The Ontario Federation of Elementary School Teachers recently announced that they’ll be offering a professional development seminar on the topic of “white privilege,” a move that’s reignited the debate over whether that trendy term of pop-sociology is actually a thing or not.
One problem with the modern social-justicization of the political discourse, particularly online and among young people, is the insistence on reducing the complexities of navigating a diverse society into narrow, zero-sum dichotomies of victim and villain. And since a victim is always more sympathetic and blameless than an oppressor, the logical outcome of such a discourse is a proliferation of victim identities cast in opposition to an extraordinarily expansive oppressor class.
Thus, the awkward fact that the white privilege movement — which demands whites subject themselves to endless seminars, conferences, manuals and blogs to deconstruct (or, to use the preferred jargon “check”) their subtly-exercised power over society — appears to be led mostly by whites is a hypocrisy that bothers very few. One’s whiteness, after all, can be easily negated by adopting a victim identity whose hardships are broadly accepted as comparable to a person of color — female, gay, transgender, handicapped, immigrant, poor, etc. Some Tumblr people even consider conditions like skinniness and low sex drive as states of victimhood, lest anyone consider the thin and celibate particularly well-off.
The original “white privilege checklist” that started the fad — the brainchild of American gender studies scholar Peggy McIntosh — is a worthwhile read, and does expose some interesting (though often trivially subtle) ways in which North American culture affords certain benefits-of-the-doubt or default priority to members of the continent’s white majority. But so too is it equally enlightening to read the numerous progressive attempts to resort privilege into more particularized castes, including male privilege , straight privilege and able-bodied privilege, as well as the more critical rebuttals of the previously-targeted, and their equally thought-provoking checklists for black privilege, female privilege, and lower-class privilege, too.
Placed together, these overlapping chronicles of privilege illustrate a society that’s nuanced and elaborate — a heterogeneous civilization comprised of numerous cultures, identities, states, and lifestyles, each experiencing a vast medley of benefits and hardships that co-exist, and indeed, often balance each other out.
An example I gave recently to some controversy went like this: A Muslim person may indeed be more likely to be investigated by airport security and be treated with unjustified suspicion. But so too is a Muslim who later publicly confesses to being stopped by the airport security more likely to have his claims of arbitrary profiling automatically taken seriously — regardless of the objective facts of the situation. His mere claims of victimization may be enough to generate headlines, investigations, and ultimately apologies, compensation, or policy reform in a way a victim from a different community could never expect.
A woman, similarly, may find herself excluded from some institutions or jobs thanks to the concealed sexism of decision-makers. But so too can a woman benefit from the explicit sexism of institutions or offices society has established to compensate for engrained misogynist biases — female-exclusive scholarships, diversity hires, and so forth. A gay man might encounter homophobic bigotry from some, but may also enjoy an exaggerated degree of moral support from many others who are terrified of appearing homophobic.
A society that rushes to give uncritical empathy and support to those claiming victimization, either at a personal level or through organized campaigns like affirmative action and anti-bigotry laws, is a society that privileges them. This victim privilege doesn’t necessarily cancel or negate every instance of discrimination or oppression they face (though that’s obviously the intent), but it does reveal a complicated society that’s evolved beyond crude polarization in which one group is forever at the mercy of another. To some degree, we all live in a constant state of transitioning in and out of victim/privileged roles depending on who or what we’re dealing with in any given moment, as most people exist as a medley of simultaneous identities of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, employment, wealth, size, health, etc. — none of which are unanimously valued or unanimously marginalized.
One can accept privilege theory without desiring — as many social justice types seem to — the creation of a grand victim pecking order offering definitive answers to whose plight is worse than whose (and who deserves most blame for causing it). The healthier perspective is to acknowledge that everyone experiences the challenges and benefits of diversity in different ways, with social harmony ultimately a product of self-awareness, empathy, and concession — and not the stoking of perpetually adversarial relationships through assertions of innocence.
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