Siggy, over at A Trivial Knot, has a new post up with some interesting things to say about Privilege Theory and its successes and limitations as a lens through which to examine certain social dynamics.
One line in particular resonated with me, not for how I view Privilege Theory, but for how I view Intersectionality. It starts when Siggy asks how to evaluate a theoretical framework like privilege or intersectionality:
Do you just think about it theoretically? Or do you look at the results? And if we do look at the results, what kind of results do we pay attention to? Do we limit ourselves to the cases where people have “correctly” understood the framework, or do we also pay attention to how the framework is commonly misunderstood? Do we just look at how SJWs respond to the framework, or do we also look at how effective the framework is at persuading people on the other side?
The longer I pay attention to conversations about privilege, the worse it looks. “Privilege” seems to be systematically misunderstood by both proponents and opponents, and those misunderstandings feed off of each other.
While Siggy is speaking of privilege specifically, I used similar questions to come to similar conclusions about intersectionality more than two decades ago. Interestingly, though, I disagree with Siggy’s further conclusion that the privilege framework must be replaced:
I have rarely seen any conversation made productive by talking about privilege, and I have seen more than a few conversations made unproductive. I increasingly feel these problems are intrinsic to the privilege framework itself, and that usually some other framework would perform better in its place.
Intersectionality has times when it is less successful at describing important phenomena that (supposedly) fall within the theory’s embrace. But privilege really doesn’t, as far as I can tell. Privilege is a simple turning the traditional analysis of disadvantage on its head: if a disadvantage exists, then it exists relative to some baseline. It is precisely as accurate to reset the baseline to the level of those currently described as having a disadvantage then speak of an advantage for those at (or above) the former baseline.
Siggy seems to believe the the privilege framework fails in important ways because it is “systematically misunderstood”. The same is certainly true of Intersectionality. Take the bio of Shiv here on FtB. Now, I love Shiv. I learn a lot from Shiv, not least because I don’t pay enough attention in what is going on in my country of residence since my reading habits and political interests were well-entrenched before I moved to Canada. But Shiv also teaches me things about what is happening in current medical, sociological, and psychological research that relates to trans* people and to gender. So I hope that we can take my deep respect for Shiv as a given. But having said that, this very smart, very educated person who is deeply familiar with intersectional feminism includes this in her bio:
How many intersections can you cram in one feminist? Trans, queer, leather girl, poly, sex-positive, survivor, social anarchist, and of course, atheist.
Shiv here is listing marginalized demographics and marginalized perspectives. But Intersectionality as a theory isn’t about marginalized demographics that happen to co-occur. It isn’t only about marginalized demographics at all. It is about how membership in one demographic affects one’s experience as a member of another demographic. For Black women, being a woman affects how Blackness is experienced. Being an émigré affects how being Latina is experienced. This is certainly true. But this is not in opposition to the idea that being a man affects how Blackness is experienced, or being an émigré affects how being white is experienced.
As a white woman, I am just as certainly occupying an intersection of race and gender as a white man or a Black woman – no more, no less. One could certainly describe thoughts, theories, lectures and writings as more or less intersectional, but that would merely be an indication of how much (and how well) these things talk about how one experience is altered by another. There is a theory that was conceived only to speak of disadvantages: that theory is Subalternity, and was developed primarily by South and Southeast Asian writers in response to the challenges of colonialism. Intersectionality, however, is merely about what happens when two (or more) things collide. There is nothing in the essence of the theory that specifies that the colliding things must be tied to experiences of marginalization.
The language Shiv uses, however, certainly is not ignorant or careless. Although intersectionality isn’t a theory only of disadvantage (but rather a theory only of interaction), misunderstanding of intersectionality is common, and Shiv is writing for the whole of the internet and must therefore use language that reflects as well as possible not merely the theory as actually conceived, but also the baggage the nomenclature has acquired.
So would it be reasonable to say that intersectionality is flawed inherently, that its failings
are intrinsic to the [intersectionality] framework itself, and that usually some other framework would perform better in its place.
Well, yes and no.
The misunderstandings of intersectionality come about not least because majoritarians reject intersectionality. When the first white people to become familiar with intersectionality insisted that their lives are not intersectional because being white is “normal” and therefore there’s nothing about whiteness with which other experiences might intersect, they were deliberately rejecting intersectionality, and frequently purposefully misunderstanding it. It’s true that this majoritarian perspective (surprise!) spread to people who do not care about social justice faster than the details and insights of intersectionality spread to those people. Thus it’s fair to say that most people genuinely misunderstand intersectionality rather than purposefully misunderstand it. But the problem with this misunderstanding isn’t inherent in the theory. The problem is inherent in majoritarian culture.
If we invented a new term to replace intersectionality in an attempt to get people to understand that being white affects how I and other white people see the world, that new term would be subject to the same academic and public attacks and for the same reasons: majoritarians want whiteness to be invisible, neutral, unstudied. Though they complain about Black Studies departments and want to know why there aren’t White Studies departments, those same majoritarians would vehemently reject any department that actually looked seriously at whiteness in a depth and manner suited to the resources implicit in creating a university department.*1
So, no. This public dynamic of treating intersectionality as (appropriately) focused on marginalization rather than focused on interaction would continue under any name or theoretical model. On the other hand, “intersections” are transient things. In math, they are zero-dimensional. In our lives and in our conversations and even in the academic model of intersectionality, they are most frequently visualized as crossing streets, with traffic streams coming together briefly, affecting each other for a moment, then moving on separately. Now this is a problem that is actually inherent in the metaphors and models of intersectionality. As a result, some people now embrace a model that is as yet little-used but has some strengths to recommend it: confluence.
This latter theory visualizes flowing waters coming together and continuing to flow together – but not indefinitely and not without some separateness. Laminar flow in fluid dynamics speaks of flow with little turbulence, where layers of a fluid might remain distinct. Slow rivers crossing flat lands in warm climes might resemble this: warm water is more likely to rise through the water column and remain atop it, the sun heats the top layers more effectively, so the already top-most layers get the majority of the sun and thus very much tend to remain atop. Two streams flowing together in such an area might result in some mixing, but with the majority of the cooler stream’s waters condemned to the bottom of the water column, unable ever to rise. Use of confluence allows us to describe interaction over time, while intersectionality was coined to (and frequently limits itself to) describe interactions that happen at specific moments. Though many intersectional theorists do try to describe interaction over time, the nature of the intersection metaphor makes intersectionality less helpful in those efforts than an alternative metaphor, like confluence.
Now that we have a better understanding of when a problem might be inherent to a theory, model, or metaphor, and when a problem might inevitably plague a theory without being inherent to the theory, we can go back and examine privilege.
Privilege, like intersectionality, challenges the default. The entire point of speaking of privileges rather than disadvantages is to make the point that race affects white people too. When Lakota or Hmong are disadvantaged, it is easier for white people to speak of race as a problem for those people and to insist that race doesn’t (or shouldn’t) occupy white attention. The language of disadvantage erects a Somebody Else’s Problem Field, and we know what happens then. The language of privilege was developed not to more successfully articulate the suckage of elevated maternal mortality rates among non-whites. The language of privilege was developed to attack the Somebody Else’s Problem Field.
And so what happens when the SEP field is attacked? Well, pandemonium, of course. Majoritarians might actually be confronted that racism or sexism or religious oppressions are their own problems, things at which they must look, things which they must integrate into their own perceptions of reality. They don’t want that. They can’t have that. And so they push back: hard.
Of course these conversations aren’t comfortable. Of course the conversation would achieve its goal more easily if all you want to do is get across some statistics about how many resumes are circular-filed for presenting the wrong name or listing the wrong extra-curricular activities. But that’s not the purpose of the language of privilege.
So maybe you’re right, Siggy. Maybe conversations using the privilege model are frequently difficult. To the extent that people attempt to communicate simple statistics about demographics disparities while using the language of privilege, you are even correct that certain conversations are less effective when they include the model’s language. However, the model of privilege isn’t flawed. The language of privilege does exactly what it is intended to do, and this is different from the language of the intersection which fails to discuss interaction over time when certain proponents wish it would do just that. Rather, this is equivalent to the use of intersectionality for its intended (and quite privilege-related) purpose: rendering visible that and how empowered status affects lives every bit as much as marginalized status does.
When privilege is used as it was intended, it meets resistance. It meets intentional misunderstanding. It meets misunderstanding foreordained by a lifetime of majoritarian lessons. Privilege may be misunderstood, but where is the blame for that misunderstanding? Siggy helpfully suggested that when evaluating theories of social behavior and social power, we should ask
Do we just look at how SJWs respond to the framework, or do we also look at how effective the framework is at persuading people on the other side?
But if you are a person attempting to evaluate the success of privilege, please remember that even if the framework is ineffective or marginally effective, we must investigate the source of that limit on a model’s power to create change. Is it inherent to the model? Or is it an inevitable resistance to any effort to create change?
In my experience, the privilege model functions well in its intended role. Indeed, the harsh resistance to it shows that the majoritarians among us do understand the model. They simply reject it. In considering something as serious as reformulating or replacing a model, I think we need to be careful in analyzing the sources of a model’s limitations and whether those are general and would affect any language or metaphor used to advocate change.
I would be happy to advocate more effective use of concepts related to disadvantage and advantage, but I can’t see any way that privilege runs any risks that aren’t inevitably encountered by any such effort.
*1: I personally would love to see a university department dedicated to studying whiteness and the perspectives of white people as “white perspectives” rather than “perspectives” or “popular perspectives” or any other euphemism that erases the intrinsically white character of so many perspectives and experiences that are linked to white culture.