Sunday, July 10, 2011

Privilege: the invisible thing I believe in

I've become very interested in minorities within social movements, which, of course, means I paid attention to the "elevator" controversy.  But let's not speak of it yet.  I just wanted to say that I liked the title of one of the posts, "The Privilege Delusion".

Because that's how some people see it, isn't it?  Privilege is an invisible thing that other people believe in.  "Sure," they say, "Minorities encounter problems, but so do I.  How do they know it has anything to do with race or gender?"  The cynics might even believe that "privilege" is an attempt to tip the scales by claiming that they are not already balanced.  (See: belief in "reverse racism")

Many privileges are invisible.  And they are not only used to justify things like common decency (which should hardly need justification!), but also things like affirmative action.  So how can we provide evidence for its existence?

First, I think we should explain why privileges are invisible, and why this is unsurprising.  Let's cut through the rhetoric; privileges are not about advantages, but about disadvantages.  But if we call it a disadvantage, then it looks like Someone Else's Problem.  By reframing it as a privilege, it becomes more about the privileged person, and more relevant to the privileged person.  To illustrate, let's look at the first three items from the White Privilege Knapsack.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
The whole point of the privilege knapsack is to get you to realize... non-white people do not have these privileges.  They can't easily arrange to be in the company of people their own race.  They have to deal with culturally trained mistrust on a day-to-day basis.  They have to worry about housing discrimination, which was legal as recently as 1968, and which may still exist de facto.

I think privileges are a valid way to reframe disadvantages, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is unhelpful.  If you think of them as disadvantages, of course they are invisible to people who do not experience the disadvantages.  They are not about your experience, they are about someone else's experience.

Therefore, the problem is not explaining why privilege is invisible.  The problem is that the evidence for privilege mostly comes from the personal experiences of underprivileged people.  How can those people translate personal experience into objectively acceptable evidence?  How can we correct for conflict of interest (since underprivileged people obviously have an interest in demonstrating the existence of privilege), without overshooting?

Though I posed this problem, I will not be able to pose much of a solution.

The obvious way is to point to studies showing real disparities in income and health, like what I did to show gay and lesbian privilege over bisexuals.  I'm sure similar studies show a variety of disparities between white and black people, and between men and women, but I will not cite them since my readers are just as good at googling as I am.

Another way is to recount specific experiences where race or gender clearly played a role.  But anecdotes have their own slew of evidentiary problems.  In any case, it usually isn't clear that race or gender played a role.  If, for example, people are talking over you, how do you know it's because you're a woman?  All you know is that it seems to happen pretty frequently.  This is one of the problems cited by feminists, but it would be hard to produce any sort of "elevator" controversy out of it.

Dear readers, can you think of any ways to provide evidence for invisible privileges?


maddox said...

I immediately thought of age as an invisible privilege, and then thought of a way to make invisible privileges visible - experience both sides of it yourself. Not many people get to do this, but it's possible.

For instance, transgender people who have written about their experience in the job force as both men and women pre and post transition, and how it IS different how they are treated.

Or relating back to my original inspiration, I often look 15, and am treated as such. When people realize I am indeed not 15, they start to treat me vastly differently. Some even outright apologize for the way they treated me before - explicitly stating that they DID treat me differently because of my perceived age.

Gays also get this when they're around a group who thinks they're straight, then they're outed, and the way the group treats them changes.

With race, it's curiously harder, but possible nonetheless.

miller said...

Ah yes, there are people who experience it from both sides at different times in their life. This does solve some of the evidentiary problems with anecdotes, but not all of them. For instance, it could be argued that the sample size of experiences is too small, or unrepresentative.

That brings to mind a book we read in high school: Black Like Me. It would be interesting to see what arguments its opponents used to dismiss the testimony.

drransom said...

I think the best technique is the best technique for demonstrating pretty much everything: controlled experiments. The documents-with-different-names studies are my favorite: identical resumes with different names, identical "teacher evaluations" of elementary school students with different names, etc. Another example is the studies of babies where people interpret baby behavior differently and interact with babies differently depending on whether they're told it's a boy or a girl (since baby girls and boys are pretty much indistinguishable). Quasi-controlled experiments where you use confederates of different sexes/races/etc. are another useful method, although these suffer from the problem that the actors come with all sorts of other confounding variables.

Unfortunately the situations that are subject to experimental treatment are quite rare. Beyond that I really don't know.

(An aside: one issue with these privilege lists is that the given condition tends to be neither necessary nor sufficient to assert the "privilege." Intersectionality plays a big role here, but so do other factors. Assuming we're talking about the U.S., whether a white person can arrange to be around other white people has a lot to do with where they live. In the Midwest, it's trivial. Here in San Francisco, where non-hispanic whites aren't even a majority, not so much.)

maddox said...

Very good points, both of you. I do love psychology, except experiments are very tedious in reality.

I was wondering what you thought of a possible "invisible" non-privilege. For instance, I'm white, and at the same time an immigrant. While I look "privileged," there's a lot of stuff that as a non-US-born person I am not afforded with, such as legal security (I can in theory be kicked out of the country at any time), financial advantages (I don't get unemployment benefits if I'm fired) and a myriad of cultural issues as well. So technically I'm in the "racial majority," or I look like I am, but in the end I'm not.

And this goes back a little to living a double life, or "passing" as a privileged class while not being one. Like being able to pass for straight, but not having all the rights and privileges if you're not.

drransom said...

maddox--This is quibbling, but I'm not sure it makes sense to conflate white privilege with the privileges associated with citizenship. Lots of non-white people are U.S. citizens and they get the advantages associated with citizenship. There is a lot of intersectionality there, as members of some races (black, non-Hispanic white) are less likely to have their status as Americans questioned than members of other races (most notably Hispanics). And conversely white non-citizens have an easier time "passing" as American citizens. But I don't think the existence of intersectionality means we should consider white privilege and citizenship privilege remotely the same thing.

A pedantic remark: lawfully present non-citizens are eligible for unemployment benefits provided they were lawfully present and authorized to work in the U.S. when they were working. You're also wrong that non-citizens can be deported at any time: lawfully present aliens are deportable only under certain circumstances such as marriage fraud or conviction for certain criminal offenses.

However, neither is true of undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for unemployment insurance and can be deported at any time. So if you're undocumented, you're kinda screwed.

Of course, not having to show documents verifying your immigration status and not being at much risk of unlawful/erroneous deportation are also privileges, but I don't think non-Hispanic white non-citizens are at much risk of the latter, so it wouldn't apply to your situation.

bas said...

"can you think of any ways to provide evidence for invisible privileges"

Judging by what is available in the media, evidence is not so much the problem, we are inundated by all sorts of claims of varying quality.

The real problem seems to be evaluating what is presented for against a broader context, for such things as selectivity, bias, logical validity, and even relevance. For example, some undisputed, very important data about gender relations is that, in this country, men on average die earlier than women, and men of a certain age need to register for conscription. You would think these facts would be important to evaluate any accusations of general unfairness to women in general, but in reality they seem to be rarely mentioned.

Differences between salaries need, logically, to be adjusted for such factors as seniority and productivity, but we are rarely even told whether this is the case.

Really we seem to be presented with one-sided or lurid descriptions of selected specific cases, from which general conclusions are, very illogically, constructed or implied.