I’ve been trying to write a blog post for the last few weeks now… ever since a good friend of mine pointed out this post to me, where Bo Sanders offers a proposal arguing that “privilege is not racism, sexism, or oppression.” In his post, Bo suggests that:
The conversation around issues of Race-Gender-Class and Identity Politics usually breaks down and becomes unfruitful due to two fatal flaws in how the conversation is framed.
Bo sugests that the first flaw is “the use of either-or binaries and dualisms that are too limiting,” and the second flaw is “the sloppy mixing of words and categories without clear distinction.” He goes on to argue that we should make a change from our dualistic thinking, moving instead to delineation between a) privilege, b) racism/sexism, and c) oppression/marginalization.
I’ve struggled with where, and how, to begin to respond to this post… Luckily for me, and my writer’s block, someone already beat me to it—Sarah Moon wrote an excellent blog post on “Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, and the trend of ‘don’t call me a racist!’”
While her post was in response to a different (though ostensibly related/overlapping) set of authors, it was definitely in response to the same trend… as she puts it, the “trend among white, straight academic cis men in progressive or emergent Christianity where calling someone racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is a bigger problem than the existence of racism, sexism, and homophobia.” (emphasis mine).
I did, however, briefly want to elaborate on some of what Sarah has said, and make some connections with some other things I’ve read in the blogosphere this week.
My frustration with Bo’s post isn’t even with whether I agree with their claims about what constitutes racism or privilege or oppression, etc… that is a whole other conversation. Rather, I think my fellow WIT blogger Amaryah Shaye raises the more foundational point. As she writes in the comment section of Bo’s post:
I guess I’m interested in what work this distinction is supposed to do? Off the bat, I don’t really think it clarifies relations of power as much as it mystifies them under the guise of nuance. Does one being an active vs. passive participant in white supremacy have any practical effect for anyone other than those who get offended at being called racist? I’m all for better language and analyses, and I think Identity Politics and conversations about privilege have been coopted by neo-liberalism to further itself, but I’m curious as to how this is actually doing better analysis rather than repeating the same analysis with a *lite version–an attention to intention–to go along so as to not offend folks who aren’t good white liberals yet but will hopefully one day arrive. That is, the focus of this seems to be how to talk to “privileged” folks without their taking offense and shutting down conversation but is that the same thing as anti-oppression work?
Put more simply (/my own paraphrase): Y’all are missing the point.
And missing the point, as I think Amaryah and Sarah both point out, is neither neutral nor innocent, even if it is intended as such. (Ignorance is bliss?) As Sarah so simply and yet so eloquently says:
So many (and again, not all) privileged people (and, honestly, though I focused on two dudes in this piece this often includes privileged white women as well) who claim to be progressive Christians act like they want a world where everyone has a “seat at the table.” But they want it on their terms.
Of course, this then resulted in Rollins writing a lengthy comment about all the ways in which he is not privileged… And this is my (biggest) problem with Bo’s post—what is the point of making the distinctions between privilege and oppression and racism other than to be defensive, make yourself feel better, and/or let yourself off the hook? What good do such distinctions do? Do they do anything to help those who are privileged in various ways take responsibility to work against pervasive systemic structural systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of privilege from which they (/we) benefit? As one of my colleagues so eloquently put it, the net effect of all this hand-wringing over being called racist or sexist or homophobic has continued to make white men, yet again, the center of the conversation.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, this whole topic has frustrated and exhausted me… So, when I saw news about the San Diego woman who was a survivor of domestic violence being fired from her job because of her ex-husband’s actions, I thought, I’ll write about that instead. As if such a story doesn’t exhaust and/or frustrate me any less. As if such a story isn’t intricately connected to the ways we think and talk about privilege and sexism/racism/heterosexism/etc…
What might it mean to take seriously and work against the structures of privilege and violence that result in woman getting fired because of her abusive husband? What might it mean to take seriously the ways in which the “Stand your ground law” helps white defendants a heck of a lot more than black defendants?
What about the reality that having children is a career advantage for men, but a career killer for women in the academy? Or that nearly 50% women are victims of some form of sexual assault at some point in their lives? What about the horrific racial injustices of the prison industrial system (see also here, here, and here)? What about the disproportionate rates of suicide and homelessness amongst LGBTQ youth? What about the terrible gun violence that rarely gets media attention? Or the millions of people in the U.S. who do not have enough food to eat? And I could go on, and on, and on….
No offense, but I’m pretty sure long discussions about how we aren’t racist or sexist or homophobic, etc… aren’t necessarily the most helpful or useful….
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that discourse about such things is not important. I think action is very important, and I think discourse itself is also very important. Words are meaningful, and powerful (see James 3… And Foucault and Butler for that matter…). Which is precisely why I think spending time arguing about how we aren’t really that privileged, or how racism is different from privilege is so problematic.
Might I make a suggestion? Perhaps, instead of writing lengthy blog posts about how or why you are tired of being called racist, or how privilege is different from racism, that you—that we—seek to actively work against the myriad systems of power and privilege that we unfairly benefit from?
I agree with Bo that we “need to alter the way in which the conversation is framed if we want to both affect different outcomes than have already been achieved OR if we want to involve ever-increasing amounts of people in expanding rings of influence.” I’m just in serious disagreement about the frame he proposes, and where—and on whom—it places the emphasis?
So what should we speak about? How should we proceed? I certainly do not claim to have all the answers in this regard, but I was struck by something else I read this week that I think might be helpful…
Last week, one of my professors and mentors from Duke Divinity School, Willie Jennings, wrote a brilliant and wise and brave post, on his recent arrest. Jennings was arrested as part of the “Moral Mondays” actions first sparked by the North Carolina NAACP, against, as he puts it, “the most comprehensive set of right wing draconian bills and laws that anyone in [North Carolina] has ever seen.”[i]
Jennings reflects on his decision to get arrested, and muses on how such a decision came to him—as he puts it, “an inescapable fact hit him”—when he was working on a commentary on Acts. In reflecting on Acts 4:1-13, he writes:
Speaking holy words has serious consequences. These are not words that simply speak of God. There is nothing inherently serious or holy in God talk. The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people. Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power.
He continues, later, noting that:
Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation. Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy.
What might it mean to speak such boldness in our various communities? What might it mean to embody a joined boldness, born of intimacy? Does this mean arguing about whether we really are privileged or racist or sexist? Or, might it mean, as Dr. Jennings suggests, “becoming the common,” supporting and entering into community and solidarity with those who are oppressed; becoming “secular critics” who “unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions.”
Some resources for further reading:
[i] See also, Nick Wing, “Moral Monday Protests Lead to 84 More Arrests in North Carolina: ‘We Cannot Be Silenced;’” Laura Levens, “Wherefore Art Thou, Democracy? Moral Mondays and the Future of North Carolina;” and Benjamin Todd Jealous, “Moral Mondays: A Model Grassroots Movement.”