Monday, August 30, 2010

Privilege is a Knowledge Problem

Some people have privilege. This obviously hurts those who do not have that privilege.

Privilege also hurts the privileged. The greatest privilege is not knowing that you are privileged, so that you don't notice or think about your (our) comparative unearned advantage. Privilege can make the privilege incurious. This produces a kind of parochialism.

When I teach college students about their degrees of relative privilege, the most privileged sometimes feel angry, but most of them feel guilty. And don't know what to do next. Many consciousness-raising approaches to teaching about privilege stop there. Some are even glad to provoke feelings of guilt.

I think a better approach to teaching about privilege is to treat it as a knowledge problem. Curiosity cures unacknowledged privilege. Being curious about people who are not like you is the best path to living justly with others, and serving others as our privilege makes us able.


Whit said...

Fourth, the source of the differences between outcomes between races is important in determining what policies should be adopted. If it is race, then punitive measures against white people such as wealth redistribution, affirmative action and “reeducation” classes of the sort Gruntled appears to teach, is the way to go. If it is these other factors, then better education (concentrating less on ideas of victimhood and more on teaching middle class values and behaviors), more police action against neighborhood gangs, drugs, etc., mentoring programs putting poor kids in touch with successful people upon whom their lives can be modeled, and social and welfare policies which encourage poor mothers and fathers to marry, and stay married, would be more effective. In other words, are the differences in outcomes due to structural factors favoring white people, or to the inability of poor folks to compete?

Fifth, this argument seems typical of the religious Left’s propensity to believe in sin without sinners. Rather than individual wrong-doers, whole groups of people are assigned the role of “oppressors”, or the “privileged” and others to the role of victims. Structural factors, not individual choices, are blamed. Individual responsibility (and choice) is minimized or eliminated. And the result is always the political, social and economic policy preferrences of the Left.

Whit said...

Gruntled didn't get many takers on his first (or first I saw) post on this subject, so I thought I would add a little controversy by making a few observations:

First, "white privilege" assumes that white people, as white people, have some advantage in society today. This seems to me to be, if not unprovable, at least unproved. There is no way for one to know, without individual investigation, whether a given white person had the benefit of "privilege" in his life, or not. And to make the assumption of privilege about someone absent this knowledge is insulting and devalues the person’s own efforts.

Whit said...

Second, the differences in outcome between races correlate, in all likelihood, more to economic condition and cultural factors than they do to race. That is, a child from a middle class home, of whatever race, who is taught middle class values, will be more likely to end up in the middle class than someone from a poor, single parent home in which these middle class values are not taught. In many cases a kid whose father is absent and whose mother is on welfare literally has to be taught to show up for work on time and act respectfully to the boss before an employer can even reach the level of determining competence. Most middle class kids come by these work skills naturally. The quality of schools, teachers and neighborhoods is probably also a factor. I would be interested to see studies which separate the influence of race from these other factors. The only data I have seen indicate that, adjusted for location, on average, black married couples have substantially the same income as white married couples.

Third, when a minority person thinks of himself as a victim of his race, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if it is partially true. That is, even if, on balance, race, as race, is still a factor to some degree (and I do not concede that point because most racists are no longer in positions of power and overt racism tends to be balanced out by affirmative action) the mind-set, of victimhood, hurts the person’s ambition and ability to get ahead.