What About Privilege?

By Trudy Govier | 2021-04-01 12:00:00

A friend helped a student produce a doctoral thesis, and with little conflict the project was completed. The student was Métis; the instructor was white. Some years later, on another occasion for cooperation, the former student announced that her mentor should “check her privilege at the door”. My friend took this comment as vaguely hostile and strangely untrue to their former relationship.

This story has stayed with me and is one cause of my interest in the topic of privilege. Told that they were persons of privilege, several people felt challenged, even insulted. It was as though their accomplishments were being denigrated; they resented and resisted the implication, responding defensively. “My father was very poor when he was young.” “There are seriously disabled people in our family.” “I’m not heterosexual, after all.” “I don’t like that word ‘privilege’; can’t we talk about advantages instead?”

Privilege: What is it?

What does “privilege” mean in this context? It means to have advantages, often entitlements of which you are unaware. These come from (mostly) unearned characteristics such as race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, education, ability, and appearance. A person who is white may have privilege stemming from discriminatory practices in such areas as employment, housing, treatment by police, even retail and entertainment. With regard to skin colour, she is “normal,” giving advantages in many areas of life.

Persons are described and may be categorized; we are members of groups and may be understood to have identity as a result of our group membership. But we are not members of just one group. Not all women are white women; some are Indigenous, Black, or Asian. Not all Black women are heterosexual women; some are lesbian, transgendered, or bisexual. Not all lesbian Black women are physically abled; some are disabled in a variety of different ways.

Theorists of privilege recognize these complications and explore them under the label “intersectionality”. They maintain that privilege must be understood intersectionally. An indigenous woman may have disadvantages due to race, but advantages with regard to ability, education, and good looks.

Given intersectionality, we need to know quite a bit to determine who is a person of privilege and who is not. Does emotional trauma count? What about a white, well-educated, heterosexual person who lost family members to accidental death or suicide? Or a Black American whose ancestors emigrated from Nigeria with doctoral degrees and sent him from his home in an affluent suburb to the highest-status university in the country?

Olufemi O. Taiwo, a Nigerian-American philosopher, describes the latter case in his online piece, “Being-in-the-Room Privilege.” What about a person challenged in social relations due to serious hearing problems? Who is the least privileged, the most marginalized, the worst off? A deaf white Lesbian? An asthmatic Asian Canadian working two jobs in a polluted city to afford a small apartment occupied by ten family members? There is a temptation here to engage in Oppression Olympics. But that should be avoided.

Careful theorists of privilege say that people should not feel guilt or shame about their privilege; nor should they feel resentment when it is pointed out. If you are white and heterosexual, there are significant advantages to that and, although you benefit, you are not responsible for them.

These factors simply exist, in the society in which you live. But what to do about it? Recognizing luck and advantage is humane and makes sense. It’s useful to reflect on your privilege and acknowledge it and doing this should give you empathy and compassion for some of the tribulations of others.

Standpoint Theory

But what more? How much further should we go? Taking intersectionality seriously, I’d argue that we don’t know who is most privileged and who is most “oppressed.”

But what if we did? What would be the implications? I don’t pretend to know, but what I do question are implications drawn from notions of privilege combined with standpoint theory, affecting knowledge.

According to standpoint theory, marginalized people are in the best position to understand social practices, even those affecting such areas as science, mathematics, and logic. When some people are privileged, others are not; these marginalized people are oppressed by the privileged—or such is the claim—and as such, they have more accurate insights and should deferred to. Too often the marginalized have been denigrated, ignored, regarded as lacking credibility. What to do?

In their recent book_Cynical Theories_, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose (see Robin Collins’s review in this issue) describe changes urged by some followers of Critical Theory. Reverse the norms; the marginalized should be superior. According to standpoint theory, if person A is one of privilege compared to person B, then B is in a better position than A regarding knowledge.

Would you buy a coffee maker that way?

Shift the argument to groups and it should work the same way: Bs know better than As; deference is required. Norms for credibility and expertise should shift accordingly, as should standards for evaluating testimony, fallacies such as ad hominem and guilt by association, and even mathematics.

I resist this view. Credibility, in the sense of worthiness to be believed, should be judged according to reliability (honesty, integrity) and competence relevant to the subject under discussion. Skin colour and sexual orientation are irrelevant except in unusual cases where the topic at hand is specifically that of life experience.

To amend standards of credibility and relevance so as to emphasize marginalization is unfair and dangerous. It is not enough to urge that knowledge has been developed with “the master’s tools” as Audre Lorde famously suggested. It has not been shown that norms of empirical evidence, mathematics, and argumentation are incorrect because they were developed by white men, and we should not make that presumption.

To defer to the knowledge claims of the marginalized could lead to the rejection of scientific, legal, historical, and other expertise, even possibly the casting out of standards of grammar, basic logic, and mathematics. Would you buy a coffee maker that way? There is such a thing as privilege, but we shouldn’t re-make theories of knowledge on that basis.

Trudy Govier is a retired university philosopher at University of Lethbridge.

Peace Magazine April-June 2021

Peace Magazine April-June 2021, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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