Discussions on privilege often feel counter productive because they trigger such defensiveness in the “privileged” it’s hard to have the relevant issues actually addressed. In tech, for instance, the main thing “awareness” about “diversity” seems to have accomplished is that now I am regularly treated to boring interludes of men checking their privilege.
“I know I’ve probably had it a lot easier, as a straight white guy,” some bro will say to me, and at that point it’s like game over. A general recognition of privilege isn’t very useful, and when someone aggressively checks their privilege like that, it’s usually a sign they’re feeling nervous around me cuz I have boobies. At which point, I acknowledge them as a well intentioned white guy, and maybe try again another day.
For me to get into a productive conversation around privilege with a dude, I need to engage with them around how constructs of masculinity are painful for them. This is a *very* delicate conversation, because as most men have learned, male rejection of masculinity is highly stigmatized (related: trans people talk about trans women being more stigmatized than trans men.) Or, to put it another way: what’s more worthy of ridicule, a man in a dress or a woman in a suit?
In fact, I’m sure part of the reason the entire “male privilege” lexicon has taken off is it gives “nice” men a way of saying “I am sympathetic to the needs of women, but BOY DO I LOVE BEING A MAN.” In fact, often to me, it almost feels like kind of humblebrag. Yeah, I totally lucked out being a dude while phrasing it in a way that sounds like they’re saying I appreciate how things have been difficult for you as a woman. But like, when I look at all the tech dudes I’m surrounded by, I don’t envy them.
Much of masculine behavior is more heavily constrained than feminine behavior, especially around behaviors that pertain to platonic shows of love and affection, and... that fucking sucks. Feelings of loneliness are highest among single men (as opposed to single women, or married people.) Because men get such benefit from being in relationships, men tend to be more emotionally more dependent on women than women are on men.
This makes feminism and female economic independence more threatening, because historically men were able to meet their emotional needs by providing for a woman materially and ensnaring her in a relationship. If women are no longer reliant on men for their material needs, single men don’t have so clear a path to getting their emotional needs met because the constraints of masculinity prevent them from openly discussing their desire for affection. So, many men — especially lonely men — will fight women’s economic progress. They’re afraid that, if women achieve economic freedom, then there will be no way for them to get a woman to alleviate their loneliness.
Women will always be haunted by male opposition to their independence until we find new ways for men to meet their emotional needs. The way male privilege functions in this context is that the systems of oppression allowed men to remain ignorant of their own needs. Because limiting women’s economic success and forcing them into marriages as a societal construct allowed men to get their dependency needs met, men never had to own their feelings of loneliness. They could just “be successful” along a conventional societal axis, and their affection needs would be taken care of. But this was not very good for women, hence feminism.
Privilege, essentially, is when the existing societal constructs cater to your needs without you ever having to be aware of them. Breaking down your privilege is acknowledging the ways the system catered to your needs, and finding new ways of fulfilling them that are not oppressive. Consequently, when men talk about how good they have it, I want to be like no, talk to me about what hurts. Talk to me about where female liberation is creating pain points for you, so we can start building non-oppressive structures to cater to these needs.
However, we heavily censor men as they start to talk about what huts them. Consider the ridicule heaped upon “men’s rights activists” — they may not be articulating perfectly, but they are shining a light on male pain points, and that’s important. It’s important for female liberation.
When it comes to white privilege, however, I have to take my own advice. While it is important to listen to and try to empathize with the experience of oppression of people of color, it is also important for me to figure out how my needs have been invisibly catered to and acknowledge those needs. My needs are not the problem; relying on oppressive structures to fulfill those needs is the problem.
It’s much harder to see this on the other side, but a good place to start is to see my needs in the points that are creating societal friction. What were the emotional needs of people who were chanting All Lives Matter? How do they relate to my needs, and what are the underlying structures of oppression that have historically been fulfilling those needs for me?
I can’t really speak for the emotional motivation of anyone who actually said that, but for me, All Lives Matter connects to a desire for inclusion and a desire for community. In the black lives matter movement, I see people connecting with each other over something “important” and I’d like to be connecting with other people over something “important” too. Historically, white people have had the privilege of working on the projects that society deems “important,” and have had the privilege of “making history.” When I see black people making history, I want in! I want my life story to matter. I want to be important to other people.
However, I’d also argue there has been a type of workaholism in white American culture. White people have sacrificed their personal relationships in order to work hard on these “important” projects. White people have allowed their communities to deteriorate in favorite of capitalist success. People of color, on the other hand, have at times filled more menial roles in society but often have maintained stronger community connections. Despite occupying a lower socioeconomic position in American society, latinos have a longer life expectancy than whites. At least one proposed mechanism for this is that latino people maintain stronger community structures, and stronger community has been linked to increased longevity.
It’s important that white people cease dominating all of the “important” projects in society, but that whites felt the need to dominate along this axis points to a different need. We use people of color to cook our food, to care for our children, to do our laundry but in doing so not only do we oppress them, we deprive ourselves of the type of communities that would enrich our lives. We commoditize care, and in doing so, always feel alienated from ourselves. Improving the lives of people of color involves acknowledging how we oppressed them, and what needs we were meeting in doing so. Then, we can find new ways to meet those needs. Better ways, ways that will fulfill us more deeply than mindlessly buying into the established system.
Whenever you hear of sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or whatever and you find yourself aligned with the axis of privilege, ask yourself “what need am I getting met through the oppression?” and “what are other ways I could meet this need?”