainly doesn’t help.

  7. witless chum says

    Maybe this is an obvious statement, but in my experience as a white fella who works in a small town in the Midwest, (I live in a city and commute to work in a small town. Yay, less traffic.) I hear a fair amount of racist opinions expressed when only us crackers are present. I try to fight as many battles on that score as I have the mental energy to do. Which probably just gets people to not complain about Mexicans daring to exist when I’m around or forward me their emails predicting the White House lawn being given over to growing particular fruit.

    And I try to do that not by saying “Fuck you, you racist bitch.” I tend to try to mock the idea of white people being better than other people, because, hey, look and that sort of ‘people suck’ comedy is sorta easier to do. But I don’t never speak to the person again or communicate that I hate them. Which seems absolutely like white priviledge that I have the distance to be able to make that choice. But I think it makes sense, because just by being the person who doesn’t nod along or stay silent when someone expresses racist sentiments I’m at least making them uncomfortable. Maybe I’m going to change someone’s mind, but I figure I’ll settle for making people uncomfortable to express racist sentiments even in all-white environments.

  8. says

    To add to what Ian has already said, I can think of an example of how I almost contributed to the climate of sexism. A few weeks ago, I began to say to a male friend, “Sure, make a woman do your…” and I was going to finish with “…dirty work,” but I caught myself and apologized to that woman (who was in hearing range) for my about to be inappropriate comment. Sadly, she didn’t find anything wrong with what I was going to say, which may very well be because she is used to such statements thanks to culture. So, that’s the first step — recognize the actions you take that are sexist, racist, etc. that are considered acceptable by the culture around you and start avoiding those actions. Second step is to start calling other people out when they engage in similar behavior…which is definitely more difficult because they may use the “well, my victim didn’t find it offensive” argument to justify their behavior.

  9. says

    Another common counter-argument against the appeal to ‘some’ is the fact that as soon as you open a tiny crack for exceptions, the entire population slides right through it.

    When I began reading this post, that sums up my initial thought very well. Everybody is going to think that they are part of the “some”. In fact (to add an example of back-filling), I have had interactions with a Christian in which she would continually tell me to not judge all of Christianity based on the actions of a few “bad apples” (my words, not hers). I got the sense that I was creating cognitive dissonance for her by connecting her precious belief to moral absurdities. But if I would have been putting in an exception…well, then, in her view, Christianity is not to blame! Some people just twisted around a good idea! Dissonance reduced!

  10. Dunc says

    There’s another important point here: whilst it is (obviously) perfectly possible for a white person to not be racist, or for a man not to be sexist, the fact that we live in societies with embedded systemic biases against women, PoC, etc, means that they (we) always have privilege. Whether I like it or not, the rest of society treats me differently because I am a white, straight, cis, male of reasonable social standing – and there is absolutely nothing that I can do to renounce that privilege. (Well, except maybe dropping out completely and going to live naked in a cave somewhere.)

    Now, when you start becoming aware of these sorts of issues, that can really sting – the realisation that no matter what you do, you will always have it better than others. I suspect that a lot of the push-back we get when we discuss these matters stems from people not wanting to accept that basic fact.

    No, it’s not fair. Life isn’t fair – but we can try and make it fairer. I have privilege whether I want it or not. The only choice is what to do with it.

  11. says

    Having privilege is having privilege; it’s not supposed to be an insult or a dismissal. I don’t pass any moral judgment on right-handers because most everything’s made with them in mind. It’s not the right-hander sitting next to me’s fault I have to do gymnastics to write on a normal spiral notebook and they don’t. It’s just a statement of fact that some people have advantages over others based on handedness, sex, race, religion, family position, etc.

  12. A Bear says

    Generalizing about people is wrong regardless of whether those people are “privileged” or not.
    Saying “white people are racists” is as wrong as “all white people are racists” and is as bigoted as saying “black people are preachy and hate all white people”.
    Generalizing about groups of people is stereotyping and is wrong; it’s what bigots do.
    I expect now you’re going to launch into an ad hominem attack on my intelligence and reading skills, as you did last time I disagreed with you on this point.

  13. EmuSam says

    How about “Large numbers of white people (although possibly not a majority) perform a racist action at least once a year.” It would be nice if I could then add a place to look for statistics.

  14. says

    Whether generalizing is wrong or not is almost beside the point, because we all do it anyway. All of us. All humans generalize. It’s hard wired into us, and its one of the cognitive rules that we use to make sense of the information about the world that we’re bombarded with every single day. To take issue with this sort of concept and dismiss the work of anti-sexism/anti-racism activists because they’re “generalizing about white guys” is to be obtuse.

    IF you believe that people should be treated equally regardless of their race or gender or whatever, then the question shouldn’t be “how can we not generalize?” It should be “how can be ensure that our tendancies to generalize are not causing us to treat people unfairly?”

  15. Brian Lynchehaun says

    ad hominem attack

    This annoys the shit out of me.


    1. You are stupid.
    2. If you are stupid, then you are wrong
    C. You are wrong.

    This and only arguments of this form are “ad hominem attacks”.

    1. You are wrong.
    2. If you are wrong, then you are stupid.
    C. You are stupid.

    This is not an Ad Hominem Fallacy.

    Sure, you may not like it. People who are wrong generally don’t like having it pointed out. Especially when their error has been addressed in the article prior to their erroneous comment. Which indicates that they are stupid and/or lack basic reading skills. (again: not an Ad Hominem. Insistence on this point bears out the “reading skills” criticism)

  16. kerfluffle says

    @ matty: I empathize. When “Shuffling Feet” was posted, it sort of blew my mind. I had been aware of people exhibiting that sort of behavior around me, but I was completely oblivious to the reasons behind it, even though I had benefited from it.

    It was a direct blow to my self-identity. I see myself as non-racist and affected by, not displaying, privilege. Being confronted with my own blind spots was painful. Worse, it felt as if there was nothing I could do. Displays of recognizing privileged can go too far in the other direction and become condescending. Ignoring it would be cruel.

    I’ve finally boiled all those conflicting feelings into this: There are people who move through the world in ways that I don’t experience. When they talk about this, I need to listen. If I start getting defensive, I might be missing something. My best chance of helping is to be part of an environment that encourages people to discuss their experience and makes it safe for them to do so.

    It doesn’t sound like much but it isn’t always easy.

  17. abear says

    You disagree with me; therefore you don’t understand my unassailable opinion and you are wrong.
    You are stupid because you are wrong and disagree with me.

  18. ischemgeek says

    I think having sexist or racist ideas doesn’t make someone a bad person on its own. It’s almost impossible to grow up in any culture without absorbing some racism, sexism, xenophobia or other prejudice. I think it’s the refusal to correct such ideas, actions, or beliefs when confronted on them (and also the refusal to reflect on such ideas, actions or beliefs and basically engage in self-confrontation) that makes a person who holds biased beliefs a bigot.

    At least, that’s always how I’ve felt when correcting people about my gender and sexual orientation since a lot of stuff stems from ignorance. Frankly being pissed at someone who honestly doesn’t know that X is hurtful/offensive is kind of like getting pissed at a fifth grader for not understanding the supramolecular chemistry of carbon dioxide clathrates. There’s no point. It’s the ones who know and don’t care that I get pissed off at. I don’t know if that’s how people who run into other privilege issues feel, though.

  19. says

    It’s closer to: “You introduce a series of straw men and red herrings, some of which I specifically refute above. Therefore, you are wrong, and are objecting for stupid reasons. Therefore, you are stupid.”

    You can check my track record of how I respond when people disagree with me for good reasons. Your reasons are specious, and thus I dismiss you instead of getting drawn into a ludicrous argument. I have no desire to throw more pearls before swine, no matter how much you cry ‘foul’ because you don’t understand why ad hominem is a fallacy.

  20. Pen says

    I’m glad you’re talking about these general statements because you’ve been making me think about them.

    When I hear general statements about an ingroup I belong to I’m afraid my first reaction is to stop and think about how I like hearing whatever was said as it relates to me. I realise you don’t think there should be this confrontation between a statement and the identity or self-image of the hearer, but I think it is inevitably and naturally going to occur for many people.

    Membership of privileged versus non-privileged ingroups makes a difference in that if I heard a general statement about women, I would probably feel free to turn on it as a potentially handicapping stereotype. If I hear a general statement about white people, I will probably make an effort to suppress my discomfort and address the issues involved – but only because I’m already a convert to the view that white privilege and it’s effects are a social problem. I sure didn’t get converted to that view by listening to general statements about white people. (I think it would be interesting to talk about how people do get ‘converted’.)

    The second thing that seems relevant is that members of ingroups are often most acutely aware of differences within their group. As a white person, a large part of my interaction with racial issues has to do with differences in the viewpoint and life experiences of white people and conflict, tensions and miscommunications arising from that. As such, general statements about white people are in direct contradiction with the way I experience racial issues, which is all about difference. I agree they may correlate well with the way a black person experiences them.

    A third point is that many people use these general statements as a way of letting off steam in ways we all know very well are unjust (hopefully not in blogs and other public speech). Honestly, I wish I had a dollar for every person who had over-extended some personal slight to every member of whatever ‘other’ group the offending party seemed to belong to. I could so much with just over 6 billion dollars!! General statements used in a clean way have a hard time shaking off this misuse they’re getting elsewhere.

    The way I feel is that if you want to use general statements, well OK, especially since you’ve made it clear what you mean by them. My own choice would be to avoid them as much as I can. I think it’s possible and usually more productive to express the same ideas some other way.

  21. davroslives says

    Personally, I don’t have TOO much of an issue with general statements. Especially when they’re made by people who have shown, by actions, that they are willing to listen to all viewpoints. I’ve had some interactions, though, with people who reject my input (even though I agree with them!), entirely because I have “privilege,” and therefor my opinion is irrelevant.

    Sometimes I wonder if privilege is a good word to use. It’s RIGHT, and the definition of it is true, but I’ve encountered some people who misunderstand it, and react hostilely. They see a privilege as something positive bestowed upon them by some authority. “What do you mean privilege? I work hard every day, and have to deal with crap at work, etc, etc.” Of course what privilege really is, from my understanding at least, is a lack of roadblocks, and a lack of negative assumptions about you (or a set of positive assumptions about you) that lead to an easier time than someone who does have to deal with those roadblocks or negative assumptions. I’m white, so cops don’t stare at me when I walk into a store. I’m male, so mechanics are less likely to rip me off, and people will assume I’m in a position of authority when my female supervisor is standing right next to me. It’s not some gift basket from the gods, is grease on the gears of life. It’s subtle, and can be hard to spot from “the inside,” and that’s what makes it so hard to combat.

  22. Ruth says

    I think that one reason why people can be so resistant to the idea that they have ‘privilege’ is that they, possibly subconsciously, know all too well what the implications of that are.

    If we know that employment discrimination happens, then we know that there are people out there who were passed over for jobs they were actually the best person for because they were the ‘wrong’ race and/or gender. Logically, for every one of those people, there is another person who ONLY got the job because they were the ‘right’ race and/or gender.

    I’m the ‘wrong’ gender, but the ‘right’ race, so for all I know, it could have happened to me. I can understand that it’s not something you would want to have to admit about yourself.

  23. P Smith says

    “It is a particularly stubborn and tedious argument to have. A large chunk of it is people’s failure to distinguish between universal and general statements.”

    People who criticize poor spelling and writing are labelled “grammar nazis”.

    I suggest the term exception nazis for those who deliberately misconstrue general statements, for those who pretend something was said but was never intended, let alone spoken.

  24. P Smith says

    Addendum to the last sentence:

    and for those who try to infer that extreme cases are the norm (e.g. those who infer all obesity is caused by glandular disorders instead of overeating).

  25. says

    It’s almost impossible to grow up in any culture without absorbing some racism, sexism, xenophobia or other prejudice.

    And instead of saying “I’m not racist/sexist/whatever”, realize that, although you might not be consciously racist/sexist/whatever, your culture is, your culture inflicted it upon you.

    It’s been mentioned around these blogs often the last days, but I can still strongly recommend:
    Go to demonstration, do some of the tests, which meassure exactly that. Even though your conscious mindset is an egalitarian one, your implicit associations might tell you where you need to do work.

  26. ischemgeek says

    The other big problem response is, “But I didn’t mean it that way!” (and I’m guilty of it too sometimes…). Thing that these people fail to take into account is that half of social interaction is how you meant it. The other half is how it’s perceived.

    I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here (or debunking religion to the athiests? We need a secular equivalent to that idiom), but I have an excellent case in point: Once on seeing a really nice and flattering new top a friend of mine had, I blurted out, “It makes your belly look flat!”


    She was understandably hurt by the statement (especially considering she was self-conscious about her belly and I knew that). I apologized and explained that what I meant was that it had a flattering cut… Does the fact that I meant it as a compliment negate that she took it as an insult? No. It was a stupid thing to say, and to tell the truth, I still cringe when I think of it.

    Same thing with these sorts of situations, I think: You can say something stupid and hurtful without meaning it in a hurtful way.


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