Skip to content Skip to footer

How Mainstream Privilege Discourse Actually Bolsters the Status Quo

For many communities of color, direct action isn’t a privilege — it’s a means of survival.

Protesters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, gather at the State Capitol in resistance to the Trump agenda, January 20, 2017. (Photo: Paul Weaver / Flickr)

In recent months, liberal guardians of the status quo have repeatedly admonished leftists for their radicalism, dismissing their decisions to engage in direct action against fascist hate speech or go on strike for women’s rights as expressions not of revolutionary solidarity, but of racial, class or gender privilege.

It is far past time to debunk this idea. “Radical” views have never been a “luxury” that only straight white men can afford. Indeed, many of the chief originators and practitioners of radical theory and practice over the decades have themselves been Black, Brown, women, queer and trans — members of communities for whom direct action against oppression is not a privilege but a necessary means of survival.

When divorced from a revolutionary framework, discourses of privilege not only fail to threaten prevailing power structures but actively reinforce them by erasing the voices of radical people of color, prioritizing the agendas of white women and white gay and lesbian people over other oppressed communities, and undermining revolutionary organizing in favor of “non-privileged” electoral politics.

Silencing Radical Voices

Perhaps the most insidious facet of mainstream privilege discourse is how, in the name of lifting up the interests of people of color, it often serves to erase radical voices in those communities — both past and present — by claiming to speak for all marginalized people, even those who refuse to buy into its pro-Democrat “lesser evil” conclusions.

It should go without saying that communities of color are not monolithic. Yet the practitioners of liberal privilege politics often treat them as such. When the Guardian columnist Michael Arceneaux equates not voting in the last election to white privilege, how does this square with W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1956 article in The Nation, “I Won’t Vote“? There, the legendary Black socialist wrote, “There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”

How does it square, for that matter, with the militant legacy of Malcolm X, who described those in the pocket of the Democratic Party as “political chumps” and refused not only party labels but even the label of “American”? And what about the low-income Black Milwaukee residents who, in the words of the New York Times headline, “Didn’t Vote — and Don’t Regret It”? Can their abstention from last November’s election be written off as privilege, too?

The implication is that communities of color speak with one voice, that there is only one genuine “non-privileged” course of action to take, and that anyone who deviates from that faux consensus — even if they are people of color themselves — has been duped by false consciousness. It is a profoundly paternalistic analysis of real people facing real oppression, like the Milwaukee residents living in one of the poorest, most incarcerated communities in the country.

But this goes beyond discussions of electoral politics. This ahistorical paternalism has infected progressive discourse around direct action as well. In the aftermath of February’s fiery protests against neo-fascist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, [UC Berkeley] university officials and liberal pundits alike blamed the uprising on “outside agitators,” specifically white anarchists — as distinct from the good, responsible students who came together to clean up the broken glass the next morning.

The specter of the “outside agitator” is an extension of the “left-wing purist” discourse we heard around Green Party supporters and non-voters during the election. It is a narrative that, once again, attempts to erase the primacy of people of color in leading radical anti-fascist movements, from the armed self-defense of the Black Panthers, Young Lords and Brown Berets during the 1960s, to the recent Black-led rebellions against the police state in Ferguson and Baltimore.

The notion of direct action as privilege would no doubt come as a shock to turn-of-the-century journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who famously said that “the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Black home,” and to the increasingly recognized abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who advised in 1854 that “a good revolver” and “steady hand” presented the best defense against slave hunters. Time and time again, the multiracial history of the radical tradition defies those who would seek to whitewash it.

The Privilege of Privilege Politics

Yet the damage wrought by liberal privilege discourse is not confined to the erasure of people of color from radical history. Under the guise of elevating the concerns of all oppressed people, it in fact argues for the advancement of domestic policy priorities for some segments of the US population while relegating other racial and religious communities to the margins of the margins.

We see this over and over again in formulations of privilege in the United States, where the axis of privilege is defined chiefly by one’s relation to the issues prioritized most by white women, like abortion rights, and prioritized by well-off white gay and lesbian people, like marriage equality, while women of color and the rest of the LGBTQ2IA+ community are allowed to fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, the crises faced by incarcerated people, undocumented immigrants and transgender people, to say nothing of the foreign nationals dying under US bombs, are rarely if ever considered deal-breakers.

It was in this way that the liberal intelligentsia’s lesser-evils calculus last fall led to full-throated advocacy for Hillary Clinton. An equation more heavily weighted toward the survival of Muslim drone strike victims, or Black prisoners, or queer homeless teenagers, could not possibly have returned such a result.

“We [marginalized people] do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats opposed to Republicans,” queer commentator Morgana Visser wrote last fall in a rare and striking dissent from the dominant privilege paradigm. “If you feel safe under a Clinton administration, you are coming from a stance of privilege — while disregarding the oppressions of other marginalized people.”

Privilege and Counter-Revolution

Yet critical interventions like Visser’s remain few and far between. By and large, the progressive mainstream has advanced a counter-revolutionary politics that, in the name of “checking one’s privilege,” denies people any legitimate outlet for political activity beyond electoral reformism: voting Democratic every two years, calling their representatives and writing letters to the editor.

By deriding the historical cornerstones of social justice organizing — including critiques of electoralism, strikes, protests and confrontation with right-wing forces — as “privileged,” this discourse has come not only to actively undermine revolutionary politics but also to deny the legitimacy of any mass mobilization outside of the Democratic Party structure.

Strikes, for example, have been uncontroversial on the left for over a century. The general strike in particular holds near-religious reverence in radical circles as the closest thing to peaceful social revolution we are likely to get. But not for the self-righteous liberals who ridiculed participants in the March 8 Women’s Strike for having jobs to leave. One can only be thankful for the pithy reminder offered by the strike organizers: “Striking is not a privilege. Privilege is not having to strike.” After all, if even striking is now privileged, what is left to progressive activists other than the long march through the Democratic Party machine?

When revolution becomes denigrated as “privileged,” maintenance of the status quo becomes the order of the day.

Which is precisely the point: Behind all the faux progressive rhetoric, all the empty talk about intersectionality and liberation, these pundits have no plan beyond capitulation to the neoliberal Democratic Party. Their formulation of privilege leads activists to a political dead end, because if taking to the streets is too radical and harmful to oppressed communities, then they are left mired in white guilt, signing futile petitions and calling their Congressmen. When revolution becomes denigrated as “privileged,” maintenance of the status quo becomes the order of the day.

And liberal privilege discourse reflects these skewed priorities. It has become a race to the bottom to malign any possible radical action based on the identity of some of its advocates. This is not to discount the very real threats that marginalized groups are sure to face in any revolutionary situation. It is simply to observe that there is always someone with less privilege who stands to be harmed by any departure from the status quo. But that is an argument for inclusive and intersectional revolutionary organizing — not against revolution altogether. Using that grim reality as an excuse to stifle radical debates, rather than working in good faith to ensure certain communities are not left behind by revolutionary organizing, is the very opposite of woke.

Privilege theory remains useful in understanding how dominant groups accrue social benefits at the expense of the dominated. In practice, however, charges of privilege have been deployed opportunistically against third-party voters, non-voters, anti-fascists and anyone else deemed to have paid insufficient fealty to the current party of liberal pragmatism — that is to say the party of pragmatic war, pragmatic bank-coddling, and pragmatic caging of Black and Brown people.

This is no time for pragmatism, no time for reformism. The US empire has reformed itself for nearly 250 years, always toward newly refined modes of cruelty. We know the results of that grand settler-colonial experiment: 2 million people in prisons, a military empire unrivaled since Rome, poverty and infant mortality rates unprecedented in the industrialized world.

How many people has it killed in that time? How many families torn apart, lives ruined, human potentialities denied? It is an experiment that must be concluded as soon as possible. But for the liberal propagators of privilege politics, “as soon as possible” is much too soon.

That is a reactionary position. One might even called it privileged.