Redefining Privilege into Meaninglessness   5 comments

A recent post at Racialicious alerted me to the fact that white women don’t just have regular old white privilege (indisputably true), but that we also possess white female privilege, which, in some situations, privileges us even over white males.

How does this white female privilege manifest itself? Well, it turns out that the majority of items on the White Female Privilege list are simply examples of straight up white privilege. But there are a few that are indeed specific to women.

For instance, did you know that many dudes think we’re so emotionally fragile and overwrought that we’re liable to burst into tears at any moment? These guys are so terrified of provoking a crying jag (described as the “sheer fear of tears”) that they’ll do anything not to upset us. And that’s an enormous privilege we can use to our advantage.

Okay, first, I don’t know how many dudes actually think that (white) women are this fragile, and of those who do, how many would get a kick out of making women cry? But even if I’m wrong and fear of “white lady tears” is actually a common phenomenon (maybe it’s a class thing?), I question whether privilege is the right word for it. Most women I know try to avoid public tears at all costs. No matter how much we’re hurting, we try to hold it together. That’s because our tears are not only perceived as a sign of weakness, which is bad enough, but they can also be seen as manipulative in a way male tears aren’t.

Similarly, some people think of black women as perpetually angry and ready to fly off the handle about anything. When dudes are afraid of provoking “angry outbursts” from black women, black women can totally use that to their advantage. Never mind that their “power” in this case derives from a sexist and racist trope that they can use to their advantage only if they’re prepared to play right into it. And never mind that the stereotype of the angry black woman doesn’t disappear no matter how much they want it to and no matter how justified their anger. When you’re female and black, any display of anger for any reason feeds this negative stereotype in a way that is beyond your control. The same would be true for white women and tears. I sure as hell wouldn’t call that privilege.

Of course oppressed people can have privilege, and of course some women are privileged in relation to other women (white over black, rich over poor, straight over gay, and so on), but I don’t think we can be privileged by the exact same things used to oppress us. To argue otherwise comes disturbingly close to MRAs who claim that women are privileged over men because of Ladies’ Night at the local bar. Or guys holding doors open for us. Or paying for dinner.

Do ANY and ALL benefits given to one group of people on the basis of gender, race, class, etc. constitute privilege? Even if the benefit in question is bestowed on our group only because we are considered prey or objects to be fucked (over) or because we are viewed as pathetically weak, or irrationally angry, or dangerously unbalanced, or helpless, or incompetent? I think when we go down that road, we risk redefining privilege into meaninglessness. I’m waiting for someone to argue that when men and women are walking alone at night, women are privileged because no one assumes we’re rapists.

Another part of the article I strongly disagree with is the “Sarah Palin Thing” or “where you can say more outrageous shit because you’re a pretty white lady.” As everyone who knows me is well aware, I can’t stand Sarah Palin. And it troubles me deeply that certain (predominantly white, straight, and middle or upper class) feminists want to see a female president so badly, they’d totally support Palin’s candidacy although her policies would be disastrous for less privileged women. I think Palin is dangerous and she certainly does say outrageous shit. But more outrageous than any number of conservative males? Hardly! Palin is no worse than Huckabee, Santorum, Beck, and many, many other conservative white males. The difference is that Palin does NOT get away with it, precisely BECAUSE she is a woman. Again and again, she is singled out and subjected to vicious personal attacks (many of which are extremely misogynist) in a way her male counterparts aren’t.

The same can be said for Alexandra Wallace, the UCLA student who made the racist anti-Asian video. Far from getting away with that crap, Wallace faced a shitstorm of outrage complete with death threats, and, as seen with Palin, most attacks on her were deeply misogynist. Because nothing says “I won’t stand for bigotry” like piling on with more bigotry. Had Wallace been male, I think we would have seen a very different response. I don’t think Alexander Wallace would be leaving UCLA in fear for his life.

In fact, I’m reminded of another recent incident of bigoted hate speech involving a Southern Cali university student. This dude at USC sent out an e-mail in which he described an entire class of human beings (women) as “not actual people” and advocated their rape. Note the very different reaction. Students initially circulated the e-mail not because they were outraged by the bigotry, but because they thought it was “funny.” The Daily Trojan calls the e-mail “racy.” The e-mail’s author did not find his address and class schedule published on the Internet, nor was he subject to bigoted attacks and death threats. Some, including some women, even felt sorry for him and defended his actions as “just a joke.”

Now, I realize there are those who will argue that the different response is simply a matter of sexism and misogyny being acceptable in a way racism isn’t. Except that the e-mail in question does contain racism (of course it’s directed only at women of color, not men, so there’s that). It’s also true that an e-mail message doesn’t lend itself to personal attacks in quite the same way a video starring the bigot him/herself does. But even after the e-mailer’s identity was known, the threats and personal attacks failed to materialize. So why the difference? Because, far from being an advantage, being female is a liability. Even when spewing bigotry.

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5 responses to “Redefining Privilege into Meaninglessness

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  1. we can be privileged by the exact same things used to oppress us.

    Do ANY and ALL benefits given to one group of people on the basis of gender, race, class, etc. constitute privilege? Even if the benefit in question is bestowed on our group only because we are considered prey or objects to be fucked (over) or because we are viewed as pathetically weak, or irrationally angry, or dangerously unbalanced, or helpless, or incompetent? I think when we go down that road, we risk redefining privilege into meaninglessness.

    Exactly! It’s like saying women have “Scott Adams privilege” because the Dilbert creator thinks there’s no point in arguing with women because they’re like children and “mentally handicapped” people, and he favors humoring all three groups because they lack reasoning capacity.

    If there are guys who step carefully around white women because they think you are fragile creatures who might burst into tears at any moment (and I’ve never met any), they’re doing so because they think like Scott Adams and regard you as inherently weak and defective.

  2. Hit “post” too soon. Also:

    you can say more outrageous shit because you’re a pretty white lady

    Errr, that’s just wrong. Women, in general, regardless of their race or how well they conform to conventional beauty standards, have to be waaaay more careful of what they say than men. The Palin and Wallace are perfect examples of this.

    It’s also true in social and business settings; women have to walk a fine line between being sonsidered “pushy” and “weak”; “slutty” and “prudish” or “stuck up”, “boring” and “crazy.” Hell, women are even more likely to get thrown in jail for things that would result in a mild reprimand for men (see: Martha Stewart, who is also a conventionally attractive white woman). I’m honestly shocked that any feminist (or any non-misogynist who thought about it for half an hour) would disagree with this point.

    In private forums, more attractive women may get more slack than less attractive women (though, honestly, I’m just not sure about this) but in the public eye, there’s no question that attractive women are held to a much harsher standard. As far as I know, attractive white women constitute ALL the most glaring examples of individuals being attacked all out of proportion to their behavior (or at least, out of proportion to how other people are attacked for similar behavior).

    • As far as I know, attractive white women constitute ALL the most glaring examples of individuals being attacked all out of proportion to their behavior (or at least, out of proportion to how other people are attacked for similar behavior)

      Maybe so, though not because society is uniquely tough on attractive white women. Despite cries of “reverse discrimination” and outrage about affirmative action, it’s still easier for white folks to get hired and promoted. And for any woman in the public eye, beauty 2k compliance is pretty much a prerequisite. So when you’re looking at female pundits, media personalities, and celebrities, a large percentage will be white and virtually all will be conventionally attractive. Yet they’re still singled out for bigoted personal attacks and greater criticism than their male counterparts–because whiteness and attractiveness provide little protection against misogyny.

      Palin is an interesting example because while she does make outrageous statements on a fairly regular basis, her crap is no more craptacular than the crap coming from literally dozens of right-wing dudes. Yet many on the left have gone absolutely ballistic about her, ramping up the misogyny at every opportunity and even attacking her family. For some reason I don’t see attacks like that on the at least equally atrocious Beck, Huckabee, Santorum, O’Reilly, Hannity, Breitbart, and on and on. When people criticize these dudes, they’re talking issues, not resorting to bigotry. I wonder why that might be…

  3. Pingback: About Those Oppression Olympics « Sasha Said

  4. Hey. Sorry if this reply is annoyingly late.

    I don’t buy this particular “privilege”. I especially don’t think it could apply to mainstream society.

    However, for what it’s worth, being a man in an anti-oppression context, I definitely have a fear of upsetting the women in the group. I wouldn’t call this their privilege… However, this fear existed in a group that was sort of dysfunctional ideologically and who were silencing dissenting points of view (mine, in particular), and “anti-oppression olympics” were a common problem.
    When personal feelings of the women were intermixed in a conflict, it became thorny. I feel the women in the group had very genuine feelings and concerns, but any assertion they made as a logical extension of those feelings was taboo to question. So that makes a certain field of their assertions uncontestable.

    E.g. “I feel unhappy that this argument between two men is taking up so much space in the group”
    … used as evidence for >>
    “Men in this group have been silencing women misogynistically all year”

    It’s hard to challenge the point #2. Leaving aside if you agree or not with the proposition (it could be true), it’s essentially uncontestable. To contest it would aggravate an already very tense and stressful situation, which would be used as further evidence for the claim of being silenced.
    In activism, there is a very real risk of people leaving the group if things get too stressful emotionally. To avoid that, the conflict between the two males would have to be pushed aside.

    Since feelings are usually valid, it would be difficult to tell where exactly the feelings end and where argument manipulation (if any exists) might begin.

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