Monday, July 25, 2016

Considering the Language of Privilege

Anna Kegler's (@annakegler) HuffPost piece "The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility" ( has produced good dialogue among my friends this week. I was particularly happy to see it because her discussion of how the language of social-justice movements lose efficacy over time was a perfect counter-point to another conversation I'd been having in which a self-described "conservative who is sort of on the BLM side" told me I was making a "tactical error" in using language such as "white privilege" because that causes conservatives to tune-out who might otherwise be allies against injustice. 

My incredulous response was to assert that it is a reification of white privilege to insist that the conversation be had in terms that wouldn't offend. Kegler's piece, had I been able to share it in that moment, would have provided me better language to explain that "white privilege" is already sugarcoated. Like Aslan peeling Eustace's dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I think that addressing our complicity in racial injustice is an issue that requires more force of will than most of us can muster on our own. 

Kegler describes the linguistic gymnastics that white america performs to distance, deflect, and dismiss our responsibility for racial injustice. She makes the point that her article is not proposing new language, but instead seeks to address underlying causes. Like Kegler, I think that the issue is deeper than the language we use to talk about privilege, and a true solution needs to address underlying white fragility. I think that language can be one avenue to call attention to and galvanize peoples' will against injustice. 

A familiar refrain in discussions of white privilege is the counter-example: in this-or-that situation, I do not enjoy privilege; or, such-and-such is white and also poor and disenfranchised. To me, what these counter-examples lay bare is the fact that privilege, like identity, is intersectional, and requires a language that is flexible enough to account for power-shifts between and among facets of identity. 

Unlike Kegler, I do want to propose language. The term I'd like to propose is "prerogative from power." The term "white privilege," as proposed by Peggy McIntosh describes a set of "unearned assets" that a white person could more-or-less count on having at her/his disposal. Recent discussions of racial injustice with white friends has reinforced for me that using privilege to point out injustice is a prerogative; a white person may choose to actively take advantage of their power to ignore injustice, be tacitly complicit with that power to ignore injustice, or use their privilege to actively work against injustice. The point is that they have that choice-or prerogative-as an asset, where a person of color cannot escape the additional stress and complexity of racial injustice. What I think works particularly well about "prerogative from power" is that the same idea and term can be applied to privilege related to religion, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, etc., as well as the intersections of these identities. I also think "prerogative from power" addresses Kegler's criticism that "white privilege" is too soft. Moreover, I think "prerogative from power" provides a way to call attention to choices that people make (or don't) based on their privilege.  

What are your thoughts on the term "prerogative from power?" Does it capture the meaning of "white privilege" for you? Where does it fall short?