A Note on “Privilege”

I’m a straight white guy. I didn’t ask for any of those things, but that’s the way it turned out.

However, there is a segment of the population that declares that I am the beneficiary of those things, and that as a consequence I have some “privilege” which I must at best use responsibly while attempting to abjure it. In other cases, it’s implied it’s something I have to “check” or atone for, a taint of blood for which I must be silent while those not of that blood speak freely.

I ran into this (not surprisingly) at least once in grad school, during my Ph.D. process. In the course of a conversation, I said that I hadn’t tried to oppress anyone, apart from making my preschool daughter pick up her toys. A colleague said, “But what about what your kind has done to women throughout history?”

“My kind? Would you dare use that sort of terminology about any other group of people?”

I say this is an effort toward collective guilt, and I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it. Even if I have this privilege, it isn’t something I sought, any more than I sought whatever talents I may have for reading, writing, or playing drums. I don’t feel guilty about any of those, and I refuse to feel guilty for something I didn’t do.

It would make more sense for me to feel I have to atone for my brother’s murders of our parents — I’m at least directly related to him. But no one expects that — quite the contrary, they understand that Michael and I are distinct individuals. And so with this.

Call it privilege, call it microaggression, or call it macaroni and cheese (although since I enjoy mac and cheese, I wish you wouldn’t), it’s our old friend repressive tolerance again. So call it spinach. I refuse to play.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to A Note on “Privilege”

  1. I like this post, but I think there’s another line of argumentation open to your Marcusean interlocutor: “Fine, let’s forget about the past and what ‘your kind’ may have done to others; what about the privilege you enjoy that is ‘baked in’ to the sytsem, the side effects of institutional racism that benefit you? Forget about subjective states such as guilt or shame, forget about atoning for the past: what can and should we do as a practical matter about the objective privileges you enjoy in the present, and how they disadvantage others?” I concede that most people who take up the cudgel white privilege will be content to wield it for its guilt-inducing potential and will not think that carefully about its alternative applications.

    • profmondo says:

      To that, I’d simply have to note that short of a Harrison Bergeron world, equality of outcome is impossible over a long term, so the argument is based on a false premise.

      • I was thinking more of someone who made the argument on deontological rather than consequential grounds, so that outcomes are secondary to the supposed fairness of the system. Perhaps the chief difficulty there is lies in arriving at some agreement as to what would make the system more fair, since there are no direct quantitative measures of fairness, only qualitative judgements based on various theories of justice.

      • profmondo says:

        Pre-zackly. I believe that “fair” means that everyone follows the same rules, even knowing that will result in different outcomes because individuals are not identical. This is opposed to “fair”=equality of outcome. It’s Nozick v. Rawls again.

  2. Jerome Scott says:

    Like most, I hope for the day when these discussions will be passe’. It won’t be here any time soon, though, because there’s no such thing as equality. When I was about thirteen I came to the grim realization that I was not growing at a similar rate to just about every other dude I knew. That, I soon concluded, had grave implications for my baseball ambitions. Despite my overwhelming passion for the game, a bigger guy had an inherently better chance at hitting the ball harder. So much for the boys of summer. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning, as I was also gifted with an academically crippling case of ADHD which would deny me a seat at that scholarship table as well. I want my slice of the equality pie. It should also be compensatory in proportion.

  3. Pingback: Reading on Target | Professor Mondo

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