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A Very Special Episode of Grey Areas: Privilege Denying Dude Edition

This week, on a very special episode of Grey Areas, we’ll be talking about Privilege Denying Dude! Again! Because if there is anything we at Tiger Beatdown like to do, it is run things right into the ground!

I spent quite a great deal of time writing about PDD last week. Initially, I had concerns. Those were sandblasted out of me once I read the deluge of commentary from real life Privilege Denying Dudes who wanted this meme scrubbed completely from the Internet. Not the avalanche of racist, sexist, ableist memes that metastasize through the Internet at large: no, no, no, those are obviously free speech. But the concept that marginalized people might be using their jokes against them, OH FUCK CALL THE PRESIDENT SOMEONE NEEDS TO SHUT THE INTERNET DOWN.

This message is not from one of those dudes. This is from someone else.

Hey garland, I follow you and I love love love your tumblr. However, honestly, if I never see PDD again it won’t be soon enough. I don’t disagree with the underlying notion (i.e. that privilege exists), but it’s a divisive and, IMO, unfair tactic. I think it bootstraps a lot of shit onto a plain disagreement with said notion which could be otherwise settled through thoughtful conversation and reasoned debate. This being the internet though, it’s hard to engage in reasoned debate without calling your opponent Hitler (or whatever?). We’re all adults here, and I think if we had the advantage of physical proximity, we could all talk this through thoroughly, listen to each other, and learn something of each other’s perspectives. And for the record, this is not [Person on Tumblr who consistently reminds us that he doesn’t believe in the concept of privilege.]

I knew you weren’t him once you conceded the existence of privilege.

There is a peculiar notion that pervades Social Justice activism, and it is that the task of upholding the level of discourse rests solely on our shoulders, and we are somehow failing at it. Everyone else – the trolls, the privileged assholes, the evo-psych “men are attracted to women because x and if you aren’t doing x why are you even alive” guys – they all get passes on upholding the discourse. Because the logic goes that we can’t possibly expect them to treat us any differently. We must be constantly defending our right to exist, our right to have discussions that aren’t taken over by people who don’t want there to be a discussion, and our right to set the terms of the discussion. And whenever we stop responding, stop defending our right to speak, the other side declares that our position must be indefensible. Because when they debate, they are representing their own views and opinions, but when we debate, we are supposed to be the sole representative of the movement at large.

And in the face of this dynamic which is designed to make it impossible for us to win, we are supposed to be polite and demur. We are supposed to state our case, and never get upset, and always smile. When we don’t, we’re punished for it. So, you know, fuck that shit.

In social justice, not all tactics that are divisive are effective, but all tactics that are effective are divisive. That doesn’t mean we should set our phasers to “divide,” but when a tactic is labeled as “divisive” or “radical”, there is a chance it might be one worth considering. Effective tactics are divisive because the majority is most comfortable with activism that is ineffective. If civil rights and social justice movements went a little something like this:

Minority: Hey, we’d like rights!
Majority: Here you go!
Minority: My, that was pleasant!

then I might agree that our job was to avoid kicking up dust. Calling the actions of marginalized people “unfair” leads me to employ a simple litmus test: which do I think is better in the long run: it being socially acceptable for a person to do what a marginalized person is doing, or have the privilege that action is in response to? Really think about that. Would you rather be able to use a word a marginalized group uses to describe themselves or have the rights that person is denied? Because the opposition and backlash against this meme seems to suggest that even worse than the fact that people have privilege and use it against others is the fact that marginalized people sometimes feel like commenting on that fact. This is what lead George Bush to look back upon eight years of torture, extraordinary rendition, shitty foreign and domestic policy, stunted economic growth, cronyism and class warfare against the poor and complain that Kanye West hurt his feelings.

You know, I had a slightly offended moment the first day of PDD’s existence. I scurried over to the memegenerator site to create a macro, and saw that someone had created one that said “I’m gay | So I can’t be privileged.”


  • Yep, that’s right. We gay men are pretty terrible.
  • We are, point in fact, the only thing keeping oppression going.
  • We’re the grease of the Kyriarchy.
  • You might even say, we aren’t even oppressed.
  • Nope.
  • Top of the totem pole.

I got pretty nasty in my head for a few minutes. It felt like everyone was skewering this person for unrecognized privilege, and suddenly *POP* I had been excluded from the game.

Of course, I was making it about me. Have I heard gay men make an argument similar to this to justify racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, or classism? Yes I have. I went to college in a Conservative Southern University, and met a lot of gay Conservatives who could not see past the tiny aperture of their own oppression. “If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.” Those are the rules.

When you first enter Social Justice, you have a lot of moments like this. Over time, you see WHY the rules of engagement in Social Justice spaces have to flow from the positions of least power. Because if we let [Guy who seems to derive all of his self-respect from his denial of racism and sexism] set the agenda, he will declare that privilege doesn’t exist. And if we concede concepts like “Privilege” or “Mansplaining” or “Kyriarchy” or “Rape Culture” or “Systemic Oppression” – if we let those structural concepts and theoretical matrices be taken from us, we must essentially fight every battle from scratch. We would have to treat each individual act of oppression separately, and we’d have no clue how to combat the societal forces that undergird those actions.

I understand where your desire for everyone to listen to each other comes from, and I admire it. I too would like to bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles that everyone would eat and be happy. But it isn’t realistic. It would be, if everyone had an equal stake in the matter. To quote myself:

“Privilege means you can walk away from the conversation whenever you like because the issues being raised aren’t important to you, and you can always imagine that the marginalized people you are walking away from don’t matter”

That is privilege. The ability to walk away when you aren’t winning. That’s why we avoid addressing things one at a time, that’s why we make theory instead of knocking on everyone’s door and trying to reason with them. Our argument is pretty simple: if they get their way we’re miserable and marginalized and unhappy or dead, and if we get our way, things are equal and no one need be miserable. But some people enjoy privilege, and will fight to keep it. And we cannot force them to continuing arguing until there is a clear winner, they can always walk away in a huff. So my personal rule is, either let’s get handcuffed to each other until you understand me or at least let me make my explanation public so others can read and discuss it. That’s the only way I am explaining myself to anyone.

In the end, oppression requires Power and Privilege. Privilege Denying Dudes like to imagine that simply because they are reading something they don’t agree with and can’t erase it from the surface of the earth, that is proof of power. That we’re conferred with a sort of de facto currency of marginalization, since we take care to listen to the voices of each other and not those of the privileged. But that currency is exactly like an arcade token – it only applies to these particular spaces. Seeing a marginalized person speak about their own life without regard to how the majority will feel about it can seem like great power, even if they are only asserting their humanity.

So, Beatdown, your task whether or not- OH DON’T GIVE ME THAT LOOK- is to come up with new ideas for Social Justice Memes. FOR INSTANCE: Perhaps a picture of two people appropriating Native American headdresses? Cultural Appropriation Hipsters?

If you would like to have your question answered, drop a message in my ask box.

One Comment

  1. backspace wrote:

    Yeah, I figured that out shortly after posting. Thanks.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink