Does Privilege Corrupt Us?

There is a short reading assignment for this post: Can Men Be Feminists?

To summarize the author’s points: (although I strongly recommend reading it for yourself. My understanding may differ from what you take away from it.)

  • Our world is saturated with racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc. beliefs.
  • All of us have absorbed at least some of these assumptions.
  • One cannot escape his or her privilege. It affects too many aspects of life.

Because of this, she argues, men can never be feminists. The privileges that automatically come with belonging to the dominant group interfere with the fight against those privileges.

My Response

There is no denying that being born with certain characteristics gives certain groups of people often massive social, economic and other advantages over those who aren’t male, white, wealthy, able-bodied, cis-gendered, or straight.

There have even been times when the men in my life honestly doesn’t see what to me is obviously sexist behaviour or expectations.

I could fill this post with examples. Each one would point to the same conclusion, though: privilege allows us to only see what we want to see. People without that privilege aren’t able to do that any more than they can turn off the rest of their senses.

There are things as a white person that I know I’ll never truly get. I can read about it, I can confront people who say racist things, but I will never know what it is like to be the target of racism.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t fight against both the privilege and the oppression, though. In certain ways it is easier to fight against something that you know is in everyone. Rather than having one enemy and seeing it in solely us-vs.-them terms there is we.

We have a serious problem. We harbor certain stereotypes or assumptions. We need to unlearn some stuff. We need a plan.

We also need to listen. It is easy to fall back into often-unconscious interpersonal patterns. I think this is one of the most dangerous parts of fighting to end prejudice when you yourself are not part of the oppressed group. If it is going to work well then the people who ordinarily are not listened to should be leading it and those who are used to being followed should become followers.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first…”

What do you think?

  • Is acting on or being given a privilege the same thing as being racist, sexist, classist, etc.?
  • How can our privileges be used for good?
  • Does who you are affect how you fight against injustice?

(Photo by Kurt Lowenstein.)

16 Responses to Does Privilege Corrupt Us?

  1. Hmm….I think I would say that I look at this a bit differently. Yes there are people who are “born” into certain privileges (i.e. being white, being male, being beautiful). However I also don’t believe that just because you use the system as it is makes you sexist, racist, elitist. Who doesn’t take advantage of a benefit afforded them? I did go read the article to be sure I was getting the gist of this. So if there are men who would use their privilege to advance the cause of fighting against injustice for women even if they don’t fully understand it, why give them a bad rap? It seems to me that at least they are trying to understand it and can see that it’s wrong and think there should be some equalization. The same goes for white people using their privilege to fight against racism. In fact these men who are joining the fight against sexism may not mind giving up their male privilege, it’s just that they use it while they it. Because let’s face it, we all know that just because they were born with a penis shouldn’t give them more privilege, the fact is in some or maybe even a lot of cases it does. I guess I’m saying that a man shouldn’t be punished for being a man any more than a woman should for being a woman. One thing is certain, we were born different and maybe if we celebrated the differences and the strengths of the opposite in any realm that would be a fantastic start.

    • Thanks for stopping by, D’Ma.

      “Who doesn’t take advantage of a benefit afforded them?”

      I can see a few potential issues with this:

      1) Taking advantage of a certain benefit may mean that someone else has to do without.
      2) How can we change inequality if we’re all also trying to use it to our own benefit? If past wrongs are going to be made right at some point _someone_ has to say, “enough!” and stop feeding into the old system.

      “So if there are men who would use their privilege to advance the cause of fighting against injustice for women even if they don’t fully understand it, why give them a bad rap?”

      I agree with you here. Ivan E. Coyote (one of my favourite contemporary Canadian authors) recently released a book of essays called “Missed Her.” In one of the essays Coyote talks about how important it is to assume that new people you meet are on your side until or unless they give you reason to think otherwise.

      It’s a good way to reach out to those who don’t quite get it…yet IMO.

      • “I can see a few potential issues with this:

        1) Taking advantage of a certain benefit may mean that someone else has to do without.
        2) How can we change inequality if we’re all also trying to use it to our own benefit? If past wrongs are going to be made right at some point _someone_ has to say, “enough!” and stop feeding into the old system.”

        I quite agree with you here. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I thought it was okay to take advantage of every benefit , but at the same time every benefit is not at someone elses’ expense. I was pointing out that sometimes it’s our human nature to be jealous of someone else because they “seem” to have a benefit not afforded us. If it means stepping on someone elses’ head to “get there” then it’s definitely time to say “enough”.

  2. ……
    The Can Men Be Feminists blog is an oddity.

    Be her definition, men are sexist simply because they are men. (The very state of being makes men sexist), and by this definition, so too are women sexist. (And coming from a – apparently – self-identified feminist, this would not only make here a sexist but also a hypocrit).

    I think there’s a problem with some (many) of these definitions. Being a racist or a sexist or any other type of -ist is all about discrimination and (deliberately or not) hatred. Just because I’m a man does not make me hate nor wish to discriminate nor oppress women. Just because I’m heterosexual does not make me hate or discriminate or oppress every other type of sexuality. Just because I’m married doesn’t make me hate, discriminate, and oppress singles.
    I could take this to a rediculous level to make me point, but I won’t).

    I think this blog’s author totally misses the point of the difference between what is Fair and what is Equality. (She would seem to choose to see the world through a paradigm of Them-vs.-Us…. and I might add, this is a particularily poor choice of paradigms).

    “What, then, are men’s roles in the feminist movement?”
    I think she’s asking the wrong questions. Like a medical doctor, what exactly are they to treat? Their patient, or the disease?
    This questions is attempting to treat the “disease”. (And that disease isn’t sexism nor the fight of feminism against it. The disease is Tribalism).

    To be honest with you, when asked this question, I become somewhat insulted.
    It’s no different than saying Martin Luther King’s day is a day for blacks only. No, it isn’t. It’s a day for freedom. It’s a day that marks a significant strike against hatred and tribalism.

    A Privilege is a special entitlement or some sort of immunity, while a Right is inherent and irreversible and held by all.

    I think choosing to be a feminist is a privilege…. and I also think this author, by choosing to be a feminist, by implication, also chooses to participate in sexual discrimination.

    …sorry. Jut my 2 cents worth….

    • “Just because I’m a man does not make me hate nor wish to discriminate nor oppress women.”

      I agree.

      I do wonder, though, how our perspectives would change if we could walk in someone else’s shoes for a day, week, month. Race, gender, etc. affect how people are treated by society. It’s _much_ better than it was a few generations ago but I seriously wonder how some people would react if they were suddenly expected to be or do things that they’d never thought about before.

      “I think choosing to be a feminist is a privilege”

      Interesting. Can you explain this more? I don’t get where you’re coming from here.

      • “I think choosing to be a feminist is a privilege”

        Interesting. Can you explain this more? I don’t get where you’re coming from here.

        Any given society (or our society, or society in general) collectively agrees what a Right is.
        A Right is inherent (we don’t earn or buy it. We are (essencially) born with it);
        A Right is irreversible (most often times cannot be taken away from us without severe legal consequenses);
        A Right is held by all.

        Choosing to be a feminist is not a Right.
        (The Right to make a choice may be, but that choice of being a feminist isn’t. Let’s be careful here, because otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a position where I may say anything I chose becomes my Right; which it isn’t).
        As the author of this blog points out, some (men) may not even have the ability to be a feminist.
        There are many people (both men and women) who are not feminists. A feminist is not a Right.

        Are we in agreement so far?

        A Privilege is some sort of special entitlement, or some sort of immunity, or a sort of ‘membership’.
        The ability to drive a car is NOT a Right but a Privilege. Yes, anyone and everyone has the Right to attempt to attain this Right, but it is never-the-less a Privilege.

        Being a feminist, ultimately, is an elitist postion.
        Ergo I say, “I think choosing to be a feminist is a privilege”
        Does that make sense?

  3. Is acting on or being given a privilege the same thing as being racist, sexist, classist, etc.?

    I think there is a difference, although I recognize that it’s probably on a continuum, from not racist on the left, to privileged in the middle, to racist on the right. So privilege makes it easier to be racist, but does not necessarily create full-blown racism in every privileged person.

    How can our privileges be used for good?

    we can use the power we are given due to our privilege to bring positive social change.

    Does who you are affect how you fight against injustice?

    yes. we have different kinds of influence based on the position we hold in society (sometimes due in part to privilege, but sometimes based on our personal traits that got us where we are) — and we can use that influence for good.

    • would the description of the continuum be accurate if it was written,

      “from racist on the left, to privileged in the middle, to not racist on the right?”

      Because from a political perspective I see a lot of race-based condescension on the left and a lot of working-together without regard to skin color on the right. At work is a good microcosm: People tread very lightly around under-performance and other disciplinary issues if the person in question possesses physical characteristics commonly recognized in the US as associated with the identity of black or African-American because of the protected status of people who self-identify as such.

      On the other hand, people who are commonly recognized as caucasian are provided the gift of accountability as regards their behavior. The caucasians do not “enjoy” a protected status; therefore, it is safer to hold them accountable and they are forced to meet higher personal/professional standards in order to be promoted or pursue lateral transfers.

      Also, my peers who volunteer at the homeless shelter, where most of the residents are black, are white. While where I work, a good 50% or more of the work force is black, but don’t volunteer at the shelter. (yes, there could be lots of reasons for the lack of volunteerism-correlation is not causatio).

      Ok, i have officially said way too much here if i ever want to run for the office of president.

      • On the other hand, people who are commonly recognized as caucasian are provided the gift of accountability as regards their behavior. The caucasians do not “enjoy” a protected status; therefore, it is safer to hold them accountable and they are forced to meet higher personal/professional standards in order to be promoted or pursue lateral transfers.

        I wholeheartedly agree.
        But wouldn’t this very issue in itself not be racism; possibly of the worst kind?

      • “Ok, i have officially said way too much here if i ever want to run for the office of president.”

        If there were prizes for funniest comment of the week you would win! 🙂

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