A critique of privilege politics, which the author sees as a demobilizing force that boils down issues of oppression into what happens between individuals.
This piece was written by Will, a close comrade to many members of Black Orchid Collective.
Notes on Privilege Theory
Introduction: White Supremacy Lives on
It is crystal clear that white supremacy exists. It seeps through every pore in our society. It infects every social relationship. It obviously affects Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone knows the wealth divide, the incarceration numbers, gentrification, the education gap and more are part of the class and racial oppression of the United States. All this is obvious. A more politically contentious matter are the social interactions, which are racialized in negative ways in society and specifically OWS. It is always painful, because at best we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms. However, it is not a surprise that even in movement spaces people experience white supremacy. Our society is saturated with it, so to expect non-racialized human relations in the movement would be utopian.
The combination of structural oppression based on race and class, the history of white supremacy and capitalism, and how that effects people’s interactions with one another has led to a school of thought called Privilege theory. Privilege theory recognizes structural and historical oppression, but has an undue focus on individual behavior and thoughts as a major way of addressing white supremacy (and other oppressions, but I will tend to focus on white supremacy and class). Privilege theory has a set of basic principles:
a) Privilege theory argues that movement spaces should be safe for all oppressed groups. One way to make such a space safe is by negotiating one another’s actions in non-oppressive ways. For example, this means straight white men should talk less or think about the privileges they have when discussing an action or political question.
b) Privilege theory justifies that militancy and political sophistication is the domain of a privileged elite based on class, gender and racial privileges.
c) Privilege theory roots political and strategic mistakes in the personal privileges that people bring into the movement.
d) Privilege theory seeks to deal with these issues primarily through education, teach-ins and conversations. This piece will point out key failures in all four principles of Privilege theory. It will tentatively lay out some ways forward, while recognizing more research, and more importantly, struggle is needed to resolve some of the outstanding problems facing the movement.
There is certainly a long history of people of color facing white supremacy inside the movement. However they have tended to focus around programmatic and organizational critiques. Areas where deficiencies could be more easily seen and addressed. For example, if a group does not organize around Black prisoners, it can be addressed by having political discussions, changing the program of the group, and making an organizing orientation towards Black prisoners. Privilege theory addresses this by claiming that someone’s privilege creates a blind spot to the reality of incarceration of Black men.
Another aspect of oppression Privilege theorists tackle are social interactions. However, it becomes much harder to objectively assess if a white man’s glance objectifies a person because the color of their skin; if a white man yelling at a person of color is due to race or if it is a non-racialized-gendered reaction to political differences; or if a white man is taking up a lot of space because of his privilege or because he needs to speak because he simply has something valid/ important to say.
There is no doubt that in any organization or movement, where this is common behavior, people of color will not join or leave after some time. But at the same time, any movement/ organization which spends tons of time on this will no longer be a fighting organization/ movement and eventually people of color will leave. It will become talk shops or consciousness raising circles. In a period when the NYPD are killing Black and Latino men with impunity, schools are being closed in POC neighborhoods, anti-Muslim propaganda is rampant, and immigrants are deported every day, few will join a group which only focuses on inter-personal relationships. They key is to understand the tension and get the balance right.
At the same time it is undeniable that that many POC believe this to be a serious way to deal with white supremacy. That many believe a movement can be built from Privilege Theory’s political and strategic claims. Privilege Theory has come to be the dominant trend under specific historical circumstances, which I will briefly address. I believe this to be a false strategy, ultimately failing to actually solve the problems Privilege Theory wishes to address.
Probably every person of color has experienced some variety of interaction described above. First, lets discuss the complexities: when this happens, even amongst people of color there is disagreement over the perception of what the interactions meant. Understanding the seriousness of the charge is tied up with the white militants’ past behavior or track record. People of color are also coming in with their own experiences with white supremacy. This certainly effects how they see social relationships. Lastly, some agreement has to be found that as a general rule people who join the movement are not white supremacists. This should be a fundamental assumption, otherwise, we are left with the ridiculous and suicidal political reality that we are building a movement with white supremacists. So that leaves us dealing with racial alienation or white chauvinism by people who we assume are against white supremacy. That seems to be a crucial point that needs to be recognized.
Usually people of color want acknowledgement that something fucked up happened. It is true that generally, most white militants flip out. On one hand the white militants grasp the seriousness of the accusation, but on the other hand, in their defense, they fail to give recognition of how another person of color perceived an event. The white militant usually acts as if the theory of white supremacy infecting everything stops with their mind and body when they are accused of anything. This is understandable, as no serious militant should take such accusations lightly.
This is particularly important as people of color, based on all the shit that happens to them, tend to see the world differently, and are obviously sensitive to racial slights. The lack of recognition usually escalates the situation as the person of color tends to feel, what is “objectively true’ falls back on how the white militant defines reality. At such a point, productive conversation usually breaks down.
Lastly things are more complicated today because white supremacy is much more coded today in language and behavior. No one in the movement is going to call anyone nigger. People actually did so in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. No one is going to say that a person of color should not speak because of their color of their skin. Things are not that clear. This is partially a sign that struggles of people of color have forced white-supremacy’s anti-POC language to take a different form. However, white supremacy still exists. In the media for example talk of crime or poverty is code word for lazy Black or Latino people who ruin paradise for the hard working great white citizens of America. Exactly how white supremacy works in coded language and behavior in the movement is still something that needs to be investigated.
While the difficulties of being a person of color militant in movements is difficult as hell, there are certain odd problems of being a white militant in the movement. People of color enter the movement expecting better racial relationships. This is certainly fair. This usually means that white male militants are expected to take up less space, talk less, etc. Every personal interaction while always influenced by the weight of history, cannot be judged solely by that dimension alone. For example, Black people have been slaves in the US and specifically servants to white masters. Extrapolating that historical past to the social interaction when a Black man or woman gets a white friend a cup of water would be ridiculous. There is always agency and freedom in the actions we participate in today. They are always shaped by race, class gender, sexuality and history; but we are not completely trapped by the crimes of the past either. Otherwise friendship, love, camaraderie would be impossible. The very possibility of any form of human social relationship would be destroyed. We would be parroting the past and dogmatically replicating it in the present.
Usually, after acknowledgement, things can be left at that. However, sometimes deeper organizational and political issues come up. Especially if a person of color says there is a pattern/ history of such behavior. If this is the case, it should be dealt with in terms of organizational and political dynamics. The limitations of privilege politics in dealing with such situations will be spelt out later.
Fanon, Black Liberation, and Humanity
The most sophisticated traditions in Black liberation have struggled to deal with such problems. Revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon in Black Skin and White Masks (BSWM) used the philosophical tools of Phenomenology to explore the experience of consciousness/ lived experience of people of color. This tradition in the movement is sadly dead. In light of his investigations of Phenomenology, there is strong evidence in Fanon’s writings and practice in his life showing that conversation cannot solve such racialized experiences, only the most militant and violent struggle can cleanse racialized human relations. The United States has not experienced high levels of struggles in over 50 years. Major problems develop because of the lack of militant struggle in the country.
Fanon also left a puzzling legacy by writing Black Skin, White Masks, which often is used to justify privilege theory. However, two problems exist with such a treatment of BSWM. The first is that this book was part of Fanon’s development; his working out of problems he saw and experienced. Second and more importantly, almost all privilege theorists ignore the introduction and conclusion of the work. This is strange considering those two chapters are the theoretical framework of the book. In these two chapters Fanon expresses equality with all of humanity and denies anyone demanding reparations or guilt of any kind for past historical oppressions. What else can Fanon mean by, “I do not have the right to allow myself to be mired in what the past has determined. I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors. I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guild toward the past of my race.” The gendered language aside, this stands in stark contrast to privilege theory.
Fanon stands at the heights of attempting to reconcile the experiences of oppression with the need to develop human interactions and the necessity of changing them through militant struggle. There is no doubt that Fanon’s attempt to have human interactions with white people constantly clashed with white people’s racialized interactions with him. In other words, white people do talk to people of color in condescending ways, dismiss POC issues as secondary, ignore POC etc. The issue is how to address it when it happens and in that realm Privilege theory fails.
Privilege theory puts too much weight on consciousness and education. It ends up creating a politics of guilt by birth. At the same time, there is no doubt that more education is needed on the history of white supremacy in the United States and on a global level. Furthermore, the relationship of white supremacy and its effect on consciousness is vital and a legitimate field of politics and philosophical inquiry. W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Michelle Wallace, Frantz Fanon and others have all made vital contributions in the United States regarding this tradition. Re-framing the debate along such a tradition is vital.
New social relations can only be forged in collective struggle of the most militant character. No amount of conversation and education can form new relationships. It is only the mass involvement and struggle of oppressed people which can ultimately destroy white supremacy, re-establish the humanity of people color, and create social relationships between people as one among humans instead of the racially oppressed and white oppressor.
The Failure of Privilege Theory
Privilege theory seeks to redress and describe the huge inequalities which materially, psychologically, and socially exist in society. While it is often accurate in its sociological analysis of such inequalities, it fails in crucial realms of actual struggle. Privilege theory ends up being a radical sociological analysis. It ends up not being a theory of struggle, but a theory of retreat. Privilege theory’s main weakness are a tendency towards reformism, a lack of politics, and a politics of retreat.
Privilege theory tends towards reformism or at best the radical politics of a group of people who seek to act above the oppressed. The latter is especially important. We have lived through a century of where people claiming to represent the masses claiming revolutionary politics acting above them: Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Weather Underground, Josip Broz Tito or Julius Nyerere are just some figures who have fallen in this trap. Today the names are not so grandiose, but things are not so different.
There is no doubt that certain groups are more likely to be targeted by the police during political actions and that the repression they face will be greater, not to mention they might have less resources to call upon in their defense. These are all fairly obvious realities of white supremacy. These factors certainly hinder greater struggle. At no point should they be underestimated. At the same time, these factors are exactly the forms of oppression which must be defeated. These movements must find ways to deal with these issues politically and organizationally. Who will defeat these forms of oppression and how? If the liberation of oppressed people must be carried out by oppressed people then the tasks of liberation remain in the hands with the people who have the greatest risks. If white supremacy can only be defeated by mass and militant action and not legislation or pithy reforms then the style of struggle is fairly clear as well. What is privilege theory’s response to these two fundamental premises? Privilege theory ends up in a dead end.
According to its arguments, the most oppressed should not struggle in the most militant ways because they do not have the privileged access to bail money, good lawyers and not to mention their racial status which will surely guarantee extra punishment. This leaves only one group of people who can possibly resist: those with a set of privileges who have access to lawyers, have the spare time to struggle, etc. This is in sharp contrast to the revolutionary tradition which has argued that the defeat of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism etc are the responsibilities of billions of oppressed people. This is exactly the group of people Privilege theory tends claims has so much to risk.
No doubt huge gaps exist in speaking, writing, confidence etc amongst movement activists based on race, class, and gender. Privilege theorists are at the forefront of acknowledging this reality. However, where the task is to make sure that everyone in the movement has roughly the same skills, privilege theorists are rarely clear on how to address this, other then reminding the privileged of their privilege. Privilege theorists so far have not demonstrated how this can be dealt with.
Privilege theory in a partially correct way grasps that people of color do not participate in many of the militant actions precisely because they face greater risk of arrest and more punishment. But instead of finding ways to get around this problem, privilege theorists fetishize this problem into a practice of demobilization and reformism.
Lastly, Privilege theory has no response to the rich history of oppressed people who struggled in the past. In Privilege theories on words, these were some of the most under-privileged humans and yet their theories and actions were at the front of militancy and revolutionary politics. What makes the situation any different today is not clear.
Lack of Politics
Privilege theory de-politicizes most discussion from their most revolutionary potentials. Privilege theory has no political program other then a sociological analysis of who is more likely to be imprisoned, shot, or beaten in protests, strikes, and rebellions.
The past struggles have been over communism, anarchism, nationalism, Maoism, anti-colonialism, African socialism etc. These struggles have fought for the defeat of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia (or at least they should have fought for all their defeats if they failed to do so in actuality). The point is that the greatest struggles of the oppressed rallied around mass struggle, militancy, and revolutionary theory. Privilege theory de-centers all three.
In the United States, generations of militants, since the defeat of the 1968 current, have developed with little revolutionary theory and organization, and even less experience in mass struggle. This has meant extremely underdeveloped politics. And at the university setting, where political theory resides, it has been generally dominated by middle class, academic, and reformist tendencies. There is little thinking through of this dynamic in the movement. At its worst, there is a sloppy linkage between any theory–even revolutionary theory — and academia, which only destroys the past tradition of oppressed people who fought so bravely to acquire the freedom to read, theorize strategies of struggle and liberation on revolutionary terms.
Privilege theory is completely divorced from a revolutionary tradition. I have yet to meet Privilege theorists who hold classes on revolutionary politics with unemployed people, with high school drop outs, with undocumented immigrants etc. Privilege theory’s fundamental assumption exposes its proponents class background when they claim that theoretical-political knowledge is for people who come from privileged backgrounds. That is true if the only place you develop that knowledge is in universities. Privilege theorists have not built the schools the Communist Party did in the 1930s or the Panthers did in the late 1960s. These were not official universities, but the educational institutions developed by the oppressed for the oppressed.
They claim that to act in militant ways or to theorize is the luxury of the privileged. This actually leaves no solution for freedom for the oppressed. The theory that the oppressed cannot theorize or struggle militantly is the theory of an elite who see the oppressed as helpless and stupid. It is the oppressed who must theorize and must eventually overthrow capitalism. They actually have the power.
Political mistakes as seen by Privilege theory roots in the privileges a given person has. Usually the person is asked to check their privileges as a way to realize whatever political mistake. This obscures political and organizational conversations, instead diverting the conversation into unmeasurable ways of addressing politics. How do we know this person has checked their “privilege”? By what political and organizational means can we hold this person accountable?
The more important tasks are what is the political program, what organizing does the group actually do, are people of color (or any other oppressed group) developed as revolutionaries and through development they too are leaders of the group/ movement.
The Politics of Retreat
Privilege theory has only come to dominate the movement in the last twenty years or so. In the United States the last forty years has been a period of massive retreat in militancy and revolutionary politics. The rise of privilege theory cannot be separated from the devastation of mass movements. It is in this context that privilege theory has risen.
Privilege theorists are a generation who have never known mass and militant struggle. They are a generation who have never seen the masses as described in Frantz Fanon’s Towards the African Revolution. They have never met an oppressed people who have simply stated, I will either live like a human or die in struggle. I do not know if they have been in rebellions where very oppressed people choose to fight the police and other oppressors risking imprisonment and much worse. Have they seen such a people? Is there any doubt it is only a people who are willing to go this far who have any chance of defeating white supremacy?
Privilege theory thrives off the inactivity of the masses and oppressed. They seek only to remind the masses of its weaknesses. Instead of immortalizing fallen sheroes they only lament of the tragedy of the dead. Perhaps it is better to be beaten and killed in struggle then to die on your knees like so many have in the past 50 years. Who does not live on their knees today? Humiliation by the police, humiliation by the boss, humiliation everywhere we go.
Ironically these privilege theorists who claim to be representatives of the underprivileged tokenize and trivialize the struggles of the past. They name drop past struggles only to argue that the conditions are different today. They fail to recognize that “the conditions are not right for struggle” is an old argument going back hundreds of years constantly reminding the oppressed to delay revolution and mass struggle. Who is willing to tell the oppressed, “the system sees you as a dog. Only when you struggle on the terms of life and death will you achieve humanity.” Every fighter in the past has known this. The privilege theorists are afraid to accept from where human freedom comes from.
Every struggle for freedom carries the risk of death imposed on the oppressor or the oppressed. It is a universal reality. There was a time when Harriet Tubman simply told all slaves that. Ironically, she is lionized today, but her life and wisdom have no practical political lesson for revolutionaries other then tokenizing this brave Black woman.
I simply state: those who speak of privilege are reformists. Their only task is to remind oppressed people of what it cannot do and what it has to lose. The privilege theorists have not lived in an era of rebellions and revolutions. They are far removed from the days when Black and Brown worker-unemployed militants shook 1968. Such privilege theorists cover their own tracks by hiding behind the risks which the proletariat must take. No doubt, deportation, imprisonment, and certainly death are at stake. Is the price of freedom and human recognition be any else?
When any militant action or militant politics is proposed in a meeting, privilege theorists are the first to stand up and remind those at the meetings that only those with such and such privilege can participate in such and such militant action. That the oppressed has no such luxury in participating in militant actions.
Gone are the days when revolutionaries such as Harriet Tubman simply stated that human live was meant to be lived in freedom or not at all. That existential proclamation of humanity has been lost to fear and political degeneration. Those are the stakes. There is no denying that militancy and revolution are a grave risk for the oppressed. The struggles of the past are littered with corpses and destroyed lives.
If capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, ableism, homo and transphobia can only be destroyed by the most violent, militant, and revolutionary means, what other option then all out struggle do oppressed people have. What say the Privilege theorists? Is there any other strategy? Voting for the Democrats?
My experiences in the POC Space
The People of Color Working Group at Occupy Wall Street in New York City was certainly a testing ground for the effectiveness of Privilege theory. One of the most contentious issues was the question of Queer politics where some members of the working group argued that being Queer had nothing to do with being a person of color. The argument tended then to dissolve in people saying those members did not recognize their straight or male privilege. This ignored the reality that not all straight men of color agreed with the anti-Queer politics put forward, but more importantly that there should been a discussion of program and organization.
In terms of program, the working group could have struggled to put out a document which stated that the POC Working Group is against anti-Queer politics. That seems simple enough. And in fact, if memory serves me correct this was eventually done. However politics must always be enforced or otherwise they are just empty words on a piece of paper.
This brings us to the organizational dimensions of the discussion which as far as I am aware of were never discussed. Once a group of people agree to something, what are the repercussions when someone violates that set upon agreement? This is a question which has no easy solutions. In a tightly knight organization, the person could be kicked out. But OWS has a very open and fluid organizational structure. Hell, it cannot even be called an organization in sensible way. This poses serious problems. At the same time it seems OWS can ban people from the space as seen in the discussion around the Spokes Council and the decision to ban folks who are violent.
Another problem in the POC Working Group was that few if any people had a revolutionary pedagogy in teaching others about the relationship of Queer oppression to POC oppression. Attempts to address the question were left to accusations that some were not recognizing their straight privilege, or informal discussions with little historical or theoretical discussion of the questions. It simply was not enough to bridge the political differences. The inability to come to terms with such questions seems to have alienated many people, further hampering whatever possibilities of unity in the POC Working Group.
A Concrete Example and a Possible Alternative
There is no denying that if Graduate students from Columbia or NYU demanded that workers at a McDonald’s go on strike for the upcoming May 1st meeting it would be a preposterous politics. Grad students at these two institutions have huge autonomy. If they are not teaching or if they have class on May 1st, missing it is going to be of little or no consequence. If they teach, cancelling class is also an option with much less consequences for going on strike. It is absolutely correct that the stakes are different for workers at McDonalds. At best they can request the day off, but that is hardly in the spirit of going on a one day strike. If they do not go into work that day and they were on schedule, they could risk losing their job in an already poor economy.
Privilege theorists would focus on the privilege the Grad Students have which blocks them from recognizing the political or organizational problems. It is almost as if the Privilege theorists are divorced from concretely thinking through the organizational and political tasks required to ultimately have McDonald workers going on a general strike. That is the point of organizing isn’t it? So, yes the dangers of going on strike are huge for McDonald workers. How do we make it so that the McDonald workers can enforce their class power on the boss and the company? That is something you never hear the Privilege theorists discuss.
I am not a full expert on the rise of Privilege theory in academia. But one can wonder if people like Peggy McIntosh or Tim Wise have ever had to organize. Obviously many organizers today are major Privilege theorists. Instead of finding militant and political solutions to problems of the most oppressed, I see them pointing out sociological realities as I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, organizing is not a Grad School sociology class. Organizing means class struggle–with all its different subjectivities– and revolution.
The implications of Privilege theory run much deeper then what has been addressed in this small essay. While they have not been addressed, some of the best readings regarding this are the works of Frantz Fanon. He sharply dealt with the very question of being a human being in light of the color of his skin, in relationship to the anti-colonial struggle, and the desire to forge a common human-bond.
The purpose of this essay has been to challenge the framework of Privilege theory. This theory fails in its ability as a theory of struggle and actual emancipation of oppressed people. In fact, it locks in people in the very categories capitalism assigns them by only focusing on their oppressed category: whether it be Black, woman, Queer, worker or student. It fails to develop actual politics, organizations and strategies of liberation, because it was never meant to do that. Privilege theory is the politics of radical sociology attempting to struggle.
Privilege theory forces serious discussion of revolutionary politics, organization and strategy out. Forms of oppression obviously mean different risks depending on who you are, but what solutions does Privilege theory offer? It is only the revolutionary tradition which offers a way forward so oppressed people, through their own militancy and politics, can destroy all the things which oppress them.
Our generation has few older revolutionaries to learn from. Their wisdoms are largely being forgotten as they pass away. For this purpose, I paraphrase a conversation I recently had with an ex-Black Panther. I outlined the basic points of this article and his responses were the following. They are brief, but I believe outline some important questions revolutionaries of our generation should think through. At times there are contradictory pieces of advice, but helpful none the less.
First this Panther was against politics of guilt. The Panther felt that privilege theory created such a situation and people who are guilty are not good revolutionaries. The Panther off handedly also mentioned the politics of guilt are the bedrock of the Catholic Church.
Second, the Panther said that you should just “fuck’ em” when negative racial incidents happen. It is about remembering people who make you feel that way do not deserve your respect and attention–so “fuck’em”. This could also be read as simply having thick skin.
Third, the Panther said that one should not focus on the little things. That the goal of politics is to achieve big things: general strikes, smashing the state, getting rid of the police, ending patriarchy etc. Perhaps the Panther was also saying out organize such people. Make them irrelevant by your organizing skills.
Fourth, the Panther said that there has been a rightward shift in all aspects in the United States for over thirty years. Such interactions are bound to happen. People are a part of this society.
Last, the Panther went on to explain the importance of keeping your dignity. It was not clear why the Panther brought up this point. The Panther said if someone is ignoring you because of your gender, class, or race; clear your throat, or directly go up to them and say, “excuse me, but I believe we have the following things to talk about.” But keeping your dignity seemed important.
The following works influenced the writing of this piece
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
Towards an African Revolution by Frantz Fanon
Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
A Dying Colonialism by Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon by David Macey
Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan
Fanon In Search of the African Revolution by L. Adele Jinadu
Frantz Fanon Colonialism and Alienation by Renate Zahar
Existentia Africana by Lewis Gordon
Fanon and the Crisis of European Man by Lewis Gordon
Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience by Ato Sekyi-Oto
Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss
Caliban’s Reason Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy by Paget Henry
Naussea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Black Orpheus by Jean-Paul Sartre
Anti-Semite and Jew by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi
Discourse on Colonialism by Aime Cesaire
I am a Martinican Woman and the White Negress by Mayotte Capecia
White Man, Listen by Richard Wright
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Richard Wright by Hazel Rowley
Stirrings in the Jug by Adolph Reed Jr.
Notes of Native Son by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s Collected Essays by James Baldwin
German Ideology by Karl Marx
Grundrisse by Karl Marx
Originally posted: March 12, 2012 at Black Orchid Collective