What we get from privilege theory

November 4, 2013

Readers Haley Swenson and John Green raise their questions and differences with a SocialistWorker.org article titled "Is there a white skin privilege?"

Marxism and privilege theory

I HAVE the utmost respect for Bill Mullen as an antiracist activist and as a scholar. I write this letter to ask some clarifying questions that stem from my view of "privilege theory," which is different than the one Bill describes in his October 30 commentary "Is there a white skin privilege?"

My thinking on this issue diverges from Bill's, because I feel his very object of analysis, "privilege theory," is similar to this other thing we in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) are rethinking our strategy around, which is "patriarchy theory."

I think there are texts out there that have put forth actual theories of both, and which assert that these theories provide the major lens through which we should understand the perpetuation of racism and sexism, respectively. But in my experience, these theories don't appear in real practice all that often.

Instead, I can think of many instances in which I've seen activists identify and discuss instances of white privilege, which don't entail accompanying theories that these are the main phenomena structuring our society, or theories that they're alleviated through individual awareness alone.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

So when Bill (and those who share his view) reject privilege theory, as it has been defined in the article, does he also mean he doesn't believe in the existence of advantages white people have relative to people of color in a racist society? Does he believe those exist, but he prefers to call them "rights," rather than "privileges"? Is the contention that people of color can have disadvantages without white people having correlating advantages--where what white people have is simply the normative state?

In my opinion, one can hold the Marxist view that all workers would be better off in a world without racism (because there could then be a united front against exploitation, they couldn't be divided against each other to drive down wages, etc.), and hold that, in this particular system, white workers have privileges workers of color do not, and at times, even privileges that ruling class people of color do not.

I do think that in activist communities, we've seen the development of a differing theory of white privilege, which is much looser than the one critiqued in this article. It is something like: the unacknowledged structural oppression of people of color is linked to other forms of structural oppression and to exploitation, but we can say that there are specifically racist inequalities perpetuated by this system by examining different individuals' lives, outlook and everyday experiences. This means not only the disadvantages that people of color have, but looking at what white people have and take for granted, and that which people of color cannot access.

For most all activists I've come across who talk about privilege, they look to privilege not as the main source of racial inequality, but as a product of it, and as evidence that structural racism exists, absent the smoking guns we usually look for (outright discrimination).

It's a way of actually countering the idea that racial inequality comes from individual bad acts, but is something that has structured our very existence, whether we have bad ideas or not (a point I think Peggy McIntosh makes very well, but which it seems Bill has read to mean the opposite). This seems to me a point completely compatible with the Marxist theory Bill lays out.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

I agree with Bill and Andrea Smith (whom he cites) that a privilege workshop seems like it has little potential to combat structural racism. The only people who hold such workshops, as far as I'm aware, are people who work in university administration, who, it's true, have little interest in motivating more people to combat structural racism.

But when activists talk about privilege, especially radical activists, they're not usually asking people to merely confess privilege and then be pleased with themselves. Privilege comes up in struggle for two primary reasons: first, to convince non-oppressed people that structural inequalities they're not won to fighting are real and there are real reasons they've never noticed them; and second, to remind activists that they don't all have the same experiences and knowledge of certain phenomena and should consider this when they make certain political arguments, organize certain events, invite speakers, etc.

It's usually a way of ensuring that fightback is rooted in experience, in order that it's most effective and inclusive. Do usages of privilege like these necessarily imply the theory of white privilege Bill critiques in his article?

Lastly, I loved Bill's examples of moments in history when white workers and workers of color have refused to be divided from each other and, by uniting, have won great struggles to improve the conditions of the working class. They are all inspiring examples of the racial solidarity that could truly transform our society.

But how, as historical materialists, do we explain the negative examples? The stories of times when workers were divided? Does that happen just because of bad ideas in that group of workers, through false consciousness, or could it not also have had a material basis? Couldn't there have been a recognition by white workers that they did have an interest in those particular cases in not uniting with people of color, even if it was a short-sighted decision or gain?

Because the concept of privilege has resonated in the minds of so many as a way to understand their lives and their differences from others (becoming an almost common-sense point for most antiracist activists), I think it important that we consider closely the core of what it is attracting people to this idea.

In the coming months, as someone who has never quite understood the perceived incompatibility between the concept of white privilege and the Marxist theory of oppression, I hope to better engage those with this view. I do hope to gain a better grasp of the specific ideas being rejected and why, so that perhaps I and others can articulate just what about the notion of white privilege seems salient when we organize and analyze the world.
Haley Swenson, Columbus, Ohio

Recognizing privilege makes us stronger

POLLS SHOW that the majority of white Americans oppose racism. That's a very welcome change from much of this country's history. The issue is how many white people define racism. That's where the lens of "white privilege" proves itself indispensable to anti-racist activists.

In my life experience, most white people define racism as the words and actions of the old Ku Klux Klan, modern-day white supremacists and the occasional Republican politician.

Peggy McIntosh's list is a pretty helpful starting place for getting white people to realize that far from being confined to the margins of society, race and racism are actually present in our everyday lives in ways that don't fit the schema that most of us believe/d.

Recognizing white privilege makes all activists, particularly white activists, stronger. We can accept that piece while understanding that awareness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
John Green, Hayward, Calif.

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