I find that there’s a lot of confusion between privilege and power. People think they are criticizing the former when they’re actually equating it with the latter.
So you get people arguing against privilege saying things like “well, I’m a white man and I’m oppressed!” First of all, many of those people feel “oppressed” because some of their privileges are being revoked. Studies show that 50-50 representation in a dialogue makes men feel that women are dominating, because they are used to men dominating dialogue. They might be defensive because their privileges are under attack, or they might misread the situation due to a pre-existing bias.
What I wanted to point out, though, is that this can also be due to a confusion between privilege and power. For instance, a poor or middle-class white man can speak about being oppressed by the government or corporations, and this can often be a valid criticism. But what they’re complaining about is inequality of power, not a lack of privilege. Power, in its economic form for example, is something that both individuals and institutions can have, but privilege is something only individuals can have. A corporation, as institution, can have economic power or legal power over you, but it can’t have privilege.
So there is this common conception that if your life is shit, then you can’t have privilege. This is considered so obvious as to be a truism, but there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Your life is never guaranteed to not be shit. You can have privilege and still have a shit life, and you can have power and still have a shit life. You can be an oppressed, exploited person and still have a good life.
This gets into issues of intersectionality: a person who is white and male but very poor may very well have a shit life. Since we do, after all, live in capitalist societies where money talks, your economic class is no small matter. But it’s important to remember that money is a form of power, not of privilege.
I can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around… I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty and those wounds still run very deep…[But] the concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not in others.
So why is privilege important at all? Because it’s a system of advantages granted to a group or a class of people on an arbitrary basis. Privilege is basically the reverse side of oppression. Black people are treated like criminals as a class, therefore white people have privilege in that they are not treated like criminals as a class. Women as a class are targeted for sexual objectification and sexual harassment as a class, therefore men as a class have privilege in that they are treated like whole human beings. Children are not granted most basic human rights or dignity as a class, therefore adults as a class have privilege in that they are considered to have human rights and dignity.
Having privilege means that you are part of a class of society that benefits from the way institutions oppress some of us and benefit others. It does not mean that you personally always benefit from all the advantages of your class. An individual is not a class. A male homosexual may be harassed for sexual reasons, and adult prisoners have their basic human rights revoked by the State. So there is no guarantee that all members of a given class will experience privilege in the same way. In some cases, they may see no personal advantage to themselves. But this does not deny the existence of the privilege. Personal experience is not counter-evidence to a systemic criticism.
So white people complain that people are trying to impose “white guilt” on them, and reply by saying that they don’t own slaves. This reply is inadequate because not owning slaves personally does not prove that there can be no “white guilt,” since one person cannot represent an entire class. But furthermore, it is pointless for these people to complain of mistreatment, because they are not white people as a class. There is no conspiracy out there to blame any single individual out there for slavery, Jim Crow laws, or the incarceration culture. Systemic and institutional racism is the issue, not individual guilt.
I’ve often referred to people confusing systemic analysis as a form of individual blame. For example, many women feel that denouncing the fuckability culture means blaming them for following it. Many men believe that denouncing male entitlement to sex means blaming them for being men. Likewise, I think that white people feeling blamed for black people denouncing the racism of white people partakes of the same fallacy.
The issue of “reverse racism” is equally relevant. Of course a white person may point out prejudice in a black person’s words. But to call it racism implies that black people as a class are oppressing white people as a class, which is just not true. A given black person may use their power against a white person, which may very well be oppression, but that does not make it racism. Racism is more than a prejudice: it is a hierarchy of “race” (where white people are superior to black people) which is used to justify economic, legal, cultural, and historical oppression. Saying that a black person is racist against a white person is to simply muddle the issue, making a hash out of words that have a clear meaning.