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

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

  1. stephaniemz, ph.d. (@stephaniemz) says:

    In my line of work (studying educational inequity), “privilege talk” as it were, is used by people to disengage completely from conversations related to structural oppression and focus solely on individual levels of privilege and/or lack of privilege. Men can disengage from their male privilege by focusing on their lack of class privilege, so on and so forth. I think this primarily occurs because we (middle class people with relative privilege) want to see oppression as the result of individual actors, individual decisions rather than structural, systemic. And as you write above, it is essential to have real conversations about power differentials that occurs based on race, class, gender–and to recognize that these differences aren’t related to our individual actions but occur because structurally this country was designed to maintain the rights of “White” people at all costs.

    I had a class of undergraduate students who thought of privilege as this finite resource–that if others had something, others had to be without (which is another conversation for another day), which also made it hard for them to grasp that everyone, could in fact, have the same “privileges” and that the granting of “privilege” is just another way to reinforce the dominant narratives.

    Anyway, yes, to all of this.

  2. Ishi Crew says:

    I read the jacobin article (and ‘my’ jacobin group discussed it 2 days ago). I read it a bit different than portrayed above. i agree it was not another article by a white straight male leftist being told to check their priviledge by queers, wiomens, POC’s, disabled, etc. rather than instead being allowed or supported to deal with what he feels are the ‘real villains’ (eg class, or 1%). Actually it just takes a sort of morwe ‘inclusive’ approach ,similar to the inclusion of the propertyless, womyn, blakcs, gays, etc. in civic life. He says not only should he not be criticized for being a straight white male, but also he shouldn’t be asked to ‘check his priledge’ (i prefer privileges—the plural) such as his laptop, ivy league degree, job as a rookie reporter, NGO wonk, writing software for a tech start up or NGO, employed artist, grad student at and ivy league U, professor, teacher at a school in a naice neighborhood, whole foods shopping list, life in a gentrified neighborhood near a metro or subway line, etc. as opposed to being a domestic worker, elder care provider, at risk student or AIDS conselor. (Noam Chomsky i gather invested alot of his income in the stockmakret—or his wife did). In my jacobin group—i’ve gone maybe 4 times—there are usually about 30 people, and maybe 2 or 3 ‘people of color’. 3 out of those meetings were in high poverty, high ‘minority’ and gentrifying areas. You can see youth and others hanging on street corners out the window selling drugs. Sure most of those people could afford a jacobin sub, and could come to the meeting (and most have internet access which is required to know about the meetings). But they dont come in (the library). The locals who do come in are busy studying—a few will get scholarships to ‘good’ schools, a few NFL jobs, but most will either go to the local community college or university—perhaps one of the lowest ranked ones in the USA, with perhaps a 30-50% drop out rate—or join the military. In my neighborhood—gentrifying but still 85% POC, it seems the demographic is sortuh 10% end up in softeware and the suburbs (eg at lockheed martin—affirmative action in the sense of antiracist), 70% in ‘normal old jobs’—utilities, teachers, bus drivers,military, police etc.—and 20% in drugs/jail. There are many different kinds of priviledge—it is neither a ranked system nor a graduated one, though both of those systems approximate some things. (one could even add as a ‘priviledge’ whether you didnt grow up in a house with peeling lead paint, or had PTSD by the time you were 10, etc.—i have symptoms of that, and was warned at a Jacobin meeting to watch my behavior—words i use and tendency to speak out of turn —though also since the other people have ‘priviledge’ in my view to open their mouths (talking generic bs much of the time, but maybe they are just preschoolers). I pointed out 2 times that the group was a) almost no people from this town, b) not representative of the local population, c) using ‘pareto’s law’ (see Piketty etc.) meaning like 5 people (mostly white males) took half of the time to say almost nothing more than could be put on a postcard. they told me pointing tjhis out was incorrect and boring. they want to talk about providing solidarity for $15, etc. even though of course they make mayvbe 30 and have software skills and jobs or work at universities (helping prepare people like themsleves, in the 99%, but who shop at whole foods and get liberal arts degrees rather community college and a corner store and lotto —‘keep hope alive, the american dream’).

    • jonathankissam says:

      Ishi:

      Thanks for your comment and yeah, that is definitely another way (and a compelling way) of reading it – that the author is simply broadening the list of privileges he should not be called out on :). Also appreciate your perspective on Jacobin reading groups – I didn’t realize they existed, and I’m guessing from your description that most of the people in your group are not involved in organizing efforts in the neighborhood where the group is held? I’m generally a big fan of people who organize in their communities getting together to do study, not so much of people just studying for its own sake.

      Jonathan

      • Ishi Crew says:

        just checking back—i’m glad you didnt take offense.

        Some people in my jacobin group do some community organizing and protest type stuff (eg go to a ferguson-type rally, or a 15$ wage rally, and some do NGO type activism. so its mixed.

        Perhaps the best thing they do, from my view, is the study group (though I and others sometimes think the idea is basically to get a bunch of loyal subscribers so it can become the next Nation mag; i can get so cynical i think the Nation and other mags including right and left wing media should just contract with say, local hoodlums, to have a riot so they have something to talk and write about—some say the reason we have democratic elections is to pay all the TV stations, pollsters, ad writers, etc.) . Alot of other groups which produce media just sort of sell it to you and tell you memorize this, ‘fight back’, solidarity, and have a nice day. With this group there is some chance to critique or interact (though i’m even suspicious of that—i was thinking of measuring the time each person gets to make a point, and whether everyone who wants to gets to. There appears to be some favoritism and pseudo-censorship (oh, we didnt notice you had your hand up as we went around, and everyone else who had already spoken gave their 3rd comment.)

        Most of the people seem to be relatively young techies (20s/30s) new to the area. I’m not sure how many of them would really like to do community organizing in certain areas around here—you might even get shot.

        Perhaps my biggest issue with jacobin is almost every article i read (where they have an affiliation) is written by a grad student at a usually fairly prestigious universities, and they always end up sayiing something like ‘we should organize’ (and oh yeh, don;’t ask me to ‘check my priviledge’). By this they seem to mean people like me and everyone else not on radical tenure track should be out in the street everyday, leafletting, perhaps getting a walmart job to unioiize it, maybe get arrested, while people like them will work from the ‘inside’—eg get a tenure track job teaching labor history at places like NYU or U Chicago (well represented in Jacobin affiliations—and also known for hard core capitalism/centric curricula/program—eg gentrifying NYC) with an occassional show at Occupy to give a talk on labor history and organizing.

        They also talk about stuggle etc but they mean go out and demonstrate afgainst cops, walmart, etc. But they i think would never consider confronting their own academic environment. Their veiw seems to be like ‘oh, all the people in my department are radicals, and we have nothing to do with the law or economics department’.

        i’ve been involved in many local groups that do some study, some somewhat activist. this is partly because i was and still am against the whole ‘ivory tower’ radical intellectual—i’ve seen a ton of them—they show up, give a speech, want to be declared a brilliant hero, and then go back to the ivory tower (even if they actually know alot less than some people in their audience. However, the groups which do real organizing in this area and study, basically want you to only study something like the zoning plans of the city. others are sort of self-help/philosophy groups as a break for people with semi-tedious jobs–like a sports league. then there’s jacobin types which to a large extent want to keep the conversation on that magazine—you bring up some other ones, and it seems to me to like religion—we only read the bible hear not false religions.

        i study alot just for studying though i had an idea of ‘action research’ (a well known term). i think jacobin,z, etc. naomi klein, chomsky, etc in a sense do this but its less grassroots—the idea is to study, write a book or articler, and then go on the road to preach. other people i know around here dont study at all and i sometimes avoid (since they are into dope and street life basically and getting into that is a different kind of hazard than getting tenure or doing (overly narrow to the extent of boring) community organizing. .I’m jaded, burned out, and right now sortuh laying low and avoiding reality.

  3. Ishi Crew says:

    ps i just looked at your web site stuff: ‘about’ i will say one group locally i went to meetings with is called ‘social innovations lab’ which do all sorts of apps designed for inner city stuff—eg making an app so kids can get a free uber ride, food, or whatever if they go to school, etc. They are a diverse group, and both ‘high skilled tech types’ and also involved in ‘rough communities’. (I’m not a techie though i am into theoretical sciences (math, bio physics, econ, etc.) and have some backgorund in that. unforutnately theory is much less useful —its more like art. There are some music/art collective operations around here that use that as a tool for social change. anyway my web sites axiomsandchoices.blogspot.com infodynamics.blogspot.com facebook.com/ishi.crew facebook.com/ishi.crew.9 i think may be the most sophisticated web apps i have ever seen. i once also had an idea for a ‘knowledge coop’, since i see you are into cooperatives (i have read a fair amount of that stuff, along with other radical/alternative economic ideas. the idea would be basically like how a food co-op differs from walmart, except it would be a cooperative university. there are some experiments along this line around
    ,

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