How might one take seriously the claim that privilege is not experienced as such? I am interested in the argument that those who critique male privilege or white privilege mischaracterize the male-bodied and white-identifying/ied figures who do not experience themselves as privileged. Those who respond that they don’t feel privileged are accused of demonstrating bad faith, of exercising the privilege of unknowing, the ignorance of privilege. These encounters between the privileged and their critics generate guilt, shame, resentment, anger, silence, and rage. Very little understanding.One leaves the scene not quite sure what has happened, with few tools to process the encounter. Such scenes can be debilitating: the person critiquing the privilege is drained at having to explain it once again and the person to whom the critique is directed is drained at having to hear it once again. Both become locked in an awkwardly structured negotiation: to the question, “what do you want me to do?” the answer, “acknowledge your privilege,” feels too little, not worth the psychic energy expended.
I cringe when those who have “learned to acknowledge their privilege” perform this lesson: loudly, incessantly, unendingly. The performative gesture undermines the ethical goal. And those of us who have trained others to enact this performance are left feeling unsatisfied. They are, after all, doing what we have urged them to do. But we still feel bitter and cannot name the source of that bitterness. We fear that the strategy we have advanced—make them acknowledge their privilege—has failed, but we have no real way of discussing that failure.
To the accusation that one inhabits privilege, one is apt to respond, “I’m just a regular guy.” Or, “I’m ordinary.” Or, “I don’t feel privileged.”
Given the peculiar way class is structured in the U.S., given the fetish of the “regular guy,” often a dangerous fiction, it seems ridiculous to critique the experience of “ordinariness.” One might critique privilege, a sanctioned U.S. project, but one runs into dangerous waters when one attempts to probe ordinariness. Many, in fact, aspire to “ordinariness” or perform “ordinariness.” Witness blue jeans.
When we say we want to critique privilege, we mean that we want to critique the privilege of ordinariness. How awkward that sounds. Even impossible. But it is what we mean. More concisely, we want to critique the experience of “ordinariness” that permits daily life, permits civic engagement, even permits civil disobedience. And it becomes difficult to critique the experience of “ordinariness” because it is a moving target: ordinariness experienced in one location is not the same as ordinariness in another. My ordinariness in Nairobi is not the same as my ordinariness in Baltimore, although both depend on the presence of majority black populations.
But this is starting to sound clumsy and disingenuous. So let me try again.
One might reasonably discuss the privilege of privilege—wealth, charm, good looks, and so on. And that seems fairly easy to map and describe. What I’m hoping to get at is that scene that I encounter in the classroom, where students from similar or related economic backgrounds trade accusations of privilege. Where, that is, the critique leveled against a Mitt Romney is applied to Joe Smith, no relationship to “the Smiths.” In this scenario, Joe Smith, who, like his other classmates, is working three jobs and barely making Cs, not because he lacks aptitude, but because the human body can only do so much, this Joe Smith finds himself attacked by his classmates for exercising white, male privilege. Not unreasonably, he thinks of his car that’s about to die, his barely paid bills, his crappy apartment, his attenuated employment prospects, his terrible medical insurance, and becomes angry, and rightly so. Yet, those who have latched on to critiques of privilege as their way of making sense of the world cannot see any of this and, worse, lack tools to describe it.
By the end of the semester, Joe Smith might come to “acknowledge” his privilege, discuss how much he has learned about his “privilege” and regret his “privilege,” having learned to perform shame and guilt, even as a part of him still does not understand what he has done wrong. By the end of the semester, those critiquing Joe Smith for his privilege can describe him as “reconstructed,” as a “good guy,” a teachable guy, even a guy one can term “friend.” Yet, this success feels flat. And on the first occasion hanging together, friend Joe performs ordinariness, which is beyond critique, because he has acknowledged his privilege.
We end up in a too-familiar loop, demanding that privilege be acknowledged, witnessing it being acknowledged, dissatisfied with what we witness, and the loop starts again. It becomes exhausting and ridiculous.
What is one to do?
How can we fashion tools that are mobile, contingent, strategic, and shared that help us negotiate the challenges of ordinariness? What are our available tools?
Ordinariness is extraordinarily difficult to discuss. Like ideology, which produces it, it resides in the “obviousnesses of obviousnesses.” Obviousness becomes visible, like the unconscious, in brief moments, in slips, in moments where it’s not extended to those who cannot claim its mantle: Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is one such moment. We must specify names and locations because, as Christina Sharpe tweeted, “we are NOT all Trayvon Martin.” As a good friend keeps reminding me, we need to find ways to imagine and discuss particularity and universality. We need to imagine and discuss because these are mobile categories, more elusive than we grant, and more persistent than we admit.
Because my setting is the classroom, not the church, the community center, or open air meetings, I focus on talking and listening, attending to what is said and what is heard, the importance of deliberate conversation. Not with the bland predictability of most classroom discussions, where students are too polite and instructors too politic to let debate spill over in unpredictable directions. Listening, mindful listening, might be our most under-utilized tool. I wonder what it would mean to compliment people not on the strength of voice, but on the capacity to listen.
I am itchy about this post—I think a lot of it is wrong, or, more precisely, not quite where I thought I was headed. Even as I am not sure I’d be able to recognize that “where.” I wanted to suggest something about the privilege of ordinariness and the mobility of that ordinariness (how it travels while embodied in particular people and how it travels across bodies as one moves through space and time). To end with a call to “listen” feels too slight, not substantial enough. Something a weak-kneed teacher might advocate over more forceful action. (Those who can’t, teach?)
Yet, it might be worth advocating for mindful, deliberate listening. It might be worth learning to create space for shared listening. It might be worth taking time to pay attention to what is being said, what is being enacted, what is being performed, what is being experienced as ordinariness. One cannot let the righteousness of one’s critique become part of violence’s arsenal.