The Blindness of Privilege

May 24th, 2013 | Posted by:

Privilege is real, and it is a problem. This is a plea for us all to have better conversations about it.

I think I’m in a decent position to talk about this. After all, I am one of the most privileged people I know. I graduated from Hogwarts Harvard one year ago today. I’ve gotten sunburnt while skiing, which is probably the whitest sentence in the English language. I once got a concert grand harp for my birthday – my twelfth birthday. I’ve basically been deep-throating a silver spoon for 23 years.

In that time, I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations about race, class, power, and privilege. I used to dismiss the people who used these words because none of them made sense to me and my experience. But I’ve had my eyes and ears opened a lot in recent years. I came to college, I met different kinds of people, I studied different things from different angles – the usual liberal agenda. I have a lot left to learn, but I’ve come to take the issue of privilege very seriously.

It’s an issue that comes up a lot in the secular “movement” nowadays – Richard Dawkins is swimming in it yet oblivious to it, Jen McCreight tried to start a whole new movement to deal with it – but a lot of people are still sort of staring blankly and wondering what is going on and when they can go back to debating the atheology of Firefly.

So as somebody who can relate both to the people who see privilege everywhere and to those who don’t get what everybody’s whining about, I want to help translate so we can communicate more clearly. First, everybody’s going to need to sit down and stop yelling and actually listen for a while, so go ahead and emotionally prepare yourself for that and come back when you’re ready to be an adult about this.

Good? Good.

Let’s start with something we all agree on: Facebook comment threads can be frustrating. Some extra-frustrating recent incidents pushed me over some kind of edge, which is why I’m here blogging after basically giving up on the Internet as a concept.

The other day, I posted a status update about how I’m planning on getting a second tattoo soon. An acquaintance of mine, a middle-aged man, shared some very well-meaning advice about how I should think about my future and remember that ink is permanent, and mentioned how glad he is that his 20s self had the foresight to remain unadorned. I retorted that I’d been wishing more men would tell me how my body should look, and pointed out that I know plenty of people of all ages who are satisfied with their choices of whether and how to modify their bodies. He then sent me a hurt and defensive message calling my “unfair” response a “cheap shot” and insisting that “gender has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

A couple weeks earlier, I shared an article about the enshrinement of slut-shaming in school dress codes. It got some comments, including a lot of agreement as well as some respectful and thoughtful alternative opinions; all good so far. But it also evoked a lot of outright dismissal. Here follow some excerpts from real comments by real men – men whom Facebook labels my “friends,” no less.

“I’m not seeing it.” “I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be offended by.” “That anyone thinks that schools are out of line for outlawing clothes that are, in most cases, made with the explicit purpose of looking sexy is laughable.” “And don’t tell me that an extra 3 inches off of a skirt helps you keep cool.” “What a bunch of nonsense.” “Not to be condescending, but [condescending rant].” “This whole thing is so silly.” “I don’t think it’s symptomatic of the ‘rape culture.’” “It’s just a damn dress code.”

Here’s the deal. If somebody of a different gender than yours says gender matters in a situation, it probably matters. Just because you don’t see something (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and all your condescending, laughing, and scare-quoting will neither help you see it nor make what I see disappear. If lots of people with some common experience that you lack – a gender, an ethnicity, whatever – are all upset by something you don’t even see, chances are better that you’re facing the wrong way than that it simply doesn’t exist.

You need to be open to the possibility that your experience of the world as a male/straight/white/cisgendered/abled/documented/educated/etc./etc. person might miss out on some of the struggles experienced by your less privileged planetmates. You need to admit that this might mean they know some things you don’t and put up with some shit you don’t. You need to respect them and listen to them and take them seriously, not mansplain to them that their subjective experiences are incorrect.

One of the main problems with privilege is that usually the people who have it are nearly blind to it. I believe that this blindness exists not because privileged people are stupid or careless, but because its effects are nearly invisible to them by the very nature of the systems that make those people privileged in the first place. I think the majority of privileged people are smart, well-meaning, and compassionate, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not trying to ruin everything. They just don’t know any better (yet).

As I said at the beginning, I know from experience that these kinds of ideas can be startling and disorienting to those of us lucky enough to be shielded from a lot of what goes on in the world. It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s not okay to use that as an excuse to abandon the conversation. When it comes to privilege, out of sight cannot mean out of mind.

So how are we going to get people to care about a phenomenon that doesn’t even seem real to them? I think the biggest thing here is that calling someone out for privilege can’t be a criminal accusation or a public shaming. Allow me to cast the first stone at myself: I should have found a less snarky way to point out the problematic aspects of the tattoo comment. I don’t think my response was “unfair” or unduly harsh, but it was less helpful than it could have been. Yes, privilege is upsetting, but if we start by hurling epithets, people won’t want to stick around to hear what else we have to say. When communication begins with an attack, the automatic response is to be defensive, not to listen. (See: all of atheism ever.)

Finally, one other comment on the dress code thread wasn’t overtly offensive but did illustrate a mistake that perfectly nice smart privileged people tend to make: “I maintain that one could craft a similar or identical policy divorced from history, and thus the policy itself is not sexist.”

That might be true, but last I checked, history was still waiting for its Henry VIII to come; for the foreseeable future, divorce isn’t an option. This issue of inescapable histories of oppression is discussed in an excellent blog post on Brute Reason called “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot.” This is a really fantastically good article and you should definitely read the entire thing, plus as many of the outlinks as you have time for. For now we’ll focus on this part:

In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millennia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.

But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.

The fact is that there is no way to magically remove yourself from history; you are embedded in oppressive systems no matter what. Just because you don’t see how a comment or action or policy relates to power dynamics and histories of oppression, that does not somehow make it officially neutral and vindicate you from any responsibility for perpetuating those systems. This means that there is no such thing as a neutral comment about a woman’s body, about race, about same-sex attractions, about non-conforming genders, etc.

There is no neutral way for a school board to police the sexualities of its female students. There is no neutral way for a man to comment on an unknown woman’s appearance. There is no neutral way for an older man to give me advice about my body modifications.

You are a part of the system whether or not you like it and whether or not you believe in it, so either you can join the resistance or you can sell your soul to The Man. Your choice.

Darwin tattooChelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard. She has left a trail of abandoned blog detritus in her wake, ranging from Sewage & Syphilis to Blogging Biblically. Before graduating from Harvard, she studied History & Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and served as both the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare.

16 Responses to “The Blindness of Privilege”

  1. Rachael McNeal Says:

    wonderful use of “mansplain!”
    Great Work Chelsea!

  2. James Desborough Says:

    Ghastly article illustrating much of the hypocrisy in the SJ movements trying to turn atheism into another humanism lately. People of all genders, races and types have areas in which they’re privileged and areas in which they’re not. Bringing it up serves no useful purpose and is primarily used as silencing tactics. Frequently one that, ironically, relies on sexism or racism.

    EG: You’re white/male/wealthy, you don’t know shit, you need to check your privilege.

    Not only is this presumptive and insulting (ad hominem even) but it is used to silence the other person without even considering the content of what they have to say. Worse than that it denies the other person the basic human quality of empathy, the ability to imagine someone else’s situation and put yourself in their shoes.

    Atheism+ has met with scepticism not because of any institutionalised sexism or bias but because many of the SJ claims are poorly evidenced, pure opinion or have become dogma within the echo chambers of activist study groups. Now they find themselves exposed to an inherently sceptical grouping who have already shown they’re willing to break social taboo by critiquing religion and having obfuscatory language – amongst many other issues – find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain themselves.

    But they don’t explain themselves. Instead they insult, caricature, ad hom. silence and cause drama. The hypocrisy evident even in the term ‘mansplaining’ – horrendously sexist – is staggering.

    Little wonder, then, that this sort of action gets met with arched eyebrows and mirth, much as religious dogma does.

    If there’s substance to it, then people who believe this need to back it up and argue their case with just as much evidence and reason as creationists would to convince anyone.

  3. VladChituc Says:

    1. Citation needed that it’s a silencing tactic. I’ve basically seen everyone who whines about acknowledging privilege claim this, but no one has cited anything.

    2. There are times when your identity actually matters, and to bring that up is not an ad hominem. There’s a difference between “you’re wrong because you’re white/ a man” and “your racial identity and gender distort your perception of things, so consider that.” Being asked to check your privilege is an instance of the latter. Literally, it means to examine how the advantages you have in life might be coloring how you see this situation. I don’t see how that’s silencing at all.

    3. Asking people to consider their advantages denies them empathy lolwut?

    4. How is mansplaining sexist, let alone horrendously so?

    5. Do you know what mirth means? because it’s not a synonym for ridicule.

    6. So to sum up, you basically did nothing but make unsubstantiated claims (privilege is silencing! it denies people humanity! Somehow! and it’s just like creationism!) without actually providing any evidence. If you’re going to criticize SJ for not having any evidence, you could start by providing some of your own.

  4. James Desborough Says:

    1. Pick virtually any thread where it’s brought up, or today’s twitter faff around Dawkins. No substance, just ‘You’re an old privileged white guy’ – as though that invalidated someone’s opinion. It doesn’t, any more than being black, brown or a woman does.

    2-3. Because that’s the way it is used. Somehow because you’re not XYZ you can’t empathise with XYZ and your perception MUST be distorted rather than simply disagreeing.

    4. Seriously? How do you not understand a gendered insult as sexist?

    5. A source of humour, ridicule is another valid response as well as laughing at it.

    6. So to sum up, you provided evidence in your reply. Thanks.

  5. VladChituc Says:

    1-3 So literally cite any example. I dont think you get how evidence works.

    4: do you think it’s racist to call someone a cracker? Because if it’s racist, and if “mansplaining” is “sexist” it’s not in any way that matters.

    5. Unless A+ literally makes you happy or joyful, you’re using the word mirth wrong.

    6. Did I make any claims that require any evidence?

  6. James Desborough Says:


    4. Yes, it is. You’re now excusing bigotry, so long as its against people you don’t like.

    5. Amusement or laughter being other definitions, but if you’re having trouble understanding the meaning of prejudice or bigotry I can forgive your other definitional problems.

    6. You supported mine with your actions – and have again here.

    You’re a fanatic, blind – not to your privilege but to your hypocrisy. You will excuse racial or gender prejudice against targets you deem ‘fair game’.

    I will not.

    If you’re going to campaign against them I, not unreasonably I think, expect you not to be a bigot yourself.

    You may now continue your circle-jerk uninterrupted. I apologise for being slightly insulting but honestly, this makes me as angry as I’m sure it makes you in other circumstances and with other targets.

  7. Kelly Bodwin Says:

    Dear Chelsea I <3 you.

    And also question: Given that one is in a position of privilege, how can one responsibly engage with the topic? Isn't it possible that someone could honestly listen to and take seriously the claims of an underprivileged group, but still disagree on the solutions? I'm not trying to make a particular point, just wondering how to strike a balance between "You're a white rich male so your opinion doesn't count" and "There is no such thing as privilege there's no way rich white males could be out of touch."

    For example, with respect to your facebook incident, I think we can both agree that the poster in question was (a) out of line and (b) genuinely trying to give advice to someone he cared about. Is there any way he could have voiced his warning without treading on your autonomy? Or was he, as an older male living in a patriarchal society, automatically excluded from any conversation on the topic? If I had written a similar comment, would that have been okay since I occupy the same privilege-stratosphere as you in this case?

  8. Sean Bowen Says:

    I bet you describe yourself as a “nice guy” in your OkCupid profile, huh?

  9. Skeletal Dropkick Says:

    Just as an anecdotal story, I am a white, privileged, tattooed female, currently in Nursing school for a BSN. My last rotation was in a rather conservative pediatric hospital (in the Bay Area, CA, nonetheless) where I had to wear a bandaid over my very subtle, very small, science-y tattoo. And I had to wear my hair in a particular way to cover up not only the purple dye in my hair, but the tattoo behind my ear as well. So your Facebook friend has a point. We still aren’t to the place where all employers are OK with tattoos. That could have been all he was saying. Although you chose a easily covered spot for your tattoo, so I don’t think you will have to worry.
    This is the tattoo I had to cover up-
    Who woulda thought? Not me.

  10. James Desborough Says:

    Is a hope for consistency really something so dangerous and out of line that it requires insults and silencing? There’s that hypocrisy again.

  11. VladChituc Says:

    Man, what is it with the anti-feminist types on thinking literally anything is silencing?

    Aww you made a joke at me? Silencing.
    You want me to be aware of how my advantages influence how I see the world? Silencing.
    You want me not to be a sexist? Silencing.

    It’s pretty ridiculous to whine about being silenced when you are in no way being silenced because it is a thing you are able to whine about.

  12. James Desborough Says:

    Not agreeing with your hypocritical and self-defeating means of going about being a dick online to shore up your self esteem does not make one anti-feminist. Though egalitarian strikes me as a much better word. Nor does disagreeing with you make one sexist.

    I shall keep your argument about “You’re not being silenced since you can whine” in mind next time someone brings it up the other direction and let’s just see how that goes down.

  13. Evan Clark Says:

    Thanks for writing this. As a person who fits all of the these categories “male/straight/white/cisgendered/abled/documented/educated/etc./etc.” and a few more agent groups, I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of what you wrote and the struggle it takes for the fishes like us to see the water we were born into.

    Keep up the great work!

  14. Laurence Says:

    Thank you for this. It’s a great article.

  15. Jon Dreyer Says:

    Chelsea Link asks that we have better conversations about privilege and that we stop yelling and listen and try to act like adults. I will try but this very difficult for me. I am the middle-aged man who “shared some very well-meaning advice.” I feel as if I changed lanes on the highway and saw a three-car pileup in my rearview mirror. Especially because I consider Chelsea to be a friend, reading her pained response evoked a combination of horror at evoking that pain, and defensiveness because I felt that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I have sat and stewed for days wondering what I could have done, what I should have done, what I should not have done. She says that “calling someone out for privilege can’t be a criminal accusation or a public shaming,” but as someone who’s considered himself a feminist for at least 40 years, who’s raised two daughters, who’s an HGSE-trained educator, who feels pretty aware of privilege of all sorts, and who opposes privilege of many sorts, including male privilege, I can’t help but take this very personally.

    For the record, here is the entirety of my original comment: “Just remember that, with some luck, some day you’ll be my age. Let’s just say I am very grateful to my 20-something self for not having gotten any tattoos!” That’s it.

    A few things about her initial response shocked me. First, the way she assumed that I was telling her what to do rather than merely suggesting something to think about. Second, the way she made it about gender and privilege.

    I think any reading of my comment makes it clear that I wasn’t telling her to do anything with her body, nor was I trying to make a decision for her. She hasn’t commented more on that, so the rest of this post is about the second part, about gender and privilege.

    It is absolutely clear to me that my intention had nothing to do with gender. One reason I know this is because I have made the same comments to men for the exact same reasons. I made this very clear when I used my own (male) experience as an example.

    After reading her blog post, I see that she’s telling us how she heard it, not how I meant it. While she felt I was “mansplaining” her subjective experience, I felt that I was “explaining” my intended meaning, so we were really talking past each other. But she wasn’t just telling us how she heard it, she was also saying I should have known better.

    I get that intention alone is not a defense. As the “hot” article says, just because my thoughts are pure does not give me license to comment on a woman’s appearance. There are things I can say to men that I can’t say to women, even if I mean them the same way. But I still maintain that there are many interactions between men and women involving women’s bodies that really have nothing to do with male privilege, sexualization or objectification. I recently discussed a young woman’s body with her, and even suggested what she should do with her body, and I think it was ok. Specifically we discussed her tendinitis, and how I thought she could make it better. I hope we agree that this did not cross the line.

    So how are we to decide where the boundary is? To me, the question is whether it is reasonable for the woman to feel inappropriately sexualized by the comment. In this case, that possibility didn’t even occur to me, but in retrospect, tattoos are a form of adornment and maybe I should have thought my comment might have been interpreted as if I were commenting on how it might affect her desirability. But really, maybe not. When I drew a parallel between my experience with my old male body and her future experience with her eventually old female body, I still think was quite a stretch to interpret the comment as having anything to do with male privilege or sexualization. Subjective experience is of course subjective, but Chelsea suggests that I should have predicted her subjective response, and I don’t agree. Call that “mansplaining” if you want, but I don’t think that helps. Privilege may be blinding, but so too can being on the wrong side of privilege too often.

    Here’s an example of privilege that I know from the wrong side. As an ethnic and cultural Jew, I have seen some anti-Semitism. But we’ve seen it so many times, many of us see anti-Semitism everywhere. Some Jews declare “anti-Semitism” whenever anyone opposes any Israeli policy, however egregious. Anti-Semitism is real, but not every slight against a Jew is anti-Semitism, despite our “subjective experience.” Not distinguishing our subjective experience of anti-Semitism from actual anti-Semitism can foster polarization and alienate potential allies.

    And so for male privilege. To take my own transgressions out of the picture for a moment, Chelsea calls out male facebook “friends” who she hints could not be real friends because they have the audacity to suggest that dress codes might have a place in schools. Why can’t they be actual friends or allies who just happen to disagree about the boundary between slut-shaming and reasonable policy? Why are their only two choices, “join[ing] the resistance or sell[ing] your soul to The Man”? Should we turn away as soul-selling slut-shamers any potential allies who believe middle school students should not be allowed to come to school naked?

    I have not followed the recent rifts in the secular movement very closely, but I do believe that folks like Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins have a lot of common goals and ideals, so the fact that they seem to represent two sides of a great rift, in which everybody must either side with the “feminists” or the “misogynists,” can’t be a good thing. I was hurt to be drawn into what feels a bit like a microcosm of this very real but needlessly polarized conflict. Chelsea and I have so many common goals and ideals, including the elimination of male privilege, though we may differ about the boundary. It really hurts to be made into a poster boy for the male privilege we would both like to eliminate.

    Chelsea, I’m really sorry that my comments were so offensive to you, but have we really gotten to the point where such a gentle suggestion is out of line? In any case, I’ll be even more careful in the future about crossing that boundary. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but there it is. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this but I also hope we can get back to focusing on what we have in common. And when can I hear you play that harp?

  16. Occasional Link Roundup » Brute Reason Says:

    [...] 16. Chelsea explains how privilege blinds us: [...]

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