Sunday, September 09, 2018

When You Don't "Do The Work" Or Know How To "Do The Work"...,


nakedcapitalism |  Peggy McIntosh has described how she stumbled upon the reality of her white privilege. She began to brainstorm about what privileges she had that her black colleagues did not, but encountered fierce resistance from her unconscious mind.
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
McIntosh was thus reluctant to see herself as having unearned advantages relative to her black colleagues, and this reluctance stemmed from a more fundamental commitment to believing that one’s life is “what one makes it” and that doors open for people due to their “virtues.”

She persevered, however, and understanding finally came. She was unable to keep silent about what she had learned, and her talk in essay form was soon being eagerly read by others; in the words of one facilitator,
[…] “white privilege,” was popularized by the feverish, largely grassroots, pre-World-Wide-Web circulation of a now famous essay by my now-equally-famous friend and colleague, Peggy McIntosh.
Readers followed in McIntosh’s footsteps, coming to grips with previously hidden and painful truths about their own privilege, and the rest is history.
But what actually happened cannot have been this simple.
A problem of chronology
Three years earlier, McIntosh had given a talk about how decent people often perceive “fraudulence” in
the myths of self-realization which go this way: “I came up from nothing, rags to riches, from pink booties to briefcase on Wall Street. I did it all myself. I knew what I wanted and I was self-reliant. You can be, too, if you set your sights high and don’t let anything interfere; you can do anything you want.” Now it seems only honest to acknowledge that that is a myth.
Did she at that time believe racial disparities were a thing of the past?
Women and lower caste or minority men are especially few in the tops of the hierarchies of money, decision making, opinion making, and public authority, in the worlds of praise and press and prizes, the worlds of the so-called geniuses, leaders, media giants, “forces” in the culture.
Let’s summarize.
In 1985, McIntosh proclaimed that meritocracy consisted of clearly “fraudulent” claims, noted how it was in conflict with racial and gender equality, and urged undermining belief in meritocracy as essential for the survival of humanity; in 1988, she said that she had been fiercely reluctant to accept that she was unfairly advantaged by being white because it entailed “giv[ing] up the myth of meritocracy.”

We could try to rescue this chronology by postulating, for example, that McIntosh composed her privilege lists and acknowledged her white privilege before 1985. She then… kept silent about it for years, perhaps because she was still embarrassed about white privilege? But wasn’t embarrassed about her opposition to meritocracy, which she shouted from the rooftops? This seems a bit… strained.

Or we could conclude, with Amber A’Lee Frost, that she is full of shit.

I will propose a more charitable alternative, which I think is also more likely.

Suppose McIntosh did experience a sort of epiphany in 1988, which involved new ideas and the renunciation of important previous commitments. If sufficiently traumatic, this experience could have played havoc with her sense of time, and of her past self – a development which has been amply documented in similar contexts.

To see whether this is at all plausible, we should look at what the pre-1988 McIntosh believed. For this, we do not have to rely on what McIntosh says she believed. There is in fact extant one piece of writing by McIntosh from prior to 1988. Maybe only one, although it is a difficult to be sure; according to Frost, McIntosh is “incredibly protective of her intellectual property.”

It is a talk from 1985, about a dozen pages long in text form, entitled Feeling Like a Fraud. It is, to say the least, fascinating.