Why Conversations About Privilege are Clumsy

In short, most conversations about privilege boil down to trying to ‘school’ other people with one’s own perspective.

Attempting to impose one’s understanding and will on others like this is itself most often clumsy, and we’re only getting started!

In this topsy-turvy era, an accusation of privilege can be a way to subvert it, and declaring one’s own powerlessness is an act of power.

Bottom line: the conversation is clumsy because it’s handled too simplistically. Here are two factors which would mature this dialogue:

Privilege is Contextual

The label “white privilege” is a misnomer, which attempts to keep this about race. Race is an important aspect, but in this conversation, it’s missing the real point. We should start using the phrase majority privilege. In a democracy, majority means power. If we don’t want democracy to become a monolithic juggernaut, we need to be aware of its margins, its cracks and its gaps — real people live there! Additionally, every demographic or subgroup has a different internal majority, which brings me to the second point.

Privilege is Never Static

Privilege is power, and like power, privilege is dynamic. It’s the ability to make autonomous decisions, without having to face needless pressures or prejudices that result from being different. The thing is, there is a lot of ‘different’ in our world, and what becomes popular — and by extension, unpopular — changes all the time. Privilege and power move unpredictably, and they can be subverted unpredictably as well.

Heedless of these complicating factors, the level of the current discourse attempts to reduce the whole issue to a supposed binary:

“You’re either with the propagators of privilege. Or with the victims of prejudice.”

And each turns into an accusation by the other. Which becomes a counter-accusation. And then a counter-counter accusation.

How can you defend yourself against an accusation like this?

For example, if someone of a different race called you a racist, how would you deny it? Do you think those denials would stand up in your accuser’s mind? Honestly?

Having seen a lot of people’s attempts, my determination is, generally speaking, denial doesn’t cut it.

Making an accusation is taking power.

Accusation is violent communication. It tends to spark a violent response, and the level violence often escalates, quickly! Effectively, accusation narrows your options of response to three:

  1. Fight. Argue. Deny. Defend. Counter-attack.
  2. Withdraw.
  3. Ask questions.

None of these options are particularly great. Asking questions is really the only one with a shot at a productive outcome, because it has a chance to keep the conversation going. The problem is that you have to forgive or ignore being labelled — no matter how unfair you think that is — before you talk.

The point I’m making is that accusation itself thwarts generative conversation. If our predisposition didn’t start with a combative posture, we’d have a better chance for change. This doesn’t mean we have to ignore the feelings built into this. Fear and anger are real!

I’m not saying “Be calm.” I’m saying “Be smart.”

Let’s just knock it off with the accusations, altogether. I think the true goal here is actually more nuanced. Despite what’s happening in popular culture, we are not looking to grow the ditches, and try to catch more people in them.

That’s a counter-productive goal.

Instead, I believe in trying to grow the road between, until it’s wide enough that we can all walk together.

Barrier-breaking conversation just doesn’t happen in a toxic environment. The goal cannot be to provoke shame on either side of the privilege divide. It should not be to hone our weapons of accusation and denial.

The exercise is to lower barriers and foster understanding within the diversity that would strengthen us…if we let it.