We live in a time when conversations about privilege – the everyday benefits and advantages that people receive in society because of their identity – have become incredibly commonplace.
From a side note to “check your privilege” to the growth of the critical White Privilege Conference to references in major newspapers and magazines, it seems that recognizing privilege as a concept has broken through into the mainstream.
Privilege has gone pop.
I mean, how much more pop can you get than having Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly debate whether White privilege is real on one of the most-watched television programs in the US?
And if you’re not sure just how privileged you are, Buzzfeed has a quiz for that! Ain’t nothing like a hyper-simplistic measure that conflates all identities and privileges into one aggregate “score” to convince someone that they need to reconsider the benefits their identity gives them!
That said, it really is amazing that the privilege conversation has gone so mainstream considering that scholars and activists, particularly those without privilege – people with marginalized and oppressed identities – have been talking about privilege for a long time!
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the privileges White people receive in society as far back as 1935, and countless scholars of Color have explored the implications of White privilege (though notably and problematically the most famous scholar on the subject is a White, cisgender woman – Peggy McIntosh).
We shouldn’t downplay the power of this moment – that privilege discourse has entered mainstream discourse is a powerful change.
But is privilege going pop a good thing?
Problematizing Pop Cultural Privilege
Privilege being discussed in the mainstream has the power to start some important discussions about identity and systems of oppression.
However, the problem with pop culture is that it isn’t exactly supportive of nuance and complexity.
Take pop music (which, let’s be real, I love): With rare exception, it boils music down to the simplest concepts, sounds, and lyrics for mass consumption.
The same is now happening with conversations about privilege.
And pop culture privilege isn’t actually a good thing.
To the contrary, to talk about privilege without complexity, nuance, or connection to wider systems of oppression actively hurts movements for justice.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about privilege.
After all, I can see a bunch of dudes using this argument to say, “Stop talking about my privilege! You’re hurting the feminist movement!”
We should talk about privilege, but when we do so, we must do so with the kind of complexity that actually holds people of privilege accountable and draws more people of privilege into movements for justice.
So how does pop cultural privilege discourse hurt movements for justice?
1. It Gives People of Privilege an Out
More and more, we’re seeing people of different identity privileges owning that they have privilege, which is, in some small ways, a great thing.
Unfortunately, though, for too many people, it stops there. Many of us act as if simple acknowledgement of our privileges is anti-oppressive when it’s not.
Just as it’s not actually anti-racist to acknowledge racism exists, acknowledging your privilege does little to actually address the systems of oppression that engender privilege.
I’ve seen this most often with politically “liberal” White men who are willing to acknowledge their privilege publicly, but aren’t willing to do anything to actually decenter their Whiteness or maleness to cede power to, say, Women of Color.
For instance, a friend of mine is currently running for the presidency of her student body at a large university on a somewhat radical platform. She and her running mates and campaign committee refuse to spend the thousands of dollars that groups usually spend to get elected, and they are calling for a restructuring of the top-down leadership model that has traditionally favored White male power.
The White men she’s running against, though, have effectively coopted social justice language, labeling themselves allies and naming their privileges, all while further entrenching the same old White male leadership that has characterized student government at this university.
If acknowledging privilege at a surface level enables those with privilege to avoid the radical work of ceding power and working in solidarity, it gives us an out from actually doing justice work.
We can pretend that we’re down for the cause without ever really changing anything.
2. It Erases Intersectionality and Prevents Deeper Engagement in Work for Justice
Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.