Hint: it's a spectrum
It sometimes feels like the theoretical optimism of social justice research organizes information nicely in my head but does very little to equip me against war-waging privilege-holders who think that the next generations and the mass media are out to get them.
Reading Peggy McIntosh’s timeless piece “White Privilege & Male Privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies” excited me when I considered the potential of a conversational approach that addresses the two sides of the coin, disadvantage and privilege.
McIntosh insightfully divided the male perspective of their own privilege into stages that belong on a spectrum from complete denial of male privilege, to admitting women’s disadvantage, to acknowledging male privilege and actually acting against it. In the past when I’ve broached the subject with others, it often dissolved into fruitless debate despite attempts to access them through logic. Looking at McIntosh’s spectrum, I see that perhaps I was using logic that only applied to my personal reality. Speaking to a white male about his privilege is difficult because he could be anywhere on the spectrum and one’s reality (and the accompanying logic) changes accordingly.
Besides applying male privilege perspectives to a spectrum, McIntosh made an appeal to develop a system to categorize privileges and to distinguish those which everyone deserves from those which permit ignorance. Uniquely, the inequality dialogue boiled down not to finger-pointing, but to perspective-taking and solution-finding. Organizing any abstracted issue enables us to have the conversation in the first place because if we can identify and then label social concepts, we have terms to use in the conversation that hold similar meanings to both parties. Without this system right now, conversations with people of different perspectives amount to nitpicking words instead of breaking down each other’s arguments.
While structuring perspectives and privileges will set up a framework for future conversations on these touchy social issues, there will still be individuals collectively holding onto their norms, traditions, and unacknowledged privileges. If they don’t want exposure to progressive ideas, research, or the individuals who embody them, it’s hard to have the conversation constructively. Accidental exposure does a lot of good but doesn’t usually have the depth required to develop an empathy that translates into action and change.
My two conclusions as I wrapped up this reading? First, that we better get to work developing a patience that can handle this “one step forward, two steps back” pace of social justice, and secondly that perhaps we can learn to see interactions with others as prime opportunities to learn to articulate our realities to the dominant culture.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences though work in women’s studies. Creation Spirituality, 33-35