- The Fantasies of Privilege
Although I have never explicitly and formally engaged Privilege theory as a critical apparatus for examining culture or identity (not that I personally didn't recognize that I am privileged in ways), it has concerned me that unlike many critical discussions on culture, privilege has been introduced into mainstream discourse (albeit contentiously) in a way that is fairly superficial and imprecise—and this is conversely affected the way we critically turn back to the topic. I am concerned about my own position as a multi-privileged subject: white, male, heterosexual, educated, middle class, and so on. Still, there is something engaging about the notion of privilege—I know that I benefit from advantage—but that notion, I believe, is fraught with instability, and I do question the usefulness of emphasizing the state of the privileged over the state of the disenfranchised (using these artificially binary terms are problematic in and of itself). I understand well that I am situating myself in exactly the kind of privileged status that Peggy McIntosh identifies, but I wish today to seriously question the efficacy of the discourse itself, a discourse I fear only solidifies the very ideology that makes privilege a material reality, if not an existential one.
I don't want to spend too much time on picking apart McIntosh's thoughtful position on privilege, but I want to directly engage McIntosh and identify a couple concerns I have:
1) The first is the notion that McIntosh and others continually stress, that the privileges in question are unearned. I absolutely do not question that fact. However, identifying various privileged positions as occupying an unearned status simultaneously suggests that the privileges themselves should be earned. In her seminal "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies" (also published in an altered version, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"), McIntosh offers about 50 examples of the effects of her privilege as a white, heterosexual, but not one of those examples suggests something that most of us would agree should have to be earned in some fashion: the ability to speak freely, the right not to be harassed by law enforcement, the ability to get married and not be subject to others questioning the decision, the opportunity to see oneself and similar others represented in [End Page 411] history, the media, literature, academia, and so on. She tries to state that not all privileges are something to be "given up," but it is difficult to find any of the white privileges she identifies as negative traits to give up; rather, they seem positive traits to allow for all.
It would certainly do me some good to check my privilege, perhaps even not to have these advantages for a while, if only to give me insight into the material reality of my own existence, but wouldn't we want anyone to enjoy these same things unaffected by the binary distinction the discourse creates? She wants to distinguish between "positive advantages, which can work to spread, to the point where they are not advantages at all but simply part of the normal civic and social fabric, and negative types of advantages which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies" (1988, 10). Again, I would argue that there are very few of her identified privileges that are not what we might call inherent human rights, and those they do not qualify as that are in themselves reinforcing certain ideological values. The hierarchy is reinforced by the identification or recognition of privileges that define the power relations.
Of course, these things are unearned, as well they should be, but if we express the unearned status of some over others (even if it is ourselves we identify), we implicitly suggest to others that they must earn it. Within the kind of American ideological discourse to which we have all become accustomed, this language is self-validating. You can and should earn economic prosperity, healthcare, education, even basic sustenance. It seems to further the idea that if you don't earn it, you don't deserve it—the capitalist ideology in action...