Privilege + Power = “-ism”

Let’s say that Andy is a white male. He’s 23, has a low-paying, unskilled job, and no education beyond 11th grade high school. Not a privileged individual by any means. Andy is also what most people would consider to be sexist. Andy truly believes that women are less intelligent than males and should submit to their male spouses. Andy also shares similarly discriminatory views against people of color, homosexuals, and people with disabilities, to name only a few. Andy is clearly a bigot and holds prejudiced views.

Now, let’s step back for a moment and consider the model of oppression where an -ist action is defined by “privilege + power.” With this model, a person of privilege cannot be the victim of an -ism, only a victim of prejudice. With this theory, I cannot be guilty of sexism because I am a female and do not have power to add to my prejudice. Andy, similarly, cannot be the victim of sexism, even if Jill from Accounting doesn’t like him strictly because he is a male.

The question that I have, though, is what power does Andy have to add to his privilege? He’s economically disadvantaged and under-educated. The lack of pigment in his skin doesn’t do anything for him, nor does his sex; he isn’t a respected member of his society and is given no power to use against anyone.

Am I capable of being a racist if I have no power to add to my prejudice (this is hypothetical)? I’m white, but I’m not in a position to oppress anyone in a way that isn’t entirely circumstantial; therefore, no power exists. Right? Or not?

I’m not trying to get out of being called out on unintentional racism or other -isms I’m not aware of (who intentionally acts in an -ist manner, anyway?). I’m just curious about what seems like a “loophole” or potential flaw of sorts in this particular argument.

…And, furthermore, is President Obama capable of racism? If he is prejudiced against white people or any other race or ethnicity, does the ultimate power of President of the United States remove his exemption as a person of color from being racist?

I’m not standing on one side or another here, just asking what people think about this.

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36 Responses to Privilege + Power = “-ism”

  1. A.Y. Siu says:

    Seems to be a false dichotomy here. It isn’t you’re either privileged or unprivileged. Most people are privileged in some ways and unprivileged in others.

    If you want to know what privileges Andy has, consult the male privilege checklist:

    • ethifem says:

      I can nearly recite that particular Male Privilege Checklist by heart.

      We can agree that Andy has some privileges but not others.

      …Which just made me mentally slap myself for realizing that what you said was the one missing piece to my puzzle. If we’re asking whether or not Andy can be considered racist for being prejudiced against black people, when he has few privileges himself, then it can be logically concluded that, if he is white and guilty of prejudice against other races or ethnicities, then he is “racist” and not simply “prejudiced.” i.e., he has “white privilege” and therefore cannot be oppressed for being white, because being white is already a privilege. While any random black person that he hates for being black could be more privileged than Andy in an educational or economic sense, that doesn’t have anything to do with Andy’s race.

      Although, how would Andy, with few other privileges other than “white” and “male” (male being irrelevant here because we’re assuming that he is also prejudiced against males of color, not just females) have “power” over a person of color? He can’t use any financial or political power to oppress POC, because he doesn’t have either of those. Any independent physical force he could use against a male POC could be equally met by the POC, if they have similar physiques. And if they had very different physiques, well, Andy still has the ability to be physically assaulted by a more physically powerful POC.

      Are there any oppressions, or a combination of them, that make utilizing power from a supposed privileged part of your identity impossible? It seems that Andy’s lack of education and wealth would prohibit him from using powers to oppress that he is theorized to have.

  2. Danny says:

    One thing that I think people who go with the -ism = power + privilege miss is that in their efforts to highlight the systematic they erase the individual. In your example here they would say that Jill of accounting is not being sexist simply because she does not match the gender of those who have institutional power.

    Whether intentional or not to say that Jill is not being sexist is an attempt to say that she does not have any power despite however she might treat him.

    Honestly I think that people that try to push this definition of an -ism are trying to give a group (usually a group they are a part of) a loophole to spare themselves from being called -ist.

    • Andrea says:

      Umm, that’s because racism is systemic. Racism (or sexism or whatever ism) is powerful exactly because it is systemic. These ism are the structures by which heteronormative, white-centric ideologies are perpetuated. There’s no loophole. You can still be prejudiced, and an ass-hole, no matter who you are. But if you’re black, say, and engage in prejudiced opinions and behavior against white people, you are not participating in a power structure that systemically oppresses white people. You are engaging in a singular act of prejudice. Sheesh.

    • ethifem says:

      I tried to leave this comment in response to your own post, but I can’t seem to get my comment to be accepted.

      With this model, we take a word that already has a defninition in English dictionaries (“racism”) and we start using the word to mean something else (“institutionalized racism”), and get really upset and yell when someone doesn’t understand how their Latino neighbor is no longer capable of being racist, when our dictionaries makes it pretty clear that he can be.

      I just don’t understand why “institutionalized racism” isn’t used when that is what is meant. When was it decided that a phrase’s most important descriptor be dropped? It doesn’t make any sense.

    • Daran says:

      I also could not reply to your post. The problem for me was that when I got the “word verification” challenge, there was no box for me to enter my response. I you want people to comment, you may need to disable this feature.

      Here’s my reply:

      Racism has nothing to do, in the end, with individuals,

      Part of the problem here is that the word is so often applied to individuals, that this claim, (which is a claim about usage) tends to sound rather hollow.

      Accepting it, for the sake of discussion, I still do not agree with this:

      …even if you are a highly educated, rich, and brilliant black person [etc.] you cannot [participate in the structure of racism].

      Yes you can, but not against white people. You can contribute to the suck that less educated, rich, and brilliant black, etc., people have to put up with.

    • Andrea says:

      I suppose you’re right in a way, Daren, that you can contribute to the sucky lives of black people worse off than you, but you’re still doing it outside of the constraints of “institutionalized racism” because structurally, it is not black people oppressing black people. It is whiteness that oppresses black people. My point is that racism is a large systemic structure by which whiteness oppresses people of color. And even if the dictionary simplifies the term, it is fairly well accepted in race studies to signal this structure.

    • Andrea says:

      Oh, and thanks for the heads up about comment moderation. I’ve turned off word verification, so hopefully blogger will cooperate.

    • Daran says:

      I don’t agree that whitishness oppresses black people. It’s systemically-inescapable sucky attitudes/treatment which oppress black people.

      If a remark by John McCain disparaging poor black people is racist, then the same remark (about black people. I’m not talking about a inversion) made by Obama should be viewed as similarly racist. To argue otherwise both contradicts your stated principle that it “has nothing to do … with individuals” and dismisses the harm such acts cause when the perpetrator is black.

    • ethifem says:

      My point is that racism is a large systemic structure by which whiteness oppresses people of color.

      That’s the point, though. It’s not “racism” that is a large systemic structure, it is “institutionalized racism.” (and sexism, and homophobia, etc.) I get institutionalized -isms, but what frustrates me, as a person who appreciates using words as they’re defined, when words are re-defined by various groups of people. The fact that it is well-accepted in acedemia is even more frustrating to me, because I still don’t understand why they took “institutionalized” out of the picture, thus creating a new definition for “racism” than what’s in the dictionary. If the phenomenon requires it’s own word instead of a phrasae, then we should create one, but not take it upon ourselves to appropriate a word that is already widely understood to mean something else.

      Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in any way suggesting that institutionalized racism (or sexism, etc) is not a problem, or not as much of a problem as it is touted to be in acedemic or social justice blogs or circles. I just wish to avoid the constant confusion by using terms the way they are officially defined.

    • Andrea says:

      Just out of curiosity, how would you differentiate between the terms “racism” and “prejudice”? Daran, unfortunately for me, I’m studying for my Oral Exams right now, and don’t have a ton of time for a conversation as thoughtful as I’d like it to be. If you’ll give me a few days to work up a response, I’d appreciate it. I don’t just want to rattle something off without a little research. But I have some thoughts on what you’ve said and would like to address them in a little bit.

    • Andrea says:

      My initial thought, however, is that racism is an historically loaded term with its roots in colonialization. Since the power exerted by the colonizers on the colonized was necessarily a one way street, it is this dynamic that is repeated in contemporary instances of racism.

    • ethifem says:

      I did not think about it that way. Good point. Although I think I still stand by my initial view about dictionary definitions being the most reliable, and therefore easy to use as a definitive source. The reason for that is just because the connection to colonization is implied rather than defined by the word on it’s own.

    • ethifem says:

      As far as differentiating between “racism” and “prejudice,” I would actually say that the two are not necessarily different so much as dependent on one another. “Racism” is a type of prejudice, as is sexism or homophobia. If I were to describe someone as “prejudiced,” as opposed to being specific about the type of prejudice that they exhibit, I would do so about a person who holds many types of -ist views, like “Andy” used in the example in the post, because he is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc and doesn’t limit his prejudice feelings toward just one, easily-identifiable word.

      Now I’m going to check the dictionary, because you’ve got be wondering if I might be not 100% correct in my usage. 😉

    • Andrea says:

      Okay, so I finally broke down and looked some things up. This is the definition I found in the dictionary for racism: “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.” Okay, now the first line says “a belief or doctrine”. A doctrine is a system. There is a system/doctrine for racism against people of color. There is no system or doctrine of racism against white people.

    • ethifem says:

      Well in that case, it looks like we’re both right.

      Belief is individual, doctrine is institutional. It can be either or, according to the dictionary definition. Which means… you and I have the capability of being sexist, and a person of color can be racist. In individual contexts only, of course.

      I actually read that same definition, but didn’t consider the nuances of the use of “doctrine.” Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Daran says:

      Andy doesn’t like black people. But he’s never given so much as a moment’s thought in his life about “inherent differences” or “cultural and personal achievement”. Does that mean that he can’t be racist?

    • ethifem says:

      Daran- Under this particular model, I’d say no. Which of course sounds absurd, which is why I still think that this model is flawed.

    • Daran says:

      I’d say is was incomplete. According to this source, “racism” and “racist” date from the 1930’s and were originally used “in the context of Nazi theories”. The “belief or doctrine” definition is clearly applicable. Of course, words can change their meaning, and acquire new ones over time, and so “racism” has, in popular usage, acquired the usage “discrimination or prejudice based on race.”

      Dictionary definitions describe some of the ways that words are used. They do not prescribe how words should be used. There is no objection in principle to using ordinary words as terms of art within a field of discourse.

  3. Daran says:

    I think the answer is: When Joe hurls a racial slur at Leroy, he’s contributing to what makes Leroy’s life inescapably sucky. Hearing a racial slur from Leroy may be unpleasant for Joe, but it’s not something he can never escape from.

    • sanguinedream says:

      While that may be true that should not be enough to say that what Leroy said to Joe is not racist. Sure the historic baggage between the two is very different. You can even show how what Joe said to Leroy is more offensive. But that baggage should not be enough to spare Leroy from being called racist.

  4. Daran says:

    But that baggage should not be enough to spare Leroy from being called racist.

    The goal isn’t to spare Leroy, but to illustrate the fact that Leroy and Joe aren’t similarly situated.

    • Danny says:

      If that is the case then I say that for at least as long as racist is such a strongly charged word there should be some other way to describe the difference between Leroy and Joe. Given that they are using race for their respective insults that still makes it racist in my book. Yes one is more racist than the other but they are both racist.

  5. N says:

    Precise language like this is clearly valuable for certain contexts and purposes. Having a conversation with ‘Andy’ is probably not one of them.

    In our quasi-academic conversation here, what are we trying to hash out? The definition of words?

    I appreciate A.Y. Siu’s focus on nuance, but I still really don’t understand exactly what we are working out? Is ‘Andy’ rascist? Yes.

    • ethifem says:

      In our quasi-academic conversation here, what are we trying to hash out? The definition of words?

      Yes, that’s precisely what we’re trying to work out, I think. At least, that’s where I was coming from in writing the post. The quasi-academics who defined “racism” (or other -isms) as “power+privilege” were defining words in ways they saw fit, and while the definition of an “-ism” as “privilege + power” makes sense in most circumstances, there are enough people who are tired of being labeled a whatever-ist that it seems worthy of consideration.

    • ethifem says:

      In addition to my previous comment, I think that we have to be very clear about the fact that we are using “racism” to mean “power + prejudice.” With that working definition, where is Andy’s power? His implied power supposedly comes form his race, but how does he utilize his “power” if he has no means with which to do it? Without power, wouldn’t he then be simply “prejudiced” against people of color?

    • N says:

      Are these definitions, i.e. *ism, useful when describing an individual? Perhaps, its best to use *ism to describe systems and institutions, while simply leaving adjectives such as prejudice and bigoted for individuals?

      A person can be prejudiced because of racism, but racism is a description of systematic or instutional realities, not that person’s attitudes?

    • Desipis says:

      My understanding is that in the context on individuals a racist action would be one that supports the racist systems and institutions. To someone focused on combating such systems its probably important to be able to distinguish between prejudices that support the systems and prejudices that don’t.

      However, I understand that the mainstream understanding of racism is about racial prejudices irrespective whether they are part of a broader system.

    • ethifem says:

      Your explanation really made me think about how it actually might be accurate, even though Andy doesn’t have any “power” over, let’s say Leroy to keep it consistent, in any meaningful sense. Are you saying that Andy is racist because he is in support of current racist institutions and systems that he does benefit from in some way or another, but Leroy, even given his dislike for Andy simply because he is white, cannot be racist because he is not in support of the current racist institutions and systems?

      Let me know if I misinterpreted anything.

      That almost seems like a third definition for racism. Because my question still stands, about how Andy has any power over Leroy or any other person of color without any actual privileges that allow him to use that power. But yours brings a new element to the argument with mentioning supporting the institutions.

    • Daran says:

      That almost seems like a third definition for racism. Because my question still stands, about how Andy has any power over Leroy or any other person of color without any actual privileges that allow him to use that power. But yours brings a new element to the argument with mentioning supporting the institutions.

      I’m assuming that each one’s power in respect of the other is no more than that they can hurl racial abuse at the other.

      They are therefore similarly situated in that each can make the other’s day miserable. The difference between them is that Andy’s insult is an instantiation of that which makes Leroy’s life miserable. Andy’s power is that he can escape the Leroy’s of this world. Leroy cannot escape the Andy’s of this world.

    • Desipis says:

      Andy’s power is that he can escape the Leroy’s of this world.

      I don’t see Andy has having that power. Andy is in no position to escape the the racist taunts of his co-worker/boss/customer Leroy (he probably can’t afford to just quit). If he was, that power wouldn’t be something he had because he was a white man.

    • Daran says:

      …If he was, that power wouldn’t be something he had because he was a white man.

      I think you have this backwards. If Andy’s available choices are so restricted that he cannot escape from situations where he is subject to ongoing racial abuse, then that must be because of factors related to Andy other than his race.

    • ethifem says:

      I think what you say is true, for the most part. But if Andy is in a position where he is surrounded by people of color who hate white people, he can’t always escape it. Sure, he can escape if he’s in a restaurant or at a park or buying groceries. But not if he lives in a predominately black neighborhood because it also happens to be the only area he can afford to live in. As one example, anyway.

      No. I do understand your point and it is a good one. But ultimately, I still think that the “power + privilege” argument is flawed. There are too many facets of prejudice and oppression that it’s nearly impossible to account for everything with just one theory or model.

    • Desipis says:

      You seem to have the interpretation correct, and I guess it would be a third interpretation.

    • ethifem says:

      I totally agree.

      One thing i noticed, though, is that in your first comment, you said that yes, Andy is racist. Outside of the “power + privilege” sphere, I don’t think anyone would question that Andy is a racist. On the other hand, most people, usually the same ones who would call Andy racist, would also call Leroy from previous comments racist without hesitation, because it’s understood that prejudice based on race = racism. Here, the definition is skewed in such a way that Leroy is incapable of being racist, and Andy is only capable of being racist, not merely prejudiced.

      It’s just funny that, because of the context of the post, I read your comment that said yes, Andy is racist, and immediately thought no, he’s not. When if I were in any other place, I wouldn’t think twice about calling him one, because it sounds the most accurate.

      Ahh, language…

  6. David K. says:

    I think a better working definition of racism on the level of individuals (institutional racism is different) would be:

    “Racism = prejudice + action”

    -which removes thorny debates about “privilege” or “power” that a person might (or might not) have by virtue of belonging to a demographic group and concentrates on how people use the power they have as and individual and enhances individual moral accountability.

    The racist person acts on their prejudice in ways available to them: obviously racist ethnic-majority police officers and employers can do more and different harm than a racist unemployed youth from an ethnic minority, but as far as they exercise the power they have to harm people based on their prejudices, they are all three of them racist.

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