Owning your Privilege Doesn’t Work

Owning Your Privilege Doesn’t Work

That said, the power that words like “privilege” provide — the ability to abstract away the experience of other human beings — is also why they don’t belong in discussions attempting to incorporate the experiences of different groups. Privilege is a powerful word to allow for expedited communication between two people of the same oppressed group (feminists will talk about “male privilege,” people of color can talk about “white privilege,” etc.) but it is also highly alienating for people in the privileged group.

In a recently lampooned post on nerd privilege, MIT professor Scott Arson said:

Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege” — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2091#comment-326664_ see comment #171

But, I’m with Scott on this one. The word “privileged” is alienating because it abstracts away important information about the “privileged” person’s experience. As a programmer, and high school wrestler/Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner, I have had close friendships with male nerds and male jocks and I can attest to them both occupying very different parts in systemized sexism.

Imagine a hypothetical jock. He may want to lift do to open doors and lift heavy objects for me but may also joke about how I’m “smarter” than him, and may not to be threatened by things like my higher earning potential. His masculinity is confirmed through his physical prowess, and so he can be relaxed if he doesn’t fulfill the masculine ideal in other ways.

A hypothetical nerd, on the other hand, may never feel sufficiently masculine. In college, I saw nerds who lifted themselves into hyper-muscularity and yet confessed continued feelings of physical inadequacy to me. The hypothetical nerd may find it deeply embarrassing to concede an intellectual point to a woman because he is trying to impress women with his intelligence rather than their brawn.

Anyway, these were gross generalizations (and, the vast majority of men fall into neither stereotype) but I want to give an impression on how these two different male experiences contribute differently to sexism. With a “jock” type guy, women will be given more respect and freedom with respect to their their intellectual pursuits, but will tend to be physically corralled into traditional sexist structures (say, always being expected to sit in the back seat of a car.) With “nerd” men, women will often be acknowledged as “equals” yet will find it hard to have their ideas respected and taken seriously. You could argue these two types of men have a certain type of “privilege” in their respective social structures, but to argue they are both buying into the same system of universal male “privilege” is a simplification that obscures the actual work that has to be done in each case for women to achieve equality.

It is useful for Scott to complain that his experience is being ignored. If he truly wants to fight for female equality, he has to see what he is doing wrong, not what “men” are doing wrong.

One of the deeply frustrating culturalisms to catch on is the concept of people “owning their privilege” — often with the phrase “I acknowledge my privilege.” Do me a favor, and never utter the phrase “I acknowledge my privilege.” Acknowledging your privilege in the abstract is basically useless. It is simply the behavior of liberals trying to align themselves with culturally acceptable socially progressive philosophies without doing any of the actual work needed to make social progress. I know this because I do it myself. If I ever say “I acknowledge my privilege” what I’m really saying is “I don’t want people to get mad at me, so I’m going to say this to satiate the liberal overmind.”

What people “with privilege” really need to do is to try to understand the point of view of people “without privilege.” Consider the recent case of Mike Brown who was shot by a police officer. Eye-witness testimony, that later turned out to be false, claimed that he entered a “football stance” and charged at the officer. Now, imagine you are a 300lb teenage boy being shot at by a police officer. Under what circumstances do you football charge him? Emotionally, what would you have to be feeling to run head first into a gun pointed at you? I can’t even imagine anything short of complete delusion. However, white juries don’t imagine what it would be like to be black boys, so no one notices if the supposed behavior of the black boys is completely non-sensical.

Similarly, men often don’t imagine what it’s like to be women. How do you think a woman feels when you offer to lift a heavy object for her? Imagine being a woman, and having a man come over and pick up something for you. What do you feel? Relief, perhaps, that you don’t have to carry it yourself. Weakness, maybe, or embarrassment. If you’re a man who lifts heavy things for women, before you do it, next time imagine what the woman will be feeing. I’m not saying men should or shouldn’t lift things for women, I’m saying they should try to understand the impact of their behavior from her viewpoint.

In Black Girl Dangerous, I read a great description of what was wrong with white/black relations.

White people think we have a higher tolerance for pain than they do … Despite what white and other non-Black people think, though, we are fully human. We really, really, are. We feel just as much pain as everyone else. Being shot by police officers is very, very painful for us.


When white people see a black person getting shot, they imagine it as somehow different from themselves being shot. They don’t mentally project themselves into that role the way they would if a white person were shot, which is why they think black people have a higher pain tolerance.

One of the crucial steps that people “with privilege” need to take is to see themselves in the stories of people “without privilege.” Acknowledging privilege in the abstract does nothing to further this, and in fact, I think moves us further from the ultimate goal of empathy. The reason is, if you’re acknowledging an abstract “privilege” you are seeing yourself as part of a system, and not as an individual. The way you, as an individual, oppress people is deeply tied to your own pain and life experience. Nerds and jocks oppress women differently. White men and white women oppress black people differently. If you don’t see how your own story, and your own pain, connects you to your specific behaviors you will not be able to correct them, and you will not be open to listening to the life experience of other people.

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