I don’t use the word “privilege.” It’s not that I believe that we live in a society where all lives matter. We need to talk about social difference.
I just don’t have time to play games…or at least that one.
To be clear, games are not meaningless. They are a time-tested way of passing on the challenges of life, the virtue of saying “sorry,” and the subtleties of our trivial pursuits. But what exactly are the rules, goals, and implications of privilege-checking?
There’s got to be a better way of understanding the difference difference-making makes. Privilege just doesn’t do it for me.
The Step-Back, Step-Forward Game
My own introduction to the concept of privilege was in college when our class played the “step-back, step-forward game.” Students were asked to affirm whether they had found themselves in a number of racialized and gendered social situations.
So for instance, a facilitator would say,
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
I would then step backward because I’m frequently asked to explain the meaning of Kwanzaa or share the black consensus on social issues.
However, were the facilitator to say the following, I would step forward.
Most people I meet will see my marital arrangements as an asset to my life or as a favorable comment on my likeability, my competence, or my mental health.
The absolute value of the player’s movement supposedly corresponds to their raised awareness of how different social locations result in varied experiences. As players compare their privileged vantage points, they are to become more sensitive about how they interact with those different from them.
Where I take issue with this is the amount of stock people put in the power of basic comparison. Playing Monopoly gives people a sense of how capitalism works, but I’m not going to trust some one with my finances just because they recognize that Park Place is worth more than Reading Railroad.
Stepping back and stepping forward can be done with great sincerity. Indeed, theorizing has to start somewhere. But privilege-checking makes for a lousy endgame.
I know now that the prompts above were from bootlegged excerpts of Peggy McIntosh’s oft-cited 1987 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and the more expansive 1988 essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.”
But her study of privilege was more profound than today’s oppression olympics suggest. For me, the real take away from McIntosh’s work are her reflections on the subtext of social stratification.
McIntosh (1988) discusses privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that [one] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [one] was “meant” to remain oblivious.” She herself arrives at this by comparing more than demography. She’s asks why she was socialized not to see what was so visible to people of color.
This question is not limited to McIntosh’s observations of race. She has seen the other side of this dynamic in terms of gender. And therein lies the real power of comparison. In my read, her interest is not in essentializing power, but observing how and why people can make social difference work for them.
In critiquing the notion of privilege, I think it important to also address the collateral damage of what that discourse has become. Demanding people to check their privilege runs the risk of hiding precisely what they’re trying to critique.
Surely you’ve heard someone say, “I don’t know why they keep calling it ‘privilege’ when I haven’t benefitted from being __________________. I’m struggling just like everyone else, and you don’t see me complaining.”
Doesn’t diction like “unearned advantage” invite that sort of rejoinder? Of course someone on the receiving end of privilege-checking is going to ask “am I really ahead.” If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t have been called out in the first place.
Conversations on privilege only take us so far.
Having had the benefit of sitting with McIntosh’s original pieces, I wonder whether we owe them further consideration. Rather than talking about privilege and unearned advantage, shouldn’t we now also acknowledge all the work that goes into making invisible our most conspicuous social constructions?
Instead of trying to decide whether a Muslim kid of African descent really built a clock or just assembled its pieces from a hobby kit at Radio Shack, maybe we should be asking why that isn’t enough to merit recognition in a STEM-loving world with kids who’ve never seen a soldering iron. (Joseph Laycock has some great ideas about this.)
Ahmed’s sister told me to post this. Yes this situation is real for those questioning. pic.twitter.com/Oxd0JxUS6O
— Prajwol/Ru (@OfficalPrajwol) September 16, 2015
But if your name’s Ahmed Mohammed, you get the distinct privilege of becoming a terror suspect. Some have even posited that Ahmed Mohammed is at the center of some legal theater designed to score public and judicial sympathy for Muslim causes.
Privilege-checking isn’t going to accomplish much here, but McIntosh’s deeper comparative impulse has so much to offer here.
Even if one grants the premise of a PR-job by an advocacy group like the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the NAACP adopted a similar strategy to forward Brown et. Al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS, et. al.
Each plaintiff was to watch the paper for enrollment dates and take their child to the school for white children that was nearest to their home. Once they attempted enrollment and were denied, they were to report back to the NAACP. This would provide the attorneys with the documentation needed to file a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board. The African American schools appeared equal in facilities and teacher salaries but some programs were not offered and some textbooks were not available. In addition, there were only four elementary schools for African American children as compared to eighteen for white children. This made attending neighborhood schools impossible for African American children. Junior and Senior high schools were integrated.
The amount of work necessary to overturn “separate but equal” is exceeded by the efforts required to cast the decision not as the labor of cunning lawyers but the fruit of the founding father’s liberative seed.
Checking-privilege doesn’t go far enough. We need to identify that which we’ve worked so hard to hide—even if at the expense of our own complacency. If we’re comfortable after such “drudgery” (to borrow from Jonathan Z. Smith), then the game has only just begun.
Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.