Progressive Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Tote Bag

This piece is inspired entirely by Peggy McIntosh’s classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” to which I am immeasurably indebted.

I have noticed lately that my liberal-progressive friends have begun casually adopting the tools of gender and race studies in their daily lives, scrutinizing not just American society as a whole, but their own personal relationships through the lens of feminism and other critical disciplines.  It is more and more common for me to see discussions where an argument is not answered with a counter-argument, but with an accusation of blindness based on the arguer’s “unchecked privilege.”  (I do not deny that I find many of these accusations to be high comedy.  This spring’s anti-microaggression campaign at St. Olaf College – already a bastion of political correctness – was perhaps the silliest thing that has ever happened, ever.)

There’s much truth to be gleaned in all this talk of privilege.  In general, I think it’s easier to be white than black in today’s America.  In general, I think it is easier to be a man in the workplace, and it’s certainly easier to be a male gamer or a male citizen of the Web, given the intense, irrational, and openly evil retaliation against many females who try to occupy those spaces.  Now, I don’t think much of the responses the intersectional Left offers to these problems. Nevertheless, these unearned blessings for some are unearned difficulties for others, well worth pointing out and, where possible, leveling out as well.

However, the very same people who spread the light of critical analysis to race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality seem to have a blind spot.  When a conservative (regardless of race, class, or gender) observes the very considerable privilege that progressive leftists wield as their birthright, and which we must muddle through without, we are met with ferocious denials, which, in some settings, amount to taboos.  Often our interlocutors immediately attempt to derail the discussion (a handy term I learned from contemporary feminists), accusing us of having our own privileges – which, of course, we do (in America, everyone has some privilege!), but which doesn’t help us acknowledge, lessen, or end specifically progressive privilege.  Even if a liberal does, in conversation, acknowledge that conservatives are in many ways socially disadvantaged, I’ve often noticed that they are unwilling to make the concomitant admission that liberals are themselves overprivileged.

As a white person, I’ve been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but I’ve not been taught to see the corollary: white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.  I think that, much like the members of any other privileged and powerful identity group, left-wingers are not taught to recognize progressive privilege – and, sometimes, that they are quite carefully taught to be blind to it.  Nevertheless, it’s there.  Like Ms. McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack,” liberal-progressivism brings with it an invisible package of unearned assets, which progressives can count on cashing in each day, but about which they are supposed to remain studiously oblivious.  Progressive privilege is like an invisible weightless tote bag of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks, granting left-wingers freedom of movement through the elite circles of American life that non-liberals simply do not have.

After I realized the extent to which progressives work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Conservatives often talk as though the leftists are quite consciously running a grand conspiracy to silence, disempower, and disenfranchise them in the grand bazaar of American culture, but what we see on the ground is that leftists are far too oblivious about their privilege to be conspiring in that way.  As I read Ms. McIntosh’s paper for the first time some years ago, my observations of progressive privilege came immediately to mind.  Those observations helped me to understand Ms. McIntosh’s articulation of white privilege (to which I was at first very resistant).  It was in recognizing progressives’ unearned ideological privilege, which is too often wielded against me and mine, that I came to realize that, in many ways I, too, have enjoyed privilege – skin privilege – without having realized it.

Unlike Ms. McIntosh, I’m a young person living in the era of race’n’gender studies:  my schooling gave me some training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, and as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended not just on my own individual moral will, but also as a member of a class, whose overall moral state depends on its lack of advantage over other classes.  However, this critical analysis of privilege, oft touted by liberals, does not yet extend to liberalism itself.  Liberal schoolchildren are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when they work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow everyone else to be more like them.

I decided to provide a very small service for the broader field of critical studies by identifying some of the daily effects of privilege on the life of a liberal-progressive.  I have borrowed liberally (ha!) from Ms. McIntosh’s original article, identifying those conditions that I think are clearly associated with specifically ideological privilege, rather than mere ancillary privileges of class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location – although, as third-wave feminism insists, all those other factors are (of course) intricately intertwined.  At least here in my overwhelmingly white, deeply progressive, dearly beloved Twin Cities, here are a few conditions that my liberal friends, family, and acquaintances can count on… while conservatives cannot.

If I were a liberal-progressive…

1. I could, if I wished, arrange to be in the company of people of my ideology most of the time.

2. I could be pretty sure that my neighbors, knowing my ideology, would be neutral or at least pleasant to me.

4. I could turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my ideology positively represented.

5. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I would be shown that people of my ideology made it what it is.

6. I could be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the the existence of their ideology – as something other than an evil or a disease.

7. I could go into a music shop and count on finding music that affirms or at least represents my ideology.

8. I could curse, have extra-marital affairs, or otherwise be a terrible person without having people attribute these bad choices to the hypocrisy of my ideology (and everyone who follows it).

9. I could speak in public to large groups without putting my ideology on trial.

10. I could successfully communicate my reasons for adhering to my ideology without expecting to be called “one of the few sane ones”.

11. I would rarely, if ever, be asked to speak for all the people of my ideology.

12. When I erred or said something odious, my entire ideology would not be held responsible for my error.

13. I could remain oblivious of the language and customs of conservatives, who constitute the nation’s plurality, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

14. I could criticize our president and talk about how much I fear his policies and behavior without being accused of racism (or, under President Hillary, sexism).

15. I could be sure that if I asked to talk to “the person in charge” I would be facing a person of my ideology. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This may vary greatly by geography.  Here in the Twin Cities, though, it’s the gospel truth.)

16. If the IRS audited my tax return, I ccould be sure I hadn’t been singled out because of my ideology.

17. I could easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines that portray my ideology positively.

18. I could go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

19. If I were passed over for a new job, I could be sure it was not because my would-be employer objected to working with someone of my ideology.

20. I could choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my ideology are mistreated or cannot get hired in the places I have chosen.

21. I could be sure that, if I needed to appeal to the University’s justice system to appeal a grade or report inappropriate behaviour by a professor, my ideology would not work against me.  (Fortunately, I am no longer a student.)

22. If my day, week, or year were going badly, I would not need to ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had ideological overtones.

23. I could participate openly in politics and work for equal justice without fearing for my job, my spouse’s job, or the welfare of my children.

24. I would have positive and accurate media images of other adherents of my ideology, with whom I could readily identify.

25. When I met people, they would correctly assume my ideology; I would not ever have to “come out” as conservative.

26. When I want to talk about justice issues that matter a great deal to me, I could be confident that they would not be dismissed as irrelevant, optional, or – above all – “too controversial.”

In unpacking this invisible tote bag of liberal privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that, for the most part, liberal-progressives in my life take for granted.  I do not mean to imply that any of these perks are bad for the holder. Some of these varieties of privilege are only what one would want for everyone in a just society.  A few others, however, give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive. Even if not harmful for the holder, we ought to do what we can to eradicate them.

Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your ideology will not count against you in employment, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.

At about this point, Ms. McIntosh and I substantially part ways.  Her reaction to the discovery of white privilege was to import her feminist “outrage” (her word) into her racial analysis.  My reaction to the discovery of white privilege, on the other hand, was to get a lot more chill about ideological privilege, which I had hitherto seen as a conspiracy of oppression, but which I now recognize as something very similar to the unearned benefits of my skin color – something to watch out for, but nothing to lose my temper about.  I am not “truly distressed” by systemic, unearned privilege of any kind, including ideological ones, as Ms. McIntosh demands I become.

I think it’s good to be aware of these privileges, so that we can keep ourselves from spiraling into patterns of oppression.  I also think it’s important to examine the interlocking nature of these privileges, as third-wave feminism instructs.  For example, it is infinitely more difficult to be a black conservative or a female conservative than it is to be a straight white male conservative like me (just look at Maggie Gallagher or Clarence Thomas!), and this is terribly unfair.  In short, I am fully on board for the discussion of intersectionality.  And I think it’s important to search constructively for ways to level the national playing field for all disempowered groups.  Unlike Ms. McIntosh’s generation, my generation has been taught from the cradle that America’s meritocratic ideals are aspirational, not actual, and I’m sure there are plenty of ways we can correct these imbalances without employing the tools of coercion and discrimination.

But that has to begin with acknowledging all forms of privilege that define elite power structures in the United States – not just the ones that have university departments devoted to them.  One of those overlooked species is liberal privilege, which I have begun to articulate here.

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