Can we stop complaining about “check your privilege” already?

This morning I saw this tweet from Jacobin magazine:

which was promoting this article, Let Them Eat Privilege: Focusing on privilege diverts attention away from the real villains.

The article itself is, actually, not as bad as its title would imply – it is primarily a take-down of this stupid article, which essentially tells people that if you have any kind of middle-class status (college degree, etc.), you shouldn’t complain about the 1%. In fact, the Jacobin article is not bad at all – I was worried it would be yet another white male leftist explicitly complaining about how being told to “check your privilege” (by women and people of color and queer folks and people with disabilities and so forth) is destructive to focusing on “the real villains,” building a united class movement, etc., etc.

This critique is, of course, not limited exclusively to white dudes – last year at Left Forum I got to hear Vivek Chibber and Arun Gupta deliver a much more searing denunciation of how destructive “privilege talk” is to the Left.

There is a moral rebuttal to this line of reasoning: privilege is real, and I as a straight, college-educated white dude, while far from being a member of the 1%, just have a much easier life than my sisters and brothers who, well, are not straight college-educated white dudes.  And that is wrong.

But there is also a practical rebuttal to this: suppressing talk about privilege does not, in fact, help us build a united class movement — quite the opposite.  I’ve spent most of my adult life in the trade union movement — the movement that, however battered and backward, offers the best hope for actually changing the imbalance of power between the 1% and the 99%. We have to value solidarity of all workers: it’s not just an abstract political commitment, it’s necessary to organize new workplaces, to win decent contracts and grievances and strikes and political struggles.  But we recognize that building that solidarity requires recognizing, and dealing with, ways in which some of us are, in fact, treated better by the boss, by the state, by each other, because of the privilege of real or perceived whiteness, of maleness, of being “able-bodied,” of being or being perceived to be heterosexual.

Now, we don’t use the term “check your privilege” exactly.  But my union, the UE, devotes a significant chunk of its national conventions — as well as a lot of the educational work done in the locals — to addressing issues of racism and sexism, among a membership that is still primarily white and more-than-majority male.  Because we have learned from decades of experience that if you don’t address the very real differences in power between different groups of workers based on race, gender, etc., then you cannot in fact build the kind of unity that is necessary to win real, concrete class victories.

It is not an accident that some of the most vibrant parts of the broader labor movement right now — the National Domestic Workers Alliance*, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the Fight for 15 movement among fast food workers — are organizing low-wage workers of color (in the case of NDWA, women of color who are primarily immigrants).  To varying degrees, these organizations operate from an analysis that understands race and gender as deeply intertwined with class.

And, let’s not forget the very real privileges that college-educated middle-class workers have – the ones enumerated in the stupid article.  It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle — but if we are insensitive to the way that our relative privilege (and our sometimes arrogant cultural assumptions) come across to our working-class sisters and brothers, then we won’t be able to build the deep unity that will allow us to not just “focus on” the real villains, but actually take away their power.

*Full disclosure: I work for NDWA

April 15: Presenting at “School Lunch”

Next Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be giving a talk on “Good, Old Fashioned Class Struggle for the 21st Century” at Radio Bean’s “School Lunch” series.

What does class struggle mean in the 21st century? Is it even relevant to the “new economy” of AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and startups? Will there even be a labor movement in the future, and what will it look like? What kind of stake do working people have in fights over state and city budgets? We’ll look at these questions as tens of thousands of fast food workers strike on April 15.

Wednesday, April 15, Noon
Radio Bean Coffeehouse
8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington VT