Privilege: A Reader
A historian once said that the more one can know about something, the more you can control it. Michel Foucault was specifically talking about the control of psychiatric patients, prison inmates, and people's sex lives, but we can certainly extend his thoughts to a plethora of other examples. What Foucault did not say, however, was how exposing and learning about power and dominance can lead to their dismantling.
After more than two decades since his passing, the inheritors of Foucault's ideas make an appearance in a handsome new book that explores the invisible power of privilege; namely the privilege of being White, heterosexual, and middle class in America. Privilege: A Reader is a collection of essays compiled and edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, both scholarly experts in masculinities and ethnic studies respectively. The book takes on a welcoming and accessible feel with essays that come a personal place, many written from a first-person perspective by heavyweights like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Tim Wise.
Some, like Allan Bérubé's experience as a gay rights activist brings to light the complications of being White in anti-racist gay rights movement. Not being White, I found Bérubé's angst about pointing out the Whiteness of influential gay groups in the U.S. an eyeopener. For White people, it seems, it was convenient to remain racially invisible and to depend on the unspoken rules about keeping that Whiteness unchecked. Awkward silences, defensiveness, and hostility form the repertoire of White discomfort when the racial gaze is turned to Whiteness.
In Michael A. Messner's piece on "Becoming 100 Percent Straight," he raises questions that heterosexual people rarely ask: how do we know for sure we're straight? And what made us straight? Messner's question is interwoven in a study of his own sexuality that touches on his memories as a young man who was infatuated with a male classmate and friend. In repressing this infatuation, he belittles and rejects his friend—a process Messner calls the heterosexualisation of his masculinity.
With every chapter I am reminded of the discomfort the topic of privilege raises and how important that it should remain unsettling. I learn that Black men and working class White people, as privileged groups, are highly contested categories in the face of institutional racism and poverty. And dishearteningly, I discover that the gateway to social mobility undermined by the unearned privilege of being accepted to Ivy League colleges by virtue of having parents who are alumni.
Kimmel and Ferber's book takes us on a journey of self-reflection, of deconstructing the power of invisibility, and asks us some difficult questions about our many roles in maintaining oppression. But it does not try leave us beset with racial or class guilt. Rather, it invites us to pursue, both on a theoretical and practical level, ways of recognising the overlapping nature of social privileges and overcoming differences in the name of solidarity against oppressions.
Though Privilege: A Reader could be a more comprehensive, far-reaching catalogue of dominance, both insidious and overt, if it had taken on board the narrative of privilege from other non-White experiences and interrogated what being able-bodied and cisgendered mean. The absence of trans, disabled, Asian, and Native American voices speaks, ironically, of Kimmel's and Ferber's privilege of omitting these important experiences that are key to dismantling the edifice of privilege.
I praise Privilege: A Reader nonetheless, for its courage to speak from a place that prefers to remain silent, for raising attention to a things that want to stay hidden, and its overall critique of life's many taken for granted experiences and “common sense.” I'm sure Foucault would be proud of that.