Certain aspects of our privilege and oppression are not too visible. Yet, both of these have varied unseen effects on the structures of society and it’s functioning at large. Let’s understand their consequences through the papers of two acclaimed figures, Linda Martin Alcoff who is a philosopher and writes mainly on feminist philosophy, and Peggy Mcintosh, a feminist and anti-race activist.
Alcoff’s paper ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’ and Macintosh’s paper ‘White Privilege’, both address the problems of unseen privilege and the subtle unseen oppression created mainly by the acts of those privileged people who act in good faith.
In ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, Mcintosh counts some 50 conditions that make the life of the people belonging to the privileged group, in this case, white people, much easier and frictionless. These conditions are so embedded in the day-to-day activities that they’re quite hard to figure out, and even if pointed out one may not be very willing to change it to their disadvantage.
She begins by pointing out some obvious things about white privilege, such as not having to think twice about the neighbours and their behaviour, before renting or buying a house, as opposed to say a person of colour, who would have to think twice and measure the looks of the neighbourhood people before deciding to rent a house.
It is because of this particular behaviour, people of minority and disadvantaged communities seek ghettos rather than a posh neighbourhood of bigotted lot.
Then she goes on to point out some not so obvious facts, which until pointed out are taken too much for granted, such as the colour of the bandage, which is said to be of skin colour. Whose skin colour you may ask, well of-course of the caucasian race. One particular point made here in the context of racism, that may feel relatable to any and every person belonging to a minority or oppressed community, which is an act for speaking for the entire group or community you belong to.
Every act of individuals who belong to unprivileged, disadvantaged communities, is seen as a representation of the whole and is taken to reflect on the entire group. Mcintosh quite effectively brings home the unaddressed embedded forms of privilege through this simple and candid piece of writing.
On the other hand, Linda Alcoff in ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’ takes a much more philosophical approach to uncover the problems of speaking on someone else’s behalf.
She begins by giving few examples of instances where an individual, groups, and organizations, acted in their understood capacity of speaking for others and ended up being more harmful than of any actual use. Certain examples, such as when the President of the United States seeks to represent the “voice of Panamian people” and in that quest invades Panama, the unpleasantness of such a move is somewhat obvious to comprehend and frown about.
However, on the other hand, the instance where a famous Canadian novelist Anne Cameron writing about native Canadian women, is seen as “taking the space” that belongs to the native women by writing for them, while herself being a white woman, by extension a woman of privilege, raise certain doubts.
In this example, it is difficult to outright condemn Cameron, for her feminist writings on Indigenous women (here, the native Canadian) had been profoundly impactful in bringing ‘them’ to the forefront of narration. But this is the facet that Alcoff aims to bring out through this paper, that writing or speaking from a point of privilege about ‘them’ will always be flawed in the sense that the speaker, with a different locus-standi, with their own privileged socio-economic backgrounds, can only have as much understanding of and not the lived experience of being or belonging to a certain group.
Alcoff stretches the argument further and questions the existence of group identity or the criteria of demarcating a particular group. The overlapping nature of many different identities that each experiences by the virtue of their geographical, as well as socio-economical backgrounds, make them an individual, different from any other, with whom they might share one or more group characteristics but definitely not all of it.
Alcoff’s argument, however, is not one-sided and she takes into account the problem of only speaking for oneself and whether all instances of speaking for others should be condemned. If everyone was to only speak for themselves it may lead to a complete lack of accountability, wherein, no one in any capacity is responsible for their utterances as being hurtful, disparaging, or simply untrue.
This is because most of the time the idea of speaking for themselves is taken as a free license to speak about anything under the sun and shrug off the responsibility of the consequences of one’s utterances under the guise of ‘speaking just for myself’.
Both the papers discussed above deal with the unseen effects of issues arising out of privilege and its lack thereof in our understanding of society. There are no concrete, black and white solutions to the problems discussed above. What instead is required is the willingness to simply listen, to let others speak, to not patronize to the extent of killing someone else’s individuality by melting it into group identity and a larger cause.