Do black people want white privilege? Do women want male privilege? The questions should sound silly, but they follow logically from privilege theory, which divides the world between those who have identity privilege and those who do not. The problem with privilege theory is it takes a useful idea too far. It’s like noting that salt is tasty and using salt as the only criteria for judging food.
The idea of white privilege began early in the 20th century with W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, a socialist, saw white skin privilege as a symptom of a greater problem. From his preface to the 50th anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk: “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.”
Search the documents of the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll find the word “privilege” rarely occurs. In the 1960s, we saw a three-tiered world: the majority had rights, the rich had privileges, and minorities were oppressed. We wanted to end oppression and privilege so everyone would have the same rights.
For most of my life, a privilege was a special treatment for a tiny minority, contest winners and rich people. Which makes sense—”privilege” comes from the Latin for “private law”, meaning the privileged play by different rules than the public.
But the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois’s “Checking Your Privilege 101” defines privilege as “an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over marginalized groups.” Their examples range from race and gender to “able-bodied privilege” (the “privilege” of not being disabled) and “life on the outside privilege” (the “privilege” of not being behind bars). To Privilege Theorists, a dominant group is a large social group—usually, the majority. US dominant groups include white people (77.9% of the population), men (49.2%), straight people (95%), people who are not obese (73.5%), people who are not behind bars (approx. 99%)...
When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” to give Critical Race Theorists and middle class feminists an umbrella to work together, the result was the simplistic worldview of Privilege Theory: There are no rights. Everyone’s either privileged or oppressed, so those who are not oppressed are privileged.
Rev. Thandeka points out the flaw in that logic in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”: “Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it’s the privilege of not having one’s left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege—if we must call it that—is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse—and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.”
Privilege Theory follows the binary logic of identitarianism: women vs. men, people of color vs. white people, GLBTQ people vs. straight people, Muslims vs. Christians… The model for privilege theory is fundamentally racial, because it centers on groups that cannot change for biological reasons or do not wish to change for cultural reasons.
Though Privilege Theorists try to fit class into their model, they miss how awkwardly it fits:
1. The class divide is not binary. Under feudalism and capitalism, there are middle classes whose allegiance is usually with the ruling class but sometimes aligns with the working class’s.
2. Class in capitalism is tribal, not racial: gain capital and you become a capitalist; lose capital and you join the working class.
3. Poor people do not want to preserve their social identity; they want to escape it.
Privilege Theorists complain that the “privileged” rarely notice their privilege. The flaw is not with the “privileged” but with the theory: Where white people are a majority, they don’t notice white privilege for the same reason Thais don’t notice Thai privilege in Thailand. Being part of the status quo is not a privilege. Being treated better than the status quo is a privilege.
In the US’s most recent social struggle, the fight for GLBTQ rights, no one argues that serving in the military or getting married are privileges. We argue that they are human rights which every human deserves—and that continues to be the winning argument.