DEAR INTERNET I AM HAVING SOME FEELINGS AGAIN. Mostly about the fact that I cannot open my Google reader or my Tumblr dashboard or basically anything ever without reading about y’all arguing each other about privilege, and who has it, and who doesn’t, and when it’s valid, and when it’s not, and whether you feel guilty about it, and what kind you have or don’t have, and what you are allowed to talk about given your own very special Internet Approved Privilege Scorecard and also your Arbitrary Internet Approved Vocabulary For Talking About These Things.
Let’s first make it clear that I am not saying that I don’t think that privilege exists, because it totally does, or that it isn’t important or important to talk about, because it totally is, or that I don’t have it in many ways or lack it in others, because I do (white, middle class, predisposition to giantess heights and ectomorph proportions, etc) and I don’t (gay, lady, etc.) Instead, I am asking if, given all these things, is our eternal Internet Privilege Witch Hunt really the most productive way to talk about every possible problem?
So, oh Internet who I am going to piss off with this — I am going to go so far as to suggest that we — not always, but often — use “UR PRIVILEGED SHUT UP GO HOME” as the response to basically any complicated multivalent issue, usually one involving intersectionality of some sort, because we can so easily resolve that cognitive dissonance (“this is a complicated issue there is no right and no wrong i am Distressed as a result”) by calling out the privileged party — even if their point had some validity if from a slightly skew viewpoint, and even if they actually actively disclaimed their privilege before making it, even if they deliberately asked the marginalized group for their input on the issue, even if they have a stellar track record of being understanding of their situation and receptive to conversation with those in a less privileged position — and then retreating to our Fortress Of The Educated And Self-Righteous Liberals. Which is a nice place, I like hanging out there too, it’s cool. But I’m baffled by this because in the long run I don’t see who it’s really helping.
Pretty much every soc class I took in college involved being given a situation and being asked to problematize it. Not discuss. Not analyze both sides, not deconstruct, not try to sympathize with the real live feelings-having humans on either side of the issue. Not even propose a solution, I guess that is for grad students only? But whatever. We problematized. We problematized a lot, and we got really, really good at it. And while this is a totally valid acceptable part of sociological theory and thought, an important precursor to action, and an oft-necessary practice for analyzing negative behaviors so ingrained into society as to seem normal, in my experience, it usually took about ten seconds to devolve into a bidding war of who can find what was offensive and call it out first. Similarly: is there a point at which this ceases to be valid and shuts down conversation rather than promotes it?
The point here is that while there’s a ton of really valid thought behind using privilege as a way of analyzing a social structure or problem, privilege discourse far too often ends up resembling problem tennis. Humanity or maybe just middle class white people in America are in general really into playing problem tennis, which is where we try to best each other with some weird pseudo-Catholic competition for who is the biggest fucking martyr by just talking at each other instead of with each other until someone finally serves the perfect ace ball of totally unbeatable horrible problem. You’ve done this before, probably starting in kindergarten. Oh, my mom doesn’t pack me Oreos with my bag lunch, I only got carrots. My parents are divorced. My menstrual cramps are worse. I’m pre-med so my classes are so much harder than yours, English Major. I’m half-black. I couldn’t afford private school. I’m at private school, but on scholarship. I’m sorry you’re feeling sick I had mono last year it was way worse I was hospitalized and everything. It is the worst. I hate these conversations and I think I end up dragged down into one, laden with nompliments and passive aggressive attempts to elicit each other’s sympathy, at least once a month. I know people that can’t do anything but play problem tennis, and who respond to every possible complaint or query for advice or even just passing comment with another enthusiastic round. And everyone leaves feeling a little grumpy and trying to figure out if they are the better person in the whole mess, or goes crying for a referee until they can eke out a new match, hopefully either with someone seeded a little lower or with another AWESOME problem-ball to bring to the court.
Internet Privilege Tennis is like this, I think, except about fifteen times worse and always involving direct character judgements of humans we don’t actually know outside of five hundred words they posted somewhere on the Internet and usually citing some Critical Theory or Anecdotal Evidence of Douchebaggery which we reblog back and forth at each other ad nauseam adding more quotes, more snark, and more thinly veiled personal attacks. Why do we do this? Because we do this, and we do it constantly, and half the time we’re not even talking at the person we’re calling out on being privileged, we’re screeching at each other over who is doing it wrong. We all know this runs rampant on the Queer Internet — we’re seriously always fighting about who is more queer and who is more underprivileged and who has less rights and who used the wrong pronoun or who is a Major Gold Star Lesbian or who is a slut who sleeps with boys sometimes or who generalized too much or didn’t generalize enough or whether talking about how it sucks being bisexual-but-cis marginalizes how much it sucks to be trans and whose feelings count more and who was gayer first and on, and on, ad nauseam, offending every last nonhetero party amongst ourselves that we could possibly offend. Which is a big part of any of the identity politics necessary in identifying a suspect class — but it also ends up being an epic amount of often largely unresolved endless e-bickering amongst people who would probably actually like each other in person and who also usually have some really basic thing in common, for example being denied some basic rights, you know, no big deal. This is very similar to a really smart thing I read on this here Internet about Vampire Weekend, you should read this also even though it is from a lil’ while ago.
Let us provide a recent example from the Internet which I know you all have seen too! We understand that there are some problems with Kreayshawn, I have some ambivalence about Kreayshawn. The whole internet is very upset about Kreayshawn, we know this. But it seems that 80% of this “dialogue” opts not to address the various types of interesectionality, class issues, issues of locale and culture, and so on and so forth that might be at play here. We don’t know conclusively what it means for a not-straight lower class white girl from Oakland to rap about being cooler than the boys and also most of the girls and to wear things that people of colour wore first and are not applauded for, and to get a record deal that she probably wouldn’t have had she not been the Funny White Girl Rapper OMG, Also Remember She Is White. So we, collectively, oh Internet, leap at the chance to shout about appropriation and privilege. Not that it isn’t happening on some level, and not that I don’t understand why white girls in doorknocker earrings are totally questionable — but that rather than looking at how and why that might simultaneously also work on a lot of other levels and how it might be both terrible in some ways and progressive in others (like how it may or may not fit into the tradition of ‘badass girls in music’ that I am partial to, or whether or not it could be indicative of generational shifts in attitudes toward race and class), and what all those problems really are. We were, for the most part, content to box her up as Offensive and leave it on a shelf of Things We Should Disapprove Of And Then Yell At People Who Don’t Agree With Us That It’s Totally Fucked Up And Therefore Worthless. Why is “SOMETHING ABOUT THIS IS NOT OKAY” such a great conversation-ender and why do we need to classify everything as Okay or Bad? Who is our anonymous Internet Board Of Offensiveness that’s voting on this? Maybe I just like playing devil’s advocate, or maybe I also have this problem where I think that people who admit to ambivalence or think there are multiple sides to an issue or different ways of reading it are really fucking cool.
But similarly! An example on which I am on the Unprivileged Side and not the Privileged Side! (I can play privilege tennis too, guys, look!) When Paula Brooks of Lez Get Real was revealed to not be a Real Live Lesbian but rather a middle aged nondescript white man from the flyover states, we all ran around the bl0g0sphere screaming to the high heavens about how dare he because of his privilege, which he needed to “check,” which is another thing we say a lot that I don’t entirely fathom. I am still trying to figure out why we did this, because to me this reduced more accurately to the extremely common tropes of “creepy bro is creepy, likes Lesbians” and/or “sad emasculated lonely unattractive white dude tries to reclaim masculinity and phallic power and Right To All Women Ever by winning the confidence, trust, and love of not only one gay lady who does not care about him, but of AN ENTIRE INTERNET OF LESBIANS!!!” This thing didn’t really seem like a basic conversation about privilege hierarchies to me; aside from the totally irrelevant but oft-mentioned fact that there are probably a shit ton of gay ladies who are doing better than he is in life at this point, there seemed to be a lot more going on there with gender roles and societal expectations of various people and sexualities and of weird fetishes and of communities and of community politics and of deceit and of empathy and of the irony of current internet schemes of whose-opinions-are-valid. If there was a dialogue about privilege to be had there — which I suspect there is — it certainly shouldn’t have stopped at “dudebro’s got the priv, doesn’t know his boundaries.” Maybe I am wrong about this? I don’t know.
But it goes on, and we do it all the damn time. When a human rights journalist who has presumably dedicated an awful lot of her life in less-than-cozy situations to tell the stories of marginalized people of colour in war torn countries takes an aside to tell her own story of how that affected her, why do we want to immediately dismiss that subjective, ambivalent, emotional personal essay, one personal essay in a body of much more selfless socially conscious reporting, as invalid and narcissistic and inherently racist? Basically: when we are confronted with some complicated situation in which multiple parties are or claim to be at something of a disadvantage and one or both of them is very obviously more or less privileged than the other, why is privilege often our first exclamation, our only explanation, and our last refuge of self-righteousness?
There is also this thing where we spend so much time talking about privilege that to some extent, we start to forget what it is and how it works, and how it actually even be used temporarily as a weapon on the road to dismantling it, or of how we can combine our own various privileges and un-privileges to our own and each other’s benefit. And more than that, I think we often fall prey to such intense obsession with who is right and who is wrong that we forget something incredibly basic: the societal structures we are often railing against are usually shitty on various levels to everyone involved, and that arguing with each other over who is getting the shorter end of the stick is maybe not always the best way to analyze, confront, dismantle, or resolve anything.