Responsibility without responsibility: the chapter on privilege

On Feministe Renee writes a post on privilege that is short and sweet, or at least to-the-point: that privilege is not something with which to lacerate oneself daily, not a source of never-ending guilt and shame, but rather something to own and to take up as a responsibility. A responsibility, I would add, for which “I” cannot assume responsibility. Which is to say, a responsibility that precludes personal wallowing in guilt and shame, but resolves as an imperative to Do Something.

I don’t know how many readers I actually have, and I don’t know how many I might come to have or if anyone at all will read this except for myself, but I’m going to try to explain this to each and every one of us. Every time I read an article about privilege and then start perusing the comments I am struck by the fact that so many are unable to conceive of privilege as a structural fact. And this is what I mean. Those who are any of the following: heterosexual, cis-gendered (that is, in harmony, mostly, with the gender they were assigned at birth on the basis of their anatomy), able-bodied and/or -minded, male, white, educated, youthful but not too youthful, living in the “western” world, middle-class or above, plus probably a number of other attributes that describe the ideal agent/individual in late global capitalism; those whose bodies and personal and/or familial histories place them in any of these categories will, within our current historical context, enjoy advantages over those who do not fall in these categories, no matter what they do.

And this is a structural phenomenon: as Renee puts it, certain bodies are coded in certain ways, regardless of how the body itself might see itself as wanting to be coded, and regardless of how the body itself actually feels about such issues as racism, classism, or heterosexism, to name only a few of the -isms that arise out of the litany of terms for privilege. And as a structural phenomenon, it won’t go away if those accorded privilege within it sit around and feel guilty; it won’t go away even if those accorded privilege within it apologize a whole lot to those who aren’t, although this might well be a good first step to take towards realizing one’s responsibility when one is not responsible for the way one’s body has been coded.

There’s not a damned thing I can do about being white. I didn’t ask to be born into a body that would be immediately encoded as white, I didn’t ask for the historical legacy that attends whiteness, and I didn’t ask for the inheritance of great wealth as a member of a dominant, white populace–I am by no means rich or even “middle-class” anymore, but I still enjoy the freedom of moving around in a fairly large territory that I could, if wished, claim as “my country.” There is a certain wealth of options that comes from being born in the US as a white-encoded body, options that bodies coded in different ways don’t have.

This is the way things are in the country I happen to live in. I cannot change history and I cannot change the color of my skin; I am not responsible for history and I am not responsible for the color of my skin. But what I am responsible for, and what I see the conversation about privilege as trying to get people of privilege to realize they are responsible for, is for what happens now. Where will history go from here? Will we wave our hands and say, “Oh, doing something about privilege is too much trouble”? Then at that point we become responsible; as actors in the present, what we do will inevitably have consequences in the future. My ancestors? Robbed indigenous people of their land. My fault? No. My responsibility? To work to balance the books, to right wrongs that currently benefit me through no fault or virtue of my own.

It’s not about “making white/rich/heterosexual people suffer,” as implies one commenter on Renee’s post. It is, in fact, a question of extending privilege to as many as possible, but only to the point that other beings don’t suffer from that extension of privilege. See, here is the rub, for many especially in the US, where we routinely consume five to ten times our share of planetary resources: no matter how much we talk of wanting to “raise the standard of living” for “everyone” by bringing the gospel of free-market capital to them, the fact is that the planet could not sustain this “standard of living” for all of the people living on it. Trying to bring our way of life to everyone would be suicide by mass extinction and environmental collapse: an exponential increase in suffering. It simply can’t happen! So yes, some of us need to give up some luxuries, but I fail to see how, by any stretch of the imagination, Americans would “suffer” by giving up their resource-intensive lifestyles, when compared with the amount of suffering that our lifestyle already causes others, and the amount that suffering would increase were we to intensify our exploitation of resources and labor. I mean, let’s be realistic about what it is to suffer. (And yes, there arises the big question of just where the labor would come from for the continued production of cheap goods for well-off people were we all suddenly to join the ranks of the well-off. But here is simply one of the most well-known contradictions of capitalism: the myth that all can prosper by it. No. Someone will always be working like a dog, with shit for wages.

But I digress. Sort of.) The thing that has helped me the most to understand how privilege works–and why it is that self-laceration is not an adequate or even desirable response to my own privilege–is to see it as a kind of cultural inscription that was written on my body long before “I” even knew I was one. The question that faces me is how I wish the bodies of others to be inscribed, both now and in the future. If I am content to let things continue as they are, then I am implicated in the suffering of others and am implicated in history as it continues to unfurl. It really is that simple.

The question of what to do: I think the most important thing for anyone sitting in a position of privilege of any kind is to educate themselves. A person of privilege will have resources by which to do so, one way or another. A person privileged in some areas but not in others might have to work harder at it, depending upon where their privilege (doesn’t) lie(s), but here again the responsibility for learning about one’s place in history, when that place is supported by the suffering of others, falls squarely upon the person in that place.

The way I see it, what I must never do is become complacent. Not because it is “wrong” or “sinful” or even “selfish”; but because my responsibility for the future simply disallows complacency. The ultimate result of this is that I keep a close watch on what I do, say, and even what I think: but not to “police” my thoughts or to keep them “pure,” but rather to consider what their consequences will be. Based on what I know, how will what I am doing now affect the future? I think that, especially for those of us with privilege–of whatever kind–a concern for unintended consequences is an apt companion to whatever we do, say, or think, because institutionalized prejudice is hardly ever “intended” by the people who, within the causal web of reality, actually generate and support it with unexamined actions.

It might sound easy, to keep an eye on what one is doing, but it does take a certain amount of care, a certain amount of mindfulness, one might say. Self-flagellation, though, is not required. In fact, it can get exasperatingly in the way, until the whole drama turns on how badly the person of privilege is being treated by their own conscience.

Which seems to me another good reason to kill the superego. Perhaps later I’ll write a bit explaining why this reason is one in a series.

4 thoughts on “Responsibility without responsibility: the chapter on privilege”

  1. fwiw, i see a lot of the problem here related to the idea that there is an eternal/immortal/unchanging/essential “self”.

  2. you’re probably right, peter. this piece wasn’t really meant to be theoretically “tight” with the deconstruction of the self, but more of a casual explanation of how one might begin to understand privilege as a cultural structure that “one’s” body is taken up into.

    without knowing who is reading I can’t say who my audience is, but I’m neither expecting nor intending to explain an understanding of the self as fiction here.

    ETA: I think I read your comment wrong. If what you are saying is that in what I’m saying, much of the problem with “white guilt” is the reification of the “I,” then yes, that part was more or less purposeful. I don’t think I completely eluded the construct of the self, though, but I wasn’t really trying to, entirely, purely–you know, utterly consistently, which is one of the many demands of the Enlightenment that I gleefully ignore.

  3. sorry it took me so long to moderate your comment, Steve. I’m not the most prompt blogger on the web but occasionally I remember my duties.

    Noh Mercy is surely succinct, I’ll give you that.

respond to this

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s