Facebook and other social media have recently exploded with wondrous appreciation for the simple explanation of privilege provided by the “Life of Privilege Explained” video. Thank god, you think, someone has finally clarified the true meaning of privilege in a non-threatening way. Now even white people can understand privilege and become true allies in the battle for social justice.
If I sound sarcastic, it’s because the video is a lie. I don’t actually know if it was meant that way, but what it explains and how it explains are exactly the opposite of what privilege theory actually stands for. Before I get into the details, here is the video:
You can also see a link to it here on Woke Folks‘ Facebook page, and in many other social media outlets. There is also at least one other version of the same concept shown here as “What is Privilege?” that didn’t go viral in the same way:
The lie in both videos is very simple. The implicit message is that privilege is an individual factor that is strongly influenced but not determined entirely by race or gender. As you watch the videos, you see people march forward or back based on the “privileges” they enjoy in life. The undeniable message of this video is that a white male cis-gendered person could end up at the back of the pack along with, say, a poor, minority, asexual female. This is diametrically opposed to what privilege theory stands for.
An honest video about privilege would not allow for individuals. There would only be groups segregated by race, gender and multiple other factors into privilege sets. They would move as a group. They would act as a group. The individuality of their members would be wholly irrelevant.
In this more truthful video, the same questions could be asked, but could be answered only in the aggregate by each group. Thus, given that actual and undeniable disadvantages that some groups have, the minority and female groups would remain in the back every time, and the white male group would end up at the front. There is no need to even ask the questions. Privilege theory presumes this outcome.
This distinction is vital because these videos attempt to make privilege more palatable to threatened white, cis-gendered males not by revealing some powerful truth about privilege, but by simply lying about it.
If privilege meant what the videos imply, then you as a theoretically disadvantaged white male born poor to an illiterate family and beaten up as a kid would probably end up pretty far behind a black millionaire athlete raised by middle-class parents in a nice neighborhood. That black man would still experience very real racism, but on average, his wealth and power would given him undeniable privilege over the poor, failed white dude.
This is quite literally impossible in privilege theory. In privilege theory, there is no such thing as black privilege, female privilege or gay privilege, etc. And thus no black man or woman can ever have privilege over a white person. Ever. Period. Just do a search on the Google; it’s not hard to find this stuff. You just have to look.
Here is one example on Everyday Feminism with the clever URL Female Privilege Not a Thing: “Just because male privilege exists doesn’t mean its counterpart, “female privilege,” is also present. Women in the United States and around the world continue to face discrimination in all magnitudes and have the system largely pitted against them.”
Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of people who disagree with these statements — but that’s not the point. The point is that the advocates of privilege define it a certain way, and these videos are claiming to help support the message of these advocates. But they don’t.
What’s most frustrating about these videos is that they are selling privilege theory for what it should be, but not what it is. If privilege was an exercise that we all went through to help us realize that, even though we are all different individuals, many of us of a certain color and gender have, on average, advantages over others that we did not earn and that are worthy of both awareness and action, I would be all on board the privilege train. This is a positive, productive approach to demonstrating and working against racial injustice.
Privilege theory is, however, the exact opposite of this. Privilege theory is a negative, segregationist, racial-and-gender profiling social model that tries very simply to establish whiteness or maleness as an original sin from which there is no escape. It denies people agency over their own life or bodies. It is the exact kind of racist and sexist logic that whites and males have been employing for hundreds of years in the form for the White Man’s Burden or the Superiority of Men and pretty much every other theory that treats human beings as nothing more than an insignificant representation of a group over which they have no control.
So let’s work to make the form of privilege discussed in these videos the actual foundation of privilege theory as taught and practiced everywhere. If we don’t, then we’re just lying or accepting a lie about the true nature of privilege. And that means we either don’t really believe in it, we don’t understand it, or we’re just so desperate for a palatable message that we’ll swallow any idiocy we’re fed just to get through the day. None of that sounds like social progress.
As a final point, it shouldn’t matter whether you think privilege theory is a valid social construct or not. If we believe in privilege theory as marketed up to this point in time, then the videos are a lie. If we do not, then the videos are still a lie. Pretending privilege theory is something that it isn’t, no matter how well intentioned, doesn’t help anyone.