Last week, I wrote a column for the Wheel that discussed the concept of societal privilege.
Particularly, I criticized the concepts of white and male privilege and how they can often be (and in my case, actually were) used in political or social discourse to discredit or dismiss the positions of others.
After a small corner of the internet exploded in response to what I had written, I felt it was necessary to follow up on a couple of points.
Two major critiques were leveled at me both online and in a printed response by Ryan Gorman in Tuesday’s edition of the Wheel. One: I had drastically misunderstood or mischaracterized the concept of white/male privilege when making my case.
Two: the fact that I wrote an article about white/male privilege at all – especially, heaven forbid, in response to something as banal as a Facebook exchange – was itself an ignorant demonstration of my own white/male privilege.
As for the first point, I agree that some of my column came across as sarcastic and inelegant. Parts of the article were intentionally written that way to provoke a response and start a conversation; a strategy that clearly worked. I had included a disclaimer at the opening of my article stating as much, but that was apparently removed in the editing process.
In hindsight, sarcasm was probably still not the most appropriate way to approach the subject given its sensitive nature. In taking this path, I did end up unnecessarily obscuring and personalizing some aspects of the argument that I should not have.
Along this same line of criticism, I also regret my word choice in one major sentence, “The concepts of white or male privilege, however, are still something I find highly suspicious.” What I should have written was more along the lines of “However, I find many of the uses of white or male privilege in political discourse to be highly suspicious.” That was the actual thrust of my argument, and the original sentence I wrote did not speak to that purpose.
This brings me to the second major criticism leveraged at my article: that writing it at all somehow embodied my own white/male privilege.
To those who responded with this argument, thank you for essentializing my race, gender and political ideology and dismissing my words.
You helped me to prove my point that arguments about white/male privilege can be used in inherently biased ways.
Again, I don’t want to eject the whole concept of privilege as a tool for beneficial social analysis and change.
Larger and more impersonal research into how race or gender structures can produce imbalances in society can and have already been used in extremely positive ways.
For example, workplace research has demonstrated how testing non-white job applicants using white-designed tests can produce disparities in hiring or job advancement that favor whites.
This has led to the creation of fairer and more race-neutral workplace testing procedures, thus attacking a form of previously unknown white privilege in a positive and impersonal way.
What I cannot support is the use of white/male privilege as a political or social litmus test.
This is what I was trying to touch on when in my previous article I commented that, in order to truly accept my privilege, I must “confess the sin of my own existence.” This is where white/male privilege becomes politicized in a way that I can no longer accept.
When someone is asked to confront their own privilege, they are in essence being challenged to accept a position of solidarity with the oppressed that usually entails certain progressive political conclusions.
In the course of accepting one’s male privilege, for example, that person is generally pushed to support the right of women to have abortions. He, after all, doesn’t have to physically carry a child, so he should align with the thinking of those people who claim to advocate for women who do, i.e. feminists.
Such a call to confront one’s own privilege doesn’t make the essential distinction between the actual systemic phenomena at hand and the political conclusions, but rather, conflates the two.
The above approach, for example, completely ignores or invalidates any moral argument that could be made about the human status of a fetus because abortion and women’s rights are essentially tied together without effective justification.
That isn’t a constructive way of approaching the issue, and it doesn’t produce the kind of rational dialogue and sustained work necessary to truly make society a better place. If we are to truly address issues of privilege in society, then all political solutions must be left on the table.
We will never be able to make society a better place if we destroy half the conversation before it even begins.
David Giffin is a second-year Masters in Theological Studies student at the Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.