What people have not understood when I say “privilege theory is problematic”

May I be honest? I don’t really understand the ‪#‎crimingwhilewhite‬ hashtag as it seems to often imply not that non-white (and let’s be honest, non-most-Asian too) shouldn’t get mistreated, but often just as easily could imply that everyone should be treated equally shitty, it would be okay. This is one of the implications of the privilege discourse that I don’t like people don’t seem to get: you can remove EVERYONE’S privilege equally just by oppressing the shit out of everyone, but not by liberating anyone. Again, I am not saying what “privilege” theory is trying to describe is not real, but what is actually going on structurally coded oppression and privilege is way too soft a word and with implications people don’t think about. I sometimes think its acceptance now by all but the most reactionary elements of our society indicates that people in the know actually realize the implication.

While basic human rights was a myth, the moving from “formal rights” to “formal privilege” is an objective degeneration of liberal discourse. It is more honest about how things function, but the idea that everything is being framed negatively in this matter doesn’t even get acknowledged. One points that out, one is told one is denying privilege and thus rejecting oppression, but honestly the former does not follow from the latter.   Furthermore, while racial, sexual, and gender issues cannot be subsumed under a rubric of class, trying to understand them outside of class or as something that is not structural necessary to an economic system is not helpful. (In use of the term, “classism,” for example, makes acknowledging class something of a moral failing instead of a structural result of our current economic relations).

I do not think it is derailing to point this out as an obvious implication of the way liberalized framing of stand-point epistemology have moved the “discourse.”   This is what I have meant by that–not a denial of the realities of both exploitative and repressive structures built around ethnicity, race, gender, etc.  We must be specific about them, we can’t conflate everything under the rubric of a passive word like “privilege.”


5 thoughts on “What people have not understood when I say “privilege theory is problematic”

  1. I’ll have to give this post some more thought. I think I agree with you. I’m already aware of at least some of the implications you are speaking of. I guess I just always assume privilege theory is just one piece of the puzzle. It is incorrect and unuseful to take any piece of the puzzle as the whole puzzle. Everything must be understood in a larger context of information and perspectives, which unfortunately is not done often enough.

    • The issue is does it tell us anything beyond this that other theories and discourse patterns didn’t already cover without this implication. That seems to be a big issue, and even I am not sure on it, but I more I notice how it is used, the more I do wonder if rhetoric has more problems than it is it worth explanatorily.

      • I was contemplating your blog post and its significance. I initially wasn’t quite sure the main point you were driving at. Your comment clarifies your criticism. I have a better sense of what you mean now, but I still have to think more about it.

        That would be a strong crticism if it were the case that privilege theory offers no new understanding and no original insight, and hence doesn’t really contribute anything of relevance to furthering public debate. I’m not sure how to go about assessing the validity of that claim. It is an interesting thought, for whatever its worth.

        Your point also seems to go further than just that. As I understand it, you are saying that privilege theory as presently used may be obscuring other issues. It focuses the thinker in one way that they can totally miss what is being left out. It can, intentionally or unintentionally, act as a misdirection. Is that correct?

      • Well, in the sense that oppression and expliotation are active and privilege is passive, in the sense that structural racism is not clarified by focusing on structural privilege as opposed to structural repression, oppression, and expliotation, and that this is racially-coded is clear. The focus on privilege is that because a lot of this is passive and unthinking, but it also makes to be something to be taken away, not something to be expanded. That said, I am not standing on firm ground on that but I don’t like the term. Privilege checking seems to move things mostly into realm of ideas and consciousness and away from materiality.

        Now, I do think that thus it obscures as much as it clarifies and thus can be cynically used. The right has already learned this with politics around umbrage taking and offense, which privilege theory often is co-moribid with. But that is not privilege theory fault nor do I think it was concieved in bad faith–it was a liberalization of stand point epistemology, which actually has roots in Marxism. Still, it’s negative focus is totally useable by misdirection which is why I think it is adopted more and more by “culture elites” even somewhat conservative ones.

  2. Pingback: On being used as an example of something you oppose | Symptomatic Commentary

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