Privilege and white dudes

First, I’m alarmed by the fact that the discussion has been so dominated by white dudes who are sick of privilege discourse. That being said, I want to boil down my problem with the term as it has emerged out of that discussion. My problem is not that it makes white dudes feel defensive — that will happen literally no matter what, because white dude identity is founded on prickly defensiveness. To ask white dudes not to be defensive is to ask them to be something other than white dudes (which it is possible to become, or at least I hope!).

The problem, it seems to me, is that privilege discourse the word “privilege” conflates at least three types of realities:

  1. Unjust advantages that no one should be allowed to have
  2. Advantages that, in a just society, would be common to everyone, but are enjoyed only by a limited group of people in the present unjust regime
  3. A lack of awareness that one’s perspective is not the norm for all people — and this can become wilfull ignorance if one reacts defensively to further information (which is what almost always happens)

Now it seems that for most users of privilege discourse in online settings, point #3 is the dominant one. Yet out of the three, it is arguably the least intuitive use of the term “privilege,” which for most people dwells somewhere between #1 and #2. We need good ways of talking about all three realities, and I think we could easily find substitute terms that distinguish among them. For #3, perhaps something like being “wilfully oblivious.” For #2, maybe something in the ballpark of “rights,” though that type of discourse also has its problems. And you could reserve “privilege” for #1, which is closer to the common connotation of “privilege” (as something extra that can be taken away) — perhaps with a modifier like “illegitimate.”

I don’t pretend to know the perfect solution. But I want to emphasize that my goal in writing this post is not to get people to stop doing the kinds of things privilege discourse does — I’m trying to show how those goals are being hampered by the polyvalent meaning of the key term “privilege” and to suggest that swapping in more precise terms might make for more effective and targetted rhetoric that produces less confusion and therefore saves everyone a lot of time and frustration. At the very least, using more precise terms will preempt a lot of white-dude posts beginning “Actually…,” which will be good for the collective mental health of the world.

The goal is not, however, to make white dudes feel less prickly and defensive, because as I said, prickly defensiveness is one of the core pillars of white dude identity. The way to deal with white dudes is to figure out a way to make them a different type of person than a white dude, and that can’t happen through strong arguments or carefully calibrated rhetoric — it’s a matter of figuring out how to jar them out of their subject-position, not “convincing” them to accept some kind of opinion in an extrinsic way. Provoking prickly defensiveness in certain white dudes may actually be helpful here, in that it might shock white dudes with the potential to become something better into realizing how obnoxious white dudes really are. This is a tough thing for liberal activists to come to terms with, I know, because one wants to believe that open, honest dialogue can change everything, but the sad truth is that it can’t.

23 thoughts on “Privilege and white dudes

  1. “suggest that swapping in more precise terms might make for more effective and targetted rhetoric”
    “that can’t happen through strong arguments or carefully calibrated rhetoric”

    Seems confusing.

  2. Yes, that was poorly written. In the first case, I’m talking about effectiveness in terms of conveying the intended ideas. In the second case, I’m talking about “carefully calibrated” rhetoric that is meant to come across as nice, etc. If someone says, “I’d be convinced of your arguments if only you weren’t using such a harsh tone,” you’re not really in a space where arguments are what’s primarily at stake.

  3. I appreciate these clarifications, Adam, and I think they hit the mark. I wasn’t sure that a critique of solipsism (my preferred synonym for #3) would necessarily lead to advocating collective misery.

    Another way to think about this would consider who actually uses the terms. I don’t hear “privilege” (in the sense of #2 or #3) on Fox News. I am using them as stand-ins for the advocates of collective misery (e.g., if state employees have bargaining rights and pension and you don’t, they should lose it). In fact, one might say that advocating that everyone should share one’s own precarious position because it is the natural norm is an instance of #3, solipsism.

    I do question whether privilege-spotting (of the #3 sort) is accomplishing much now, in an era of apparent backlash against justice on the fronts of gender, race, and sexuality. Nevertheless, outside of the Fox orbit, I have often heard and read of critiques of privilege as a call to redistribute property (Cheryl Harris) and proliferate rights, or protections (Patricia Williams). Thus, I don’t think discussions of privilege necessarily lead to an advocacy of austerity, though they can (like any term) be hijacked for unintended purposes. I do think perhaps a bit of defensiveness may have gone into the initial suspicion that those who point out privileges must want to take them away.

    But as for changing white dudes, I’ll have to leave that to another force. After all, some of my best friends…

  4. Actually, if you’re looking to pre-empt a lot of white dude posts beginning “Actually…,” it might be a good idea to swap in a more precise term than “white dude” as well while you’re at it. Are we talking just about college educated, career-track types? Or does Mickey Rourke’s character in ‘the Wrestler’ count as well? Are you talking about my uncle who just turned 60 and is trying to keep up mortgage payments with one part-time job stocking shelves at Sports Authority? Sorry, I know I am just falling into the trap of discrediting myself by displaying a prickly defensiveness – one of the “core pillars” my identity is founded on (would you be willing by the way, to identify a core pillar or two of black male identity?). I have no idea why home-brewing, family-cabin-in-the mountains-having, UC Berkeley-graduating, guys who love sharing their up to date knowledge of climate change science feel so defensive about being asked to recognize that their perspectives are not the norm for all people. But its not hard to figure out why white dudes who’ve struggled to escape the shadow of uneducated, abusive alcoholic parents and small-minded communities that only supplemented capitalism’s efforts to grind them into nothing are suspicious of soft-handed bloggers asking them to acknowledge how many unearned advantages they’ve been given. I guess trashy white guys aren’t the target audience of this post, but it is places like this where these ideas get fleshed out before being written down somewhere more permanent, read, and then discussed on cable news networks that my uncle watches before going to bed.

    Another brief point:

    I meant to comment this on your “White dudes – am I right?” post when it initially went up. I’d say the thrust of that post is right here in this sentence: “Every white dude is entitled to total self-definition, and anyone who perceives him differently from how he wants to be perceived is committing an injustice against his personhood.” Maybe I’m wrong, but my understanding is that you’re asking the white dude to take himself down a notch, because other people are not entitled to this kind of self-definition. Doesn’t this directly contradict your point about spreading “Advantages that, in a just society, would be common to everyone, but are enjoyed only by a limited group of people in the present unjust regime”? Shouldn’t we be enabling the free, self-definition of all, rather than racing to the bottom?

  5. But Zack’s question does maybe suggest a weakness to the general approach you’re taking here – isn’t there a risk that you are attempting to deal with structural problems (the prevalence of individualist thinking; the defensiveness of white dudes) by putting the blame on something that is a matter of conscious individual choice, that is, the precise vocabulary we use? To what extent can we choose terminology that will “preempt a lot of white-dude posts beginning ‘Actually…,'”, given the nature of white dudes? If the resistance is to the idea (and in many cases it probably is), is it really worth quibbling about the term that for whatever reason has come to be used to express that idea?

  6. I may or may not be a “white dude” (after your posts and the comments above I’m not sure I know what one is), and I am probably defensive, but:

    a. my comment on the other thread wasn’t motivated by any umbrage I take at “privilege” talk, my opinion on the matter is that it is part of a discourse that isn’t helpful for people of color, women, or whomever else we want to say is lacking in privilege (yes I have an opinion on this, and no it is not in my opinion inappropriate for me to have one). On the other hand, as a (perhaps) “white dude” I actually DO think the kind of self-examination and analysis of my social role implied in the term “privilege” is my responsibility, I just think it’s at best an extremely minute part of any movement toward anybody else’s liberation, and at worst an obstacle for the latter if it becomes the main focus. On the other hand, my experience with the term is more from my contact with activists (few of whom were academics) than with reading theory, and I defer to my friend Mark Westmoreland on the finer points of the latter, while registering my vastly different experience with “the street” side of things.

    b. I feel like saying one of those really obnoxious comments like “I must have been reading a different thread than you were” because I didn’t notice anything that seemed like white-dude defensiveness, it seemed like a reasonable discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of “privilege discourse” to me. The strongest objection to the term was from a perspective of Marxist disdain for identity politics which, whether you agree with it or not, is a common and theoretically respectable enough perspective that I don’t see how it can be dismissed as defensiveness (it may be true that it is an attractive position for “defensive” people, but I don’t see the point in speculating about someone’s defensiveness when they are articulating a coherent and at least minimally plausible position and aren’t overtly acting defensive about it). Marxists of a certain stripe tend to get very upset about identity politics, but I’ve seen this from various genders and hues.

  7. Your alarm is misplaced. Right now academic blogs have heavily skewed readership and it would be grandiose to expect a single post to alter sociocultural realities. More balanced venues exist to supplement this discussion.

  8. @Voyou – I’d say its worth it. Because when, after a long and difficult struggle to do so, I left my miserable white trash ghetto of diabetic, dead by 66 ,working and unemployed stiffs, bound for the university, I was very excited about joining the collective effort to bring about full communism. But upon meeting actual university liberals in well cut jeans and finding out it was people like myself and our excessive advantages that had all along been hampering the arrival of a just society, I grew a bit disillusioned. But hey, maybe I’m not actually a white dude anyway. Because initially it wasn’t in my “nature” to be defensive. It is just something I learned later in life. So adjusting or not adjusting the terminology to weaken the resistance of whatever I am isn’t what’s being discussed in the first place. And as the white dude and his nature are here being defined, I’d say that category is malleable enough that, despite by phenotypical resemblance, I may not actually belong to that group.

    Also, arguing that the defensiveness of the white dude and individualist thinking are “structural” while the language (and thereby the thinking that leads to that language) used by yourself and other academics in forums like this one are matters of “conscious individual choice” is some pretty HARDCORE white dude vibing. I’d say that sort of thinking describes the “nature” of the white dude more convincingly than any of the other vague criteria being posited over here. More so than even white skin.

  9. White duditude is so much more than skin color! It’s a feeling of wilfully oblivious entitlement, supplemented by defensive prickliness — and it is a reality that I’m sure many non-white, non-male people participate in to various degrees.

    I want to tell you a little story. I came from a partly white-trash background! I used to get drunk with one of my colleagues at a truly swanky institution and occasionally we’d claim in that state that we, the working-class white dudes, were the truly disadvantaged ones in our setting. We had both overcome serious deficits in social training (networking, etc.) and financial resources — almost certainly we had more disadvantaged background than 90% of our students. And yet when people look at us, they see white dudes. That seems unfair, but at the same time, isn’t it a pretty mighty sense of entitlement that wants everyone to take into account my own hard-knock story before they respond to what they see?

  10. Adam, As a foreign non-white male, whose lived in many predominantly white cities across the U.S., I don’t think white-dude-privilege expresses itself all in the same way. I think it would be interesting to see if this “white dude” could be further deconstructed and classified by ethnic and class roots and not in order to contrast one’s findings against the so called “minority”, but rather, in order to use the findings to create a contrast between the white ethnic/class positionalities that emerge. I really think this would be a fruitful conversation: watching the somewhat generic white gaze, gain a little more specificity and concrete rationality and historicity (my experience has been that white-dude-privilege emerges from very historical/cultural dynamics of a specific situation), moreover while turning toward itself (and perhaps against more specific selfs?). Thoughts?

  11. Bzfgt et al.

    Re: activists. We probably have had different experience with activists. We can probably both agree that there is a range. It seems that there might be at least two types of activist: the advocate and the representative. The latter attempts to speak for the group as if the activist is a member of the group (even though this may not be the case). This type often plays up the identity politics game. The advocate, however, attempts to echo loudly the already spoken voices of the group. This requires solidary with the group but not a shared experience of oppression, injustice, and the like (although a shared experience is certainly possible too). For me, I tend to side with the advocate, who I think is less likely to play identity politics or focus on making people guilty.

    Re: privilege talk. If talk of privilege promotes identity politics, then I say get rid of it. However, speaking about identity groups (because the social matrix has already named and positioned groups) is not the same as promoting a politics based on group identity. On the one hand, claiming an identity can be a positive force for social change (e.g., postcolonial critique, negritude, Black solidarity, etc.). On the other hand, being too trapped in an identity narrative slows down social cohesion.
    I would agree that privilege talk is insufficient for breaking about transformation. But, it is necessary. People need to realize their position or constellation of position within a web of social dynamics. Take the Zimmerman/Martin case: Another way of approaching this is by looking how even whites are conditioned by social institutions, norms, and practices. The white person is conditioned to see the Black body as deviant, criminal, etc. She/he doesn’t consciously choose to view Black bodies this way (although of course some do). It’s as if South Carolina’s An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves (1712) or the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) are still at work today in hidden yet nefarious ways–as if whites can be judge, jury, and sometimes executioner if a Black person looks suspicious. In the case of Martin, he would have looked “up to no good” to Zimmerman no matter what Martin was doing. While we ought to pursue ways of alleviating the systemic oppression of people of color, we also need to consider the legacy of systemic racism–both explicit and implicit–that whites inherit. If whites won’t admit their own ideological inheritance, then I think the struggle for justice will move much too slowly.

    Re: “us” vs “them” mentality. If any talk about privilege results in an us vs. them situation, then I think something has gone astray. We all live in multifarious positions relative to one another. We are all conditioned by historical and social forces and we either affirm or challenge those conditionings. In order to do so, though, we need to acknowledge which conditions and social formations unjustly advantage some persons over others. Talk about privilege is one, albeit preliminary, way of doing this.

    [note of clarification: I do think that many in the CRT crowd tend toward identity politics. I’m not actually a defender of CRT. It’s not at all the way I approach issues of race/racism. In the previous comment thread in response to one comment, I simply wanted to challenge the notion that Bell was a liberal and anti-marxist.]

  12. Sorry, I forgot a comment. George Yancy made a comment once that has stuck with me: “There is no nonracial Archimedean point from which she can unsettle racism.” I think privilege talk is one way of dealing with this. For a definition, might we think of privilege as existing when something of worth is held by one group/member of a group that at the same time is denied to a member of another group simply due to the groups they belong. Privilege is when a group’s identity, values, practices etc. are taken as the normative standard. I’ve received tons of advantages for being white, male, and a child of a middle-class family reared in a thriving suburb of Memphis that had a good educational system. I didn’t merit any of that. I don’t merit any of the advantages I receive from that. The advantages I’ve gained from these were/are not based on anything I’ve done or failed to do. Privilege for me isn’t so much about how I individually handle this. Rather, it speaks to the unjust social arrangements that made this possible.

  13. Sorry, too distracted at the moment. I think Adam’s three definitions are helpful analytically. But, I think the actual phenomenon is synthetic of all three.

  14. Most recently I lived in a small city which was extremely stratified, even for a predominately white city. White people, aside from segregating themselves from blacks, latinos, and all the other untouchables, segregated themselves along a number of lines. This white segregation of other whites, was more of mental segregation and immensely passive aggressive. It was rare that anyone directly acknowledged that any such classifications existed. It all came out in a roundabout manner. There seemed to be unsaid rule never to openly avow the gaps, the rifts or the hierarchies that existed.

    Just so you know, there was a tendency for one to come across Lost Cause sentiment, Christian fundamentalism, right-wing ideology, and racism very often. And while the person (a boss, a colleague, or an acquaintance) I would direct my concern would not consider themselves a bigot or anti-intellectual, they always had a ready defence, which was, they knew person who had committed the perceived offense. The character of the perceived offender was generally reinforced. I had mistaken them for someone else.

    It was this sense of knowability that gave away the interesting form classification at work. Hence if you were confronted with white-dude moment, I was regularly given the response, “well you know that’s Mr. So and So,” or “that is Mr. So and So’s son,” or “Oh, he went to such and such high school.” I’d say there were five categories I became aware of, of how this given community knew its members and how its members chose to declare themselves to each other and strangers:

    1. Blood: those with monied (plantations and factories) names that reached to the edges of American history, Civil War or to any of the Postwar Industry.

    2. Clan/Name: While this goes along with Blood, it could also simply be the numerical size of your family which gave your clan a prominence in high school, college or a workplace (Teacher, bosses, pastors and policeman knew you). Being quite patriarchical what your father did was also important.

    3. Denomination: It’s good to point out that religion would be the wrong demarcator here since other religions aside from Christianity do not count. In this specific city the Presbyterian, Episcopal denominations were the obvious higher traditions (frequented by blue bloods, politicians, clans, and intellectuals), while the Southern Baptist (middle-class, working class) was low-brow but acceptable considering after all, one was still a Christian. You could always find a place in one of the other four categories.

    4. High School: Secular private school counted really high and then Christian private schools and then Magnet Schools.

    5. Progressives: Gays, lesbians, artists, entrepreneurs, the nouveau riche, intellectuals and non-whites with strong affiliations in the other four categories.

    I’ve pointed out these categories in order to ask, might it be the dynamics described above which induce a high level of anxiety in which one must always fight (even if passively) for one’s place within one of these demarcated areas of acceptance? And what of the shame of that struggle, or, of not belonging to the one these categories, what is to be done with the shame, if you can’t simply the whole thing a sham? Is it this sense of being stuck between actively avowing and passively disavowing such an intensely classified life which has white dudes hell-bent on finding situations and rightly miscategorized people to flex on?

  15. Mark,

    Re: your first post headed “bzfgt et al.”:

    I am suspicious of both representatives and advocates, both the ones I’ve met and the positions as you’ve described them. Otherwise I strongly agree with everything in your first post. As for your second post, if you had said “X group of people have done nothing to deserve getting screwed over” rather than “I have done nothing to merit not getting screwed over” I’d be more on board with that one too, but the language you use makes me leery. I have little doubt we’d come to an understanding if we had a conversation about it, though (or maybe you’d even persuade me of something or other) but I don’t necessarily want to niggle about it here. In other words, I seem to be in agreement with your most general and important points, even if I still am on the other end of the fence with regard to “privilege.”

  16. I think Adam’s story is helpful, as it points to the fact that privilege is really about positionality, which is to say that it’s about what one can and cannot give attention to, and about what one is or is not impeded by.

    For this reason, though, i don’t the the critical force of privilege discourse can really be addressed by saying that we should want such privileges available to all. The privilege is by nature differential, for the privilege is about being in a position of not having to attend to certain problems. To call then for all to not have to attend to such problems is to avoid those problems.

    Along these lines, i think there’s a real limit to Marxism. For instance, in Will’s citation of Marx in the last comment thread — “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” — the attention still remains on white skin. Black skin comes to attention only in virtue of white skin’s desire to free itself. So this sort of distribution of attention, or calling attention to such distribution of attention, seems to be exactly what privilege discourse is getting at.

    And this is also to say that, as i see it, even intersectional accounts of capital and race are going to fail to be anti-racist. Or, putting it otherwise, the domination of race is prior to the domination of capital. (And the privilege of whiteness amounts to the capacity to not attend to such priority — hence, once again, this is not a privilege that ought to be shared.)

  17. Nyasha, That is really interesting. I think you’re right to highlight the anxiety that goes along with these status dynamics — no one’s status is self-evident, it always has to be reaffirmed and reestablished. This is what I was trying to get at with the “prickly defensiveness.” One’s privileged identity is always already under threat, and that’s an integral part of it.

  18. Corrected Comment (Sorry couldn’t delete the other one): Regarding the sentiment of alarm at white males writing about the fallacy of white male privilege. Frankly I think such a discussion is needed. Racism and this skewed sense of white privilege is not as is indirectly purported by the MSM a black or latino problem. Its a white problem. Hence the need for the white males to discuss the problem. However I think it would be helpful to withhold the abstract language and first ground the discussion in biography and psychology, as Adam did above with his excellent anecdote. The main reason I suggest withholding the abstract language to describe this fallacy is due to the fact that white dude intellectuality (which goes part-in-parcel with the fallacy of white male privilege) can at times apply jargon to conceal the very human vulnerabilities, of self-worth, financial security, physical appearance and social currency, mind you, issues which are bound to all the very serious intellectual discourses of so-called minorities. This is what I’ve found refreshing about Adam’s posts. I think white dude intellectuality tends to assume that all the critical categories are already there to describe a given oppressive or repressive situation (situations which tend to be the situation of the Other). However, if white maleness wants to address the fallacy of privilege then it needs to seriously accept that the dynamics which bring about such a fallacy are a fundamentally a form of oppression (and that was what I was trying to show in my previous comment, that white identity is seriously compromised to the point of oppression by the social apparatus it avows). It has to mine it’s biographies and psyche instead of relying on genuine and yet detached intellectual categories, which keep the impact from expressing the full extent of this subjugation.

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