What is a good metaphor for white privilege

The concept of privileges: you sometimes have to do without

When it comes to the question of privileges, many react defensively. But those who do not reflect on their privileges actively contribute to inequalities.

Sharing and giving up can sometimes hurt Photo: Mia Takahara / plainpicture

There is this sentence: Check your privilege. First of all, it means: Hey you, think about where you are, how you are and what of it could be related to socio-economic or material conditions and acknowledge how these conditions may have helped you get through life. Not that complicated, actually.

Even so, the question of privileges seems like a provocation to some. Defensive, angry or embarrassed answers can then be heard. For example: I am a single parent, I cannot be privileged. Or: I worked hard for what I have today. Last asked a whiter Author on Deutschlandfunk: “What can I do? Do you humbly and constantly apologize? Am I ashamed of myself and my gender? ”Such lines of argument are repeatedly represented in various media - also in the taz.

One thing that makes talking about privileges difficult: privileges are unjust. They shouldn't even exist in modern states. After all, one of the promises made by liberal democracies in the global north is social justice. They are meritocracies, so they claim that social positions are based solely on individual merit - just like on a flat playing field. There is no room in these narratives for dealing with privileges.

So whoever asks about privileges is not only asking about justice, but also about whole life plans and social models. These are big questions, and they have been researched for a long time: for example by W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, but also currently by thinkers such as Angela Davis, Roxane Gay or Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh describes privilege as an invisible backpack, but you can also think of it as a buffer or tail wind. Privileges are historically anchored, they can be socio-economic or material, but they can also be related to gender identity or health, place of residence or place of birth, last name or mother tongue - to name just a few.

Vesicles on the surface

So you are everywhere. Sometimes they are ambiguous and difficult to grasp, at the same time they usually manifest themselves very specifically. For example: It is a privilege to be able to write this article. Perhaps this is the first time you have dealt with privileges - that would be a privilege. Or you already know a lot about it - that would also be a privilege, for example because you had the time, resources and access to further training. With privileges it is like with small bubbles in a water glass: If you shake it once, more and more come to the surface.

Knowledge is power

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Explained from the beginning

From now on, an explanatory text on one or more terms from the field of feminism and anti-racism will appear on this page every week in this series. An essay on the subject of “Privileges” will follow next week.

All episodes at taz.de/grundlagen

In addition, the whole thing is also context-dependent, privileges can be intertwined and mutually dependent. An example: men are privileged by patriarchal structures. Statistically they are paid better, they are given more space, and they tend to have less fear of sexual violence. But there are also differences: there are white Men and men of color, rich men, queer men, trans men, childless men, civil servants, single men, homeless men - and of course these categories overlap and interlock. So even though these men are privileged in specific ways, sometimes more and sometimes less, they all ultimately benefit from patriarchal structures. The sociologist Raewyn Connell calls this intersection the "patriarchal dividend".

Conversely, if it is said that a man is privileged because of his gender, it does not mean that he cannot have a challenging life with obstacles - it just means that he does not encounter other obstacles in his life because of his gender.

But two more things become visible here. First, it is possible to be privileged and disadvantaged at the same time. And second: Those who do not reflect on their own privileges are not simply neutral, but rest at the expense of those at the other end of the social spectrum - and thus actively contribute to inequalities. Although people are not individually responsible for privileges that have evolved over time, they do have a responsibility to conscientiously deal with their own privileges, to reflect on them and to redistribute them. Which, by the way, doesn't have to be that difficult.

The structural problem is kept secret

When it comes to inequality, however, privileges are usually not even addressed. Instead, it is about those who are disadvantaged. And how they contribute to their own situation. In the case of violence against women, supposedly individual strokes of fate are addressed, not the structural problem behind it: male violence. In the case of racist attacks, individual characteristics such as the psychological state of the perpetrator are spoken of, not what nourishes these acts: white and their racism.

It is no coincidence that privileged positions remain invisible here. Privileges are made invisible and inequalities are individualized. These discursive shifts allow the privileged to address inequalities without talking about power relations in which they are involved.

It is similar with language: the norm remains unmarked. We have terms to name people with a migration background, but simply refer to people without a migration background as: people. Sometimes, however, we also lack the terms to describe privileged opposing positions, or we do not know them. For example, many cis people don't even know that they are cis or what that means. For this reason, too, it is often a matter of making privileged positions visible at all by naming them.

For some time now, privileged positions such as masculinity, Whitehis or her heteronormativity is increasingly explored. In research, for example Whitebe understood as a collective experience. And: Because privileges are structurally anchored, structural answers such as inheritance taxes, reparations or quotas are also required.

Renunciation is rarely harmonious

These injustices could also be reacted to on an individual level: a whiter For example, a man can reject an engagement even without a quota and propose a woman of color instead. That makes sense, but: As long as he is perceived as a man in a patriarchal society, he will continue to be structurally privileged. He can assume that he would have been adequately rewarded for his work, that he will continue to receive job inquiries in the future, that he will even be praised for having given up the job - so he does little to change the systemic character of privileges.

And of course, renunciation is seldom so harmonious. The sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani describes the relationship between participation and discrimination as follows: If you imagine society as a coffee table, there are people who sat at the table for a long time and naturally determined how the cake was prepared and distributed. Gradually, however, more and more people are coming to the table. They want places, they want something from the cake, but they also want to have a say, make claims and have a say in how the cake is made and distributed.

Those who follow this metaphor will understand current debates about equality or representation as a sign of social progress. And one will understand why these debates are fought off so hotly: To make social justice possible, it is not enough to make privileges visible - the privileged have to actively renounce it. So it's understandable that the question of privileges for the privileged often feels like a restriction - after all, it is. Only: It is a legitimate and legally anchored claim of marginalized and discriminated people to have a say, to demand participation and rights - even without considering the privileged.