Judging People Using Privilege Theory

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Report Thread starter 4 years ago
This is a long-ish post, so apologies for that. Bear with me though....


This woman has been dumped by L'Oreal for saying that all white people are racist. She then clarifies later on:

"When I stated that 'all white people are racist', I was addressing that fact that western society as a whole, is a system rooted in white supremacy - designed to benefit, prioritise and protect white people before anyone of any other race."

Fair enough, except that she didn’t express that sentiment - which is a much more nuanced one - in her original words. Her original words were 'all white people are racist'.

She's not got sacked because 'white privilege', but because she's become another example of these people who use privilege theory as a justification for making megalomanic claims to omniscience, where it's somehow appropriate to take general trends across society and make absolute judgments about vast swathes of people on an individual level based on those general trends. Whether or not she should have been sacked, it’s a thoughtless way of expressing herself at best.

I actually agree with privilege theory. White people are privileged. Men are privileged. Straight/cis people...and so on. These are statements which are statistically verifiable and when applied across the whole of society are completely appropriate at informing social policy and raising awareness. Absolutely.

Is it appropriate to label every single white person ‘privileged’ though, even if they do have privilege as a result of being white? No, I don’t think so. I think that’s flippant and stupid. The personal is the political, I agree with that, because there’s only one world and both are a part of it – but until we have God-like levels of knowledge and understanding where we know literally everything, we cannot know entirely how the personal and the political relate to each other in every circumstance. Sorry.

That’s why I’m saying that generalised, blanket statements, while being helpful for informing social theory, are harmful when you use them to make dogmatic judgments about people on an individual level. For example, how about a white male who was raped as a child, and can’t hold down a job because of the anxiety issues which stem from that experience? Yeah he’s a white male, but is it appropriate to put a circle around his entire existence and label him ‘privileged’? How about Baby P? Was Baby P, who was tortured and eventually murdered at the grand old age of 18 months, a ‘privileged white male’? Is that appropriate or not? You shouldn’t use privilege theory to make such crass assumptions about people on an individual level, because you don’t know what an individual person has gone through – doing so is insensitive at best and utterly despicable at worst.

Of course we can flip this and consider the many people who belong to demographics who are in the ‘oppressed’ category and acknowledge as such, and yet nevertheless deeply resent the idea that them being a ‘victim’ and ‘oppressed’ is the defining feature about them; the entirety of their existence. To give anyone an all-encompassing ‘victim’ label is insidiously disempowering. In all situations, there is more to a person than the fact that they have been a victim of something.

I wonder about people who think in this way. Do they walk around the streets taxonomising everyone and weighing up the amount of ‘privilege’ that they have, as though it’s some kind of quantifiable commodity? I wonder how possible it is to actually connect with other people on a genuinely intimate and personal level while you’re doing that kind of thing.

It reminds me of a woman I knew at university who came back from Morrison’s one day proudly exclaiming that she had a nice chat with the checkout cashier because she ‘respects working class people’. I couldn’t (and still can’t) help but wonder if it would ever be possible for her to have a genuine relationship with that cashier while she was seeing them in such a reductive way. Labels are great for spotting trends that can inform social policy or for for intellectualising about ‘society’ in the abstract while you’re flicking through your Guardian or a Sociology journal, but looking at everyone via a category is an impediment to intimacy, genuine listening, and respecting lived experience.

I can’t help but consider what I see as a remarkable hypocrisy behind the emphasis on ‘listening to lived experience’ while making judgements about people in this way. For as long as you’ve got a taxonomy in your head and for as long as you see people purely as representations of some wider category, you’re more likely to bring your own assumptions to the table which is going to get in the way of you actually listening to them properly.

While acknowledging all the social issues out there, when you engage with individual people in your life, surely trying your best to build your impression of that person based your actual experience of talking and listening to them is ultimately the most humane and respectful way of going about things?

Or am I missing something?

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