What privilege analysis doesn’t provide

November 19, 2013

Dennis K., a nurse in Chicago, joins in an ongoing SocialistWorker.org debate.

READING THE ongoing debate on white skin privilege at SocialistWorker.org has made me think about a recent fightback that took place where I work. It is a large, publicly funded hospital that cares for a patient population that is as racially and ethnically diverse as its workforce. The class background of patients is uniformly working class and chronically unemployed.

In our emergency department, there are about 120 nurses, and then there are dozens of emergency room technicians, clerks, janitors and transporters. They are African American, Filipino, Indian, Nigerian, Eritrean, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Liberian, Polish and Jamaican. While Black people make up the biggest single group, a majority of my co-workers were not born in the U.S.

Because the diversity of the workplace reflects the diversity of our patient population, we are effective at meeting their language and cultural needs. The diversity also has challenges, and many backward ideas exist between co-workers about each other and the patients we care for. These ideas reflect the racist and anti-immigrant ideas that exist in our society.

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

I have Black co-workers who tell immigrant patients that they "need to learn English, because this is America." I have immigrant co-workers who show disdain for poor and homeless African Americans, making comments about how they should "stop shooting each other and get a job." I have even heard comments from African RNs who say they don't understand why American Blacks "don't try harder to get ahead."

As an ardent anti-racist and socialist, hearing this from the mouths of people who work hard every day, caring for those who are sick, uninsured and undocumented--and who look like and have the same backgrounds as them--is incredibly frustrating and depressing, to say the least.

I am never afraid to argue with them. I remind some of how when slaves were stolen from Africa, their native languages were literally beaten out of them, so why should we be giving people a hard time if they don't speak English? I argue with others about how racism and generations of deprivation of any and all resources cannot simply be overcome by will power and positive thinking. The fact that almost every single Black patient I care for has high blood pressure and depression cannot be due to poor life choices or a genetic trait, but can only be explained by the fact that we live in a country that is racist to the core.

Importantly, there are a significant number of working-class and poor white people who come in to our ER with the same problems as everyone else. They have the same health issues that accompany underemployment, job loss, lack of insurance, poverty, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction as every other group. I hear life stories from them that have more in common than differences with Blacks from a similar economic background.

While this is anecdotal evidence, it is worth remembering that the experience of working and poor people in this country has a significant common denominator--misery. This isn't to say that I have never heard racist comments from white patients, but I mostly hear about the difficulties they have in their lives, and in this regard, they are not so different than any patient of color.

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.



THIS LONG introduction is related to the question of white skin privilege in the following way: How does one explain racist and anti-immigrant ideas among people who are themselves oppressed by race and immigration status? Does examining the question through terms like "benefit," "advantage" or "privilege" clarify or obfuscate the relationship between ideas and material conditions? Can such an analysis point the way forward to change these ideas?

To be clear, I myself have no formal education in privilege theory or analysis. I appreciate that others do and have found their insights useful in helping to develop my own thoughts on the subject. This is why I am part of an organization where other Marxists have expertise in this arena and are able to take the time out of busy schedules to contribute to the discussion on this question.

I am particularly thankful to Bill Mullen's original article that began this discussion, and think the thrust of his article is clarifying and useful ("Is there a white skin privilege?").

In my limited understanding of privilege theory, I am not convinced it helps us understand why white people have racist ideas, because it doesn't also explain why any other group can also have backward ideas. By backward ideas, I mean sexist, racist, homophobic, nationalistic, and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In my experience, most working-class and oppressed people hold mixed consciousness--they see Congress as corrupt, and they can believe that "queers" and legal abortion are destroying the moral fabric of our society. They vote for Barack Obama and think that "Black on Black violence" is caused by pathology in Black families. They hate their petty tyrant bosses and take out their misery on co-workers instead of going on strike.

Mixed consciousness is a product of living in a society where people's day-to-day reality of shitty jobs, high prices and bad public services teach them one thing, while the media, culture, schools and churches preach another. The result is that most of the time, people walk around with conflicting ideas in their heads, even ones that are in direct contradiction with their own material interests. They believe things that point them away from actual solutions to their misery.

In the daily experience of working people, they compete with each other for limited jobs, limited social services and limited health care. They aren't competing directly with the capitalist class in a manner that is apparent to all. Working people don't go to the same schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, golf clubs or resorts of the ruling class--and have no idea how they live off our collective labor. Working people live and interact with other working people, and some buy into backward explanations as to why problems exist in society.

Because capitalism relies upon the labor of workers, and insofar as workers are divided and competing with each other, they are less able to unite and fight the common enemy of the capitalist class. This is how I understand Frederick Douglass when he wrote, "They divided both to conquer each."

Looking through the lens of Marxism--with its recognition that when working-class people hold racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalistic ideas, this actually impedes our ability to identify who our real enemies and real allies are--seems to fit with our tasks of building movements capable of taking on our bosses. It points us toward the idea that rather than benefiting from backward ideas, all working people are harmed by them.

Looking at the perpetuation of backward ideas through the lens of benefit, privilege or advantage is not useful for anything other than describing which group suffers from what oppression. Describing oppression is important and a good starting point. But a benefit analysis seems to offer no further insight than simple observation.

Furthermore, we should be clear about what is meant by benefit. If you believe a lie designed by your rulers to hold you in servitude, are you benefitting? Do Black working-class people reap a benefit from holding anti-immigrant ideas, and if not, than why would we say white working-class people reap a benefit from racism toward Blacks?

There is also no question that it affords you benefits to be white rather than Black in a society that hates Black people--you will not be a victim of anti-Black racism. It affords you benefits to be a citizen in a country that uses and abuses immigrant, non-citizen labor--you won't face that abuse. It affords you benefits to be born a man rather than a woman in a society that devalues female lives and labor--you are given the luxury of not be treated in a sexist manner.

There is nothing wrong with recognizing the relative benefits in each of these examples, but it brings us no closer to resolving these inequities. Theory is only useful to Marxists if it explains the world and has a prescription to change it for the better.


TWO MONTHS ago, the RNs, LPNs and emergency room technicians came together, over 150 in total, and refused to sign up for overtime. We were collectively protesting staffing shortages and management's ridiculous bargaining proposals.

At the start of organizing this, I heard a few outrageous excuses as to why it wouldn't work: "Those Indian nurses are made to work overtime by their husbands, and they won't go against them." "Those Filipino nurses work so many hours because they are greedy, you really think they'll go for this?" "The Africans are each supporting 10 families back home, they need the money."

A few individuals from some groups--and by the way, none of the handful of whites I work with had any such racial responses--had a prejudiced reason why individuals from other groups would break ranks. They were truly surprised when I would come back to them and say that this one group said a one-day overtime ban wasn't enough, and we should pick a whole week! In the end, everyone stuck together. Not one person signed up, despite management's threats and pleas.

Our action exposed how management's over-reliance on overtime was its Achilles heel--for the two days of the five planned that we kept the ban on, a third of the department had to be shut down. Management caved in and agreed to expedite hiring more workers.

The most important lesson out of this was that everyone felt their collective power, temporarily overcoming seemingly institutional cultural and racial divisions. While those few days were especially hard on our patients and ourselves, the sense of what we can do when we stand together was palpable and infectious.

Privilege theory at its best does no more than describe who has or doesn't have a benefit based upon which oppressed group or groups one belongs to. Privilege theory has us measuring who is the most or least oppressed, which may be an interesting discussion, but brings no one closer to collective action. Marxism, after describing where these backward ideas come from, prescribes strategies and tactics to combat and ultimately end them at their source.
Dennis K., Chicago

Kirstin R. contributed to this Readers' View.

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