An influential theory that divides people with a myriad of ‘privileges’ lets our rulers off the hook—and gets in the way of uniting against oppression, says Esme Choonara
The world is divided by many forms of injustice and oppression—such as racism, sexism and homophobia. To fight them it helps to work out who benefits from divisions and who has an interest in challenging them.
An argument known as “privilege theory” has grown in influence recently.In essence it is based on the idea that oppression operates through a series of unearned advantages.
These allegedly come from being male in a sexist society, being white in a racist world and so on.
Peggy McIntosh is one of the pioneers of this theory. She described “privilege” as “like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank cheques”.
For many people, expressing support for these ideas is simply a way of asserting that oppression exists and should be challenged. This is a good starting point and many of those who agree with privilege theory will be allies in struggle.
But the theory is not up to the task of either understanding oppression or pointing to a solution to it. The main problem with privilege theory is that it misses how the divisions that oppression creates benefit the ruling class.
It is not true that all white people benefit from racism, or that all men or straight people benefit from sexism or homophobia. Take racism as an example. Many privilege theorists argue that all white people are complicit in racism simply because racism exists.
Author Frances Kendall, for example, argues, “Any of us who has race privilege is racist by definition.”
Many activists, especially in the US, have stopped discussing racism at all. They talk about “white supremacy” instead, implying that all white people are part of the problem.
If you just look at the surface, privilege theory can seem to make some sense. If you are black or Asian you experience racism mainly at the hands of white individuals, not the “capitalist system”. Some of these individuals will be working class.
And racism means black and Asian people lose out—in education, employment, the criminal justice system.
But to say black people lose out doesn’t mean all white people benefit. White working class people don’t benefit from racism—quite the opposite. Racist divisions in the workforce drive down pay and conditions for everyone and make the fight for better living standards harder for all.
US sociologists Michael Reich and Al Syzmanski separately tested this by comparing the level of racism in workplaces and districts across the US.
Both concluded that the bigger the gap between black and white wages—or the higher the level of racism—the lower wages were for everyone.
So although black workers lose out more, white workers also lost out from racism in the workplace. The only beneficiary was the boss.
Reich also showed how services such as education were worse in areas with more racism—as racist divisions made it harder to defend them effectively.
Racism was born of the need to justify the barbarism of the slave trade. It has survived because it is so useful for our rulers to provide scapegoats and divide working class people.
Politicians, the media and the wider ruling class have to work hard to stoke up racism because many white people oppose it.
There is a very long tradition of white working class people showing solidarity with those suffering from slavery and colonial oppression.
For example, during the US civil war thousands of workers in Manchester and Sheffield campaigned to stop Britain supporting the slave owning south. This put their livelihoods at risk as slaveowners organised to block exports of raw cotton to Europe.
But the workers made common cause with those exploited and oppressed abroad. The revolutionary Karl Marx later celebrated the “heroic resistance by the working classes of England” that helped end slavery in the US.
White workers don’t benefit from racism—instead they have an interest in joining the struggle against it.
Similarly, working class men don’t benefit when women are forced to carry a heavier caring responsibility due to cuts in the welfare state. Nor do they benefit from the distortion of sexuality in a sexist and homophobic world.
Privilege theory tends to focus on challenging and changing individuals. But as we have seen with racism, oppression doesn’t just operate through a series of individual relationships.
It is intimately intertwined with capitalism and propagated and promoted by the institutions of the state and the media.
There is nothing wrong with individuals being self-critical. And it is important to challenge sexist, racist or homophobic people.
Some argue that we must iron out people’s prejudices before they can meaningfully get involved in struggle. But this approaches the problem the wrong way around. Often it is struggle that opens people’s eyes to how the world works and challenges their prejudices.
For example, Asian women workers took part in a series of strikes during the 1970s, most famously at London’s Grunwick film processing plant.
These struggles helped demolish the myth of the passive Asian woman for a generation of trade unionists in Britain. These struggles helped bring workers together. Privilege theory divides them.
If you see oppression as working through unearned advantages, it is possible to identify many sources of “privilege”.
The Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois lists numerous forms of privilege. They include education privilege, body size privilege and “life on the outside privilege”—where it is a privilege not to be in prison!
There’s also a privilege of being able to “pass” as a member of more privileged group. There are several problems with this. First, it confuses symptoms with causes.
So, body size is not an oppression in its own right. Damaging ideas about body size are caused by sexist ideas about normal or ideal body types.
Second, simply identifying many manifestations of inequality doesn’t help us to understand why it exists or how to combat it.
Many privilege theorists deal with the question of multiple oppressions by talking about “intersectionality”. This recognises that different oppressions interact with each other and can’t simply be understood separately.
The idea draws in particular on black women activists’ criticism of much mainstream feminism for claiming to speak for all women and ignoring racism.
Many activists also use this framework to acknowledge that there are class differences among both oppressed and supposedly “privileged” groups.
This can be a step forward as it recognises the relationships between different forms of oppression. However it can also lead to fragmenting of struggles.
It emphasises the differing experiences of oppressed people instead of trying to unite the widest possible forces in a common battle.
This approach can also, like privilege theory, reduce class to just one of a series of inequalities. Yet class is the fundamental relationship that drives the system forward—and the key to transforming it.
If oppression works through a series of unearned advantages, then the logical conclusion is surely for the “privileged” to give up their advantages.
Several commentators have suggested, for example, that we should stop saying that women are underpaid compared to men and say instead that men are overpaid. Does this mean that we should campaign for all men to have pay cuts?
Eliminating oppression will not be automatic—there has to be a political fight to end it. But that requires more than the gradual improvement of progressive individuals.
It requires broad struggles such as those have repeatedly driven the Nazis back in Britain, or that have won and defended abortion rights. The real question is whether unity is possible—can black and white, LGBT and straight, women and men unite?
Such unity is possible on a class basis because working class people have a common interest in destroying oppression and the system that breeds it.