July 30, 2008
One-one-one post with Feminist Critics’ ballgame on “privilege”
Somehow I managed to stumble on the Feminist Critics blog several months back. I drop by occasionally to read what they write and, of course, I always feel compelled to respond (to which dozens of critical responses back ensues). Some of the readers and writers are straight up MRAs. Some seem more genuine. I actually agree with many of their concerns, but I largely disagree with how they analyze them or what they attribute them too, their expectation that existing feminist literature should have addressed every gender issue and since it hasn’t it is faulty, and also the overall conceptual framework of most of their arguments. Some of the FC’s want to engage with feminists to try to have some common ground, or to discuss perspectives on gender issues. Some of them just want to blame feminists for not researching issues they could very well do feminist research and activism on themselves. The potential for dialog and some relevant concerns is why I keep punishing myself and going back. The frequent hostility and blame-game is why I often take extended breaks form the conversation.
One of the writers, ballgame, approached me about doing a one-on-one conversation between himself and I and then posting it on our respective blogs, as a way to actually have a conversation without the interruption of hostile comments, and to allow us to have a very focused conversation. He has seemed to be a genuine critical thinker, who calls himself a feminist, but has some concerns.
What follows is the results of our first one-on-one:
ballgame: LindaBeth, one of the things that has never been entirely clear to me about ‘male privilege,’ ‘white privilege’ etc. is whether “privilege” = “the opposite of disprivilege”, or if there’s an important distinction between the two. I’d like to distinguish this question from the related questions of what privileges specific groups actually enjoy, so I’m going to posit two hypothetical groups: the Purples and the Oranges. They live in a society that is run by a small number of, uh … Cylons.
In this society, there are instances of unambiguous privilege. For example, when Purples enter a room, all seated Oranges must surrender their seats to them. But there are other cases where the situation is not so clear. Let’s assume both groups are equally qualified and desirous of work, but the Purples have ready access to jobs (say, 98% employment) while the Oranges do not (say, 55% employment).
As someone who believes that everyone qualified and desirous of employment should have ready access to jobs, it does not appear to me that the Purples are privileged (i.e. that they have something they shouldn’t have). It appears that the Oranges are disprivileged (they lack something they should have).
Focusing on the “privileged” side of the equation (when dealing with “identity” and not class) seems to have two related effects. On the potentially positive side of the ledger, it challenges the complacent. (”Sure I care about the underprivileged, wev,” an apathetic Purple might say. “No, YOU’RE privileged! YOU’RE the problem!” an angry Orange might retort.) But from another perspective, it antagonizes people who could/should be allies. (The phrase “divisive and counter-revolutionary” springs to mind.) The Oranges focus their ire on the Purples, while the Purples become defensive at the thought that the Oranges are going to try to take something the Purples justifiably feel entitled to … and they both forget about the, um, Cylons.
So, when it comes to employment, LindaBeth, do you see the Purples as “privileged”?
LindaBeth: I do think that privilege and disprivilege go together. For example, if x is being discriminated against in the workplace — if they’re not being hired because of an assumption about the value of x — then y is in fact being preferred. Now, one might argue that this “preference” for y does not necessarily arise from the assumed superiority of y, but may be due to the assumed inferiority of x; that would equate to your suggestion of x’s disprivilege without y’s privilege.
But consider this: if x is discriminated against because of a certain assumed quality of x, then y must necessarily be considered superior based on the absence of said quality. To say that one group can be disadvantaged without the other group being advantaged is to argue that there is a way of neutrally treating people as “human beings,” and then there are the ways that people are treated as men and women. But there aren’t really neutral generic “humans”: socially there are only men and women (since intersexed folk are culturally erased).
What I have just described is how we often perceive things: that men embody this fictitious “human being.” And this is part of what is meant by privilege: that in many arenas, men’s lives are taken to be “neutral” and women’s are seen to be “deviant” or “other.”
We might think of work and employment as “neutral,” an area of the public sphere that women have simply been entering en masse since WW2, but it has actually been modeled on the worker being male (that “someone else” is responsible for children and domestic maintenance), and the tension between women and the workplace typically results from that men’s lives have been the template for “the worker”; that “someone else” has traditionally and historically been the responsibility of women (I recognize this is not always the case although it is still overwhelmingly the expectation). And when “the worker” precludes the domestic responsibilities that have historically been the responsibilities of women, workplace reforms that could change this notion of “the worker” are perceived to be “special rights for women.” It’s not that women’s lives don’t fit with a neutral concept of “the worker,” it’s that the concept of “the worker” doesn’t take into account traditional female responsibilities—that “the worker” is not a neutral concept at all. Thus privileging the gender roles of men in the constitution of the neutral “worker” causes women to be disprivileged in the workplace, and the continued dispriviliging of women enacts male privilege in the workplace. The concepts are interconnected.
Because there are no neutral “human beings” I think they have to go together. And privilege is really better termed “institutional privilege.” I think people are wary to talk about oppression, because that seems to be a thing someone does actively. Privilege should be thought of (at least) in terms of institutional supports, and, as I said in my example above, that the characteristics thought to be embodied by one group are taken to be the characteristics of the “neutral human being.” Examining privilege becomes being about examining the ways that the organization of certain social systems exclude some and privilege others (again, I feel they go together), and this is not limited to gender. Part of privilege, too, is not having to ever deal with or consider certain issues—you don’t see them because they don’t affect you. It can also be about always having the conversation focus on you and address your needs, and seeing “discrimination” when anyone dares to have a space where they can focus the conversation elsewhere. In other words, part of privilege is often also about being accustomed to the society affirming and centering your own position in it.
Disprivilege implies that we need to focus on how to increase women’s participation in x — that there’s nothing wrong with social structures or the value we attribute to gendered characteristics and gender roles — that it’s all about individual discriminations. For me, focusing on privilege implies that we address the way that x structurally prioritizes and validates [insert group here]. For example, it’s not just about encouraging women to enter certain specialties in the hard sciences, but about evaluating the way that those areas, at their core, privilege men’s participation and are hostile to women.
Regarding your concern about “blame,” I think that addressing privilege is not about addressing people, but addressing systems. It does, however, address individuals in that it calls people out when they exhibit privilege in their argumentation, but people are not necessarily responsible for their privilege, but rather for failing to recognize it and failing to participate in addressing it, thereby perpetuating it. In that regard, privilege is most useful in being able to identify that social systems are not neutral entities that we simply insert people into; rather, they produce certain individuals as privileged or not, often in varying and conflicting ways.
(Of course, this can turn into blame by certain individuals. And then other times it can feel like blame when it’s not. Articulation — on both sides — is key.)
ballgame: I feel a tad overwhelmed by your response, LindaBeth. You make many points, some I agree with, some I don’t. I think some of your later points come closest to addressing the issue I was trying to focus on. You said, “Disprivilege implies that we need to focus on how to increase women’s participation in x — that there’s nothing wrong with social structures or the value we attribute to gendered characteristics and gender roles — that it’s all about individual discriminations.” I don’t see why that necessarily follows. Increasing women’s participation in x DOES challenge social structures and values we attribute to gendered characteristics and gender roles, and it does so without generating the inevitable defensiveness and enmity that comes from someone taking something away from you.
To return to my original scenario where Purples have 98% employment and Oranges have 55% employment, there are three approaches that the Cylons might be pressured to take: 1) Increase Orange employment to 98% while leaving Purple’s employment unchanged, or 2) reduce Purple emmployment to 76% and increase Orange employment to 76%, or 3) reduce Purple employment to 55% and leave Orange employment unchanged. If you believe in the principle that anyone desirous and qualified for work should be able to get a job, only option 1 is an equitable solution. (It’s also the only one which could be expected to generate largely unadulterated Purple support.) Any discussion of Purple ‘privilege’ implies they have something they shouldn’t have and points to options 2 or 3, options which many Purples would justifiably oppose.
LindaBeth: Sorry for overwhelming. The teacher in me wants to be as precise and clear as I can, and of course I am doing that “as I go” as it were, never having had this exact conversation before!
Re: “Increasing women’s participation in x DOES challenge social structures and values”: I say yes and no. What I was trying to say before was that by “just” saying we need to increase women’s participation with x, and then applying some sort of quota system, as you suggest in your second paragraph, seems to indicate that the fundamental barrier to women’s participation in x is only the individual/personal discrimination of, say, employers, and not, for example, assumptions about the nature of employment that by definition preclude the participation of certain women. Thus, in the attempts to increasing women’s participation, women are entering, or trying to enter, something that in many ways precludes them (or at least is structured heavily against them); they are trying to enter the seemingly neutral position of “the worker” that was never meant to include them and was thus not a neutral concept in the first place. While, of course, feminism has instigated many changes in the workplace, the workplace, as I argued in my last response is still overwhelmingly structured the same. So it seems to me that quotas, etc. would work if women’s “disprivilege,” as you term it, encapsulated the situation. But it doesn’t address the issue of male privilege — the structural issues that exclude women regardless of attempts to reach out to and recruit women into participation in x. So I guess what I’m suggesting is that you cannot properly and equitably equalize employment without addressing the structural and systemic issues of privilege. Otherwise, you are asking women to participate only to the extent that their lives can conform to the male-centric definitions of participation that I outlined previously, and that’s not equality at all. I’m equally concerned with the participation of women as I am with the terms on which they can participate. Right now those are largely male terms, if we’re talking about employment, and that’s why utilizing “privilege” is important.
Another thing I wanted to point out is that your option 1 is only possible if there are enough jobs to increase the Oranges employment without changing the Purples’. What happens if 98% Purple and 55% Orange employment is occurring with all the applicable jobs taken (because full employment for a Physics PhD is not bartending!)? If that’s the case, and I think that’s quite likely, with the options you offer, I see 2 as being the most reasonable. I understand that your saying that Purples shouldn’t have to “give up” their jobs in order to equalize Orange and Purple employment. But neither should Oranges be denied jobs simply in order to preserve those of the Purples. Such reasoning implicitly assumes that Purples have some sort of “natural right” to these jobs if we will only consider ways to rectify inequality that 100% preserve the social status of the Purples.
So while I agree with you in spirit, I do not think that ought to be the measuring stick by which solutions should be considered. If, as a result of what I’m suggesting by way of structural reforms in the workplace, the rules by which we judge qualified candidates change so that more women become “qualified” (if, for example, employers no longer discriminate against newly-married women in their childbearing years), and that results in men’s jobs changing, then that may just be what happens. No one in their right mind would suggest (or at least I would strongly disagree with them if they did) that we take jobs away from men for the hell of it, simply because they’re “privileged.” That being said, after removing structural barriers, men might very well lose jobs or have a more difficult time with upward mobility…but this is because there’s honestly just so many jobs, and more people vying for them. That would not be because of unfair quotas, or an idea the we need to take away stuff from those who are privileged, but because we’re trying to neutralize (not masculinize, as it is now, OR feminize) “who counts.”
I provide my assessment of your options above because that’s what you’re asking me. But in reality, what I’ve been suggesting here is that 1, 2, and 3 are not the only solutions, neither are they the most useful or effective.
ballgame: Your belief that it’s acceptable to reduce Purples’ employment in a quest for equality with Oranges rests on the anti-progressive presumptions that employment is a privilege (OK, there’s a word that’s clearly earning some overtime!) and that there can only be so many jobs to go around. (What about the option of reducing everyone’s hours?) This would play right into the hands of the, uh, Cylons, who can kick back and enjoy the spectacle of Purples and Oranges at each other’s throats, each with a legitimate beef that ‘the other side’ has their jobs!
FTR, I question your framing of the more ‘real world’ situation of men and women in the workplace. I don’t think the workplace is nearly as ‘male-centric’ as you imply, as working fathers are just as deprived of being able to spend time with their families as working mothers are. Workplaces are designed ‘with men in mind’ in the same way that bullfights are designed with the bull in mind and zoos are designed with animals in mind. (Admittedly, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but my point is that workplaces are designed far more to exploit men than to ‘privilege’ them.) And I think these are precisely the aspects of our social reality that are obscured by focusing unduly on one-sided and dubious notions of ‘privilege’ instead of focusing on rectifying ‘disprivilege’.
LindaBeth: Well, let’s just say that my own view about making the workplace more equitable has nothing to do with actively tinkering with the numbers of people employed. I responded to your options because that’s what you asked me, but I don’t think that’s the solution needed. In fact, I think those options miss the point that inequality isn’t necessarily in the numbers — the numbers indicate that a closer look at what causes them is necessary. The inequality is in the structure and is manifested in business owner’s discrimination. I also disagree with the way you characterized my position vis-à-vis Purple and Orange employment levels. Do I think that we should reduce the Purples’ employment to achieve equality? No. But do I recognize that a more equitable workplace organization and social benefits might yield a (negative) change in the Purples’ employment? Yes. Those two things are not exactly the same assertion. My economic views are much more radical than can be presented here, so I shutter at being labeled “anti-progressive.”
You and I also continue to disagree about the nature of privilege: you see privilege and “disprivilege” (discrimination?) as independent variables, and I see them relatively, like a see-saw. This is absolutely fundamental to me: gender equality requires that our lives change. Men’s lives, women’s lives, social organization, all of it. It must change. Thinking that you can rectify inequality without affecting the current state of affairs is naive in my view and neglects the fact that our gendered (and racialized, and classed) lives have taken the shape they have due out our locations of privilege. It’s not that you have something you “shouldn’t” (or that you don’t deserve), but that part of why you have what you have is because others are discriminated against. We have to be able to acknowledge our implicit relationships with systems of privilege. I know I’m willing to give up some of my (racial, “beauty”, class, etc.) privilege for a more equitable approach to social organization.
Re: your “FTR,” if you’ve read my blog, or even my FC comments, you’ll know that I am a firm believer that the workplace slights men vis-a-vis family life. But that’s not what this discussion is about, it’s about women being able to participate in the workplace as women, and that this isn’t happening despite many changes that have made the workplace less male-centric (as I stated earlier and you also pointed out). But it’s not just about spending time with your kids: it’s about that the work day actually conflicts with the school day. It’s that “someone” has to be responsible for the kids after school and that “someone” is traditionally, historically, and is still overwhelmingly women. It’s about an obscene lack of affordable child care, and an inflexibility in the work day, work structure, and time off to deal with children’s needs. It’s about the social expectation that a married woman will have children. To say the least. A sheer amount of demands placed on the worker “assumes” that “someone else” is handling the homefront. Yes, this means that men often don’t get to spend quality time with their families, and yes this is a problem. But it also (and more importantly, since this is the question that you asked) means that women are often deterred from jobs and career opportunities because they are overwhemingly responsible for the domestic sphere, even when both spouses are working, and even more so for the day-to-day routine activities (”female-type tasks,” in the research) that cannot be put off or easily contracted out like the majority of “male-type tasks” can.
One answer is that the workplace desperately needs to change. And this will enable women to not feel compelled to “opt out” because of structural incommensurabilities. This will also enable couples (of any gender) to be able to be more equally involved in family life and the domestic sphere. Our workplace and social values makes it absolutely necessary for one parent to work full-time — in other words, both parents working part time is not feasible, and typically it is the woman who has to give up her job — and this is a HUGE obstacle to equitable parenting and breadwinning, affecting both men and women and perpetuating oppressive and stifling gender roles. That society is wed to full-time employment is one of these traditionally “male-centric” aspects of work I was referring to (no need to make part-time viable when your wife takes care of everything else, and part-time workers are usually dependent wives anyway! … I’m not saying that no men keep house full-time these days, merely that that is still a predominately female task and social expectation. House-husbands get crapped on socially and that’s messed up to me as well. And for the record, I think no one should be a house-spouse.)
Workplace is just one factor too: the division of labor in the home is still terribly skewed, but hopefully workplace changes will aide that as masculinity becomes less defined by career and equally defined by family, and women’s becomes less defined by family and more defined by her career pursuits. Another factor is the social norm of marriage and the lack of viable alternatives. Also gender issues in education. Or even earlier: gendered child-rearing through toys and preschool. Those are topics for other days, though.
ballgame: Well, LindaBeth, I’m encouraged to see we have some common ground but a great deal of divergence clearly remains. I’m not going to extend this post further because I think we’ve given our readers more than enough to chew on for now. I may respond in a separate post, or perhaps we can explore some of those issues in future One-On-One posts.