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The Problem with Privilege
August 20, 2013 1:06 PM   Subscribe

"The logics of privilege rest on an individualized self that relies on the raw material of other beings to constitute itself. Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy."
Andrea Smith on The Problem with 'Privilege'.
posted by downing street memo (79 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would have used a longer pull-quote:
These rituals around self-reflexivity in the academy and in activist circles are not without merit. They are informed by key insights into how the logics of domination that structure the world also constitute who we are as subjects. Political projects of transformation necessarily involve a fundamental reconstitution of ourselves as well. However, for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation. That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.
posted by muddgirl at 1:11 PM on August 20, 2013 [19 favorites]


That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.

It's not about what you say, it's about what you do.
posted by dubold at 1:18 PM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


This might boil down to the powerful/power/empowered trichotomy.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:20 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if it's possible to discuss these ideas in a meaningful way without all the $100 words. I think I get what the author is getting at, but I can't help but feel like there's a more approachable way to enter this discussion.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:32 PM on August 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


I think I get what the author is getting at, but I can't help but feel like there's a more approachable way to enter this discussion.

Full disclosure, white cis male, but what I think the author is saying is "Don't mistake confessions of privilege for progress."
posted by downing street memo at 1:44 PM on August 20, 2013 [14 favorites]


That's what I got from it, but I suspect there are many shades of nuance to the argument that I'm missing.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:48 PM on August 20, 2013


Also, she's saying that defining a hierarchy of privilege reinforces it.
posted by unSane at 1:49 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seemed more specific to me: defining privilege for the sake of those discussions that happen in those workshops, in which identifying privilege is really the point of the whole business, is a ritual that reinforces the privilege in question. So you don't want to practice that kind of thing as a ritual. Privilege checking should be more like a planning tool, I suppose.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:05 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a quite interesting essay.
The author has devoted quite a bit of thought into the problems (real or simply perceived) with the privileged ally. The 'call to action' highlighted in the piece very much coincides with a lot of my own views about how to get to where we want from where we are, and recognizes that for the most part, we are all working blind and blinkered by our own complicity in the existing structures of Western society.

I am concerned by the totally valid, but seemingly short-sighted praise of the south american landless movement and other radical anti-state/nation vanguards. I can agree that many of the radical anarchic-synicalist collective worker co-ops are an ideal model, but that in itself is a problem (as stated in the article) as over time the formation of hierarchies seem to become an inherent instability. I understand that to combat this syndrome, it may take several hardline generations of being raised outside of the existing social structures. But have there been any studies to prove that humans can, without outside influence, form societies of true horizontal governance? My understand, as limited as it may be, is that there is a biological component to human social interaction that appears to be inherently hierarchical. A biological drive for dominance, as it were (yes, this gets into a very touchy subject, and I am more than open to counter arguments against this biological imperative thesis). I would honestly love a society where power only comes from collective action, not through individual bullying or dominance tactics. I just don't see humans as creatures that will do this without decades of formal indoctrination, which I always question. I understand that my mode of thinking is very much based upon the existing structures in which I grew up in. But without a massive underlying restructuring of the societal norms that are sub-consciously accepted by the vast majority of the populations in question, I see the inertia of attempting to change being one that would require either radicalization of the methods of information dissemination, or through a completely isolated directive.

The examples, again, of the south american quiet revolutions (autonomous zones) appear more as a result of the neglect of the state, versus the active dismantling. They are also not perceived as a threat to the existing power structure, at least not yet (admittedly I have very little knowledge of the full dynamics of this situation). I do wonder about the 'reclaimed' factories and means of production being taken over by collectives. How long will that be allowed to last? Is it a matter of a lack of will or a lack of ability to suppress these actions, or is it really a sea-change of areas of the world being abandoned by capitalists and the assets being simply written off, or will some multi-national use it's influence in a militarized state/nation to inflame a proxy war over those assets (see prior CIA incursions into Chile and the invention of the phrase 'banana republic'). More over, will those of us who do benefit from the actions of these colonial/settler powers continue to let them, as long as our security and advantages are maintained.
posted by daq at 2:11 PM on August 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I understand what the author is pointing out as the problem, that people believe that by confessing privilege it removes them from any obligation to take steps against it and that people will attempt to reinterpret their place as a member or an oppressed group to make themselves feel better. The factory movement is fascinating and I would love to read more about it. (on preview, thanks daq!) I think I even saw what she was saying about the structure of Incite!.

I think that the concept of privilege is still useful at a more basic level, as an exploratory concept for people who are not activists. Getting someone to understand that when people talk about racism, they are discussing it as an institutional phenomenon and not a state of mind is incredibly useful in moving dialogue forward.
posted by Hactar at 2:15 PM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I kind of lost patience with the frequently-redefined purpose of the essay when I got to this point:

Based on this analysis then, our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.

Setting aside for a moment the irritatingly post-structuralist gibberish (excuse me, this articulation of a broader gibberishality) contained in the phrase "futurities," I'm surprised that this naive ambition comes from someone who already has a ph.d.

She later cites the successes of what sounds like Communism in Argentina, but they're still manufacturing things that people buy. They aren't smashing capitalism, nor creating new worlds. They're making the one we already have better by creating more equitable ownership over capital (in this case, the means of production).

I find it somewhat ironic that the author can't seem to admit to herself that improving the equitability of power relations globally is a more achievable and worthwhile goal than imagining new worlds, even when the empirical cases she cites as validation of her world-creation project don't seem to share her agenda.

Let's not pretend we're going to reinvent the world. Let's just get to work making this one better. That's the hard part, as she herself notes earlier in the essay.
posted by clockzero at 2:16 PM on August 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


Is there a primer or glossary of these terms out there for those of us who don't speak social-justice-ese? I'm interested in the subject, but (to put it politely) I find this style of writing distracting and incomprehensible. Say what you mean, mean what you say.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:20 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, as others are picking up more on the critique of the 'privilege confessions':

I agree that simply stating ones own privilege is really just the 'first step' in this whole deal, and that many organizations are only taking that first step. I think what is missing is what is the proper 'second step'. Yes, actions are key to this, but after identifying ones own privilege, how does one go about dismantling that privilege, even if doing so goes against ones own self-interest?

How do you ask or tell a cis/white/male to stop doing whatever it is they are doing? What are the identifying characteristics of a person exercising their privilege and aside from simply having them stop living, what alternatives are there to the exercise of that privilege? This is not rhetorical. I know this sounds very zero sum (taking away privilege, empowering those without privilege). But for me it seems that there should be a different way of framing the actions necessary to create these new models. And how does one inhibit the ego of the individual without creating a different, but just as detrimental, assault against the individuals core framework of identity?

If anyone has links to expansions of these ideas, I would be most grateful.
posted by daq at 2:21 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


That being said, I do agree with her that the confessional mode in the modern Left is often very annoying, self-indulgent, and fundamentally agnostic about actually changing structure.

However, I wonder if that's partially because the Left in general lacks the organization to marshal (apologies for the martial choice of words) these lived experiences into something more as a result of what might be called the cargo cult theory of social change: namely, that by showcasing the trappings of anti-oppression such as confronting it within oneself, something magical happens and power starts to decay. Clearly that doesn't actually work.
posted by clockzero at 2:21 PM on August 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


escape from the potato planet:
There is no glossary, only required reading, where these terms were originally coined and having the background in those praxis of thought. Again, back to my original question of indoctrination versus inherent self-forming social structures.
posted by daq at 2:23 PM on August 20, 2013


I've never been to one of these workshops she speaks of. Are the declarations of privilege really meant to be "confessions" and are the confessors really seeking forgiveness and absolution from the less privileged participants? Because that would be all kinds of messed up.
Privileges should be recognized and acknowledged by those who have them but they don't need to be confessed in shame.
posted by rocket88 at 2:26 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


If the terminology can't be summarized or defined any better than that, are we sure that the terminology is meaningful? I'm not aware of any other discipline that uses jargon that way.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:27 PM on August 20, 2013


I've never been to one of these workshops she speaks of. Are the declarations of privilege really meant to be "confessions" and are the confessors really seeking forgiveness and absolution from the less privileged participants? Because that would be all kinds of messed up.

I have been to these workshops. They're kind of rife in the activist community. The goal is to show how privileged one group is, acknowledge/confess it, and then everybody who's not in the privileged circle hugs and tells how important the work you are doing by confessing is, and how much better you are than the un-self-reflective shmucks.

This seems highly encouraged, at least, if not mandatory.
posted by corb at 2:31 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


rocket88:
Yes, many people subvert the original intent of identifying privilege to enable awareness as a way to seek absolution, rather than as a tool for directing changes of behavior. Most people are just not able to see beyond the back of their eyelids, as it were. They are only concerned with how something affects them, personally. And the paid seminar circuit is built around getting good reviews from past participants, so they tend to cater to making people feel good rather than learning that they are doing things that are negative.

I mean, think about it. Would you recommend to your coworkers or relatives a seminar where you are told, very clearly, that your behavior is hurting others and that you should feel ashamed? Or one where you are told to identify bad behavior that you may or may not actually consciously do, but are rewarded for the act of 'showing weakness'? It is a very bad feedback loop, and something that is way too easily subverted by the necessity of making money to continue holding seminars.
posted by daq at 2:32 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


escape from the potato planet:
You don't work in IT, do you?
Ever tried to talk to a classical musician about music theory?
Whatever you do, never ever ever try to talk to a doctor about anything related to internal body structures.
posted by daq at 2:34 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Really, this kind of oblique and self indulgent writing is going to have about as much effect on social change as reading the Magna Carta backwards in Olde English. It is an academic exercise with little applicability to real people in the real world. Confession of privilege (or sin for that matter) only gets you a confession not forgiveness or redemption. Live your life with a measure of humility and practice the Golden Rule.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:35 PM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'm not aware of any other discipline that uses jargon that way.

Doesn't every academic discipline use jargon? Isn't that the very definition of jargon? I'm not an academic in this discipline, and I didn't find the article particularly dense - much less dense than, say, Hannah Arendt. In general this style of writing requires a different style of reading than is typical even for long-form internet articles (closer to reading a very abbreviated scientific paper with the "conclusion" section missing), so perhaps that makes it unsuitable for Metafilter.
posted by muddgirl at 2:37 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Privilege is easy to fix: get to know people. When you inevitably bump into issues that they have, that you don't have in comparable situations, there's privilege! The appropriate response then is not to navel gaze about your privilege ad nauseam in increasingly abstracted ways but to address the real inequalities and injustices that you now see in the world around you, affecting people you care about.

Privilege is not a thing, measurable, out in the world. It's merely a rhetorical tool to help us spot injustice that does not personally affect us. Its worth is directly proportional to how aware of injustice it makes us.
posted by byanyothername at 2:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Don't know why I bothered (or why I keep giving this stuff the benefit of the doubt and trying to understand/appreciate it, for that matter). Never mind.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:42 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there a primer or glossary of these terms out there for those of us who don't speak social-justice-ese? I'm interested in the subject, but (to put it politely) I find this style of writing distracting and incomprehensible. Say what you mean, mean what you say.

What specifically was unclear to you, escape from the potato planet?
posted by clockzero at 2:44 PM on August 20, 2013


The whole privilege thing seems, to me, to be yet another case of mistaking the map for the territory. Even as the term is used here on MF, there is a tendency to give it real substance as a character trait rather than using is as a convenient label for a distortion. I think the term is broken because, in English, it implies a character judgement, and the real world will take that and run with it.

Am I privileged in the technical sense? I would expect so -- but the real nature is along the lines of "my perspective is a bit off", rather than "I am a horrible person who doesn't get it" (I hope!). The term doesn't really make the distinction clear, so to a layman (i.e. most of us), it just sounds like a cheap tactic people use to make in/out group distinctions in discussions.

So, if you perceive it as a character flaw, of course you're going to do the 1st step of the 12-step program thing, because it becomes something out of your control. But if you think of it as a cognitive distortion, then you will not be inclined to wear it like a badge of honor, and you will tend to do something about it.

Hugs?
posted by smidgen at 2:49 PM on August 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


clockzero--"Silva’s analysis implies that “liberation” would require different selves that understand themselves in radical relationality with all other peoples and things. The goal then becomes not the mastery of anti-racist/anti-colonialist lingo but a different self-understanding that sees one’s being as fundamentally constituted through other beings." I am sure I could wade through this, I certainly know most of the words (not sure about relationality) but it is just plain confusing . What does "radical relationality with all other people and things" mean. Number one--I am suspicious of any thing that say "all other people" and then to include "things". "Self understanding" is inherently vague as is "constituted through other beings". Granted, out of context this might be more difficult to understand but it took only a moment to find something turgid.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:57 PM on August 20, 2013


"Anytime a somewhat theoretical article that is often based in the humanities turns up on the blue, it is only a matter of very predictable time until the thread fills with derails about how dense, difficult, obtuse, "academic", etc., the prose is."

This discussion has already happened on Metatalk. Read this thread if you want to criticize the use of academic language in an academic article.
posted by matildaben at 2:59 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Does any of this discussion impact anyone outside academia/activist circles? It seems hopelessly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people.
posted by unSane at 3:06 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's true of any academic article, though. How does an analysis of language in Act 3, Scene 2 of King Lear affect the lives of ordinary people? It doesn't. But it could be interesting.
posted by Justinian at 3:09 PM on August 20, 2013


Yeah, but surely social justice is all about affecting society? Otherwise it's just wheels in the air (which applies to a huge amount of humanities, as well -- unless you are using your analysis of King Lear to affect your own writing)
posted by unSane at 3:12 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does any of this discussion impact anyone outside academia/activist circles?

I'd say it does; if the author is right, the way people, by and large, are beginning to do anti-racism is ultimately ineffective.

The dynamic she describes in the opening paragraph is a dynamic one can find here pretty easily, for instance. In discussions of racial, gender, and other kinds of discrimination here, the acknowledgement of privilege is an inoculation for certain privileged people and a discursive weapon to be used against others, in both cases functioning as a shibboleth to actual discussion. In no case does it concretely lead to the formation of political alliances for actual structural/material change.
posted by downing street memo at 3:17 PM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


The article points out how an important mental exercise- the identification and understanding of "privilege"- has been warped into a weapon, used to accuse others of being racist/sexist/etc. and to justify demands of absolution from those so accused. (On preview, what downing street memo said.) The problem is that this weapon is fundamentally based on the problem it claims to combat. It's like defining yourself as "not-racist": you can never move on from racism because all you are is not-racist. How can you create a world without racism if your only definition is based on racism?

Obviously, it is important to recognize racism and the negative effects racism has on people and on society. But if we're really trying to get rid of racism, sexism, and other major problems in society, we need to move beyond saying "you're racist and I'm not", because that's not actually going to solve anything.

Smith notes one example of how to move beyond:
One strategy that was helpful was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc. We then structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic.
The article's relevance is in encouraging people trying to combat privilege to act towards a future without one, rather than wallow in continuous accusations of who is privileged and who is not. Instead of saying "you're a terrible person because you don't recognize your privilege", we should say "now that we've identified these problems, what sort of society can all of us- including the privileged- live in that would undermine these problems? And how do we get there?"
posted by Maxson at 3:21 PM on August 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


rmhsinc - I started to try to write Smith's argument into plain english, but I ran into a problem - she uses just those words for a reason. It's not tediously pompous or bombastic at all - she is summarizing the argument DaSilva took an entire book (Toward a Global Idea of Race) defining, explaining, and supporting, into a few short paragraphs, so she could apply it to her current argument, and make it half-way comprehensible for people like me who haven't read the book.

Here's a very poor attempt at a very long explanation of just the phrase "radical relationality with all other people and things" in non-jargon speak. It is related to the idea that Westerners have a tendency, on the individual level, to frame the world as Me and Everything else. In communities, we do the same thing - Us and Them, Inside and Outside. I think that one of DaSilva's arguments is that the Me vs. Everything else dynamic isn't inherent to humanity (but it is inherent in colonizing societies), and Smith offers an example of a group attempting to work outside that dynamic, rather than merely change which type of people are included in the definition of "Us":
These new collectivities (nations, if you will, for lack of a better world) would not be based on insular or exclusivist claims to a land base; indeed they would reject the contention that land is a commodity that any one group of people should be able to buy, control or own. Rather, these collectivities would be based on responsibility for and relationship with land.
The idea that land is not a commodity would certainly be a radical relationality between Westerners and a thing (land).
posted by muddgirl at 3:34 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


This articles seems to support something that I've been pondering for a while. Privilege identification is a bit like Marxist historical analysis; a useful tool to understand the past, a bad way to try to progress towards the future.
posted by Jimbob at 3:38 PM on August 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


muddgirl--thanks and I appreciate the effort and the success. While the "me-everything else" or "us-them" constructs may not be universal I have a strong hunch that they are intrinsic to humanity and are part of the differentiation of self ( however that is defined ) from the environment/others. Even those communities which do not significantly differentiate a member from the group do differentiate them selves, as a group, from "other" communities. I simply do not think complete, or even mostly complete" horizontal integration is very likely over any significant period of time.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:43 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that one of DaSilva's arguments is that the Me vs. Everything else dynamic isn't inherent to humanity (but it is inherent in colonizing societies), and Smith offers an example of a group attempting to work outside that dynamic

Doesn't saying that "Westerners think like this but Others think like that" fall into the same conceptual pattern it attempts to reject?
posted by Pyry at 3:44 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Doesn't saying that "Westerners think like this but Others think like that" fall into the same conceptual pattern it attempts to reject?

I think a better reading is: just because Westerners think a certain way it doesn't mean there aren't other ways to think.
posted by billiebee at 3:51 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, see, I completely regret even attempting to "plain-english" Smith's argument because the words I use bias and misrepresent the argument.
posted by muddgirl at 3:54 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But come on, all this discussion about jargon is missing the real gem at that link - the last comment on the page:
...Nature has its own law, and that law is that some survive, some do not. All systems that attempt to impose an unnatural stasis are doomed to failure. With the exception of Aristotle, no philosopher or philosophical system can be said to be “built to last."...
Also, jargon-free!
posted by muddgirl at 4:04 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


muddgirl:
oh, you made the same mistake I made. I don't even know how to unpack that last comment. It just kind of sits there, like a turd in the middle of the floor, stinking.

The main reason that 'florid language' exists is because the concepts and details of the ideas that are being described are built upon multiple layers and many many links to previous works and ideas. Were the author to try and write that all out in simpler language, the post would be 14 volumes long, they'd have to get reprinting permission from hundreds of previous authors, some of whom are dead, so they'd have to hire a couple of law firms to go track down the rights, etc. etc., and you would still end up with something that does not convey the message in a reasonably digestible format.

Think of it as a 3rd level abstracted coding language. I mean, we could write it out in machine code, but that would be, um, tedious, at best. Here, it's written in Ruby, or Python, and has references to several different outside libraries, and it's expected that you have installed the right dependacies before you try and compile, otherwise you will end up with a very, very, very broken program/message.

Also, I do like the idea of not thinking as a me vs everything entity. Me vs everything means a lot of fear, uncertainty, and above all effort. Me with relationality to everything means that everything is understandable, and if you understand something, you have no reason to fear it. You can respect it (because it might kill you), but you have no reason to fear it because you know what it is capable of. It being anything you'd like to name.

That, to me, is true freedom.
posted by daq at 4:14 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see more action steps rather than just speculation about utopia. Look, we want equality, an end to disease, and end to poverty-- etc etc...

That'll take work. What's the action plan and how can that strategy be explained in simple terms to people who don't speak social justice lingo?

What's more- the people doing the daydreaming- what are their actual experiences with running things? The strategy needs to involve some sort of actual knowledge of how to run things and manage co-operative themed structures where there is more power spread evenly among workers.

However even at a lot of co-ops I know they still have some hard-ass managers who get paid better than others, (that is the co-ops that live more than a decade before they bust because the slackers with higher love ethic than work ethic take over), and it's a lot like a regular-- business. You know?

They aren't going to employ ANY PERSON who comes to the door. They have a hiring process and they do not treat every applicant as an "equal".


I'd like for once for the American dream of "doing the impossable against the odds" to be applied to creating a truly equality based, healthy, economically flourishing country where people have the resources and tools to use their skills to make valuable contributions and participate in society.

So what if it's never been done before? No one had ever flown a plane before once upon a time, no one had ever imagined a submarine or a spaceship. WE CAN DO AMAZING THINGS. Let;s use that power and vision for once, for the most important things of all-- creating a world were people can have health, enriching childhoods, and resources and supports to create fulfilling and meaningful lives for themselves and others.

We can fucking do it. You just don't stop until it's done and if you die trying hope others will pick up where you left off and keep the dream alive. If humanity lives long enough we can make this better- certainly much better than it is now. I believe we have the power if we use it wisely with knowledge, facts, reason toward the right ends.

The biggest obstacle is human beings resisting the need to change- but if you look at that obstacle AS the goal-- face it--- don't pretend it's imposable. Learn how to address deep rooted resistance to change in human beings and apply a strategy to overcome it.

Advertisers have been mastering this art for ages, the good people ought to learn from them. You don't just give up and say "Well ignorant/cruel people want the poor to suffer so meh, I guess that's it." If peaceful activism is your goal there's still shitloads of actions you can take beyond just thinking ignorant masses are too difficult to address. Ignorance can be addressed, even through peaceful means.

The problem is, if you're sure you're right about how to fix everything but you have no hands on experience with the real world problems, you're going to propose solutions that quite frankly ARE silly.

You NEED to be in communication with the people who you want to be making changes and address their needs and concerns about changes you propose. Solutions can be found if you open your eyes and look at the problem, then apply ingenuity, research, innovation, intelligence, wisdom, skill, and resources toward new solutions that haven't been thought of before.
posted by xarnop at 5:17 PM on August 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


glad everyone is finally coming around to recognizing that annoying white anti-racist confessionalists are annoying.

progress!
posted by jpe at 6:00 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't resorting to academic idiolects an exercise of privilege? Paul Lauter (among others) has written pretty extensively about the impact of jargon in the liberal arts. It's a fair point to question if a text that purports inclusiveness (via a loosely defined "futurity" of collectivist experience) manages to alienate a readership that is likely above the median in educational consumption.

At the very least, it's hardly necessary to deploy one's alphabet soup of academic credentials in the service of demonstrating what any person who has sat through any sort of high minded workshop that intends to elevate consciousness came to conclude with far more pedestrian tools: that they are never not bunk.
posted by 99_ at 6:35 PM on August 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


If a text is only readable by members of an academic cabal who have been exposed to its references, and inexplicable to anyone outside that cabal, it's pretty much self-limiting in its impact, no?
posted by unSane at 6:44 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't read *this* essay yet, but I can say that those of you complaining about the jargon or suggesting that Smith's academic jargon is too abstract to help real people should probably check her out. She's one of the more visionary and effective scholar-activists in the US today; her Conquest is one of the first and more excellent attempts to use intersectional anti-oppression theory to address issues of cultural appropriation and violence against women in Native communities.

She's not exactly rolling around in theory for the sake of it (although, yes, many academics do, and that is fun and interesting); she writes to get published in academia to get scholarly cred. In fact, she was, several years ago, denied tenure at Univ. of Michigan for being too much an activist, so far as i can tell (and she was not shy about it, which is why I feel free to mention it here).
posted by allthinky at 6:48 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


her Conquest is one of the first and more excellent attempts to use intersectional anti-oppression theory to address issues of cultural appropriation and violence against women in Native communities.

Okay, but can you now translate that into words that someone outside of the cabal can understand please, or you're reinforcing my point?
posted by unSane at 7:01 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why don't you google it? /Bamfordvoice

So, Intersectional theory was developed in the late 80s by Black women scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins to account for the fact that "anti-Black racism", e.g., does not impact all Black people just the same, since it tends to look different for straight women of color, lesbians of color, disabled lesbians, poor straight ciswomen of color, etc.

Intersectional anti-oppression theory is careful not to try to argue that some forms or vectors of oppression (race, gender, sexuality, etcc) are more harmful than others, but also looks at particular problems that some classic anti-oppression theories miss.

E.g., she notes that for many women of color, the legislation that came out of so-called "second-wave" feminism (understandably) in response to domestic violence focused on arresting and jailing abusive male partners. For many women of color communities, however, including some on reservations, inviting "the state" in to lock up men of color turns out to be problematic for all kinds of reasons.

Now, that is an incredibly simplified explanation of a couple of complicated issues that rub up against each other in various ways.

Others have touched on this, but I wonder whether it is fair to expect scholarly work on very complex systems of oppression to be easier to understand than those systems themselves, and whether we expect to be able to understand work in other disciplines at this level ... The theory itself is not the practice, but the theory and the practice have to keep informing each other in an ongoing dynamic.

If the point is that only academics trained in critical theory can easily understand other academics doing critical theory, I don't think that counts as a criticism. I mean, topology is hard, too, and it's just about spaces, or something.
posted by allthinky at 7:23 PM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, it is self limiting. I don't think anyone is saying it isn't. If you read it, it appears to be directed towards people within the discipline.

That said I really don't think the essay is hard to understand to someone outside the field. I mean, things like cultural appropriation are things you pick up anyway. Intersectionality is a doozy... but it doesn't actually appear to be in the essay except in an easily parsed form:

Then there are those who lack the support, awareness and safe space to even admit to themselves or others they are disabled, often times as a desperate attempt to appease the status quo. That last one is seen intersecting with issues of racism, sexism and poverty a lot.
posted by tychotesla at 7:30 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


" inexplicable to anyone outside that cabal,"

I'm confident that as a middle-manager in an IT firm I am outside the cabal, but I didn't find it too much work to comprehend. We see things at least as arcane in other fields -- eg online gaming -- posted all the time here.

I got a lot out of reading this. Thanks.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Topology may be hard to understand for non-mathematicians but it has direct applications in reality which are useful to ordinary people. What I'm struggling to see here is what the direct application is, beyond some theoretical reconstructions of society that don't seem to have any basis in realpolitik.
posted by unSane at 7:44 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


You mean beyond the direct applications that are based in realpolitik that she cited in the article? Examples are scattered through the article but the main section which discusses them starts at 'As I have discussed elsewhere, many of these models are based on “taking power by making power” models particularly prevalent in Latin America.'
posted by muddgirl at 7:48 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does any of this discussion impact anyone outside academia/activist circles?

I suspect so, but what the f*** does reinstantiate mean?

Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.
posted by philip-random at 8:03 PM on August 20, 2013


unSane: "Does any of this discussion impact anyone outside academia/activist circles? It seems hopelessly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people."

That's a false dichotomy. The question assumes that academic and activist circles have no overlap with "ordinary" people. It also assumes that people in academic and activist circles have no effect on things outside those circles.

I'm something of an academic, something of an activist and something of an "ordinary" person, and that article gives me ideas for practical actions I can do.
posted by jiawen at 8:39 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


escape from the potato planet: Is there a primer or glossary of these terms out there for those of us who don't speak social-justice-ese?

daq: There is no glossary, only required reading, where these terms were originally coined and having the background in those praxis of thought.

escape from the potato planet: If the terminology can't be summarized or defined any better than that, are we sure that the terminology is meaningful? I'm not aware of any other discipline that uses jargon that way.

muddgirl: Doesn't every academic discipline use jargon? Isn't that the very definition of jargon?

I believe muddgirl's elision of EftPP's first sentence may be a cause of misunderstanding. Yes, every academic discipline uses jargon. No, not every academic discipline uses jargon that way (where the terminology can't be summarized or defined any better than "required reading, where these terms were originally coined"). For example, if I want to define a "perceptual threshold", I don't say "uh, I can't summarize it. Go read Helmholtz." I say "a perceptual threshold is, for a given person, the minimum strength of a stimulus required such that 50% of the time the stimulus is presented, that person will report having detected the stimulus". You now know what a perceptual threshold is, no Helmholtz required*.

I suspect that EftPP was kind of thrown by whatever ineffable je ne sais quoi of social justice terminology makes it (per daq) necessary to consult the original papers in which the terms were coined, in contrast to other disciplines where it really is possible to convey the meaning of terminology in other, more concise terms. I also suspect that daq may have overstated his case, and that there actually do exist concise definitions for social justice terminology that are good enough to understand works like the OP. Maybe this one would do?

*Now, it just so happens that Helmholtz was a visionary (no pun intended) and maybe you should read him anyway if you're interested in perception. But that's just my opinion, not an absolute requirement to understand anything written about that field.
posted by Jpfed at 8:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


The thing that I distrust about the kind of post-Hegelian rhetorical style ("logics of privilege") that is in vogue in some fields is, it makes it very easy to persuade yourself that you are getting somewhere important, when you are actually just kind of running the machine on some banal idea. This is not a new problem, for example, in philosophy, where there have been things like neo-Kantianism in 19th Century Germany, with a truly formidable arsenal of jargon and quasi-technical methods, or, for some readers at least, 20th century infatuation with symbolic logic.

A cynic would suspect that these systems are designed for their incomprehensibility to outsiders, and for the ease of formulaic research generation that they promote. But not everyone working in them was some charlatan, and so it is with this kind of theory-speak. I didn't read all of TFA, but it seems like a serious effort to learn about the privilege concept.
posted by thelonius at 9:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a bit jargony, but it's not overwhelming, considering the source is evidently highly theory-oriented. Noam Chomskyite simplicity of style is admirable but not everyone writes that way, and I don't think the barrier to entry on this article is particularly bad.

And the points she raises are interesting and important. There really is a substitution of confessionalism as she describes it for action, and while I don't know much about the specific examples she cites from Latin America it's refreshing to hear of actual attempts at changing the way Things (supposedly) Must Be.

I don't really think that "imagining new worlds" and then trying to create them is more likely to be a successful strategy than just looking at and trying to improve the situation around you, but I suspect that a lot of what I find to be just "in need of improvement" in our world she'd see as "needs to be gotten rid of and replaced by something else, pronto."
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:33 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


" I suspect so, but what the f*** does reinstantiate mean?"

To instantiate something is to create an instance of it. So to reinstantiate is to create an instance of something again. The author is saying the ritual is somehow creating a new copy of the social structures that the ritual was supposed to resist.

The funny thing is that above, I claimed to be outside the cabal as an IT middle manager. The first few Google hits for "reinstantiate" are all from prose about object-oriented programming, and as an ex-programmer I instinctively knew what this word means.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:39 PM on August 20, 2013


To instantiate something is to create an instance of it. So to reinstantiate is to create an instance of something again.

so why not just say recreate, plus a few words for context? Why make me go looking for a definition that doesn't even seem to exist? Not that folks aren't trying.
posted by philip-random at 12:12 AM on August 21, 2013


Because that doesn't have the synergy you get when you diversify your paradigms.
posted by Justinian at 1:27 AM on August 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


Because there's a difference between creation and instantiation. Creation is the act of making something from scratch. Instantiation is the act of taking something that exists as an idea and making a concrete and actual instance of it. Seriously, sometimes it pays to step back from your grar and be genuinely curious about things.

I liked this article a lot. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Acheman at 1:37 AM on August 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's certainly interesting that a discourse which bends over backwards to be inclusive and aware of privilege treats outsiders as incurious bumblers too lazy to understand what they're saying.
posted by unSane at 6:52 AM on August 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Furthermore, as women of color scholars and activists have noted, there is no sharp divide between those who are “oppressed” and those who are “oppressors.”
This was offered without citation, is this really the case? Can someone point to sources?
posted by relish at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2013


It's certainly interesting that a discourse which bends over backwards to be inclusive and aware of privilege treats outsiders as incurious bumblers too lazy to understand what they're saying.

It's also interesting that on one hand you are saying that you're finding it hard to understand, and on the other making no attempt to engage with those who have tried to explain some of the concepts.
posted by billiebee at 8:40 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


unSane, do you want to learn about this or not? If you do, there are people trying to teach you -- give them the respect you'd expect any student to give a teacher. If you don't, why are you commenting at all?
posted by KathrynT at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm glad someone wrote this article. I think it makes a lot of good points. Whatever the value of "privilege" as a concept, it seems to have grown into a bit of an all-consuming monster, at the expense of other forms of activism.

There's a bit of jargon here, but I didn't think it was as impenetrable as that article referenced in the Can't do theory Metatalk, which I couldn't make head nor tail of till the Mefi comments explained all the references.

This privilege article is not postmodern. It says what it means, without levels of irony. It's structured in a straightforward Point A, Point B, Point C way without rambling faux-literary discursion. If you can't figure out what jargon like "intersectionality" means from the context, you can look it up and the article will make sense.

So I'm not sure why there are so many complaints about the language. For one thing, the point of this article is that it's aimed at people who are deeply enmeshed in these concepts. If you've never heard of the concept of "privilege", you don't really need to read a detailed article about the problems with it.

If I were a cynical man, I might suspect that people who hate the idea of "privilege" and have adopted a defensive Strategic Bafflement towards it, are now a bit irritated that this stance means they can't get on board with a detailed insider debunking...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:02 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


If I were a cynical man, I might suspect that people who hate the idea of "privilege" and have adopted a defensive Strategic Bafflement towards it, are now a bit irritated that this stance means they can't get on board with a detailed insider debunking...

If I were a cynical man, I'd might suspect this is a backhanded way of saying anyone who takes pains to point out that exclusionary language is perhaps it's own sort of privilege (if I may, it reinstantiates the dynamic of oppression but as a discursive act rather than a social one, along differinig axes but still problematic since the reification of exclusion is borne out of a colonial tradition whose logics collapse in on themselves, leading to stasis) and therefore might not be serving its somewhat clearly stated ends is obviously a paleocon or some sort of retrograde mouth breather that can't engage enlightened concepts with rigor.
posted by 99_ at 9:14 AM on August 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


For example, if I want to define a "perceptual threshold", I don't say "uh, I can't summarize it. Go read Helmholtz."

Who's doing that here, though? Whenever people in this thread asked about specific terms, like "reinstantiate", or "radical relationality," other people made good-faith efforts to explain that term. The "go read helmholtz"-type comments were in response to general complaints about too-jargony essays.

I don't even think that Smith is saying, "go read helmholtz" at any point, except yes, if you want to fully understand an academic article, you really do have to understand the underlying citations (this is true in the sciences, especially). That's part of what a Ph.D. program is, whether in the humanities or the sciences - a foundational course in what background material a person needs to know to join the ongoing scientific/theoretical discussions in the field.
posted by muddgirl at 9:27 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who's doing that here, though?

The formatting of my comment may have obscured what I was trying to say. EftPP said "Is there a primer or glossary of these terms out there for those of us who don't speak social-justice-ese?" and daq responded "There is no glossary, only required reading, where these terms were originally coined and having the background in those praxis of thought.". That is the "way" in which jargon is being used that was so weird to EftPP.

Whenever people in this thread asked about specific terms, like "reinstantiate", or "radical relationality," other people made good-faith efforts to explain that term. The "go read helmholtz"-type comments were in response to general complaints about too-jargony essays.

Correct. As you can see, there are sort of two sub-threads of conversation going on here. Since EftPP's comments were part of the "general complaint" subthread, I thought that your reply to him must also be part of the "general complaint" subthread, so I tried to supply extra context to help people understand what EftPP was getting at. To be clear, I appreciate the explanations of individual terms and was not attempting to compare those explanations to "go read Helmholtz". Those explanations were outside the scope of the specific misunderstanding I was trying to address.

To me, daq's comment was equivalent to saying "Go read Helmholtz", which is where "perceptual threshold" would have been originally coined. I believe daq's favoriting of my comment is evidence that he agrees with my interpretation of his comment, though of course I can't be certain.
posted by Jpfed at 9:56 AM on August 21, 2013


Furthermore, as women of color scholars and activists have noted, there is no sharp divide between those who are “oppressed” and those who are “oppressors.”

This was offered without citation, is this really the case? Can someone point to sources?


This is really more of a theoretical than an empirical claim, so finding studies or data that unambiguously demonstrate it might be hard. But the idea, I think, is basically a brief way of saying that identity and social positioning is multi-dimensional. For example, a white woman might be discriminated against because of her gender, but she and her dignity might also be valued more highly by mainstream society than a black woman because of her race. That makes sense, right?
posted by clockzero at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's something I've been thinking about lately and, particularly in discussions on places like Metafilter, people don't pay enough attention to the fact that privilege is context-dependent. As you say, a white women can be seen as the beneficiary or victim of privilege depending on the context you are considering. Gender? Race? Socio-economic status? Health status? And so on.

Virtually no-one is "privileged", full stop. They are privileged in some ways and un-privileged (non-privileged? What's the opposite of privileged?) in other ways but people too often treat privilege as a binary on/off state intrinsic to the person rather to the context.
posted by Justinian at 11:41 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Virtually no-one is "privileged", full stop

That's debatable. If you are a white, middle class, university educated, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied man then you're pretty much at the top of the hierarchy of privilege. By the same token if you are a black, poor, differently-abled, uneducated, lesbian trans* woman you're not doing a lot of oppressing.

But yes, many of us are privileged in one regard and not so in others. That doesn't mean that the idea of privilege can be discounted. Just that pointing it out doesn't change things in and of itself.
posted by billiebee at 12:00 PM on August 21, 2013


. But the idea, I think, is basically a brief way of saying that identity and social positioning is multi-dimensional. For example, a white woman might be discriminated against because of her gender, but she and her dignity might also be valued more highly by mainstream society than a black woman because of her race.

I think it's more than that.

Where I see it most is in feminist land, where some feminists believe aid and organizing should only be offered to women, while some feminists of color believe that they are negatively impacted by harm done to men of color. Thus, some feminists of color believe that other feminists who are not attempting to tear down those structures are participating in and having their safety bought at the expense of oppression of men of color, which then oppresses women of color.
posted by corb at 12:14 PM on August 21, 2013


That's debatable. If you are a white, middle class, university educated, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied man then you're pretty much at the top of the hierarchy of privilege. By the same token if you are a black, poor, differently-abled, uneducated, lesbian trans* woman you're not doing a lot of oppressing.

Ah, but they are both American or Western and therefore the black, poor, disabled, uneducated, lesbian trans woman is oppressing the hell out of Third World/Global South along with the white guy.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


You make a good point about just how many layers of oppression some people in this world are facing. There are those in the developing world and those under repressive regimes who might look with wonder at the privileges afforded a black, poor, differently-abled, uneducated, lesbian trans* woman. She is allowed to vote, to go out in public alone, to choose her own partner etc.

However I don't actually think its true that she is oppressing others along with the white guy. I think it is definitely arguable that "the white guy" can be said to oppress those in developing countries more than any other person. Mainly beause our current system has largely given the decision-making powers to "the white guy" for a very long time. Actual decisions have been and are being made which directly cause and perpetuate oppression. Who is making those decisions? And for whose benefit?
posted by billiebee at 12:55 PM on August 21, 2013


If you are a white, middle class, university educated, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied man then you're pretty much at the top of the hierarchy of privilege.

Really? What if you live in Japan? What if your parents beat you daily and you were molested by your teacher or priest for years? Yes, on most axes those people will be on the privileged side of the equation. But you still need to take context into account; The entire idea of there being a "hierarchy" of privilege rather than a network of interconnected privileges is inherently problematic and does nothing except try to set up some people as bad and others as good.

However I don't actually think its true that she is oppressing others along with the white guy.

That's not how privilege works. Privilege is systemic, not individual. That's why the aforementioned white, educated, etc etc guy can be said to have privilege even if he himself has never done anything to oppress anyone. Because he benefits from a system set up by others. By the same token a person who is not those things but is an American benefits from the systemic oppression of sweatshop workers in Asia or elsewhere (pick whatever example you like) even if she did not set up and does not participate in the system which causes that oppression.

That's exactly what I'm talking about and what I've been thinking about; context is important.
posted by Justinian at 1:12 PM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Because there's a difference between creation and instantiation. Creation is the act of making something from scratch. Instantiation is the act of taking something that exists as an idea and making a concrete and actual instance of it. Seriously, sometimes it pays to step back from your grar and be genuinely curious about things.

final thought on this because I suspect I've already derailed enough already.

I gotta say that I still don't understand what the difference is between creation and instantation. Because I don't see the difference between making something from scratch and " ... taking something that exists as an idea and making a concrete and actual instance of it." Or more to the point, how is the latter not also creation? Maybe just not utterly pure creation.

I love the English language. I've dedicated a good four decades of my life to trying to make the most of it. But that doesn't mean I need to bow to those who've come up with a more succinct albeit more dense way of saying something, particularly when I feel the denseness swallows the succinctness. And then, of course, I get a little riled when I get elbowed out of the way for choosing not to bow. And all of this in a discussion about Privilege and its many facets. Something a little wobbly going on here.
posted by philip-random at 1:17 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I gotta say that I still don't understand what the difference is between creation and instantation.

There is not a special difference between creation and instantiation at a very broad level. To instantiate is to create a relatable object which derives its properties from a defined theoretical platform. In object-oriented programming, this means that you define a system of properties prior to runtime, and then when the program runs, those properties are made manifest in an object which can then be interacted with.

In social justice, what she's saying is that we have this theoretical idea about what kind of systems generate oppression and privilege. When we discuss these ideas in groups, we proceed on the assumption that those systems are non-operative within the current social setting and that we have removed ourselves, at least temporarily, from the influence of those systems. However, in her view, the process of privilege confession reinstantiates those systems of power hierarchy, such that, ironically, the tools we are trying to use to dismantle and escape those systems only reinforce them where they exist and re-invoke them where they do not.

She uses "instantiate" as opposed to creation because "instantiation" adds the dimension of a "Platonic form" or ideal which is then made manifest repeatedly in a variety of contexts. The people in the group do not build from scratch a system of oppression, but invoke the same tropes and behaviors as govern many such already-extant systems. Hence, "instantiation" is a more clear version of "creation" that correctly locates the source of those oppressive codes.

Are the declarations of privilege really meant to be "confessions" and are the confessors really seeking forgiveness and absolution from the less privileged participants?

Well, no, they're not meant that way, but, again in her view, they become that when the conversation is constructed around "how to be a better ally", necessarily centralizing the privileged individual as the one who acts and marginalizing the non-privileged person as arbiter of their overall success. With that rubric, the self-reflection of confessed privilege becomes sufficient to meet the requested standard, and there is then a sense that one has successfully abdicated one's oppressive privilege and now stands in solidarity. Except that one hasn't done anything of the sort, because that's not actually possible without first reconfiguring the social structure into something less stratified.

To abuse my explanation above, privilege is instantiated in the privileged, but the codes that produce privilege are located elsewhere, and thus disposing of the object does not dispose of the methods that produce the object.
posted by Errant at 4:07 PM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


For people who want to read a discussion of the problems of privilege that doesn't throw out the whole concept of privilege, and is relatively accessible with lots of real-world examples, I'll recommend this discussion thread on ILX.
posted by subdee at 7:08 PM on August 21, 2013


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