March 23, 2018

It’s About Power, Not Privilege

Peter kaufman 2014 Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman and Todd Schoepflin

If you can’t tell by our profile pictures, we are both white male sociologists. We are also upper middle class, able-bodied, and heterosexual. With the exception of one of us being Jewish and the other being short (5’ 4”), we have enjoyed many privileges and advantages throughout our lives.

For the past few months, we have been closely following the #MeToo movement. It is clear that what started as a simple social media hashtag has blossomed into a potential bellwether of the changing gender landscape. We both feel strongly that sociologists should be lending their analytical insights to help understand and advance the efforts for gender equality. But what is the role for sociologists like us who approach the world though multiple positions of power and privilege? Should we weigh in and risk sounding clueless or stay quiet so that we can listen and learn from others?

We tend to side with those who argue that saying nothing is part of the problem; silence connotes complicity and apathy. Clearly, we do not and cannot understand the situation completely, fully, and experientially as women do. Nevertheless, we also realize that the problems are largely our responsibility: All of the –isms of intolerance will not be rectified unless privileged individuals like ourselves are actively part of the solution. But the solution is to not just recognize our privilege; rather, we must recognize and relinquish our social power.

Consider all of the stories that are coming out about men behaving egregiously—cases of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, intimidation, and violence. Whereas the general public and most media commentators have latched onto the concept of “male privilege” to analyze and contextualize these crimes, the truth is that they are all really about the unequal power balance between women and men.

In too many instances, the mainstream media is stuck on the sanitized language of privilege. As one commentator astutely pointed out, “privilege is clickbait.” And sociologists may not be immune to focusing on privilege and excluding an analysis of power. For example, many sociology students are assigned Peggy McIntosh’s classic essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Reading this essay is an important first step in thinking more critically about these issues. But equally important is extending this preliminary analysis to consider the underlying dimensions of privilege: structural and institutional power.

Although focusing on privilege does foster reflection, which can be valuable, there is limited utility in checking our privileges. To be clear, individuals like us do have many privileges and those privileges matter. While such acknowledgement can be important in its own right, it is more critical to focus on systems of power and oppression. Privilege reflection falls short when it fails to confront much less call for the dismantling of the unequal status quo.

We are not pointing out an insignificant difference of semantics. Language matters. The words we use to frame the problem become the markers we point to for the resolution of the problem. If privilege is all that we are concerned about, then mitigating privilege will be the main focus of our efforts. But even if we fully empty our invisible backpacks of privilege, the real generator of these inequalities, the societal power imbalances between women and men (as well as all other relationships based on power differentials—i.e., race), will remain unresolved.

Ask yourself: Are people excluded, ignored, harassed, assaulted, and even killed because they are lacking privilege? Or do they receive unjust and unfair treatment because they are lacking social power? We can even bring this to a personal level: It is not a privilege for us to be white, upper middle class, heterosexual able-bodied men; it is powerful. And unless we are willing to acknowledge, share, and ultimately renounce some of this power, the imbalance of power will never be equalized.

We can point to some specific examples:

To talk about privilege when we really mean power is to minimize and ignore the structural underpinnings of societal arrangements. We cannot overlook that some groups have more power than others. This power grants them access to resources, which enable their ability to navigate the social world more successfully and more safely. Other groups have less power and are saddled with societal rules that constrain their ability to grow, function, and prosper. These are what Émile Durkheim famously referred to as basic social facts and they must be part of the conversation.

We are by no means the first ones to raise these points. For many years, critical sociologists and intersectional feminists have been arguing that we need to shift the discussion to a focus on structural power. We especially appreciate the recent analyses of Rebecca Traister and Roxane Gay. So isn’t it time to finally heed their call? For power relations to fundamentally change, it will require a lot more than acknowledging or checking our privileges at the door. The #MeToo movement reminds us that gender inequality is more about power than privilege. In short, to fight against all the isms—sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism—is to fight the power.

So, what should we do? Specifically, what should individuals like us who have a lot of social power do? What contributions can we make as powerful men? One suggestion we embrace comes from feminist scholar and activist bell hooks. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center she encourages men like us to be “true comrades in struggle.” More specifically, she argues that we must be more vocal in our opposition to sexism; we must share responsibility in the effort to eradicate sexism; we must confront, oppose, and transform the sexism of our male peers; and we must work with others to transform male consciousness.

As individuals with social power, we need to learn to appropriately navigate the path of social change. We need to be on stage without necessarily or automatically taking the leading role. Men (especially white men) are accustomed to having their voices centered and amplified. We both have attended many meetings in which men (and sometimes we are guilty of this) loudly assert their opinions and points of view while others struggle to be heard (see: mansplaining). Those of us with social power need to do a much better job of listening, reflecting, collaborating, and sometimes even shutting up and stepping aside.

Ultimately, if we have any hope of eradicating social inequality and injustice, we must willingly speak and act in terms of power and not just privilege. After all, if it looks like power, operates like power, dominates like power, manifests like power, harms like power, controls like power, divides like power, and exploits like power, then it's probably about power, not privilege.

Comments

Hi, this was the first article I read from Everyday Sociology Blog, and I learned a lot. However, there is one aspect that I want to go more in depth. It has to do with navigating social change. While I do believe that navigating social change is an important thing to take action in, where do you draw the line? As much as people would like to take part in social change, what happens when it could cost them a promotion at their job or a similar situation. When you said, "Other groups have less power and are saddled with societal rules that constrain their ability to grow, function, and prosper." It spoke volumes to me. You talk about how we can navigate social change, but we can only do so much. What can those who face social inequality and injustice do?

great, thanks for sharing useful information

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