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:
- Unjust advantages that no one should be allowed to have
- 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
- 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.