Against False Privilege

Prejudice is universal. Growing up a black kid in Ireland, I thought that Jehovah’s Witnesses were odd because they do not celebrate birthdays or Christmases. I looked sideways at caravan-dwelling Irish Travellers (to whom my school friends and I often referred using terms that certainly would not satisfy contemporary high standards of “verbal hygiene”). I had no idea why some Muslim women covered their bodies from head to toe, and if you had asked me to name a particular style of Islamic head covering, I would have floundered, resorting to the Western world’s catchall term of “headscarf” or “hijab.” Contrary to popular belief, the fact that I am a black woman living in a white country does not somehow inoculate me against human prejudice.

And yet, I’m given to understand that I must know what prejudice feels like more than anyone. One of my graduate teachers once told me that the most offensive thing anyone could ever say to me would be something xenophobic or racist. It did not seem to occur to her that I could be meaningfully insulted in any other way because she seemed to be incapable of seeing anything about me but my “blackness.” Were she to observe me sitting next to a white man, I would be sitting next to a person with a nationality, a particular dress style, an idiosyncratic way of wearing his hair perhaps, and a handful of other visible characteristics—all of which are likely to register before his “whiteness.” I, on the other hand, am nothing more than my skin colour. It is my fundamental descriptor; the only thing that seems to be of any relevance or importance.

“What is it like to date a black woman?” a middle-aged white woman asked my white boyfriend as we sat at a bar. She was riotously drunk and wide-eyed, her face filled not with malevolence but with wonderment. In the stunned silence, she continued, “Why did you fall in love with her? Was it because of her skin?” You might think that the questions she asked are rare nowadays—that they belong to a pre-modern and barbaric kind of thinking that has long since evaporated along with hunter-gathering and nomadic tribalism.

But this sort of thinking is by no means obsolete. What I saw in this drunk woman has always been buried in the private chambers of people’s minds. And it remains there until it’s dislodged by a stiff whiskey and tramples over the fences of social etiquette. Our bodies house the lewdest and filthiest of secrets, but do not be fooled by a quiet, polite, and politically correct exterior. Appraising that 60-year-old woman as she chugged back her Guinness and asked me if black people “bruise,” I decided she was loud, fat, and ugly. Contrary to our own self-flattering notions of refinement and progression, we were both guilty of reducing the other to the sum of her superficial features.

But I can “play the race card.” I might have justifiably called her a racist or a bigot. Had I done so, she would have been powerless to return the accusation. And yet, I also harbour my own brand of fetishes and fascinations. I recall spending an inappropriate amount of time staring at a group of Hasidic Jews in an airport once, riveted by what I thought were impeccably curled sideburns (actually pe’ot, Anglicized as “payot”—a Hebrew term meaning “corner” or “edge”). This is just one of many occasions on which I have looked at a human being as though they were an interesting object. I have lost count of the number of times I have been influenced by my false preconceptions of white people (as though they constitute some nondescript monolithic category).

However, my membership of a supposedly oppressed group licenses me to speak and act with fewer social restrictions. Not only does my race permit me to abide by certain social codes more loosely, but in some cases, it even empowers me to violate those codes with impunity. When I was eight years old, a fat white boy called me a nigger while we were being taught to plant daffodil bulbs in the school yard. In response, I grabbed an enormous fistful of wet dirt, threw it into his muddy face and shouted, “Look who’s a nigger now!” An hour later, my mother arrived to collect me from my white teacher amid a shower of apologies and special encouragement. I was given the day off as a consolation prize. The other kid was sent to the principal’s office.

It did not take me long to realize that my “blackness” was widely considered a kind of extenuating circumstance. Almost any offence can be absolved by my presumed entitlement to retributive justice. I am allowed to throw dirt at other nasty children because the world is racist. When black kids grow up, we are loath to name or challenge this exemption in each other—doing so would be seen as the worst kind of disloyalty. Whites do not publicly challenge it (although they resent it in their private circles) because they are possessed by that most potent of all spiritual poisons: white guilt.

These special dispensations are not reserved exclusively for blacks. They are also granted to the disabled and the queer—anyone who tends, by their very existence, to make others feel guilty. Contrary to popular opinion, neither race nor gender nor disability supplies any of us with the right to be violent (outside of the realm of self-defence) nor to demand special treatment outside of those adjustments which are necessary for levelling the proverbial playing field. So long as we are treated as forgotten, marginalized, and disowned, few of us have dared to speak about the particular kind of privilege that status bestows—the privilege of being somehow unimpeachable.

This exemption may look and feel like privilege, but it is a false kind of privilege. The person exonerated of criminal responsibility by “reason of insanity” is not privileged. Rather, they are judged to have the mental development of a child. When someone is given fewer limits than their peers and coddled when they misbehave, they are subject to diminished expectations which preclude equal dignity. Handling the oppressed with “kid gloves”—appeasing and pacifying them, refusing to take them seriously—pathologizes them. In this way, blackness and disability and transgenderism and gender non-conformity and queerness are reduced to impediments. The guilt and pity that these impediments evoke in those not equally impaired are not the same as compassion.

One of the biggest blunders of modern activism is the promotion of guilt and the demand for this kind of false privilege. Progress cannot occur if it is rooted in the idea that the oppressed are inherently impaired. Progress can only occur on the basis of perceived equality. And equality means treating people equally, which includes being held accountable for wrongful actions. It means being taken seriously. But if oppressed people are to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, we have a duty to speak and act in ways that demonstrate a belief in our own worthiness to be taken seriously. Rather than silencing our critics with epithets, we must engage them in rational debate. We must decline the offer of a free pass, secure in the knowledge that we are not insane or childlike and that we are capable of amounting to something equally great. We must hold ourselves to the same standards we expect of others—standards of which we know that we are capable.

In a speech delivered at a women’s college in 1977, feminist poet Adrienne Rich said:

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions—predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work. … It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation. And this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love, and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us.

Part of this responsibility to ourselves is acknowledging that we are all guilty of prejudice. If you have been marginalized, appreciation of this unsettling fact will change the way you speak to others—especially those whom you regard as culpable. Rather than rising to the pulpit or occupying the schoolmaster’s chair, you can stand next to them and describe your experience. You can defend your dignity as an individual with dialogue rather than name-calling (which is, in any case, of limited effectiveness).

The goal is to foster mutual understanding and respect, as opposed to stoking a fire of resentment beneath a veneer of well-rehearsed politeness. While we are demanding that people take us seriously, we should return the courtesy by refraining to offer paternalistic education. Instead, we can tell them how they (as individuals) have offended us (as individuals) without invoking the full weight of the world’s injustice. In this way, we can get to the heart of discrimination without retreating from confrontation on one hand, or engaging in retaliatory violence and abuse on the other.

As paradoxical as it might sound, refusing the free pass and acknowledging one’s own prejudice can lead to the reclamation of real power instead of false privilege. People gain power when they reject guilt and embrace the fruits of responsibility. Good activism does not seek to stymie our progress by stirring up guilt. The late radical feminist Audre Lorde recognized this when she said:

[G]uilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way that they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

We short-change ourselves when all we demand is cheap guilt and appeasement. It is easier for the guilty to pacify and to pet and to change their vocabulary than it is for them to dig into those private chambers and uproot their own prejudices, shameful fascinations, and objectifying fantasies. For them, to smile and to nod and to pretend that they agree is infinitely more convenient. Are we to settle for this kind of shoddy, half-hearted junk-compassion because we are too afraid to struggle towards the real thing? Real equality demands that we hold up our end of the bargain. It demands that we recognize our own tendencies to pin the guilty into a corner and to coerce them into smiling and nodding and pretending that they agree by threatening to cancel them for real and perceived transgressions.

One of the most feared words in the English language today is “racist.” It is a stain that simply will not wash off. We have adapted our language to mitigate our negative judgments of minorities—not because we are really sorry, but because we hope to protect ourselves from being irreparably tarnished. To be accused of being a racist is not just a moral issue, it carries profound social, financial, and political costs.

Increasingly, these accusations are made not in the name of racial justice, they are simply a tool for silencing ideological dissent. Tenured professor Joshua Katz was fired from Princeton this year after he criticized some of the more radical “anti-racist” initiatives proposed in a 2020 open faculty letter (although, the official reason for his dismissal was the resurrection of an old sexual misconduct case for which he had already been sanctioned). Katz is not racist—he simply bristled at minority demands for special treatment like additional pay and holiday time for faculty of colour because he considered them an affront to equality.

Under no circumstances should racial abuse ever be condoned. But too much contemporary black activism employs Manichean efforts to divide humanity into a morally pristine class of minority saints versus an ignominious group of “oppressor” fiends. The saints and the fiends are pitted against one another, and none of us can hear anything over the ensuing din. No one ends up having a real conversation about real racial injustice. No one ends up admitting to the unpleasant yet self-evident truth that all of us are stained. An activist who acknowledges this is a force to be reckoned with, since no one can weaponize that for which you have already taken responsibility.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/07/30/against-false-privilege/
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An interesting and refreshing essay. Most of us know the truth of what the author wrote, but we are unused to hearing it expressed. Not only do the “oppressed classes” benefit from being unimpeachable, the benefits go further until some deem them to be almost saintly, just for managing to live whilst being gay or black. In the end, though, we are all human, with all our full share of faults and failings. There is no equality until we recognise each other as individuals, whom we may like, love or even dislike because of individual qualities, not because of our supposed group characteristics.

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I was reminded of an argument that proves homosexuality is not a choice. Because what Black would choose to be gay if there was a choice.

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This is of course true, but only within a certain circle; and that circle is shrinking rather rapidly. Outside that circle the word “racist” is not only no longer feared, but indeed, the tactic of employing it (meaning, the tactic of calling someone a racist) is scorned. The person who cries “racist” is just cast aside as a dumb, irrelevant annoyance.

I don’t live, inhabit, work in academia, government, the other areas where “leftist” or “woke” or progressive values are accepted (and enforced) as a matter of course. Though I am a liberal who has been pretty far to the left my entire life, I happen to live in a rural area where there are a lot of Trump folk. In a rural area you cannot live in any bubble - you simply must interact with people unlike yourself. (There’s only one hardware store, only one lumber company, only one … you get the idea - when the staffer is the owner, you have to interact with them whether you like and/or agree with them or not.)

It isn’t just physical mixing that informs me. There are plenty of people online who have noticed the term “racist” used, to the point where they conclude “Anything you say or do, you get called a racist.” So the word stops bothering them, and it stops meaning anything to them. It is certainly not feared.

Approximately half of the U.S. electorate voted for Trump; a large portion of these folks did so because they were tired of self-policing their speech, and having their speech policed. Some of the more informed will tell you that Hillary Clinton was a disciple of Saul Alinsky, who (supposedly) said, if you want to win an argument, just call the/your opponent a racist, and see what he/she does.

I don’t know whether Alinsky actually said that or not. But, I believe that we are closing in on a time when a majority of the population will respond to an accusation of “you’re a racist” with a variant of “Shut up and go away”.

Imagine a hippy in the 1960s being accused of being unpatriotic. Imagine a working woman in the 1990s being accused of not being a sufficiently subservient wife/helpmeet.

There are a lot of terms that once were powerful but have lost their force.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” - once the term “racist” loses its power, well, I kind of wonder what might happen then. Might all h**l break loose? It is hard to say. It’s possible to imagine a backlash in which people, partly just to delight in “getting somebody’s goat”, deliberately incite frenzied outrage on The Left by saying and doing all sorts of things once said and done by actual racists. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Right now the language police have a lot of power, but again, only within certain circles. Where I live, when this kind of power move gets attempted, or even referred to, the typical response is an immediate middle finger.

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Love that. I might be thrashing the point a bit but: the teachers perspective itself is a racist insult. The worst insults are the personal ones, the teacher is placing the importance of who Niamh Jimenez is as a person below who she is a a member of a racial group.
And the same criticism can justifiably be directed at all those promoting identity politics.

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This is a long statement that seeks to bring about the establishment, for the present society of Jefferson’s words, changes to his words are in capitals: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all PEOPLE are created equal IN that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, amongst which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
All who work against that work against equality and ability of the individual.
Have some basic rules for arguments. 1) Volume indicates passion it does not add anything to the argument or discussion. 2) Slurs, ad homimen attacks, or cursing also do not add anything to the argument and project either a weak argument or an inability to know the material that is the subject under discussion. 3) The reason for the argument is NOT to win it. It is to find out what the other person(s) think and also what one thinks. That’s it. 4) any ultimate break off of it is not the end, arguments are eternal, they do not end, hence perfection is in the next world.
As a very short man, 5’1", now with age, slightly less, have not minded the benefits that were cast my way by my height, but it did not limit me, nor should it have limited others around me.
If one is to go forth with equality, for me, the best way is to live as if the world you want to live in is already here. Do not know of another way of getting it any closer to happening.

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No! There is also your gender identity. Some adventurous person should combine race and gender into one new super-identity with an entire dictionary of new pronouns.

A delightful essay, many thanks.

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Whilst obviously explaining why an action might be perceived as racist is more constructive than not, in my experience the problem of late tends to more one of agreeing on what qualifies as racism particularly since racism can often exist in more subtle indirect forms like generalisations & stereotyping. However for many only actions that are directly linked to harm qualify as racism, homophobia, transphobia etc hence the conflict.

Katz’s remarks & reactions on black protesters or any other ‘realism’ rhetoric using averages to describe group differences like race IQ show how divergent opinion is. So If we can’t agree on what discriminatory harm is then often there’s no amount of reasoning that’s going to be constructive. In my view the most prudent way to appeal to those that don’t take well to accusations of racism is a dichotomy of individualism v generalisations rather than racist V not racist. Some may say ‘facts’ are being sacrificed on the alter of civility but they can also become untruths when they are applied broadly out of context.

The thing is, people want their cake & want to eat it too but they can’t. One can’t expect free speech comes without consequences. One either lives in a world where generalisations can be freely spouted at the cost of the culture of individualism or one can commit to individualism at the cost of freely generalising. You can’t have it both ways & for those that purport to prefer a society that values individualism there’s but one option that genuinely reflects that. Ultimately, a more civil society is dependant on a trade off of freedoms to make way for greater ones.

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“As paradoxical as it might sound, refusing the free pass and acknowledging one’s own prejudice can lead to the reclamation of real power instead of false privilege. People gain power when they reject guilt and embrace the fruits of responsibility. Good activism does not seek to stymie our progress by stirring up guilt.”

Yes, the progress of us all, of society at large.

“One of the biggest blunders of modern activism is the promotion of guilt …”

So it must follow that the creation of a happy, resentment-free, equality-driven society cannot be made possible when, say, a very large segment of society is told that its burden, its shame, its duty, is to carry the sins of the fathers openly; as if it should be ashamed for having claimed and enjoyed a surfeit of privilege that it had no right to. This modern activism has belatedly deemed western civilisation naughty, not nice; guilty as charged. As if so many nice things should necessarily not lead to a surfeit of privileges!

“But if oppressed people are to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, we have a duty to speak and act in ways that demonstrate a belief in our own worthiness to be taken seriously.”

Yes. The author of this piece must be occasionally mightily irked by the stench of insincerity that resentment fosters and that flows from showy right-on attitudes. Some people might feel a duty to feel ashamed, even in a formerly colonised country like Ireland; others must be in the business of parading their pieties before others: a sham guilt or a patronising compassion is handily their little thing in the affairs of the progressive society.

Has this promotion of guilt been enabled by the massive drop of religion, of Christianity, in people’s lives? Now that sins may stick? Evangelical Christians of African background living in the modern western society must be a little bemused by the idea of the guilty society, as promulgated by the Left and progressive institutions.

How can we ever get good music to return when society, especially the American one, is under such a cloud of self-induced negative introspection? For much of the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, the American and perhaps British pop music charts were an earnest attempt by singers and bands to live and perform among each other as equals, in friendly rivalry. A sign of what could be. But as with so much of the current arts and entertainments scene, there is much vain posing around identity politics.

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The problem with identities is they die when we do. Why spend so much time and effort on something that does not survive? Thoughts are eternal. Identities are passing fancies and in time will go.

Civility, common sense, kindness all go a long way to generating the society we wish to live in as individuals. It is only when we put our thoughts or our selves above being kind to others, that we forget that we are not necessarily any better than anyone else, and its corollary that we are no worse either. We should be generous with our responses, instead of mean, that the society that we would want can come into being .Basically it means having a slightly thicker skin and a greater amount of tolerance for those whose speech is offensive to our ears or actions to our sense of a more just way of living.

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This is why there is always room at the top. The best want to play with others, as a rule they do not care about anything but that. They live in the smallest of cocoons, with few rivals and much praise. To find another has made it is a wonder and a joy or at least should be.

Reminds me of something Chesterton said:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique…The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell,

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Very good…this is a good summary of the classical Enlightenment view of debate. But there is another approach, which has unfortunately become common…practically dominant. It is summed up in some advice given to Arthur Koestler by Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, back while Koestler was still a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

See my post Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation.

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Thank you for the quote, it is marvelous if a bit dated. What saves it is truth does not change over time, assuming it is truth to begin with.

That is indeed propaganda! The basic problem with propaganda is that it needs to be repeated endlessly, and continuously, lest some one, some where begin to question it. It is only through questioning our reality, whatever that may be, that we may grow beyond it, into something different, whether it is better or not is quite another matter, but it is different. The difference being our own thoughts not the constant pounding of a given thought, that can change on a dime… Which if one is on the wrong side, the dime winds up in one’s pocket, the change is like a Mack Truck.

You certainly can have it both ways and decent people do so routinely. For example one can admit to oneself that left handers, on average, really do tend to be clumsy while at the same time, and with perfect honesty, say that one does not prejudge any particular leftie until he has actually demonstrated clumsiness – or … dexterity. (Almost triggered there, but I powered thru.)

Thus:

You are mistaken. 90% of what people know consists of inductive generalizations of which stereotypes are an example. However, if one is properly educated and socialized, one of the most important rules one learns is that, however useful and true various generalizations might be, they can be incorrect in the specific and thus one withholds judgement. That’s how we have our cake and eat it too.

'Twas sarcasm. If only we could help the woke to understand what you say. Identities, as the author above so eloquently explains, are substitutes for genuine personhood. I don’t have an Identity and I don’t need one – I am what I do.

Among the woke the thinner one’s skin the better, the more easily triggered, the holier.

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“While such generalizations about groups of people may be useful when making quick decisions, they may be erroneous when applied to particular individuals and are among the reasons for prejudicial attitudes.”

Discrimination and prejudice[edit]*

Because stereotypes simplify and justify social reality, they have potentially powerful effects on how people perceive and treat one another.[98] As a result, stereotypes can lead to discrimination in labor markets and other domains.[99] For example, Tilcsik (2011) has found that employers who seek job applicants with stereotypically male heterosexual traits are particularly likely to engage in discrimination against gay men, suggesting that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is partly rooted in specific stereotypes and that these stereotypes loom large in many labor markets.[20] Agerström and Rooth (2011) showed that automatic obesity stereotypes captured by the Implicit Association Test can predict real hiring discrimination against the obese.[100] Similarly, experiments suggest that gender stereotypes play an important role in judgments that affect hiring decisions.[101][102]

Stereotypes can cause racist prejudice. For example, scientists and activists have warned that the use of the stereotype “Nigerian Prince” for referring to Advance-fee scammers is racist, i.e. “reducing Nigeria to a nation of scammers and fraudulent princes, as some people still do online, is a stereotype that needs to be called out”.[103]

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Thanks for quoting the author. Tho a Victim of stereotyping, she’s on my side of this issue because she knows that the cure is worse than the disease.

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