I hate the term “privilege”. Its flatness allows it to facilitate spurious claims masquerading as the work of liberation, which is why it’s so overused in neoliberal social justice spaces. It promotes dangerous assertions lacking any sort of nuance whatsoever, like “third-party voting is the height of white privilege” or “refusing to vote for Clinton & risking a Trump presidency is a privileged choice.”
“Privilege” is often code for “something that someone with more (perceived) social capital than me does and I do not like, so will therefore disregard.” The charge is self-satisfying and cannot be argued against. At the same time, it ignores that there are many practices people with “privilege” partake in that they have not initiated, and many causes they adopt for which they are not remotely sole representatives.
We all know “privileged” people appropriate practices and behaviors from marginalized communities. In attributing these practices to the appropriator, we reinforce the dehumanizing power of appropriation. For instance, by ignoring that there are many Black folks who choose not to vote or to vote third-party, we erase their existence as much as any white person who presents radical Black stances as their own when we call these beliefs “white privilege”.
Sometimes, marginalized people also espouse ideas we do not like, especially if they encourage us to self-reflect and take accountability for our own participation in systems of oppression. Rather than face those frightening aspects of ourselves, aspects often rooted in our own “privileges,” attributing them to oppression allows us to dismiss challenging ideas altogether in the only way that keeps liberal moral integrity intact.
The fact is: Black, poor, queer and Indigenous people have made the strongest arguments for divesting from this two party political system, and always have. Many of us who do not occupy the margins of the margins of these spaces—especially, I have noticed, middle class Black people and white women—blame “privilege” just so we don’t have to reckon with our own privileged proximity to whiteness by engaging with them.
It is a privilege to thrust a limited political imagination that can only conceive of liberation if it involves two imperialistic parties onto others who are trying to conceive of something freer.
It is a privilege to ignore the work a person does on the other 1,460 days of every 4 years to make filling out a bubble on one day a matter of their morality.
It is a privilege to pressure those for whom violence will rain down unimpeded, regardless of who occupies the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to do something that may benefit you but won’t do anything for them.
It is a privilege to disregard those whom both parties have no problem bombing, locking away, and dehumanizing; those in Haiti and Honduras and Palestine; the poorest of the poor, the Blackest of Black, and the margins of the margins, just so you can defend the scraps thrown to you in screeds written on thousand dollar laptops at jobs that allow you to keep from worrying if you might die tomorrow because of policies Democrats have upheld.
It is a privilege to erase the history of Black thinkers like Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who have questioned the validity of voting for the liberal party for numerous well-thought out reasons, just so you can continue the lie that their thoughts are wrapped up in whiteness.
It is a privilege to call not voting a “privilege” while 5.58 million people and counting are disenfranchised because of a racist criminal justice system, and neither party intends to do anything about it.
While the masses having little impact on this country’s governance is obviously something the “privilege” of whiteness desires, divesting from the political system is not.
In neoliberal times, it is important that our government retains the façade of democracy and fairness while maintaining oppression at all costs. This is why conservatives will never own up to the true purpose of voter I.D. laws and why the question of felon voting rights is hardly taken up with any seriousness. But part of this illusion is encouraging everyone to believe they have a fair and important role to play in this system when they do not, and things of importance to gain when, likewise, they do not.
Yes, keeping some people from voting has kept many oppressive systems in place, but we must recognize how those systems have evolved to the point where you hardly have to keep someone from voting to keep their vote from having effect. The system evolves to protect itself, and privilege is the opposite of giving up on the belief it will self-rectify.
We are so used to what I call “talking up”—stepping on the backs of the marginalized to be seen and heard by systems of whiteness, that we can only think of issues on their terms. If we are to get anywhere, we have to recognize there are many different roads being debated outside of the white gaze and many different reasons why we should or shouldn’t take each one.
Yes, many white people refuse compromising their vote because their whiteness protects them either way, but the conversation cannot start and end there. Just as many, if not more, refuse to compromise their conscience because their Blackness prevents their protection whether they vote or not.
Photo: Wiki Commons