REMEMBER the day I typed ‘privilege’ into etymonline like it was yesterday. I don’t know why I love etymologies so much, but I think it’s because they’re so very telling sometimes: the origins of the word seem so often to reveal a function of the word usually covered over by current definitions and usages; a kind of que(e)r(y)ing. Privilege, as it turns out, means ‘law applying to one person,’ or, more clearly, ‘individual law.’ This had me incredibly excited, because this is, in lots of ways, the way that privilege actually works. Or, better, how it feels: it’s pretty clear that privilege doesn’t simply apply to a single person—institutions, discourse, customs, interpersonal relations, language and even, I would argue, embodiment, all function together (though rarely fully coherently, as Foucault is at pains to demonstrate) to maintain the privilege of particular groups. But one of the strongest fantasies that mark privilege is the illusion that the subject is wholly self-sufficient. The law of the individual.
The claim of self-sufficient individuality is incredibly powerful, in a huge variety of ways. As Butler, following Foucault and Derrida, demonstrates that in claiming that the subject is ‘before the law,’ the law itself maintains a two-fold fantasy: that all subjects are equal before the law, and that the law is only the product of the people—and is certainly not that which produces the subjects it addresses (give Althusser a wave, kids!) By repeatedly (and repetitively, it has to be said!) claiming the primacy of the individual, the law (in the most general as well as specific senses) retains its unquestionable status, its authority. But it goes further than this, and here I’m going to be drawing on Rosalyn Diprose’s work in Corporeal Generosity a fair bit, though not explicitly.
This kind of radical individuality permits the denial of the fact that I only am because there are others (though this isn’t just a Levinasian point). The possibility of being able to say ‘I,’ of being (even capable of it) is premised on the peculiar culture we live in. (I think I remember Deleuze saying somewhere that we always assume that the ‘edge’ of ‘my’ ‘body’ marks my individuality, but that this is merely a function of the culture (he doesn’t say culture) in which we are currently living. It gave me that heady, fevered sensation I always get when reading Deleuze; a little like too much wasabi for the mind :-)). But more than this, ‘I’ doesn’t make sense except in a context. And this context, of course, is filled with others. As numerous scholars have pointed out (from the obscure texts of Lacan (I’m sorry, but that’s how I remember him!) to Levinas to Merleau-Ponty to Irigaray), it is only because others are different from me that I ever get a sense of myself, that I ever become a subject, that I ever say ‘I’. This isn’t just a cognitive belief, but something we embody; it informs all the ways that we are in the world (at least lots of the time, however shaky my ‘I’ might be).
In this way, it is the generous gift of difference that enables me to be. (See also the Merleau-Ponty post.) And this is not just a thing that happens at some point early in life, after which all is settled (take that, psychoanalysis!) Rather, it is perpetually in process, and must remain so. In addition, the distinction between me and other(s) is the basis upon which language can be and happen, that all meaning is built. It is the basis upon which community—which might appear and often functions as if it is all about sameness (commonness, unity)—can exist.
Privilege, then, this private law, this law of the individual, enables and indeed necessitates the denial of these gifts, the forgetting of them, as Diprose puts it. It is only in refusing to accept that I am who I am only because others are other, in denying this relation, that I can claim self-sufficient individuality, that site of privilege shaped by privilege. This, Diprose says, is theft. This theft, in the end, is privilege: the ability to claim that I am who I am alone, without others: that I am white all on my own (as if I didn’t need racialised others for ‘white’ to make sense), that I am male all on my own (as if I didn’t need women to be my mirror), that I am normal (as if this did not rely upon others being deemed abnormal), that I am able-bodied (as if this were not a claim made possible only because others are not), that I am unambiguously sexed (as if that didn’t depend on intersexed and trans people to mean anything at all), that I am straight all on my own (without the defining queerness)…
I am only because of others, a huge variety of generous others. *This,* in response to FiD’s question over at the lovely Thinking Girl’s blog on a Kevin aka Thin Black Duke of Slant Truth post, is why *I* am personally interested and yes, invested, in ‘battles’ that may not be my ‘own’. Privilege doesn’t just affect an individual; it squashes and reduces others and their difference into being nothing more than a mirror that reproduces that privilege (which in the end gives all of us fewer ways to be not to mention lots more paranoia and hurt). We see the nasty effects of that kind of thinking happening in Oz right now. So I know how white privilege squashes difference and causes sufferng; just like I know more how male privilege does the same; alongside the privilege of being unambiguously sexed, (temporarily) able-bodied, normal, middle-class, straight… the list goes on (and of course, I’m not even getting into the ‘intersections’ of these marks (though Ian Barnard’s piece ‘Queer Race’ troubles some traditions of intersectionality on this point. (Sorry, can’t seem to find ref! It might be from his book of that title, but I was almost sure it was a 1999 article…)). Some of these privileges are ones I hold, and I know that the continuation of that privilege and the attendant disadvantage to a whole mass of other people which is the condition of its possibility, is dependent upon (amongst lotsa other things) the privileged not being aware of their privilege; i.e., not being aware of difference. Forgetting the generosity of others, not least the difference that allows them to be. Assuming that they are, actually, simply self-sufficient individuals naturally accorded the benefits they bear which they don’t recognise as such, because they’re supposedly just the result of the natural way for individuals to be: if you’re white, you naturally get money and recognition and acceptance; if you’re straight, you naturally get the protection of the state for your relationships and kids. And so on. You get the idea.
So I try to be aware of the privilege I bear, as white, able-bodied, unambiguously sexed (most days ;-)) middle-class and vaugely normal, because I know that it regularly functions to reproduce hegemonic formations of subjectivity—both my own, those of others like me, and worst of all, those not. I try to remember that it is only because of the generosity of others that I can be, speak, write, shower, love, read, laugh, walk down the street, feel, touch, cry, blog. Others are, therefore I am… Therein lies my ‘personal reasons’ for wanting to be politically ‘involved’ in working against homogenisation—against racialisation, for example, and for the ‘rights’ (for want of a way way better, less liberal, term) of POC, amongst very very many others. I am only because others are generous. My denial of that fact is not just theft, not just ungenerous; that is privilege.