Should the Left check its privilege?

Juliana Qian

There is a false opposition drawn in many conversations between what is supposedly traditional or ‘core’ Left thinking and these tricky new-fangled ideas about privilege and intersectionality. But the best parts of the Left have always been founded on self-determination, on oppressed peoples’ naming of struggles and speaking truth to power. Nothing about this is new. It’s not additional or peripheral. What can meaningfully be called ‘the Left’ if not the interrogation of how power relations intertwine to pervade our lives, beliefs and movements?

I know, I know: at its worst, privilege-checking is petty, solipsistic and fastidiously dogmatic. It both over-generalises and individualises. It reifies identities as it deploys them in a bid for transformative change. But the same could probably be said for any ideology or movement. Without intersectionality, the Left is cutting off its nose to spite its face: the issue is, first and foremost, a simple demand that it should think and act in ways that are more astute, more thorough and more strategic.

While intersectionality is now used in relation to colonisation, ableism, cissexism and myriad other forms of oppression, it owes its intellectual debt to African-American feminism. Intersectionality was first named by law professor and black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, though you can find similar analysis in Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech, delivered in 1851. At its core is the understanding that race and gender aren’t merely additives in the experiences of black women; these oppressions intersect in ways that can’t be extricated and that require specific analysis.

The Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977 says:

We are socialists […] We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.

This is intersectionality at its best: powerful collective analysis that pushes the Left to a more meaningful and material understanding of living in oppressive systems.

The rejection of intersectionality among the Left tends to defer rather than deny the truth of such analyses. The deferral typically affirms an economy of scarcity, as though we can only afford one struggle, one identity. It calls upon a sense of urgency to demand fidelity to ‘core’ values and goals, whether socialist, anarchist or broadly progressive, as if the disembodied construction of ‘the worker’ or ‘the citizen’ represents all our needs equally.

Without intersectionality, we allow our processes and tactics to undermine our goals. Three recent examples of this are the ‘Multiculturalism: What Are We Afraid Of?’ forum held by the State Library of NSW, the ‘Lock the Gate’ campaign against coal seam gas extraction and the ‘We’re All Boat People’ slogan. I’ll discuss the first two in more detail.

The multiculturalism forum was scheduled for 19 March and was to be chaired by Imogen Bailey, with panellists Julian Burnside, Phil Glendenning, Jack Thompson and Louise Whelan. In the days before the event, people of colour networks circulated and discussed the forum web page. Because the bios introducing each speaker detailed their interests and achievements but made no mention of their cultural or ethnic background, we deduced they were all white. But despite the all-white panel, the event’s publicity materials used an image of Stan and Marie Deynua, a Liberian couple residing in Goulburn, taken by Whelan a few years earlier.

A number of people challenged the State Library of NSW by email, Facebook and Twitter. I wrote:

I am pretty horrified that the State Library of NSW is putting on an event that frames discussion of multiculturalism around asking Anglo-Australians what ‘we’ are afraid of.

You have a couple from Liberia as the image for the event but who have you invited that can speak to the experience of being feared, hated, unwelcome, and excluded from the ‘we’ in conversations about Australia?

I appreciate the work of some of the panellists here but I think it’s time for a different conversation. I don’t appreciate a celebration of multiculturalism if it affirms the exclusive right of non-Indigenous white Australians to decide who comes or what happens when we arrive. In fact this is exactly what I ‘am afraid of’: benevolent tolerance that commodifies all our cultures in an Anglo-centric celebration of lukewarm diversity where you eat our food and we don’t talk back.

This is not a white country, never has been, never will be.

The library responded to some of the correspondence by saying that the event would include oral histories from refugees. After further complaints, the library announced on Facebook on the morning of the event that ‘Bahati Salima from Rwanda and Isaac Kasimba [sic] from the Congo’ would join the discussion. Kisimba’s bio was added to the event web page just hours before the forum.

Ruby Hamad wrote about this token gesture for Daily Life:

I’m not sure what’s worse, only including people of colour when pushed, or planning to include them but not advertising the fact because it wasn’t a strong enough selling point.

Writing for Overland’s 2012 Subscriber­thon, I also noted that the opinions of people of colour are often exploited:

Too often theory is divorced from lived experience, and too often marginalised people are invited to share their stories as illustration for someone else’s opinion.

The fact that the library initially described Salima and Kisimba by their country of origin without providing any information about their interests or achievements (in exact contradiction to the way the other speakers were introduced) shows how replaceable non-Anglo – and particularly non-white – Australians are within this discourse of diversity. We merely need to appear: it is our job to add some colour and to provide a referent as the object of, but not the author of, multicultural policy.

On the environmental front, some coal seam gas protesters in Australia are campaigning under the slogan ‘Lock the Gate’, with smaller type along the bottom of their placards saying ‘to coal and gas companies’. The campaign encourages farmers to put up trespass signs and to refuse entry to mining companies. The slogan may not reflect the political ideologies or racial identities of the protesters, but it certainly has unintentional racist and colonial implications.

The slogan only works because so much of the work has already been done: it appeals to the settler-nativism and xenophobic suspicion that racists have spent years cultivating. The reason it makes such a catchy slogan is precisely because it taps into ready discourses and recognisable motifs in Australian culture: hysterical fear of invasion, sovereignty through border control, squatting as legitimate ownership, ‘productive’ use of land and so on. The slogan risks validating discourses that are primarily used to justify colonisation, deny Aboriginal land rights and exclude non-white people. It also frames environmental justice in terms of private property.

It’s true that having an intersectional approach sometimes takes ‘more work’, in that it asks us to think harder. But it’s also more work to reinforce oppressive structures in one conversation and then try to dismantle them in another. The Left can’t operate at the level of policy critique while surrendering the political space of emotion and desire to the Right. We need to know what we are working towards.

Elizabeth O’Shea

Human beings possess an inherent dignity; we are all equal on that basis. But we know that this doesn’t play out in reality: our world involves regular egregious violations of freedom and equality. The current system serves the interests of a small few and sustains the ever-increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots.

There is also no doubt that people experience oppression differently, and that power and privilege play out in insidious, obscure and sometimes contradictory ways.

For those of us interested in ending inequality, we need to ask whose purposes oppression serves, for it is crucial that we understand and critique inequality as a system.

Privilege theory explains oppression in a specific way: it claims that people who identify with power, including by birth (in the case of race, gender, etc.), enjoy advantages over others who are excluded, disenfranchised or otherwise oppressed. In her pioneering essay about white privilege, Peggy McIntosh describes privilege as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets’. Checking your privilege means recognising how your identity gives you an interest in maintaining a system of oppression through which you are advantaged over others.

It is easy to see where this theory comes from. Men, for instance, generally earn more money than women. But while it is true that Gina Rinehart has been on the receiving end of sexism, it is erroneous to claim that a man working on one of her mines enjoys some privilege over her by virtue of his gender. Such a reading, as the saying goes, misses the forest for the trees. Similarly, white people have a better chance (statistically) of being employed than Aboriginal people. But this hardly translates into a specific privilege for, say, a white teacher in a remote community sacked by Adam Giles, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and Australia’s first Indigenous head of government. Explaining oppression through privilege uses reductive reasoning that cannot explain how oppression can transcend identity.

Another problem with the theory is that it presumes that the vast majority of those who experience some defined privilege – which can range from monogamy to speaking English, depending on the theorist – have an interest in maintaining this privilege. But it is misconceived to argue that men benefit from the privilege of being paid more than women. If anything, underpaid women undercut the bargaining power of employed men, putting downward pressure on wages. For the vast majority of working-class households, the entire family is materially worse off as a result of one wage earner being treated unequally.

Without a doubt, there are people who enjoy privilege derived from unearned assets. In the example of unequal pay for women, the employer gets to keep the extra wages denied to women: an unearned asset. Moreover, by transferring the burdens of household work and child-rearing onto unpaid domestic workers – again, mainly women – employers pay less tax, money that might otherwise fund childcare or paid parental leave.

Privilege theory tells us that men enjoy privilege over women, but this cannot explain how oppression works systemically.

For people interested in creating a world free of inequality, it is a strategic mistake to understand oppression via notions of privilege. Take one of McIntosh’s expressions of white privilege as an example: ‘I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.’ This is not an ‘unearned asset’ – it is a right or entitlement that everyone should enjoy. A just society would extend such freedom to all people. Many other ‘privileges’ can be seen in these terms. It is not male privilege to fear rape substantially less (prison environments excluded) than the average woman does. Everyone should be equally free of this fear.

The problem is that privilege theory frames justice as a finite concept that ought to be redistributed. It views fighting racism, sexism and other forms of oppression as about giving up privileges, rather than a battle to ensure that all people are liberated from oppression.

Of course, people from all backgrounds and political persuasions may adopt racist, sexist, homophobic and ablest ideas, or use offensive or demeaning language. That is unsurprising in a world saturated with divisive fearmongering. But it can also go the other way. Consider the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) – stereotypically speaking, one of the blokier unions. In June 1973, Macquarie University Gay Liberation Club treasurer Jeremy Fisher was expelled from the Robert Menzies Residential College for being openly gay. In response, the BLF imposed a work ban on all building projects at the university. Jack Mundey, NSW secretary of the BLF, noted that not every member was a ‘galloping conservationist or women’s libber or even supporter of the rights of gays’, yet the BLF still took industrial action in defence of Fisher, recognising that attacks on workers’ rights were the same as attacks on students’ rights.

Privilege theory assumes that people from an oppressed group have a unique understanding of the experience of oppression and are therefore best placed to resist it. Such a notion can be essentialist: it assumes that people from a particular group will automatically have opinions reflecting their position (that is either aspiring for emancipation from their oppression or preserving the status quo to protect their privilege). John Nguyen, a Liberal candidate in the last federal election, was himself a refugee from Vietnam during the Fraser government – yet he supported the Coalition’s current policy of deterrence towards asylum seekers. Despite his lived experience, which gives him a particular insight into the plight of refugees, he did not see the policy as inhumane and capricious.

Lived experience is not the only way to learn about how the world works, nor does it necessarily provide you with the tools to challenge it.

I would argue that privilege theory has gained traction of late precisely because of the problems facing the Left. Imagine, if you will, that progressive causes were winning – that offshore processing were shut down, income management for Aboriginal people rolled back, equal marriage introduced, fracking outlawed on Australian shores. In that context, it would seem more natural to consider how progressives might work together to achieve other common interests.

Today, however, when we often assume that we are unlikely to win, policing ourselves and each other becomes a priority. We cease talking about transforming society and instead focus on how we conduct ourselves.

But it’s at times like now that we need robust debates about how to create a fairer, more respectful world – and the more ideas and allies we have, the better.

Politics is not a zero-sum game. People taking up space in a campaign do not take that space from others. Of course, people have a right to be heard, and this – by virtue of social or cultural difference – may take some accommodating, but this is an effort we should all be willing to make. But this is different to the unfounded belief that participation in a campaign crowds out others.

Social change is not linear, nor is it neat. It involves many groups and individuals arguing for different strategies. We need to confront disagreements and compare them to our ultimate goal – ending inequality. Claiming that privilege immediately disqualifies someone’s strategy or argument limits discussions and campaigns.

Consider, for example, the recent call for the refugee movement to be led by those in the camps. Much refugee activism has been inspired by detention centre resistance – but that resistance alone is not going to end offshore processing.

No group of people, regardless of their lived experience, identity or acquired qualifications, has a monopoly over political strategy for movements or projects for social change. The system oppresses the majority to serve the interests of an elite few – therefore, it affects us all. It is fundamental to the success of movements that they provide opportunities to discuss strategies critically and openly – no-one should be silenced or dismissed on the basis of their identity, rather than their ideas.

Since oppressive practices and language reproduce the bigoted tropes of the unjust world we live in, they have no place on the Left. But arguing that the antidote is for the Left to check its privilege reduces the debate to questions of individual proclivities, even as it disguises political disagreements and implies insurmountable differences to unity.

Juliana Qian responds

Privilege theory doesn’t see fighting oppression ‘as about giving up privileges’, as Elizabeth O’Shea mistakenly argues. In the Peggy McIntosh essay O’Shea quotes, McIntosh explains that the privileges on her list include both positive advantages that ‘we can work to spread’ (such as feeling normal, which should be a right or ‘unearned entitlement’ for everyone) as well as negative advantages that ‘unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies’ because they confer dominance. But the rejection of these negative advantages requires collective action to create systemic change – it’s not a matter of individuals ‘giving up privilege’.

Theories of privilege and intersectionality don’t advocate a single and uniform course of action, nor do they prescribe the role that allies should take in social movements. In particular, they do not demand silence or inaction on the part of those with privilege. On the contrary, they demand awareness, responsiveness and accountability.

What these theories do is provide tools for identifying the detail and extent of systemic oppression, including how these permeate efforts of resistance. And as we increasingly see anti-capitalist critiques co-opted into a politics of ethical consumerism, and Indigenous and anti-racist politics reframed into power-evasive concepts of diversity and cross-cultural competency, it is imperative that movements have a rigorous analysis of their strategies and structures.

O’Shea says that no group of people ‘has a monopoly over political strategy for movements or projects for social change’. I can agree that anyone should be able to contribute ideas regardless of their identity. But what is a liberation movement ultimately accountable to, if not the group of people who hunger for liberation? How can we measure the success of a struggle for justice and liberation if we disregard the unique role of the people who experience the oppression?

It may be true that those who think to the Left share some obvious and objective goals for the immediate future, particularly in response to policies such as mandatory detention. But when O’Shea urges us to look to the ‘ultimate goal’ of ‘ending inequality’, that seems to trivialise and depoliticise the ideological disagreements within the Left around privilege, power and intersectionality. I don’t think we-the-Left have the clear consensus regarding ‘our’ ultimate goals that would render these disagreements a mere question of ‘how we conduct ourselves’. I think these disagreements reach into the centre of what constitutes justice and liberation. We have to ask: Who benefits? Who decides?

It matters who decides. For example, the most telling of the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act is this addition:

Whether an act is reasonably likely to have the effect specified in sub-section (1)(a) is to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community.

This amendment targets the capacity of racialised groups to collectively protest vilification and enshrines the raceless (read: white) citizen as arbiter of reason. Tim Wilson would also agree with O’Shea that no-one should be censured ‘on the basis of their identity’ when he laments that it is ‘bizarre’ and unequal that non-black people are expected to avoid using the n-word when black people do so themselves.

Perpetuating oppression in the name of ‘ending inequality’ is not an imaginary threat, nor only a problem of language and conduct. We have witnessed Muslim women’s rights to education, employment and public space curtailed in the name of their supposed liberation through bans on hijab. We have heard militarised interventions on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, along with invasions abroad, rationalised in the name of justice and freedom. We can also find numerous claims from conservative writers that equality has been reached.

If these examples seem disingenuous, think of how often well-meaning would-be allies speculate about what an oppressed group requires, rather than simply asking or even referring to existing theory and literature. For example, non-intersex LGBT people often speak of birth certificates with a third or indeterminate gender category as a crucial goal for intersex rights, even though groups like the Organisation Intersex International have written that such a category can further stigmatise intersex people and that ending unwanted medical intervention is a higher priority. It is also common to find events where able-bodied politicians use wheelchairs in an attempt to simulate disabled experience, as though this is more effective than consulting residents with varying disabilities about their needs.

What does it mean for the Left to check its privilege?

I think it’s essential to consider this as a collective process of reorientation towards self-determination, rather than an exercise of individual reflection. We need to calibrate the centre of a discussion through the competing philosophies and strategies of people fighting for their own liberation, rather than the conflict between advocates and adversaries. We need to challenge what we understand to be expertise, given that limited access to mainstream cultural capital is part of oppression.

For those who seek to be allies or advocates, checking privilege does not mean silence – just responsibility. It means a cycle of responsiveness to those who experience the oppression we seek to end. It means the success of a movement is assessed collectively by the group it aims to liberate. Just as freedom of speech can coexist with consequences for vilification, solidarity can coexist with accountability.

Elizabeth O’Shea responds

If we start from points of agreement, then it is a truth universally acknowledged that the Left needs to think and act in ways that are more astute, more thorough and more strategic. Getting the theory right is crucial: without a critical framework, it is impossible to build our analysis of society and oppression, nor identify possible ways to change the world.

There is no excuse for bigotry or prejudice, in theory or in practice. Such behaviour is found in many places in our society – and that includes, unfortunately, those who consider themselves progressive. Thus it is perfectly reasonable and, in fact, necessary to point out that the panel on multiculturalism at the State Library of NSW (however well-meaning) was misconceived and tone deaf. If we are going to have a public discussion about race and politics in Australia, it is vital that those on the receiving end of prejudice are part of it.

But it is not good enough to simply accept a person’s views just because they have a lived experience of prejudice. It’s also perfectly reasonable to challenge someone’s ideas about racism, regardless of their experience or identity. It is not the expression of privilege to do so. On the contrary, it is the job of critical thinkers. Unless we take that analytical step, we risk making identity the sole method for resolving political discussions.

Therein lies the rub: to the extent that privilege theory is a method for good practice and respectful engagement, as Qian describes it, it can be useful. But it is actually much more than that. It is a theory for understanding oppression, and its tenets are problematic. If we give primacy to lived experience, the implication is that people who do not share that particular type of oppression are indifferent to its consequences. Or worse, that they have an interest in maintaining the system of privilege.

So let’s look at the second example in those terms. It is true that the slogan ‘Lock the Gate’ falls short of capturing aspirations for intergenerational environmental justice, meaningful land rights and ending the evils of rapacious capitalism. But the slogan does not uphold the white Australia policy, justify hostility to refugees or promote exclusion.

What it does do is start at a point of commonality: a shared desire to stop the reign of coal and gas companies. It begins a conversation with every landowner – people not traditionally associated with left-wing causes – about how unsustainable and unregulated (yet highly profitable) systems of resource extraction are green lighted by a compliant and short-sighted political class. The slogan is not perfect – and it’s important that the traditional custodians of the land are able to take part in the movement, rather than being sidelined in the interests of keeping farmers on side.

But Indigenous solidarity is already happening. In NSW, traditional owners have campaigned alongside farmers and other community groups to resist fracking, with some even travelling to Canberra to protest under the Lock the Gate banner. In Gunnedah and Lismore, in particular, traditional owners have taken a lead.

The Left understands the importance of such leadership and involvement, of solidarity across social divides. If we want more of that, we ought to be out there arguing for it, just as we would argue with Aboriginal people who wish to allow fracking on their land – with respect for cultural difference but recognising them as intellectual equals.

Movements like Lock the Gate – however impure, messy or complicated they may be – are opportunities not problems. We need a stronger Left, confident to intervene into public debates, to not only argue out differences but also to draw out the commonalities of struggles and to recognise our common enemy. Because if we do not spend time doing this – if we police ourselves to the point of abstention – we will always lose.

Privilege-checking can create a kind of theoretical perpetual motion, where the complexity of individual experience can be endlessly examined. In practice, that is paralysing: almost everyone seems to have some interest in oppression, and therefore the idea that winning a world free from inequality becomes impossible.

It’s wrong politically and strategically to let concerns about slogans like Lock the Gate restrict our participation in campaigns that have momentum and potential. If we approach political problems exclusively through the prism of difference, we end up atomised and introverted. We create discussions that are cliquish and exclusive, hostile to novices or potential allies.

We need to begin instead from the perspective that the vast majority of people share a common interest in ending oppression. This acknowledgement is uniting: it becomes a shared desire to disrupt systems of inequality and, in doing so, demands solidarity and cooperation.

Left ideas have generally found unity in the belief that another world is possible. The system of profit that oppresses the masses through division and violence for the enrichment of the elite is not preordained nor ingrained into our identity as humans. The focus on class is not an attempt to compress the variety of human suffering into a single identity. It is based on an understanding that the masses’ contribution of labour to the system of capitalism is a source of both oppression and, potentially, power.

That is not to say that the variety of experiences of oppression can be deferred or ignored; there is no hierarchy of suffering. Rather, it is to say that different oppressions share a common source. Every injustice perpetuated by capitalism must be remedied or we will have achieved nothing. Touch one, touch all. But change will only be possible if we understand the power of solidarity, rather than unpicking our commonalities through notions of privilege.


Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a writer, critic and commentator often found thinking about race, resistance, art, desire, queerness and the Chinese diaspora. Born in Shanghai, Jinghua now lives and works in Melbourne on the land of the Kulin nations., @qianjinghua.

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