Trying to get to grips with privilege theory

Sometimes it’s best to get your head round a particular issue by using an analogy – so here goes… I work as a freelance photographer and recently had to do a photo shoot at a warehouse in Basildon. It was a freezing cold day and having worked for the best part of four hours, I felt frozen to the core. Yet the lads in the warehouse had to put in an eight hour shift in the freezing cold – so that put me in a better, more privileged position than them. When I was working there, some of the lads were loading up a consignment of blankets, sleeping bags and other items which the company had donated to a group helping homeless people in Southend. We all agreed that frozen though we were when working in the warehouse, we were all better off than the homeless in Southend having to fend for themselves on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

This could be described as a hierarchy of privilege with me sitting on top in the most privileged position as I only had to endure the freezing cold for four hours! This analogy may seem flippant to the purists but it’s a useful starting point in understanding privilege theory and seeing where you stand in relation to others. Let’s face it, privilege theory can be a minefield and it’s all too easy to inadvertently put a foot wrong and find yourself blown sky high for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time! So anything that helps in gaining an understanding of it is to be welcomed…

Is there any point to privilege theory or is it, as some commentators have suggested, a way for a certain section of the activist community to signal how virtuous they are? I see privilege theory as an extension of intersectionality that as I’ve written previously, has plenty of merits, so I should see privilege theory as also having some merits. Acknowledging that someone involved in a struggle with you is getting screwed over worse than you are because of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. should really be a matter of basic human decency and common sense.

Listening to someone who is being screwed over in more ways than you can be a useful and educational experience as they could well have some useful insights into the power structures that dominate the society we endure and more importantly, some useful tips and tricks on how to fight against them. The aspect of privilege theory that says those who are more marginalised, exploited and oppressed need to be able to have a voice should be taken as a non-problematic given, with one caveat… Namely that the range of experiences articulated be aggregated as far as is possible in order to come up with a coherent analysis of the situation and more importantly, a strategy to deal with it. That means those of us who are perceived as more privileged also being able to take part in the discussion in a role of solidarity to help to formulate an analysis and a solution.

Check your privilege! This is one statement that delivered in the wrong tone, can get peoples backs up and start to drive them out of activism altogether. We live in a deeply flawed and dysfunctional society and it’s a struggle to avoid internalising some of the shite assumptions that underpin it. Some of us do out level best to recognise that we have inadvertently internalised some crap assumptions and try to not let them creep into our conversation or the way we behave. But you know, we’re only human and sometimes we slip up and come out with stuff that on reflection we shouldn’t have. Shouting at someone who’s slipped up to ‘check your privilege’ isn’t going to help matters in any way, shape or form.

Following up ‘check your privilege’ with ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ only serves to make the situation even worse. Believe it or not there are some of us in activist circles who have not had the benefit of a university education and might need a few pointers to resources that will educate us as to how the existing structures of power screw some groups over more than others. So instead of coming out with a snotty ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ response, how about showing some common human decency and help to point people who want to learn more in the right direction?

What makes things really shite is when someone you don’t know makes assumptions about you based on your appearance. I may be white, male, working class and (just) the wrong side of sixty but it doesn’t mean I’m narrow minded, set in my ways and not prepared to listen to a different point of view. All I ask is that if I make an inadvertent slip, that could well be down to the jingoistic, patriotic shite we had rammed down our throats when we were at school in the 1960s. Please accept that not everyone is perfect and in what is still a racist society, with the best will in the world, dodgy assumptions do get internalised. All we ask is that we’re helped in acknowledging and overcoming them rather than written off as uneducated trash.

It’s all about the context though… If I’m being pulled up over an inadvertent slip, how I react very much depends on who is doing the pulling up. If for example, I’m being pulled up by a woman of colour who is at the sharp end of the shite society throws at her ranging from having to look over her shoulder to avoid any racist bonehead who wants to abuse or assault her through to trying to avoid unwanted attention from Home Office immigration vans, I’ll listen to her and happily acknowledge my error. That’s because that with her experiences, it’s probable that she’ll have some pretty sharp insights into the way power structures work that me in my relatively more privileged position may well not have picked up on. Listening to her story will be an educational experience and an act of much needed solidarity.

On the other hand, at the end of 2013 when an Oxford educated writer from a well off background with a regular column in a left leaning weekly publication pulled me up in an online discussion and suggested I ‘check my privilege’ please forgive me for having gone ballistic! This was in relation to a massive online row involving numerous participants over comments made about the Multiculturalism & Identity Politicshttp://www.iwca.info/?p=10146 – article I wrote for the IWCA back in September of 2009. At the time this happened, I was scraping a living as a door-to-door leaflet deliver on the streets of Thurrock while struggling to deal with what was then an undiagnosed prostate condition. Being told to ‘check my privilege’ when I was feeling anything but privileged didn’t exactly help matters. As I stated earlier, it’s all about the context isn’t it?

There are certainly merits in acknowledging where people are being screwed over in more ways than you are, listening to them, showing solidarity and being able to aggregate their experiences with those of others to develop an analysis of a situation and devise a strategy to deal with it. This should be one of the basic building blocks of any movement that’s serious about delivering radical change.

Where it goes wrong is when certain elements in radical movements twist privilege theory to suit their own agendas of shutting down debate with people they disagree with. I’m not talking about debate with right wing bigots because we don’t debate with them! I’m talking about the disagreements we have in radical circles where people in a certain clique shut down debate with any other radicals who they disagree with by saying ‘check your privilege’ in a tone which pretty much suggests they’re beyond redemption. It’s this holier than thou attitude from certain elements that’s creating a level of toxicity which is driving good people away from the movement. Given the dire threats we face from a resurgent right, we cannot afford this level of division so please, can we all just chill out, learn to accept each others imperfections and then work together to overcome them?

Dave (the editor)

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