Let’s Talk About Privilege

Let’s Talk About Privilege July 5, 2011

The Turing Test is ongoing (two more entries going up today, and more through the week), but I want to interrupt that for a second to try to talk about privilege and sexism one more time. In the two posts about Rebecca Watson’s experience at an atheist conference, some discussions about whether women are being ‘oversensitive’ when we talk about privilege got tangled up in disputes over the way Rebecca had called out the people she disagreed with. Let me give a different example (that hasn’t been picked over by the entire atheist blogosphere).

If I were driving at night and/or along a fairly deserted and isolated road (in some alternate universe where I have a driver’s license) and a patrol car came up behind me, turned on the siren, and indicated I should pull over, I wouldn’t put on the brakes. I’d try to find and pull into an actual police station or fumble around with my cell phone to call 911, explain where I was and what my car looked like, and ask the operator to confirm I was being followed by a real police car.

I’d need to do this because pulling someone over with fake police credentials is a strategy used by rapists.

Now, here’s what’s not happening when I respond this way:

  • I’m not rooting for the cop to actually be a rapist, so I can feel smug
  • I’m not acting this way because I hate cops, or men generally
  • I’m not assuming that a majority of pull-overs are prelude to rape, it’s just a significant enough risk that I’d rather not run it.

Here’s what would happen if I learned how to drive, got into this situation, pulled over obediently, and was sexually assaulted:

  • A lot of people would say I was irresponsible or stupid.
  • A lot of people would ask why I was out late at night on lonely streets in a car by myself.
  • Some people would wonder if it were consensual, because wouldn’t I have been able to overpower a big guy if I really didn’t want to have sex with him?

Most guys don’t think through all these outcomes when they get the pull over signal, because men think from the privileged position of not being the primary target of rape. They are not living in a country that puts most of the onus of avoiding sexual assault on them.

The precautions women are expected to take to avoid assault can look jarring and antisocial.

Have to leave early so I can walk home before it gets dark
Can’t pick up that drink again now that I turned my back on it
Don’t want to get in an elevator alone with that guy now that it’s so late

And because it’s oversensitive or aggressive or man-hating to talk about these precautions openly or to take them in an attention-drawing way, what we’re actually expected to do is to take the appropriate precautions subtly so that we don’t offend the sensibilities of people around us. That’s crazy, oppressive, and unacceptable in any circumstance.

Ultimately, that’s why I disagree with Hemant Mehta, who thinks the whole discussion is an unnecessary distraction, and commenter Kogo who wrote:

Yeah, and this is why I refuse to engage in ‘privilege’ discussions: Because it is always derailing. It is ALWAYS a person who wants to commandeer an organization or effort to do NOT the thing it was actually engaged in doing and to instead endlessly pursue his or her sub-goal. Nothing would make privilegists happier than for atheists to say, “We give up atheism and will instead now become solely and eternally a privilege-discussion group.”

I’ve seen this happen. I watched a previously focused, decently organized housing reform group fall apart over this.

Privilege is real. And it is also a complete derailment. If you ‘want to talk about privilege’, *form your own goddam space to do it.*

The space I am using is this one, because this is where I live and deal with the problem. And I doubt the guys who are erring through ignorance or malevolence would follow me over to a separate privilege discussion group. I’m using this space because I don’t think I’m obligated to fight sexism in secret to avoid making a scene.

And the idea that I shouldn’t bring my woman-problems into neutral-space–where ordinary people don’t worry about rape–is exactly what it sounds like when privilege is talking.

Added by request: the best allegory of privilege available online.

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  • …I’d try to find and pull into an actual police station or fumble around with my cell phone to call 911, explain where I was and what my car looked like, and ask the operator to confirm I was being followed by a real police car.[…]Have to leave early so I can walk home before it gets darkCan’t pick up that drink again now that I turned my back on itDon’t want to get in an elevator alone with that guy now that it’s so lateI don't really have anything to add, but these are the same sort of precausions I would follow if I still lived in a bad neighborhood. And I'm 6'1 and bench 300+ lbs… not exactly a small dude.

  • The very ironic part is that it is the complaints about the privilege discussion that make it a derailing force. If people could accept differing views and continue civil discourse this wouldn't happen. I am sure the groups that have fallen apart but going down this off topic rabbit hole did so because of the side that refused to even acknowledge that others have a different experience and perspective. I have been involved with groups that are able to handle all the issues of all their members in a friendly and open way. So does my anecdotal experience counter his?

  • Sarah J

    I am highly sympathetic to your arguments, Leah, but I think that the "privilege" language is offputting. It is basically an ad homimem attack "you're ignorant and arrogant" right off the bat and makes people turn you off. I think a softer tone would be helpful, along the lines of "men may not have considered some of the issues women are dealing with, i list them here to see if any of these make the woman's position more reasonable upon reflection." Give people a chance to come around before convicting them as guilty.FYI, some girls in my high school were assaulted by fake cops using the tactics you describe back in 1994. It was pretty shocking because this strategy was new at the time, at least to my area.

  • @Sarah J: To talk about privilege isn't an attack, though. It's a statement of fact. A few posts back Leah linked an article that explained this wonderfully, I think. If people are offended by being told that they're in a position of privilege, it's likely because they don't know what is meant by privilege.Leah, maybe it would helpful to link that article again as an addendum to this post, for those who did not read it before and don't recall that you linked it before?

  • When I seek refuge from street bullies, I am routinely told that I "should" have been able to "fight back" instead of fleeing. And THEN I find "feminists" asserting that it didn't happen, because white males all live off on Cloud 9 somewhere. Er, when do I get some of this "privilege"?

  • Yeah, the word "privilege" cd make people think it's a grad seminar in Women's Studies. I knew better bc hey, it's Leah, who always talks sense even when she's wrong. But to others, the hook might be better baited by something like "bs women have to put up with that guys — even nice guys — don't have a clue about." I had a longer response, until I realized I was writing in my head a book that could be called "How to Get Girls to Respect You, and Never Mind Getting Laid, Bc There's Too Damn Many Books About That Out There Already." As you can see, I like long titles. EARNED respect, something guys have very few clues about, wd solve at least some of the problems here (e.g. free up women to pick up a neglected drink about w/o having to fear that this is an "indication of interest" in sex later on).Fwiw, as a New Yorker born and bred, I'm completely comfortable — though a dude — with the concept of there being some types of areas (the exact street-boundaries may shift over time) where I simply can't exercise my human right to peregrinate. E.g I'm not going to savor the wee-hours air along St. Nicholas Ave, privilege shmrivelege. BUT — here we're talking about walking. Areas where someone can't even DRIVE? Potty idea. Shouldn't be allowed.

  • @Christian: yup, I've added it in. I think all feminism bloggers ended up contractually obligated to link it in every discussion. :)@Gilimer: Privilege isn't linked only to a man-woman dynamic. Check out the link I added to the bottom of the post, the main idea is that privilege describes situations where the status quo/social norms/etc privilege one point of view/identity/etc over another not on the basis of merit. That inequality can be so ingrained and natural seeming that it's difficult for the people who are hurt to complain. That can happen to plenty of people besides women and can happen to people who are normally privileged in specific circumstances. The main reason to talk about privilege is to note that not only is one group advantaged, but their position is so much the norm that it becomes difficult to take people seriously when they complain. The goal is to get people to be more willing to give complainants the benefit of the doubt.

  • @Sarah J:I agree that 'privilege' has become a kind of dogwhistle word. When leftist people use it, people who don't agree with us tune out or raise their hackles (and, as is usually the case with jargon, the people using it are really lazy about explaining what they're talking about.That's why I wanted to use it here, when I was trying to do the longer explanation and have decent odds the regular readers will make it through the post. If I explained it conceptually, without referencing the jargon, readers who were sold on the concept here might still shudder when they saw the word on someone else's blog.If I were writing a shorter piece somewhere else, where I don't have a core readership, I'd probably avoid the jargon for exactly that reason.

  • You wouldn't call 911 if you were being chased by police. And I'll tell you why: That's a bad idea. What you have done is turned a traffic stop with a minutely small potential of being a rape into a car chase, and committed a felony. Don't do that. We're supposed to be a rationalist community, but this particular precaution you've described is as far from rational and reasonable as possible.

  • Iota

    My two uninvited cents… I think it’s in common best interest to try and make “privilege” a normal descriptive word again. It’s useful to all ideological-religious-ethical sides, I think. And everyone looses when it has a clear ideological connotation.I’m probably NOT you average “leftist” – as Leah uses the word – being Catholic and all that, but I still find it useful. Here’s why (and to minimize any offensive potential, I’ll use myself as an example, bear with me please). I am a woman. With a disability. Which makes me un-privileged in some situations, I am not going to list here. But I also live in a relatively well developed country, in a place big enough to be MUCH more accessible to mobility impaired people compared to my country average, having a very mild disability compared to the whole possible spectrum, having decent intellectual capacities and a comfortable standard of living… You get the picture, I hope.I have no conceptual problem with realizing that. It isn't an entirely pleasant realization (because it involves realizing there are some people in horrid situations, about which I can personally do nothing at all and others – in which I'm not doing half as much as I could) but I actually think realizing you have privileges is useful. Because sometimes the thing that makes it impossible for me to understand someone or treat them with enough patience or respect, IS my invisible privilege. It may be something fixable, provided I actually understand that there’s a problem and REMEMBER about it often enough (and, say, actually remember to help people worse off than me or be patient with a person who is "over-sensitive" due to past experiences I would NEVER want to have). At other times it may be a privilege that CAN’T be “fixed” (happens, you can’t do much about being born in a supportive family and someone else being born in a crappy one), and sometimes others that possibly SHOULDN'T be fixed (as much as I like empowering disabled people, I wouldn’t agree to anyone with a condition similar to mine being hired as a surgeon, regardless of how much they dreamed about it). But even then I think it’s better if a negative response is based on “tragic necessity” than if it’s based on arrogance/ignorance. For a number of reasons.Incidentally, that is something the gecko/dog analogy doesn’t capture, I think (and wasn't even meant to capture, which is okay, given that analogies are always limited). The fact that sometimes a privileged state CAN’T or probably SHOULDN’T be fixed (the second case is obviously MUCH more controversial, but IMO true). The problem lies in deciding which case is which and why. Which is, as usual in life, quite complicated.

  • Anonymous

    Look up some cases where this kind of assault actually happened and see what people's responses would be. Unlike the elevator example, I think this scenario is one where most people would not think of taking defensive precautions off the bat, and thus most people would not react as you have surmised. Especially since the majority of people raised in an environment where law enforcement is respected would be less likely to consider avoiding a police officer – the alternative (ignoring the policeman) looks criminal, while not getting into an elevator with a stranger could not be construed as such. I think the situations are too different to draw a suitable analogy.

  • Re Jeff: I got this advice from a cop in the Women's self defense class I took. And I've heard it a couple of other places since. You shouldn't speed up, obviously, and apparently it doesn't take very long for 911 to verify what's going on.

  • Anonymous

    I can see why it's necessary to point out differences in perspective, and I admit that there are too many times when men sometimes fail to consider the unique problems faced by women. However, I think Rebecca Watson handled the case badly by bringing charges of sexism upon the man in question. He undoubtedly behaved in ways that could be considered threatening at first, and Rebecca was right to point out that no man should ever act like the one in the elevator. She had good reason to fear for her safety at first. However, to charge him with being "sexist and damaging" is an overreach that she has not justified – the man was creepy, but by all accounts he did not realize his mistake. To top it off, she levels the claim of misogyny against those who disagree with her.Regarding privilege, I actually find the dog/gecko analogy one of the more sexist things I've read, as it implies that men lack the intellectual capacity to understand the point of view of women, but not vice versa.

  • Why is anyone arguing about this? Leah and others are voicing a concern. The proper response is to learn from them. Speaking as a male, I didn't know a darn thing about how privileged I was until I went to a foreign country with my wife and some other female volunteers. I was treated like the coolest guy in town and my wife and friends were harassed constantly by the men of this culture whenever I wasn't there. I never saw a single incident. Why? Because when I was around it didn't happen. My privilege. Do the men who have trouble hearing about this stuff just not believe what women are saying? Don't disagree. Learn.

  • Anonymous, I think Brian gave you the right answer. No one thinks men are too dumb to get this idea, but they can be blind to observing ways privilege manifests because, by definition, they aren't the person getting screwed so they may not be around to observe or they may be unfamiliar with what they're seeing. I think the canonical example is the time when researchers asked asked a group of men and then a group of women what they did on a day to day basis to avoid sexual harassment and assault. The guys were silent and some were mystified by the question. Then the women reeled off their long lists.

  • But as far as I can make out, your line is that men are always and in all circumstances "privileged". I do not see how it will "get people to be more willing to give complainants the benefit of the doubt" to insist that a penis is not only a magic wand, but a shield of invulnerability.

  • Anonymous

    Leah and Brian, that's an unfair generalization. Most men do not routinely think about how women act to avoid unwanted attention, but a substantial number of men are aware of (and not blind to) the different ways women must act to fulfill their goal of avoiding unwanted attention.Regarding your canonical example, the reason that that is not a good example is that for most men, unwanted sexual attention is extremely rare, and thus no men consider avoiding it. A question that would really test whether or not men are blind to gender differences in behavior is to ask the men what women do to avoid unwanted attention. The example you provided doesn't test for that.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I feel flattered that I as a man am not dumb but just ignorant. Secondly it is not that easy. Personal risk management is not beyond reasonable discussion. This is why we laugh at characters like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

  • Anonymous

    Just a note about not pulling over for a police. DO put on your brakes, you have to let the police know that you acknowledge their presence.DO pull to the right and drive very slowly.DO put your hazard lights on.Call 911 or stop at the next well lit populated area. This is the standard protocol to keep you from being shot/arrested etc. You can ask your local PD/State patrol is this is not acceptable, what is. For most, this is what they will tell you to do.I was stopped by a police car (I am a woman) at night, and there was no decent shoulder to pull off, only a body of water that was in flood stage and nearly to the road. I drove maybe two city blocks, less than 1/2 mile so that I could pull off safely in a well lit area.Within 5 minutes, there were 3 police cars and 6 policemen pointing guns at my car. I was forcefully pulled from my car and immediately handcuffed. One cop kept his foot on the small of my back and a gun pointed at my head until they decided I was not actually fleeing.If you choose to not pull over, just be aware that you are also risking your life in doing that. Take every precaution to make sure the police can figure out that you are not fleeing.

  • Thanks a lot for that outline, Anonymous, and I'm really sorry to hear about your experience.

  • Leah, your danger/hazard from refusing to stop immediately when the cops turn on their lights is considerably higher than that posed by a "potential rapist" masquerading as a cop. It's ironic that you completely fail to consider the situation from the perspective of the cop–pulling people over is an inherently dangerous activity and they are HIGHLY sensitive to any indication the stop will go badly, that the person is acting strangely. You are acting from a sense of privilege–the privilege a non-cop has in assessing their interactions with people. Beyond the heightened danger you place yourself in in the interaction, you should also be aware that the refusal to pull over could conceivably result in you being charged with a crime, hauled to jail for the night, etc.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this in such a kind manner. It’s helpful for people like me who are unaware of ways in which I might be sexist, but want to correct those ways. It’s discouraging to listen to the more brash-toned feminism around this issue. Again, thanks.