Notes on the Complications of Privilege: Ways of Seeing, Perceiving, and Being

Paris is burning
To practice, to enact, is to be and to become.

I want to explore, and perhaps multiply out, some of the controversies of privilege. The term itself has been making its rounds in the feminist blogosphere in the last several weeks, and the way concept the has been deployed has taken on a particularly polemicist strain. I want to explore what this means to epistemic justice, or the growth of epistemic mutuality amongst groups living within normative structures like anti-black racism, compulsory heterosexuality, or even, to a greater or lesser extent, homonormativity.

The term privilege indicates that an object or social agent has a place that affords it status, many times arbitrary. Thus: (1) Privilege: A position within a social imaginary that affords either subjects or objects a degree of status or authority. I’ll start with something terribly simple. I often say to my students that writs of certiorari indicate that it is a privilege rather than a right to have your case heard before the Supreme Court. A writ, however, is an object. I, as the professor, am in a position of privilege relative to my students insofar that my status as head-of-classroom affords me a greater or lesser degree of knowledge-credibility. I can say this or that about the Supreme Court, in many instances unchallenged, because I am the professor. The classroom itself, as a space constructed for learning, positions students in rows-and-columns that face me, adding a geometric dimension to my power within the social imaginary of my students’ interiorization of education. (2) Social Imaginary: A collective understanding of symbols, practices, and acts that substantiates and, thus makes intelligible, objects, subjects, and intersubjective communication; founded upon principles of language and communicative reasoning that results in the creation of lifeworlds, semantic universes, and culture(s).

Of course, the above simplifies the relational and social advantages of privilege. Of course, writs going to Supreme Court are often funded by wealthy litigants. Of course, class, wealth, gender, sex, sexuality, and race intersect in such a way that, if were to do the research, would find that most cases granted cert contain litigants who are white, male—or more terrifyingly, are corporations. If we are to multiply out the conceptual content of privilege, would have to accept that privilege permeates our day-to-day actions, and works at the level of the individual, cognitive, and epistemic. (3) Epistemic: That which relates to or engages in the production of knowledge, either social or self-. (4) Epistemic Privilege: A subject possesses or is perceived to possesses epistemic privilege when their status as knowers or producers of knowledge is enhanced as a result of their social positionality. One has privilege within a social imaginary not only because of one’s rank as professor, but also as a product of the intersecting lines of race and sex. To further my example: I have dual and even triple privilege(s) within the classroom. As a white male, I experience in many instances an additional reinforcement of my knowledge-credibility—an excess, as Miranda Fricker has put it. I am statistically more likely to be in an academic position given my demographic traits.

I maintain a cognitive-affective evaluation of my privilege, however, insofar that I am aware of this privilege and act in ways to destabilize it. One can do so through mocking jokes, self-referential claims of non-knowledge, etc. The epistemic privileges I maintain in my classroom do not end there. They track me throughout my everyday actions and practices. They are present in my conversations with others, whether they be with colleagues, casual friends, acquaintances, or people I meet on the street. However, the (epistemic) privilege that tracks me may or may not manifest themselves in positive ways. I may come across as a jerk, a blowhard, a pretentious academic—even before I communicate myself or express an opinion about some subject.

Proposition 1: It is the positionality of white men within our social imaginary that guarantees them access to privilege, either epistemic or not, even if they do not experience it at the lived or cognitive-affective level.

The cognitive-affective level suggest some kind awareness, or even materiality. (5) Cognitive-Affective: That which denotes thought and emotion, consciousness and bundled intensities of embodied feelings. The first half of this proposition is often taken up by feminist bloggers and writers about privilege—the second half is not. The guarantee of privilege ought not to suggest that in every situation the tracking of that privilege manifests itself in homogenous, predictable, and positive ways—as I mentioned earlier. It is here that I would like to engage with the multiplication of privilege in the context of the everyday—to hesitate, re-trace, and perhaps offer what Jose Medina has called ‘epistemic friction’ to a debate that I perceive as falling too quickly into the hasty, the iconoclastic-for-iconoclast’s sake, and uncritical.

I am dismayed, absolutely dismayed, at the work that ‘privilege’ is doing within feminist and queer discourses these days, from trigger warnings to cultural appropriation. This dismay stems primarily from recent articles that have taken gay white men to task for the act of appropriating black femininity. I would like to examine the following proposition made by these feminists:

Proposition 2: Gay white men engage in the appropriation of black femininity when they adopt phrases, mannerisms, and other practices that are culturally defined as black and feminine within the social imaginary.

What does it mean to appropriate rather than appreciate? The distinction, as I have mentioned in my last post, turns on what constitutes the commodification of a practice versus the self-reflexive treatment of that practice in its own terms. Does one adopt a mannerism, or phrase, because they find it kitschy, objectifying it in order to ingratiate oneself or validate a humorous point of reference to another? If so, then the individual has perhaps commodified a practice by representing it as object, rather than adopting that practice in its own terms—contextualizing it and perceiving it in and through identity.

Refined Proposition 2: Gay white men, when ‘behaving’ as black women do, engage in appropriation because they are always practicing the act of commodification.

There is something inherently wrong with this proposition then, I believe. Not just in the way it is clumsily phrased (it is my proposition after all). And not in how I’ve refined it. It suggests that black women all have homogeneous ways of expressing femininity—which is false. But further, it suggests that one group always engages in X when doing Y. When speaking of how we perceive, listen, and see others and identifications, Jose Medina reminds us that self-reflexivity on the part of both speaker and listener is a crucial epistemic virtue that reduces a phenomenon he calls ‘meta-blindness.’ On this he writes:

But also and more importantly, we need to recognize here the artificiality of this way of speaking: ‘seeing (and listening) in black and white.’ We have here a very strong and distorting polarization of viewpoints, of alternative ways of perceiving that are construed as mutually exclusive and as exhaustive, as if people had to choose between perceiving things in one way or in another—without combining them or looking for other alternative ways of seeing and hearing—between belonging to one audience or another (without there being a third or a mixed one), between going upstairs or downstairs in the courtroom (my note: Medina is referencing the courtroom scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird). ‘This or that, and nothing more.’ This ‘nothing more’ is a way of expressing or performing meta-blindness, a particularly recalcitrant kind of closed –mindedness which is unable to recognize its own lack of openness by remaining convinced that there is nothing to be open to.

It seems to me that suggesting a group is “always or not” engaging in an epistemically and socially problematic act forecloses a wider conversation that we need to have about nature of sexuality, queerness, race, embodiedness and the intersectionality of seeing. The “always or not” is hidden behind the work that the current conception of privilege is doing. When privilege enters the dialogic terrain, the epistemic credibility of some knowing subject in many communicative spheres is immediately reduced. A white gay male, when speaking to the well-reasoned claims made by black women, loses epistemic credibility for his (possible) uses of black femininity. His privilege has tracked him to this communicative sphere in which (sometimes rightfully and sometimes wrongfully) he is regarded with suspicion. But maleness and homosexuality does not imbue a knowing subject with anything special in their own right. They provide a register from which to read his body and potential as knowledge-producer, and thus perceive or mis-perceive him in those capacities.

It is at this level of lived experience that I would invite the discussion of privilege to happen. I believe that, to an extent, the reasoning behind any gay man’s identification with the art and embodiment of femininity is the cognitive-affective coupling he has constructed with strength and independence. That is to say, of his awareness of always being the heterosexual man’s ‘other’. And whether a gay white male’s body is less policed in the manifestations of our normative structures around sex and gender in lived experiences—the work that privilege does by the analyst should be countered by the actual work that privilege does in the tracking of everyday life.

In my discussion of ze, the gender fluid gay white subject, I suggested that ze’s actions were not commodifications of but rather identifications with black femininity that enacted identity. This hinges on the notion that ze, as a gender fluid gay white subject is self-critical and aware of the reception that ze’s actions and color of femininity ze is enacting in the social world. The social imaginary is filled with linkages that could reproduce power dynamics that are perceived as oppressive—and thus ze’s epistemic obligation would be to consider how these reproductions impact others around ze. It is important then to engage in deconstructing exists at the level of the social imaginary, and what exists at the level of the epistemic and lived. Which has claims to truth-hood, and which has claims to impoverished and unjust representationalism?

I hope this discussion complicates the concept of privilege, rather than letting it ease and slip into our critical engagements—acting as a black box or causal explanation for a lived experience. For if I can explain any Y through recourse to X, then why ask Y? Every social interaction and every social fact should be treated as events within normative structures, not mere products of them.

NB: This is not an apologia for white appropriation of black or brown culture. Rather, it is to make sure our critical theory of race, gender, sexuality, and sex doesn’t get lost in the in easy deconstruction of something that should be incredibly complex, lived, and, in a word, real.

One response to “Notes on the Complications of Privilege: Ways of Seeing, Perceiving, and Being”

  1. I would like to add as an amendment that, thanking my friend john for this observation, this piece is a prelude to the question: under what conditions is it possible that enacting certain practices of ‘the other’ is not appropriation or commodification?

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