I recently discussed male privilege with someone who took offence at another woman referring to another man misusing his “white male privilege.” The woman, lets call her Jane, stated that she was frustrated with another man, we’ll call him Fred, because he was misusing his white male privilege when he was transphobic and refused to listen and apologise . The first man, we’ll call him Geoff, derailed the conversation and stated that he objected to the term “white male privilege” as it creates a perception that white males are “the bad guys” and that Fred’s actions were indeed wrong, but they were wrong in their own right, not because Fred is a white male. Geoff believed that there was a fallacy of division being painted here that he saw just as bad as the transphobic behaviour.
I pointed out, as gently as I could that white male privilege exists and pointed Geoff towards several resources, specifically:
A – The wikipedia article on male privilege
B – A quote from the Geek Feminism blog:
“Privilege is described as a set of perceived advantages enjoyed by a majority group, who are usually unaware of the privilege they possess.
A privileged person is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it. “
And C – Andrea Rubenstein’s awesome post on ““Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it”
In the next conversation about white male privilege, Geoff suggested that he didn’t mind the term privilege but to associate it with another term is similar to saying “Islamic Terrorist”, and indeed that’s the way he regularly sees it used; as an emotional term, or used as a type of discrimination.
I admit that I began to lose patience at this point. I reminded Geoff at this point that the term was not used in relation to him. That the initial discussion was about Fred and not about Geoff. Geoff responded that the term “white male privilege” gives people a target to aim at, and that as a white male, he is part of that group and therefore about him because he cannot escape being a white male.
I then wrote a long essay, which I will pretty much reproduce below with thanks to those who have written before me to help guide my thinking and for the parts of their writing that I have quoted below.
Men, especially white men, are at the top of the pile as far as privilege goes. It’s not really a venn diagram. There’s male privilege and there’s white privilege; but white male privilege is more than the two put together. There are things that white men get, for being white men, that neither white women nor non-white men get. For example, a non-white man would have a hard time being a priest in many of Australian parishes; (but so would a white woman), likewise a business banker, or a CEO, or a CIO etc. There are exceptions, but these are things society generally gifts to white men; over coloured men or any woman.
You can draw a venn diagram of all Islamic (or any nationality or religion) people and have a small overlap with terrorists and say “this tiny proportion of people in here are Islamic Terrorists (or English Terrorists, or Australian Terrorists)” but privilege doesn’t map that way.
I don’t know if you read any of the links I put in my emails, but I am going to continue to do so anyway, because they are useful and may help explain my position here:
“Once you have a basic grasp on the system of privilege, the next step is one simple self-realization: you are privileged. Chances are, your reading that has made you feel defensive. While it’s a perfectly natural, and common, reaction, don’t let it get in your way of actually thinking about what the statement means. What you need to realize is that we all have privilege to some degree: white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc. The hardest thing is to do is to get over your instinct to fight and say, “But I’m not like that!” If you can do it, you’ve completed the first step towards being a pro-equality in reality rather than simply saying and believing that you are.”
I highly recommend reading that entire blog post – it is REALLY good.
It is important to remember that, “If you are in a position of privilege, it is not your fault, and people do not blame you for it. (For example, I have white privilege. That is not my fault. But I can recognize it and ask myself what I can do about it, and I can respect people who lack white privilege when they ask me to check my privilege.) Privilege is the result of social structure, which means that discussions about privilege are discussions about society, not about individuals who have privilege.” (http://meloukhia.net/2009/11/personal_and_political.html).
“I believe that luck and random chance play an ENORMOUS part in our lives — much larger than any of us (including myself) really like to acknowledge. And I therefore try not to feel too smug and entitled about every good thing that happens in my life — or too guilt-ridden and responsible for every bad thing. (In particular, I try to remember that, as a white, healthy, middle-class, college-educated American, I pretty much won the privilege lottery when I was born, and that griping and whining about the petty annoyances in my life is really kind of pathetic. Not that I don’t do it anyway… but when I catch myself, I try to knock it off.)” – http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/06/not_a_butler_ei.html
As a man Geoff, you ride a much smoother life than many others. You don’t face sexism, you don’t face discrimination and you don’t face objectification. As a white person you aren’t questioned for your right to be in the country, you aren’t persecuted, you aren’t likely to be racially vilified, you won’t face discrimination on the basis of your skin colour, assumed religion, assumed association, and you’re more likely to be successful at finding work.
I don’t think that anyone here is aiming at all white men and calling them evil. Feminists aren’t generally misanthropists, they just want society to change from the Kyriarchy that it is, to something fairer.
Geoff, you said that it is, therefore, about you because, by definition, you cannot escape that category.
In the end, this is a logical fallacy.
Dalmations are dogs. Spot is a dog, therefore Spot is a Dalmation.
Males misuse male privilege. Geoff is male, therefore Geoff misuses male privilege.
And as stated above, a discussion about privilege is a discussion about society and how it can be misused… and in this case, about an individual who did misuse his privilege – and that doesn’t mean that it is about you.
I would like to point out here that asking me to justify myself and explain myself is a use of privilege in itself.
As I stated earlier, white males generally have more privilege than any other group in the world (and even more if you add wealth, cisgender or heterosexual privilege to that mix – and less if you add trans, homosexual or poor (but still usually more privilege than women and people of colour). So Fred was using his white male and cismale privilege to refuse to listen, to state that his desire for personal freedom was more important than someone else’s identity and freedom to be themselves and refuse to hear that he had offended, until threatened with potential expulsion [from our group].
This might help here:
[and this summary from Andrea Rubenstein's post as stated earlier]
“Any time a non-privileged individual busts out with an angry critique (or even a nice one), someone will eventually come up with the, “I’m sorry you hate men/whites/heterosexuals/etc.” line. With rare exception, non-privileged individuals do not hate privileged individuals, but we do hate how many privileged individuals act! Learn to take criticism. Learn to not deflect it with excuses about how the non-privileged person is just angry, hateful, etc. Even if the person in question is angry, hateful, etc. Even if you, personally, don’t act that way.
“There are many issues in this world that are about you, but non-privileged groups are not the place to discuss them unless specifically invited. Yes, men are negatively affected by the patriarchy. Yes, they get raped too (and have their own set of victim blaming rhetoric). Yes, privileged groups can and do come into contact with prejudice and discrimination. Are those discussions valid? You bet. But, are they appropriate when the topic is on the discrimination and/or oppression of a particular non-privileged group? Not a chance. If you think the subject may not be appropriate, don’t bring it up. There’s always a later discussion, a new thread, and especially proper forums for discussions like those.
“If You’re Not the Problem, Then You’re Not the Problem
But if you feel the burning desire to leap to your own defense and declare, “I’m not the problem!” then you just might be. The facts are, people who have followed the steps I’ve outlined will most likely not be the problem. If they are the problem, they accept that and will be working on a way to be less of the problem. If they’re not the problem, then they feel no need to protest the critique by saying that since they aren’t the problem, then the point is obviously invalid. So, whenever you feel an urge to defend yourself against a criticism about your privileged group, think about why you feel that way. Chances are, the more aware of your privilege you are, the more you’ll see it as a knee-jerk reaction about having your privilege challenged (even if you don’t, in fact, engage in the behaviour being ranted against).” – http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2006-03-08_146
The copyright for the quoted sections of text belong to the respective authors. I also appreciate the assistance given to me by my sister and girlfriend for helping shape my thinking in responding to Geoff.
In addition to that, I would like to add one further link that I found today. Justine Larbalestier talks about men derailing conversations about sexism to make it about them called “I know you mean well”.