‘Privilege: The Secret Weapon of Right-Handed Scissors’

‘Privilege: The Secret Weapon of Right-Handed Scissors’ – V. Spike Peterson, 28.10.2016

As part of the Pankhurst lecture series, which aims to honour and continue Manchester’s radical political history, the University of Manchester was delighted to host Visiting Leverhulme Professor V. Spike Peterson on the subject of privilege.

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What is privilege?

While most of the world are right-handed people, approximately 10% are left-handed. For left-handed people, the world is often physically more complex to navigate. School desks are built for right-handed people. The numeric keypad on computer keyboards is on the right hand side. Even ballpoint pens work better for right-handed people. And if you’re right-handed, you are rarely confronted with difficulties that left-handed people face. In fact, you probably aren’t even aware of them.

As Professor Peterson showed at the very beginning of the lecture, privilege need not be a difficult concept to understand. Professor Peterson began with a simple story. On a visit to her sister’s house to complete a craft project for a family birthday, Professor Peterson picked up a pair of her sister’s scissors. They were crafted to fit comfortably into her sister’s dominant hand – the left one. In Professor Peterson’s right hand, they twisted uncomfortably. Straight lines were impossible. Feelings of frustration followed quickly – why didn’t she have any normal scissors in the house?

Professor Peterson used this story to illustrate the ways in which those of us with privilege rarely have to think about the difficulties faced by those who are oppressed. Right-handed scissors (defined as the norm, and left-handed scissors as the exception) illustrate not only the ways in which our own privileges are often invisible to us, but how quickly we can become angry when forced to confront them.

So what is privilege in the first place? Professor Peterson defined privilege as unearned advantages that are socially conferred on individuals associated with a particular social category (e.g., class, gender, race). You cannot opt out of these privileges: they are bestowed upon privileged groups by social systems, which in turn tend to be produced by our everyday actions (no matter how unconscious or unwilling this may be). Privilege is marked by four key features: the dominance of privileged groups in leadership positions; a tendency to be obsessed with control; their interests and issues are centred in culture, media and arts; and others are expected to identify with the privileged group (for example, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual).

Common misconceptions

Professor Peterson then addressed some of the common misconceptions that continually come up in conversations about privilege, namely;

  1. Those with privilege are happy; those who are oppressed are not.
    People with privilege may have thoroughly miserable lives, and those who are oppressed are not without joy. Privilege is not about happiness; it is about a societal set of structural advantages and disadvantages. Privilege simply ‘loads the dice’ in favour of privileged groups.
  2. People with privilege thinking ‘I’m not privileged!’
    Whether you realise or not, most of us have some degree of privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean that your life has been perfect and without any difficulties – it means benefiting from structural systems of oppression.
  3. Privileged people feeling ‘blamed’ for the past.
    People sometimes feel defensive in conversations about privilege. A common example is white people feeling they are being asked to apologise for slavery. But no individual is responsible for social institutions, or the history one inherits. But all individuals can pay attention to how we participate in institutions and deep rooted systems of oppression, especially the ways in which we continue to benefit from them – and could alter them!
  4. Revealing privilege is the same thing as naming and shaming.
    Revealing privilege is drawing attention to our own involvement in systems of power and oppression, showing us how the system continues to work (and how we can interrupt it).
  5. The system is meritocratic.
    Most of our institutions are structured around a series of privileges and oppressions, which benefit some at the disadvantage of others. Merit and hard work do matter in achieving success. But many who are very qualified and work hard lack privileges that would make success more likely. Some of these discriminatory practices may not have even been intended by those who created them, but are instead an unconscious reflection on the world we live in.

Importantly, Professor Peterson drew attention to the fact that we are encouraged to be blind to privilege by the people who stand to benefit from them. Systems of privilege are also supported by individualistic ideologies which blame the person for their problems, rather than structural barriers which disadvantage them; and by practices of comparing upwards (eg. ‘I can’t be privileged – because he’s richer than me!’), rather than noticing how much harder conditions are for those ‘below’ us.

How do systems of privilege operate?

Professor Peterson used Allan Johnson’s work on paths of least resistance to argue that power operates through the path of least resistance (eg. what you’re supposed to do in order to simply ‘go along’ and feel you belong). Often, all that is required for us to uphold systems of oppression is to acquiesce to what is normal – to follow expectations, even when laughing at a racist joke actually perpetuates racism. In this way, we all participate in systems of oppression, often without even realising it. While we can’t choose to live outside of social systems, we can choose how we interact with them. As such, we need to learn to recognise privilege when we see it, in order to begin to resist it.

What can I do?

Professor Peterson highlighted four simple ways in which we can begin to interrogate and dismantle these systems of privilege and oppression.

  1. Inform yourself of how power and privilege operate.
  2. Be aware of your own privileges and the pathways of least resistance they operate through.
  3. Don’t leave the difficult work of education and resistance to those who are oppressed.
  4. Take responsibility for your own participation.

 

See also ‘Power, Privilege, and Difference’, by Allan G. Johnson. McGraw-Hill Education, 2005.

 

 

 

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