A brief thought on privilege

I was hoping to have another fundamentals post today, on privilege, but it’s going to take more brainmeats than I can spare at the moment, as well as more forks/spoons/culinary-implements-as-signifiers-of-mental-health of your choice.

So instead just one brief spot, inspired by a chart I keep seeing floating around Tumblr which purports to assign numeric scores to various forms of privilege: that is not how privilege works. Privilege is not some kind of score, it is a list, of rules which don’t apply equally to everyone. Everyone has privilege in some form or another, and while it is easy to say to some privileges are pretty obviously worth more than others (the white privilege of “if someone shoots you, it is relatively hard for them to get off on a self-defense plea” as opposed to the trivial black privilege of “can get away with using the n-word in mixed company”), there are other privileges much harder to compare (say, the male privilege of “significantly less likely to be raped” as opposed to the cis privilege of “significantly less likely to be murdered”).

But it’s actually more complicated than that, because not only are privileges a list of rules that apply differently to different people, but they apply at different times and in different circumstances. There are scenarios in which being white is a disadvantage–say, the only white kid at an otherwise all-black middle school–it’s just that society’s overall racism means there are fewer of them and they are less impactful than the scenarios in which being black is a disadvantage. This is unlikely to matter on the level of individual experience, however, because of course one’s own privilege is hard to see.

Again, this is not to say that there aren’t groups which are systemically privileged over other groups. There is, generally speaking, one clearly privileged group in each demographic category, which in the U.S. sums up broadly to wealthy white English-speaking Christian heterosexual cis men. In the overwhelming majority of circumstances, members of these groups have massive privilege over others–but it’s entirely pointless to fight over whether, for example, Jews or asexual people are more privileged. (And they both are, because everyone is privileged.) That serves only to divide us, when we should all be working together to destroy the systems underlying privilege.

The point of privilege is not to rank people according to how oppressed they are. That is an impossible and self-defeating activity. The point, is instead, to note that everyone has blind spots which make them unaware of how unfair our society is to others. And again, it’s not that blacks should be sympathetic to whites because they have privileges whites don’t–blacks do have privileges that whites don’t, but they’re bullshit compared to the massive privileges whites have that blacks don’t. Instead, it’s to note that a black Christian may be blind to the injustices faced by a white pagan, or a straight woman blind to the injustices faced by a gay man, and so on. All of us are blind to our own privilege, and the only way to see it is to believe someone else when that someone else tells us they don’t have it.

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