Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Marginalized people can have privilege

Privilege is hard to talk about. Most of us have it in some form or another, but we will not own it. It is the American way--to want to think your successes are of your own making and your own making alone. We don't like to ponder the advantages we have had. This is true of the those with the "right" skin color, gender, class and sexuality to earn societal favor. But it is equally true of the marginalized. Sometimes I think it is particularly hard for us to own our privilege, because what we are usually results in disadvantage. 
When discussion turns to concepts like "white female privilege," which was recently discussed by AJ Plaid at Racialicious and in follow up posts on Feministe and Womanist Musings, white women will balk. As will black men when the subject of "black male privilege" is raised. How can a quality that marginalizes--like being a (white) woman in a sexist, (white) male-dominated society--also be a privilege? It can. Being a black woman is certainly not a privilege in our society. But, for instance, when dealing with law enforcement, I am privileged in comparison to my brother or husband or son. (Even as I lose that privilege in comparison to white men and women.)

It's kyriarchy, which is hard to explain, but Jadey, a commenter on the Feministe thread, did a fantastic job of it. I want to save this in my arsenal for future imbroglio's over privilege:
I think part of it is that privilege is not about making any individual's life awesome – it's about supporting a social hierarchy. Just because some of the ways in which white women are privileged still leave them at a disadvantage compared to white men (assuming they are matched on every other dimension of privilege), that doesn't negate their advantage over a woman of colour. It's the power of the kyriarchy to put people in a place – that place sometimes isn't at the very top or the very bottom; sometimes it's somewhere in the middle.

A really striking example comes from the classic DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case, it was argued successfully that because GM hired white women (to work in the front) and black men (to work in the back), they didn't have discriminatory hiring practices for refusing to hire black women.

Now the jobs those white women had were, I believe, mainly secretarial. They were almost certainly not prestigious, or terrifically well paying (compared to what a white man of similar socioeconomic status might earn), and I will bet dollars to donuts there was plenty of sexual harassment in the workplace. White women in these jobs were not on top of the pack in terms of advantage and comfort. But they still had the jobs, which was more than the black women were getting. The black men as well weren't exactly CEOs (manual labour, I'm assuming) and probably earned less and had less capacity for promotion and advancement than a white male peer in the same job. But they still had the jobs.

Privilege is a system. It's not a gift or a boon or a reward to an individual which makes their life happy and gay (although if you happen to have privilege on pretty much all of the really socially-important axes, your life probably doesn't suck all *that* hard). Privilege is often something that is only noticed in its absence, even among those who are possibly acutely aware of their lack of privilege in some aspects of their lives. Personally, I really don't enjoy the way that Whiteness is constructed as an identity – it does not resonate with me at all on an individual level and I don't derive any fulfillment from it as an identity. But I am still white and still possess white privilege. A man may be incredibly uncomfortable with what constitutes maleness and masculinity in his society and find it unappealing and unsatisfying, but he is still a man with male privilege. I may be alienated by my own white female privilege, but it's not about me – it's about the hierarchical structure of social groups that the privileged identity is meant to support.

We often discuss intersectionality in terms of the convergence of two or more marginalized identities (or at least that's how I often run across it), but intersectionality also exists in the convergence of privileged identities or a mix of privileged and marginalized identities, which sometimes produce those sorts of ambivalent results of someone being simultaneously privileged (in a relative sense) and marginalized (in a relative sense). I appreciate AP's analysis of white women's privilege as something that is both a subset of white privilege in general (I agree that some of the points on that list are clearly not gender-specific) as well as something unique to the combined status of being white and a woman (although throwing at least even socioeconomic status in there as well would probably produce a much more specific list).

To sum up: It's not that white privilege + some kind of female privilege = white female privilege. It's that white women's white privilege is operating in concert with their marginalization as women.
What do you think? Do you agree that marginalized people can have privilege? Do you agree that marginalized people can have privilege related to some of the very factors that marginalize them?


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