Thursday, February 16, 2012

On White and Male Privilege and Power

image is from here

First up, things for me to be grateful for today:

I have food for the day and for tomorrow too.
I am not worried about starving or dying from ingesting unclean water.
I have easy access to clean water and to shelter that is relatively safe.
I live in a region of the world that isn't being bombed (or militarily invaded) by the US and NATO.
I live in a place that white male supremacist society doesn't designate as an appropriate place to bury nuclear waste and other highly toxic, cancer-causing chemicals.
I am not considered a failure for not having children and a spouse by now.
I am not physically immobilised.

When we consider that most females are not safe in their own homes, and that most people of color are under assault by whites and their police forces, we may conclude correctly that based on this and on the implications of what's written above, I am white, male, able-bodied, and class-advantaged. The additional facts of me being ethnically and sexually marginalised and stigmatised by dominant society isn't central to what follows.

With thanks to Kathy Miriam for getting a particular conversation going, I have been re-assessing the prolific use of the term "privilege" in some self-defined progressive to radical circles. What I have been thinking about since pondering her perspective on this (see *here* for that), isn't only the individualism that can be woven into the use of the term "privilege" (which Kathy addresses).

I'm also thinking about how such a term, such as "privilege", can alienate or be off-putting to non-blogging, non-academic people (aka, "the majority"). I'm thinking at this moment of my family-of-origin, and how the only time they'll likely use the term privilege is to acknowledge that something is a pleasure to be part of, as in: "It's a privilege to be at this event." But to be honest, that's not likely a phrase that'd come out of their mouths. They'd more likely say, "I'm thrilled to be here" and leave it at that.

I'm also thinking about how the term is often a linguistic cover for something more broadly pernicious that I do believe ought to be regularly and plainly named both on the interpersonal front and on the institutional front as well: abusive power, oppressive power, and unjust advantages and entitlements afforded to some classes of people and acted out against other classes of people.

"Privilege" is frequently used to bring attention to how oppressive behavior and practice is acted out interpersonally. When this attention obscures or eclipses larger structural and systemic realities, it can leave us with the impression that if we only attended to the interpersonal realm more, we might achieve something radically better than what we now have. I do see the term used primarily to give a name to the many ways individuals aren't mindful, accountable, and responsible in the ways they act out structural position and power against oppressed people.

It might be good to investigate why this is too often necessary. One huge, on-going, decades-long critique of the white male Left (especially but not only radical environmentalists, Socialists, and anarchists) is that they declare what is radical and revolutionary in "political action" while ignoring the interpersonal realm almost completely as a site of oppressive (read: structural, political) behavior. How many white male progressives and radicals tell sexist and racist jokes or center whiteness and maleness as "just human" without questioning this as anti-radical, anti-revolutionary (harmful, hurtful, insulting, oppressive, status quo) practice? How many times do whites and men behave in racist/sexist ways without challenging one another? How do whites and men reduce horrors like the international trafficking and enslaving of poor girls of color to one system of harm only? In my experience, whites and men usually and typically do not call each other out on our racist/white supremacist and sexist/male supremacist behavior, when it occurs in words or other non-verbal actions.

The assumption that whites and men can and ought to speak for all people has not shifted much in the last forty years, although I do notice a few more men these days using less sexist language. (Police officer instead of policeman, for example.) Anthologies by and about oppressed people, when edited by whites and men, still presume that anything written by a white or male person can be relatively universal, addressing the whole oppressed group, for example. Meanwhile the voice that is female, Black, Brown, or Indigenous is structurally presented as only ever able to speak for that group only. (So, the chapter or few chapters in which the writings by women of color are predominant are not likely to be presented as addressing the larger universal themes of the book--even when they do.) Find me the book edited by whites or men that presents the views of Indigenous, Brown, and Black women as "universal" and addressing the whole of humanity, with whites and men in the same volume only speaking about white and male experience as particularly white and male, and I'll be surprised: I've not seen it.

When oppressed people call out oppressive behavior in their oppressors, I believe it is important to heed the counsel of Pearl Cleage, expressed in Deals With The Devil and Other Reasons to Riot: listen in a posture of non-defensiveness. Too often oppressor-class people, especially whites and men, in my experience, move instantly and reflexively into a posture of self-defense, defense of our allegedly good name, our allegedly good political work, our allegedly good group. We resist knowing how we are being hurtful and harmful because we are invested in a sense of ourselves as "Radical" and "Good". Radical and self-identified good people, if white or male, are still positioned to act out oppressively against women of color on all fronts: interpersonal, social, and institutional (whether religious, economic, or otherwise). And our efforts to be responsible, accountable, and conscious don't mean we stop being positioned to be oppressors every minute of the day.

Irresponsible, non-accountable, and unconsciously oppressive actions come into sharp, cutting focus in online communities, which, in the comments sections especially, are one realm of the interpersonal. I suspect that is why "privilege" shows up there as a concern.

All of that said, social-political advantages and power when exercised by speakers against those they/we structurally oppress, are reflecting and reinforcing larger social-political realities. Regardless of the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of our micro interpersonal actions, it is usually the case that many other aspects of our lives support the more macro systems and institutions that are murderous to women, to the poor, to people of color, and to Indigenous peoples globally.

Radical political change requires attention to multiple realms of human existence, not in an either/or way. My political practice ought not consist of detailing anti-status-quo analysis of race and sex while doing so in ways that are unconsciously white-splaining and man-splaining. Rendering my own racial and sexual position, location, and advantages, and power irrelevant and invisible in a radical political conversation is one form of white-splaining and man-splaining, after all.

At this blog and away from it, I work to support radical practices in myself and other people that refuse to accept the expression of whiteness as being unraced, irrelevant, or universal, and the exercise of manhood as being just human, not gendered in politically harmful ways.

When whiteness and manhood is acted out visibly as such, it often does oppressive harm. And when it is acted out while also rendered invisible, it does at least as much oppressive harm.

I want the institutional power and systemic destructiveness, not just the interpersonal "privilege" of whiteness and manhood to be made conscious, to be challenged, and to be overthrown.

After being asked several questions by interviewers on topics they wished to hear her discuss, Andrea Dworkin was asked if she had anything else she wanted to say. I hope those of us who are white, male, and class-advantaged who are working for radical social change take notice of the explicitly intersectional and pro-activist answer she gave:
AD: I want to say more than anything that the Women’s Movement has a chance to do something miraculous, which is to really tear down these hierarchies of sex and race and class. We can do it, but the way that you do it is not through rhetorical denunciations of injustice. You do it through attacking institutions of injustice through political action. That hasn’t changed. That’s what we have to do. The other thing I would like to say is, do something. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be pure, do what you can do. Do it. Life is short and you don’t know when it is going to end for you, so do it, do it now. [Source: here]