Rethinking Privilege; Pursuing Justice

I have written and rewritten this article more times than I have for any other article, because what I say here is sensitive but critical, so I want to make sure I say it right: privilege, and the narrative which surrounds it, has turned into a problem. This is not to say that privilege is wrong, because it is not. The things it highlights are real, so please do not think that I am a straight white male Protestant from an upper-middle class family trying to discount racial, gender, or other types of inequality. And do not suppose that I am trying to couch inequality in a light that makes me and other white people look better. I want to refine the narrative in the ways that I think will bring us back to the end goal we are all seeking, which is justice for all.

Before I start, I would like to recommend that everyone read Drew Hart’s piece, Beyond a white privilege model, in the Christian Century. He touches on a lot of the points which I had in mind when I first began writing this piece, and his observations are top-notch. Reading that article was a breath of fresh air for me, because I had felt as though I were challenging that which should not be touched when I discussed with other progressives the shortcomings of privilege as the central framework for social justice.

In short, the problems with privilege have largely to do with three things:

  1. The refocusing of social justice on the dominant class
  2. Its tendency toward unproductive guilt
  3. The imprecision of the term

Hart touches on the first two of these issues in his article, and I believe these are the most critical. In fact, the third issue may take care of itself as we adopt new terminology to solve the other problems, but it is worth exploring the issue to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Refocusing on the margins

I have read seemingly-countless articles written by white people about how they have privilege. This is not itself a bad thing, but it is not enough. By contrast, I have seen very few white articles discussing the nature of the problems facing minorities or delving into the structures which support institutionalized racism. Case in point, I have heard little or nothing about the Drug War in the entire coverage of Ferguson and Mike Brown, but the Drug War is the very heart of the school to prison pipeline.

There could be any number of reasons for why people rarely move beyond discussing privilege, but I will guess at a few. I cannot make direct accusations, as this is speculation as to others’ motives, but I will instead leave it to the reader to examine him/herself to see if any of these apply.

Firstly, talking about privilege affords a certain degree of moral license; that is, having sufficiently acknowledged our privilege, we can now go home for the day, because our work is done. This is an incredibly selfish approach to injustice, because it turns others’ plight into good moral feelings for the dominant class; however, it is an especially pernicious mindset, because these feelings of moral satisfaction occur automatically and without our notice. We have to be conscious to avoid discussing privilege as a sort of therapeutic exercise, because it is not about us.

Secondly, people may not feel like they are supposed to give this kind of input. This is closely related to the second overall problem with privilege: unproductive guilt. It can be distinct, though, in that some may simply be mistaken about what addressing social justice requires of them. Because there is such a great emphasis on terms like “voice” and “platform” and who is in control of these, the dominant class may feel hesitant to use its own voice/platform to speak directly to the subject, leaving that strictly to people on the margins. This may be a simple mistake of thinking that this is an “either/or” rather than a “both/and” problem: the dominant class needs to give a platform to the marginalized, and it needs to speak to the issues.

Whatever the case may be why the dominant class fails to move past discussing privilege, it needs to happen. If I had to suggest a new center for the social justice conversation, it would be — and this should not be a surprise — justice. This is the entire point, is it not? –to seek justice and rectify injustice? If there is a better center, then someone please point it out, but if we frame the conversation around justice and the lack thereof, then the marginalized stay in focus at all times.

This will grow clearer as I discuss the imprecision of the term “privilege”. The mental motion accompanying an invocation of privilege only places us thinking about the person benefiting from that privilege, because we do not structure our societies around privileges. That is, privilege does not lend itself to an understanding of the bigger picture; it focuses us on the privileged class. Our vocabulary should instead refocus us on the goal. A justice-based vocabulary always invokes the question of who suffers from injustice.

Rather than consider this in the abstract, consider an example. In the privilege framework, we would say that it is white privilege to be treated with respect by the police. As I say this, it throws the focus back on me and makes me feel bad that I am treated respectfully, but this should not be; the problem is that black people and other minorities are not treated respectfully by the police. Reframing this in terms of justice — and bear with me, as I am experimenting with the terminology — we could call fair treatment by the police something like “selective justice” in order to demonstrate that (a) it is just for someone to receive such treatment, and (b) such justice only goes to a certain portion of the population. This raises the question: who was not selected? And the hope is that this inquiry draws our attention back to the margins.

Overcoming guilt

Through no fault of my own, simply by being born, I entered a world where I was a member of most every dominant class in America besides the ultra-rich. While I do want to do something about the fact that there are dominant and marginalized classes, I have absolutely no intention of sitting around feeling guilty about something I had no part in creating. Rather, I will simply refuse to be a part of the systems which perpetuate my dominance — no guilt required.

Perhaps because of the influence of evangelical moralism on American culture, the Internet discussion surrounding the privilege narrative has grown, in my estimation, self-righteous and moralizing. The trope of the Internet Social Justice Crusader is all too common, and such people seem intent on making people feel bad about the privileges (selective justice) which they enjoy. I would cite examples, but I do not wish to offend certain people engaging in what I assume to be some well-meaning but misguided efforts.

I had problem enough overcoming the life-crippling guilt that came with my prior evangelicalism. I have moved on from that, and I have no interest of going back. I do not believe anyone else should, either. Misplaced guilt is a place of stagnation, because there is no course of action one can take to overcome it. Productive guilt corrects fault, but people born into an unjust circumstance share in no fault. The person of privilege (selective justice) then is stuck with guilt and no recourse to overcome it. Granted, there may be a temporary corrective period during which one admits to past mistakes which abused a position of dominance, and guilt may be a temporary salve to cure vice, but it is not a position where we need to stay.

A better alternative would be honesty and sorrow. We need to own up to the fact that we still enjoy the benefits of selective justice, but we do not need to feel guilty about something which we had no part in creating. We also should feel intense sorrow that there are those who continually experience injustice. These are both productive emotions that we should use to supplant the thoroughly guilt-ridden and moralizing narrative which pervades the Internet.

Additionally, we need fewer self-deprecating diatribes from people of the dominant class talking about how bad it is that they have privilege. As stated earlier, this has the effect of pretending we have done something of substance toward the cause of effecting justice for all. Such diatribes could pass as Calvinist rhetoric with but a few careful word-swaps, trading “privilege” for “total depravity” or “fallenness.” I am sensitive to such bullshit, for lack of a better term, and it strikes me as pure self-serving false humility, especially given the aforementioned dearth of articles tackling relevant issues besides privilege. I have said enough of this earlier; we should avoid self-deprecation as a source of good moral feelings.

Making Relevant Distinctions

If we start reframing the problems we face in terms of justice, these last problems will likely disappear of their own accord, but I will argue this point just to illustrate further how we really do need to move past privilege to a new framework.

Consider three different scenarios:

  1. White people being treated fairly by the cops
  2. White people opting out of a conversation which forces them to acknowledge injustice
  3. Only offering services to white people

These each have a remarkably different character, yet all three lose their distinctions and become a single concept, “privilege.” When we frame the conversation in this manner, it prevents us from making the relevant distinctions that we need in order to be able to address each problem correctly. The list above is hardly comprehensive of all the different sorts of things that fall under the “privilege” heading, but allow me to attempt to categorize each in the proposed new framework:

  1. Selective justice: explained earlier, this is a just treatment for white people, but it needs to extend to all.
  2. Exploitation of justice/weaponized justice: the person opting out uses their just treatment as a means to ignore others’ problems.
  3. Injustice: this is a direct offense.

The terminology I use here is not set in stone; this is just an early attempt to reframe the problem. Even still, it should be clear that in this new framework, each term gives an implicit reference to the marginalized; at no point is only the dominant culture in view. I highly recommend that we recenter the conversation around variations on the theme of justice/injustice, because justice is the ultimate goal. Any implication that there is less than perfect justice serves as an impetus for people to rectify that condition, whereas privilege tends to be an unwieldy concept that variously angers, confuses, or wracks with unnecessary guilt.

I should point out that the essay by Peggy McIntosh which helped shape the current state of the social justice conversation, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account, is an imprecise first foray into the subject by its own admittance. It is, as she says, “not a scholarly analysis.” We should take this to heart: her essay only intended to set the ball rolling on the conversation and was not intended to be a final word on the subject. Still, I find many articles on social justice issues following her example to the T as though she had written the definitive treatise on all things social justice. We should not take offense if someone wishes to correct our course, then, because the one who set the course seems to have desired someone to help correct it in the first place!

So while my proposed vocabulary is not final, either, we should take steps to avoid the pitfalls of McIntosh’s model, which is far too much of a blunt instrument. Better explanatory systems mean more convincing arguments, and more convincing arguments mean that more people will side with justice rather than perpetuate injustice through ignorance. We should leverage our critical and creative thinking skills toward the development of better frameworks, vocabulary, and argumentation rather than adhering to the old framework as though it were dogma.

Final thoughts

Much of this essay has come out of a conversation with a friend over the nature of the privilege narrative. He makes a strong contention that we should allow the people on the margins to frame the conversation in terms that they find acceptable. I really do want to agree with him, but I find this hard to accept in full. I agree that the terms of the framework should be acceptable to those on the margins; however, as one gifted with philosophy and analysis, I would consider it a waste not to help and provide feedback.

Bear in mind that McIntosh was framing the discourse on privilege from the position of dominance; however, if there really are problems with the nature of the discourse as set by those on the margins, then my first intuition is that I should raise my objections respectfully — not to delegitimize the experiences of those on the margins but to enhance the nature of the dialog. And so it is that I offer the contentions of this essay: not as a final word to silence the people on the margins talking about privilege but as a good faith effort to help bring about needed changes to our society. I am certainly open to correction and critique.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
This entry was posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

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