privilege-checking: the silencer on the shut-down gun

Oh, the Internet cray these days. I can’t keep up. We got blogs censored over here; death threats over there, general freakout braiding it all together like a horrible Victorian mourning brooch made of human hair.  And Feministing has outdone itself. Just as fat is the most concentrated form of energy in the body, so Feministing (although they sometimes do some excellent reporting) is often the most concentrated form of clueless pomo derp on the Internet.

Today, they’ve interviewed a trans guy performing in a play loosely based on the Tyler Clementi tragedy. It sounds good, and were I visiting Chicago, I’d go see it. BUT. Please shudder at the following excerpt:

AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

JJ: I think it’s a constant challenge – whatever identities we align ourselves with – to face our own privilege, and kindly, constructively call each other out when we don’t.

My aghast-ness springs from the following:

1. A constant challenge for who? Navel-gazing academics and performance artists?  Who the fuck sits around talking about which “identities they align” themselves with? Early-20somethings, mental patients (cray!) and the unemployed, that’s who. I wish I had the time, money, leisure, and/or large academic grant sufficient to allow me to sit around and ruminate re: the “identities I align” with. Mostly, though, I go to work, which robs me of 8-10 daily hours of precious identity-aligning time.

2. “Face our own privilege.” I am all for examining what makes some lives easier/less-fraught than others but “privilege-checking” has become a quick, effective way of stopping productive disagreement; the silencer on the shut-down gun. We feel embarrassed and guilty when someone accuses us of being unaware of our privilege; as though we have hurt someone — it’s reminiscent of childhood, when our mothers scolded us for not appreciating how lucky we were compared to less-lucky kids. Women respond to this kind of chastisement because we don’t want to be jerks; we don’t want to hurt anyone. Because hey, we could be wrong, after all. We better apologize.

Privilege-checking, though, can become a useless and destructive exercise. From a recent piece at Left Foot Forward:

“At the heart of “privilege-checking” however is a kind of narcissism and desire to exercise guilt, which arouses a great many problems of itself. First of all “privilege-checking” assumes that we can only understand things we have direct experience of, as Tom Midlane recently put it. This just needlessly problematises solidarity and divides those who are fighting the good fight against societal injustice into blocks of oppressed and non-oppressed. The protest space is necessarily subjective, sure, but it is also a space for fighting the greater good in union.

Looking deep into one’s soul and seeking self-privilege is peculiarly individualistic and contrary to the spirit of protest.

Secondly, I suspect it only serves to underline a guilt which, stripped down, is ultimately hubristic. I’m reminded of how Pascal Bruckner defined guilt in his book on the subject, as a substitute for power for the middle class European individual in a post-empire age, or a way to appear to reverse the co-ordinates of power relations in society, when in fact the presence of guilt firmly keeps those relations in place.

In this sense guilt only divides people from the guilty (non-oppressed) to the non-guilty (oppressed).”

3. “Kindly, constructively call each other out.” Is it possible to laugh oneself into a hernia? How many actual times has your average liberal been successful in “kindly, constructively” calling another liberal out? How many actual times has it not devolved into a welter of unhappiness and misunderstanding; a comment thread swirling into the dark? Has anyone ever said “Thank you for calling me out on my privilege” without clenched teeth and/or a vicious little masochistic thrill of self-abnegation? Do privilege-checkers and callers-out have any idea how ridiculous the rest of the world finds this exercise? How much a form of non-action? How effective a distraction from the fact that about 400 people have REAL privilege and control most of the wealth in this country?

Also, figuring out one’s own precisely-calibrated levels of privilege is a Byzantine task, i.e., what if you’re perceived as “white,” but your parents are immigrants for whom English is a second language? What if you come from an upper-middle-class background and hold an advanced degree but earn less than $30,000 a year? What if you were once quite beautiful but, now that you’ve hit your mid-forties, no one really looks at you anymore? What if you make a ton of money but you live in a red state and can’t pass as a non-dyke? Do people need a briefing re: the intricacies of your personal privilege before they decide how seriously to take you? Like I said, NOT ENOUGH TIME. GET ME A FULLY-FUNDED FEDERAL GRANT.

4. The greatest challenge facing feminism today.” Speaking of the rest of the world, I’m thinking the greatest challenge lies there. I would like to make a list of challenges that in my opinion (and yours?) present a greater challenge to feminism — which is a political, not an individual, movement concerned with the well-being and fate of women as a class. Such as:

  • female genital mutilation affecting millions of  girls/women around the globe
  • the sex-selective abortion of girl children
  • the murder of girl children
  • the forced marriage (selling) of girl children to older men
  • sex trafficking/slavery
  • honor killings
  • rape as a weapon in relationships
  • rape as a weapon of war
  • women forced into survival sex (rape) as a direct consequence of war
  • the possibility of rape wherever and whenever
  • increasingly brutal, sadistic rape p0rn available for free online
  • the murder of women by boyfriends or husbands (“domestic violence”)
  • inaccessibility of education for females
  • dearth of female political power
  • the victimization of elderly women
  • curtailed or nonexistent reproductive rights
  • compulsory pregnancy
  • preventable, yet unprevented, death in childbirth
  • economic inequality: women do most of the work but own much less of the wealth
  • poverty has a woman’s face, and a girl’s, and mostly they are faces of color
  • prostitution, prostitution, prostitution

What else?

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22 thoughts on “privilege-checking: the silencer on the shut-down gun

  1. Although I would say awareness of the intersections of privilege is something I, as a white woman, think is important – I also think it has become an easy way for liberal white people to show other privileged, liberal white people how superior they are in their cultural competence. And when it gets to that level I begin laughing.

    I think talking about “facing privilege” is to talk about racism and classism, and where we fit in that picture – which is great. It makes me think of great things, but then I read comments about the 2nd wave having no relevance (oh really, because all of our laws surrounding intimate partner violence, VAWA, DV shelters, sex abuse counseling, those just popped up out of nowhere right?), or 3rd wave bullshit about sex work – and I begin to think to myself “what a privileged fucking position to be in to be so fucking out of touch that you think feminism’s biggest issue is “facing privilege.” And then I want to claw my own eyes out and pull my hair out in large chunks because I will gag if I hear that word used one more time.

    I think 2nd and 3rd wave feminists have drawn their lines, and the minute one finds out “which side” the other person is on – there is no longer conversation because people see each other as caricatures by that point.

    Solid list of issues.

  2. I honestly think it’s important, too. Very. Especially when it comes to race and class in America — we have so much work to do, and there’s so much we don’t talk about, ESPECIALLY when it comes to class, because we’re uncomfortable with the socioeconomic striations in our country. We want to believe that we have class mobility, when in fact we really, really don’t. Less so now than ever. And I’m really interested in talking and learning more about that. It’s just,, I don’t think we can get there via EXTREMELY privileged people guilting/policing each other with “privilege checking.”

    Good point about the “caricatures.” I wish it weren’t so. I think we can ameliorate it if we try. All of us could read more, and read to the END. Someone posted this entry to a radfem FB page, and someone there hated it because all she saw was a refusal to face white privilege and internalized racism. She didn’t care, or notice, that most of the horrors I listed ARE HAPPENING TO WOMEN OF COLOR. WOMEN IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. What is happening to women AS A CLASS in China; Africa, India; Afghanistan — that is the biggest challenge facing feminism. Women, trying to live in the world, as whole people without having everything stolen from them by intransigent power structures practicing systemic victimization.

  3. “awareness of the intersections of privilege” – what the fuck does this actually, mean, actually? Do we walk around in a perpetual state of egg shells?

    Hey, here’s a thought – what if we focused on WOMEN?

  4. There is a difference between the challenges facing women and the challenges facing feminism. The list that you’ve given is of the challenges facing women that feminism should be tackling, the challenges facing feminism is to work out a way of how best to go about tackling these challenges.

    Identifying and addressing your own privilage (ie an awareness that you are influenced by dominent oppressive discources) is one way of making your feminism more effective. But this “call out culture” which increasingly makes people feel good about themselves while doing diddly squat apart from making others more entrenched in their own position can be deeply harmful.

    I have been – on occasions- grateful when people point out that I am making assumptions based on my own experience as a member of a dominent group, but frequently – it simply becomes divisive and inhibits actual working relationships.

    There is also a difference between oppressive behaviours and speech based on a lack of awareness and oppressive behaviours and speech based on ideology. For the first, a gentle call out can be useful, but aggressive shouting down becomes PC policing and excludes all but the most politically pure from engagement. For the second, drawing clear boundaries about what behaviours and speech you are prepared to tolerate and then working together on issues for which you share a common goal is far more productive than an extended shouting match..

  5. Excellent post. The greatest challenge facing feminism today would surely be the incredible amount of female oppression occurring?? Which the list you made highlights quite effectively. You’d have to be willfully blind to call that racist or classist – I think the mental masturbation engaged in by most pomo’s and thirdwavers (if they engage in mental anything) is what’s actually racist and classist, and denies the reality of most lived women’s experience. I was done with feminism when it seemed like feminism was about everything BUT women… Until I found radical feminism. How revolutionary indeed, putting women at the heart of feminism.

  6. Thank you for bringing this conversation forward, mhairi — I appreciate your thoughts.

    There is a difference between the challenges facing women and the challenges facing feminism. The list that you’ve given is of the challenges facing women that feminism should be tackling, the challenges facing feminism is to work out a way of how best to go about tackling these challenges.

    Big ups to clarification. How do we tackle these challenges? How do we best spend our energy; money; time; influence? We must do something more effective than wasting time with insular call-out culture.

  7. Truly, I appreciate when someone reminds me that my experience of something is very different from theirs because of something I’ve got going on that they don’t.

    One example: The day I went shopping with two very large female friends. I was excited to look for jeans, and they weren’t, and I didn’t get why until one of them very kindly pointed out that I’m a size 0. Expensive skinny jeans were made with my body type in mind (except they’re always too long). For my friends, shopping for clothes was HELL. They took me to a plus-size store, where I was properly aghast at the selection colors and cuts: Pastels! Happy-face patterns!

    That is a small example, but it has stayed with me for lo these many years as an example of helpful correction. Sweetened by bouts of hysterical laughter at the mall.

  8. Ahh – I wondered how long it would get to this old chestnut.

    There are three oppressions currently competing for space in feminism
    – oppression based on gender (affecting women – ie ciswomen and transwomen)
    – oppression based on sex (affecting females – ie ciswomen and transmen)
    – oppression based on cissex.(affecting trans people ie transwomen and transmen)

    Personally I think the last is actually a diversion, but as it comes in the intersection of the other two and there is hostility towards transpeople – particularly transwomen – in feminist spaces not only is it unable to be ignored, but its started to take over the whole of bloody feminism.

    I think the issue is that feminism has traditionally explored both gender and sex, without making any distinction between them. We need to start distinguishing between fighting against gender oppression and fighting against sex oppression. They are different things and are only linked together because patriarchy tells us about the “correct gendering” of a female.

  9. “[H]ow to put women at the heart of feminism?” That surely is a humongous task, and one I can wholeheartedly stand with. International development (haha, to be incredibly broad) is a huge challenge to feminism today as well, I think, and encompasses a lot of the problems you listed.

    I should be clear, our Western understanding of development and the history of international development are problems, because the very notion of development is rooted in colonialism and is a big bald-faced fucking lie that purports to grant power to nations in the Global South while keeping the Global North firmly in the seat of hegemony.

    I always love reading your blog, Phonaesthetica. Thanks for writing.

  10. Hey Phona, thanks for pointing out the ridiculousness of stating that the greatest challenge to feminism is checking our own privilege. I agree that we do need to be talking about race- and class- based oppression, but I also agree with what is said at left-foot forward, “Looking deep into one’s soul and seeking self-privilege is peculiarly individualistic and contrary to the spirit of protest.” Feminising could use this rebuttal, but I’m sure not going to link it there this time :).

  11. Agreed. I just read the interview at feministing, and the interviewee says the little mermaid is one of her fictional heroes for going against her entire culture, and that she’s “radical” for it.

    Feministing should put up a feministing five about a radical feminist some time. This ‘ish is depressing.

  12. I appreciated the excellent list and comments about colonialism and thought how what was colonialism has morphed into multinational corporatism. When looked at in this way, it seems impossible to change. We are supposed to ban certain companies that use child labor, for instance. Will this make a difference? Doubtful. It will just morph into something else. The porn business is a multinational corporate business.

    At the same time, the whole thing is really patriarchy in its various forms. However, saying “patriarchy is. ..” or “colonialism is. . .” can be a trap. I’ve been struck by the issue of naming the agent.

    The whole issue of “privilege checking” seen in this context. It appears trivial, as you note. Even silly. Plus confusion about the agent. What is supposed to happen when we finish the privilege checking? Will global enslavement end? Will women be safe? What is intended, what is the end result?

    Here you have this megamachine that is patriarchy pervading the world, ruining it for habitation, murdering women at increasing rates, enslaving them. What about naming the agent? Not privilege checking, but naming the agent.

  13. Feministing is not approving this comment I made on the piece:

    “Jax, it sounds like a very interesting play.

    I do question whether the biggest challenge facing feminism today is privilege checking. But I do think the prompt question is a bit of a set up generally, because we have so many primary feminist emergencies occurring that it is hard to pick one. The erosion of our repro rights, violence against women, rape culture, etc. Setting up a hierarchy of priorities can be somewhat unhelpful.

    Also, Ariel? I suppose I’ll have to disagree.

    Best of luck in the play!”

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