Sunday, May 18, 2014

YPIS, final-for-now thoughts

Miss Self-Important asked exactly the right question about YPIS: is the problem privilege-accusation, or the very concept of "privilege"? The short answer is, it's both. In some alternate universe, the altogether sound concept of privilege might have been used primarily for good, but as it stands, it seems to mainly inspire privilege-denial. Part of this, as I mentioned in MSI's comments, is that the term, "privilege," implies membership in some social and financial elite. The 1%, perhaps. But the vast majority of those benefitting from cisgender privilege, say, aren't rich or powerful. They merely benefit from being comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. A form of relative advantage about which one might be oblivious, absolutely, but privilege still implies... money, or at the very least, cultural capital. What does it mean if you say that someone 'comes from privilege'? That's the generally-understood meaning. Using a term that sounds like it's about wealth to describe all forms of advantage gets confusing, and could be what's inspiring defensive responses. What's wrong with speaking of -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) or -phobias (transphobia, homophobia, etc.)?

Which gets to yet another important point, that came up a bit in some of the Twitter responses to my piece: Yes, the privileged use privilege wrong, but who am I to say how marginalized groups I'm not a part of choose to discuss their plight? (Presumably I get a vote if we're talking male privilege or Gentile privilege.) Am I trying, imperialistically perhaps, to tell members of these groups how to advocate for themselves? Why am I so focused on how the privileged talk about privilege?

To this, I'd say that no, I don't object to the use of "privilege" in the identity-based, educational sense, as in, what Jamelle Bouie did here. If privilege-talk were always about this sort of here's-something-about-my-experience-you'd-have-no-reason-to-have-considered discussion, it would be quite useful. And in those instances, it is useful.

The problem is, privilege being, well, real, we end up hearing much more from those who using "privilege" to obscure their unfair advantages than from those who are silenced by the very disadvantages they'd be well within their rights to complain about with YPIS, if any of that makes sense. (I always think of high school - how I'd hear all about the socioeconomically disadvantaged home lives of kids who turned out to be super-rich, and how the kids who were actually poor or working-class never brought this up.) There's a lot of speaking-for, not much listening-to.

And if the aim of privilege-talk is to educate haves about the plight of have-nots, it kind of does matter if the term has been an overall net loss in terms of furthering awareness. One might say, but can't the privileged just listen to the good kind of YPIS, the kind that comes from the actually-aggrieved, and not from the sanctibully contingent? What makes this complicated is the Internet - how is anyone supposed to know if the out-of-context, pseudonymous "check your privilege" they're getting on Twitter or in some comment thread is from someone of the relevant identity who's genuinely upset, or if it's all just speculation on behalf of a self-appointed representative with no idea what they're talking about? That, and there's just so much of the nonsense sort of privilege-talk that the legitimate sort has a way of getting lost in the mix. Thus why I - speaking for myself! - try (not always successfully) to avoid using the term "privilege" to when discussing... privilege.

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