Privilege Theory and its use in Activist Circles

The concept of privilege as a structural cultural entity can be traced back to Jean Baker Millar’s Towards a New Psychology of Women in the mid-70s.   From its roots in feminism, it has been extended to other forms of structural oppression, where a dominant and a subordinate group can be identified.  Although its roots are in feminism, it became much more widely used within left wing and activist circles following Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” which sought to reify some of the ways in which white privilege manifested itself and has now become a standard analysis tool in the opposition of kyriarchy.

Privilege is the set of unearned advantages that you hold as a result of how people perceive you.  These presumptions may well not be correct, for example, someone may be afforded male privilege having been misgendered, however in general the identity that you hold and present, particularly in relation to your gender and race, gives you privilege if a member of the dominant group, and disadvantages you if a member of the subordinate group.  It is situationally based, so what may be an identity which gives privilege within one context may work as an inhibitor in another.  For example, a male applying for a job in childcare may find themselves disadvantaged compared to female applicants due to sexist assumptions about differential aptitude based on sex.  Moreover it is intersectional, issues of disability, race, sex, gender and sexuality all intertwine with each interaction to form a unique pattern of kyriarchial power.

For those unfamiliar with privilege theory, a good primer exists on the Shrub blog, however its use within activist circles is controversial.    We cannot escape our privilege, as it is something which others accord to us.  If you have a name which is identified as white, you have more chance of being treated well when telephoning to try to rent a flat, apply for benefits, or apply for a job.  Oftentimes you dont even see the privilege, it just swirls.  You are assumed competent and worthy of respect without the negative connotations of the subordinate group.  For many people, awareness of privilege is their first insight into power.  Once they recognise the discrimination that they face, not as an abstract entity but as an actual power structure which has a material effect on their lives, it causes them to explore other forms of power structures.

Identities are a great place to start – they’re about how we got here, what makes people want to be part of a certain politics. But it’s a terrible place to finish. If you end with identity, you end in fundamentalism or self-indulgence.  So our task is to find a way to mobilise identity for good. Identity is like fire. We wouldn’t want to do without fire, but it can be dangerous.

Gary Younge, The Contradictions of Identity

Identity politics are necessary, but they are ultimately a dead end.  The kyriarchy exists to maintain capitalism, it is used to justify the greater exploitation of labour from some than from others, and maintain structures which maximise that exploitation.  It manifests itself differently within different cultures, depending on how best people can be othered to uphold it.  So while many places, an Irish person may enjoy white privilege, in the West of Scotland, that is tempered with a long history of anti-Irish racism, which situates them within a continuum of being politically Black.  Holding onto an oppressed identity risks ignoring the manner in which other identities which are affording you privilege in a given situation are affording you power, while holding onto an advantaged identity risks being blind to the power structures which are inhibiting your autonomy and effectiveness.

Challenging privilege is an important part of anti-kyriarchial and consequently anti-capitalist activism, however it must be recognised that privilege is a largely a structural phenomenon, not an individual act, however structural phenomenon are, of course, the result of multiple individual acts.  As an anti-kyriarchial activist, the use of privilege theory then has two components.   Firstly challenging the system of oppression at a systemic level, and challenging your own contribution to that system.  Where kyriarchy is giving you power, for example, a chair who subtly invites men to contributor, ignoring potential female contributors, declining such an invitation explicitly in favour of the subordinate group rebalances the power structure.  Where kyriarchy is disempowering you,  given that it is a structural system, taking the discussion to a higher level – for example what mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that there is gender balance in contributions, is more productive than a direct situational challenge.

Checking your privilege is something that all activists should do repeatedly whenever engaging in activism, exploring how the hidden structures of power are enabling or inhibiting the participation of both yourself and others, but for it to be effective it must be done as a tool to either improve your own activism, or to systemically challenge.



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