Privilege is a process/system; not a thing to accept or reject.
But knowing how this process/system of privilege works helps us all to understand, recognize, change and reconfigure the structure of privilege in which we are all more or less in. We cannot take ourselves outside privilege, but we can let other people come inside it. Our first step to this reconfiguration would be to see and acknowledge the privilege instead of outright denial of it.
The defensive and irritable feelings that whites often experience when they come across words like “white” and “racism”, “privilege”, etc. are based on a fundamental misconception of our relationship with society. Our culture makes us think that individuals are just individuals and a collection of individuals is called society as if there is no dynamics between individuals and society.
To go beyond this individualistic model, our relationship with society can be thought with an analogy of bricks and building. Individuals as bricks constitute building but the plan of building also determines the size and shape of bricks it wants. So individuals and society have a dual relation: individuals shape society but society also influences or shapes individuals.
If we understand it, we will also get the idea that no males/whites/heterosexuals are themselves responsible for male privilege, white privilege, and heterosexual privilege. It is the plan of a building or a vision of a society which makes all the difference.
The following Q & A list may help trigger some useful ideas about the reciprocal and dynamic relation we have as individuals with the society we live in. Some of the questions and answers require detail explanation and I will make it. But you can read and think for yourself first. Here we go.
- Are you saying that white people are responsible for white privilege?
- Does ableism exist simply because able persons exist?
- Whites often think that racism is a problem that belongs to people of color. Racism doesn’t cause harm to any interests of whites.
- Is gender discrimination a problem of women only? Doesn’t it affect the interests of society as a whole?
- Whites don’t want to look at racism. There are plenty of other interesting things to think about.
- Do men want to think about sexism, heterosexuals about heterosexism, able bodied about ableism?
- Whites/nonwhites are just born that way.
- Yes, then why/how does society attribute meaning on the color of skin?
- Would you think that just because women are born that way should make men entitled to put them under oppression?
- Knowing about white privilege makes me feel bad as a white person.
- Should knowing about male privilege make men feel bad as men or should men have something else to do?
- I didn’t want white privilege. It just happened to me. What can I do about it?
- What can men do about male privilege, heterosexuals about heterosexual privilege, able bodied about ableism?
- I am a white person. But I don’t feel any privilege.
- Can you measure your weight with a thermometer?
- I am a woman. But I did not face any discrimination. I am a black person. But I didn’t face any discrimination.
- Would you say that just because you somehow didn’t get wet in the rain, the rain is a myth?
- Stop. What’s the point? Some whites/males/heterosexuals are also oppressed.
- Does able bodied persons get oppressed just because they are able bodied?
10. My male/white/heterosexual privilege doesn’t necessarily make me happy.
- Wouldn’t you have other struggles to pursue even you were born a prince?
Note also that because oppression results from relations between social categories, it is not possible to be oppressed by society alone without real humans as oppressors. Also, a society isn’t something than can have privilege. Only people can do this by belonging to privileged categories in relation to other categories that aren’t.
Finally, being in a privileged category that has an oppressive relationship with another isn’t the same as being an oppressive person who behaves in oppressive ways. That males as as a social category oppress females as social categories, for example, is a social fact. That doesn’t , however, tell us how a particular man thinks or feels about particular women or behaves towards them. This can be a subtle distinction to hang on to, but hang on to it.
In fact, we must if we’re going to maintain a clear idea of what oppression is and how it works in defense of privilege!
Let’s end with some great observations by Harry Brod:
“We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be outside the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way which challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions are.”