I wanted to join in yesterday's conversation about cultural appopriation, but didn't have the time to write what I would have liked in the way that I would have liked to write it. I'll say something about this, though.
I have a problem with the phrase "check your privilege" too, most because it's irritatingly ambiguous
. But most of the meanings seem pretty unexceptionable. At the most basic, it means "Be aware of your privilege." I'm sure even David Cameron had that drilled into him at Eton - and no doubt you did too. It's the standard mantra of public schools, as far as I can see, and as far as it goes there's nothing wrong with it.
Mere awareness can of course amount to little more than a superficial sense of nobless oblige
. In addition, "check your privilege" often seems to mean "Don't speak and act as if your particular positiion (whether defined in terms of social class, nationality, culture, sex, etc) is universal and/or normative." So, when Mrs Thatcher advised the housewives of Britain to save money by buying a whole side of pork and putting it in their chest freezers, she was showing her privilege. When people say "I don't mind gay people but I wish they wouldn't ram it down my throat," while remaining silent about all the images, films, royal weddings etc that ram heterosexuality down people's throats, they're showing their privilege.
Of course, very often it's not a case of "remaining silent" - it's a case of not seeing at all. Privilege is like Orwell's orthodoxy: it means not having to think. Checking one's privilege is often just another name for thinking and caring about other people's point of view (cf. political correctness). Not much wrong with that, either.
By the way, I think "spouting a jargon dreamed up in the universities" is an unfortunate lapse.
On the other hand, this is right on the money:"This deep respect for the disinherited doesn't, of course, extend to securing social justice for them- because that would involve the elite actually letting go of some of the privilege they feel so burdened by.
I don't think it applies only to Americans.
Checking privilege is- as you say- something we ought to do on a regular basis. I like the way you've broken that down.
What I hate is the phrase being used- which is how I've usually encountered it- as a way of shutting down debate.
I think I'm prepared to stand by "jargon dreamed up in universities"- unless , of course, it can be demonstrated to be false.
I don't know where the sense of "privilege" you're referring to was coined - whether in a university or elsewhere. Denotatively you may be right; but connotatively I find that phrase (especially with the addition of "spouting") an uncharacteristic use of dog-whistle language, with a strange a hint of anti-intellectualism to it - as if the fact that something originated in a university were somehow indicative of its being self-regarding and effete. If you read a paper on DNA, or game theory, or any number of other valuable and useful subjects, you will be reading "a jargon dreamed up in universities". Actually, that phrase too seems designed to shut down debate (and to commit the genetic fallacy). It's a bit like when people use "bourgeois" as an insult - to which my mental response is always, "What, you mean like Shakespeare?"
On the other hand, Raymond Tallis once wrote that when the Emperor wants new clothes, he usually goes shopping in Paris. I did smile at that.
When you explain it like this I begin to regret the phrase. What I was trying to get at is the disconnect between those doing the speaking and those being spoken for- but I've got nothing against universities as such- honest.
I like that line of Tallis's.
I've got nothing against universities as such- honest.
*is mollified* :)
If I don't exercise my privilege I feel it dishonors the millions that we killed in order to achieve it.
(And Americans are just what you get when you plant British folk on a continent with nearly unlimited resources.)
We exported some of our least admirable types- the Puritans for instance. I think I've been influenced in my view of those characters by William Carlos Williams' wonderful collection of historical essays- In The American Grain.
We've got some of your best types, too, however. For instance, we recently acquired Axamendes. :P Take that.
You got Auden and Isherwood too.
and Cary Grant
and Alfred Hitchcock...
(But we snaffled T.S. Eliot and Henry James)
Ummm. Everything we learned about being murderous and exploitative we learned from Europe. That said, all that check your privilege stuff gets my goat, too, probably because I live among folks who take that twaddle as license to break and enter. (Edit: as in break windows and steal your stuff, not in some metaphorical sense.)
Edited at 2013-10-31 01:12 pm (UTC)
Being murderous and exploitative is human nature. Nobody has clean hands. Some of the American tribes- the Comanche for instance- were hideously cruel.
And, yes, we Brits did some pretty lousy things in our time- things we're not too keen to face up to.
The Maya were pretty awful, too. As one well-known archaeologist once said, "I'd rather have been captured by the Aztecs than the Maya. The Aztecs would only kill you. The Maya would torture you first."
I was brought up to see the Maya as a lovely,gentle, peace-loving people. I don't know how anyone ever came to that conclusion.
There was a Mayanist, J. Eric S. Thompson, I think, who pretty much owned the field and whose theory it was. It should have been totally squashed the minute they found those unequivocally horrible murals at Bonampak but it lingered on for a long time.
Well said. Americans have a love affair with extremes. Relevant to this post, we have our conservatives refusing to think self-reflexively or self-critically about ANYTHING, because America/football/heteros/whites/penises/Jesus are #1 and if you don't like it, LEAVE. On the left you have the academic apologists you describe, who trip over themselves seeing who can display their cultural sensitivity the fastest in some postmodern fetish to condemn western civilization and all its trappings. Neither side achieves much by way of evolving into something better; one of them just gets off flogging themselves (and others) about it in near-erotic mea culpa.
Politically/culturally, we're in desperate need of a middle road revolution.
Your politics are pretty scary right now- but then I suppose they always have been. I get a sense of the embers of the Civil War still glowing and sparking beneath the surface.
I am in STRONG agreement that this is the "embers of the civil war". Nicely put.
When I was a kid it would have seemed unthinkable for the USA to break up again.
But no political settlement is forever. Here in Britain we're faced with the real possibility that Scotland will defect from the Union. And similar things are happening all over. I understand, for instance, that there's considerable unrest in the Chinese provinces...
We (at least in the U.S.) suffer from an INORDINATE amount of "white guilt". And, if we don't, then we fall into the category of "white supremacy". It seems that we are not allowed (if we are white, that is) to take any other position. It is kind of like the old Christian model of "Madonna or Whore".
I, personally, do not feel a great deal of guilt for what my ancestors supposedly did. For one thing, the ancestors on my father's side had nothing to do with it. They were WWI refugees. The ancestors on my mother's side may be connected with one of the great Native American activists in history. However, my parents were racist, but I am not. Period. (My parents were alcoholics, too... I'm not responsible for that, either).
I do find it TERRIBLY irritating when people who seem to have quite a lot more material means than I do berate me for my "white privilege". If I argue, then I am marked as racist.
I am actively engaged in social justice work, but for me it is a class struggle, not a racial issue. When people of color reach a certain level of financial means and then they, basically, bully white people who have less financial means, this is just a way to secure their own elevated position. It has nothing to do with social justice. And, they are using race to do it.
In an ideal world no-one would be discriminated against- or given a free pass- because of race, culture, gender, faith- or any other marker of identity.
As it is....
For another thing, you are not your ancestor. You didn't do it and you are not responsible for it. And as you say, you may spend a lot of your time working to equalise privilege, but people now use that phrase with anyone who disagrees with them, just to shut them down.
The annoying thing about "check your privilege" is that the speaker is usually making vast assumptions about the person they are speaking to - that in general that person has privilege. That person may be a victim of domestic violence, a sufferer from MS, may have been born in poverty, may have an ethnic minority partner, may spend a vast amount of their time involved in working for an oppressed minority; things the speaker can have no concept of. To make that comment to somebody one hardly knows is to assume that somebody holds privilege because they are white, or middle class, seems like prejudice to me.
When someone pulls it on me I think, "You don't know me. You've no idea who I am or where I've come from or what I've done."
My son Mike got into an online argument the other day and his opponent called him "an ignorant American"- which Mike found quite amusing.
Confessing other people's sins (like those of your ancestors) is indeed an undemanding exercise, but it's by no means confined to Americans. There was once a demand from British bishops that Tony Blair apoogise for the slave trade, and I think he eventually did. But that doesn't seem to be all that different from what the Americans do. See here Blair, the slave trade and apologies
If only he'd apologize for the War in Iraq!
DISCLAIMER: For open-minded readers only; if you think you are going to feel like attacking me or being rude to me, feel free to completely ignore what I've written here. I am not interested in conflict; I am interested in educating people. If you already know this, then, again, feel free to ignore it. I have concluded, based on what I've read, that some people have not been exposed to this information, which is the sole reason I am sharing it.
Privilege is not an all-encompassing term. Essentially everyone has privilege in some area and lacks it in another; for example, I have white privilege, but not male privilege. Not having privilege in one area does not mean that one should ignore one's privilege in other areas. (If, that is, one is interested in attempting to change the culture. If one is perfectly happy with things as they are, they are free to completely ignore the whole thing.)
Privilege is something that is inherent in the society one lives in; the point of being aware of it is in attempting to counter or minimize its impact as much as possible. It is not a condemnation to say someone has privilege, it is simply a statement of fact, though, of course, there are people who dispute that privilege is a fact. Research can allow one to make up one's own mind on who is correct in that argument.
In a related issue, one can commit racist acts/say racist things/etc, without "being" racist; these things are deeply encoded in the culture. What many people are fighting most often these days is institutionalized racism, which is a difficult and complex thing to fight, since there are few "bad intentions" involved, and mostly a lot of apathy and inertia and, yes, privilege on the part of people not directly affected. This has been widely written about; googling these key words will bring one to many articles on the subject, some better than others.