From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the Tea Party, the word "privilege" isn't getting us anywhere

People hear the p-word and think it means: your life is brilliant. That's not helping the conversation.

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One of the advantages of this job is that strange collisions can happen in your brain; two conversations that appeared to be different suddenly fuse together, revealing something unexpected.

I'm currently reading Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers In Their Own Land, a sincere attempt by an anthropologist to understand the Tea Party and the American right. (I'm reviewing it for a future issue of the magazine.) Hochschild spends time in Lake Charles, Louisiana, trying to scale the "empathy wall" which separates her - and her liberal Californian sensibilities - from the county's residents. They live in a state blighted by pollution: one of her interviewees himself dumped toxic waste in the bayou, on the orders of the chemical company which employed him. And yet, she notes, the state is red, and its dominant political mode is Tea Partyism. Living amid dead trees and mercury riddled fish, the people of Lake Charles reject the idea of government help.

Hochschild tries to uncover what she calls the "deep story" of these people, in the form of a parable that explains how they relate their situation to contemporary politics.

"You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of colour - poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It's scary to look back; there are so many people behind you and in principle you wish them well. Still, you've waited a long time, worked hard and the line is barely moving." 

The author then shows how the people queuing patiently experience progressive politics as queue-jumping: refugees are given a spot in the line. Affirmative action programmes help some black people move a little further forward in the line. Public sector workers get secure jobs and pensions, while your own work is precarious and poorly paid. Women demand access to men's jobs - won't that mean less secure work for men? And all the things that help you tolerate the hardships of your life - religious faith, patriotism, belief in traditional marriage - are now deemed backward. The stalling of social mobility has made it harder to argue that a rising tide lifts all boats. Age discrimination and the advances of technology have made the kind of job you can do harder to find. "Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don't control or agree with," writes Hochschild. "You are a stranger in your own land."

Such people, argues Hochschild, feel a sense of loss. They feel like victims - but they lack a language to describe their victimhood, and in any case they have often publicly railed against anyone who can't "stand on their own two feet" or "pull themselves up by their bootstraps". So their anger turns towards the "queue jumpers" - and the government which helps them to cut in the line. 

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All this collided in my brain with the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Channel 4 News, when she was was asked to respond to Jenni Murray's suggestion that transgender women are not "real women". She replied: "My feeling is trans women are trans women. .. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are."

In response, I've read several high profile trans women deny that they were "privileged" by being raised male - because they knew inside that they were not. Sometimes, these critiques were expressed in shockingly un-selfaware terms (one trans woman complained that watching misogyny was like a "knife to the throat" because it triggered her dysphoria, which feels to me a little like those 1970s "Man forced to watch wife's rape" headlines). 

But there were plenty of women who talked very movingly about what it's like to grow up looking like a boy, but not fitting the mould that we have for masculinity. Laverne Cox, who is a consistently thoughtful voice in this debate, encapsulated it well: "My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. Femininity did not make me feel privileged." She added that the "narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn't intersectional... though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition."

Part of this I agree with fully. It's obvious that even among transgender women, experiences of gender differ wildly. A boy mocked for effeminacy who transitions early has a very different experience of gender to a natal male who lives as a man until his 40s or 50s, perhaps marries and has children, and then transitions in later life. The latter undoubtedly accrues more benefit from seeming to outsiders like a "real man", and from having a female partner whose body carries and nurtures their children. (Caitlyn Jenner didn't interrupt her career for maternity leave.) But equally, both can suffer the vitriol and hatred poured on "unmanly" men even before transition - which can include physical violence and overt discrimination. 

That doesn't negate the possibility of male privilege. Cordelia Fine and others have described how boys get more attention in classrooms. Medicines are made with male physiology in mind. For a long time, even crash test dummies were default male. Identity is not wholly innate - it's also about how society "reads" you, and what it beams back at you. We know our brains are incredibly plastic, so being treated a certain way, with certain expectations of our behaviour, inevitably moulds our inner selves.

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Overall, the whole debate about identity and privilege makes me feel like people are talking at cross-purposes. Here's the stumbling block. Being part of a privileged class does not - absolutely does not - equate to "having a good life". But it's often read that way. A structural point becomes a personal one. I think it's the word "privilege" that's the problem here - it suggests pony clubs, and yachts, and a cushy time of it. Some activists I know don't use it, for that reason. They prefer "entitlement" or "advantage". 

Let's go back to the Tea Party. Hochschild's insight is that her subjects have no language to describe their victimhood. We know from the work of Nobel prizewinning economist Angus Deaton that being poor and white in America is a sometimes harrowing experience - there are high rates of opoid addiction, and early "deaths of despair". Tell those people their white skin is a privilege and see what response you get. Many of them will hear the word "privilege", then look at their bank balance, their job that makes them ache at the end of the day, and think: who are you saying has a life of privilege?

That doesn't mean, of course, that what is usually called "white privilege" doesn't exist - taken in totality, to be white is to benefit from a whole set of assumptions that make your life easier. It's the general assumption you own that expensive car you're driving; it's the benefit of the doubt when pulled over by police. It's the person who doesn't bin your CV when they read your "funny sounding" name. It's the person who is happy to rent a flat to you. All those things are nuanced, of course - just as Laverne Cox finds male privilege a nuanced and inflected thing. For example, Eastern Europeans in Britain are subject to many of the same assumptions as immigrants with darker skin in terms of landlord or job discrimination.

The same goes for "male privilege". Yes, many individual men don't feel that they benefit from it - they hate the stereotypes of being strong, and sexually aggressive, and all the rest. Trans women and gay men have particular reason to reject it. But it is part of a system - patriarchy - that benefits men as a whole. And that comes back to reproduction, and the idea of women as an exploitable sub-class. 

Oddly, the reason that "male privilege" feels so nebulous to many young western feminists (who dominate the online conversation) is because of the huge successes that feminism has made. We have eliminated some of the more obvious disadvantages of being born female (not least, in some countries, that you have a smaller chance of being born at all.) As right-wingers never tire of reminding us, more girls go to university than boys, and there's no full-time gender pay gap between twentysomethings.  

But there are abundant examples of sex-based discrimination faced by women in the past, and in other countries now. Girls in Uganda, which I visited last year, often can't go to school when they are menstruating because their families can't afford sanitary pads. Girls in Somalia, for example, face FGM. In many developing countries, girls are subjected to strict policing of their sexual boundaries, and expected to marry young and obey their husbands. Here in the west, the moment that sex becomes inescapable as an axis of oppresion, when the pedal really hits the metal, often doesn't come until our 30s, when - miracle! - one half of the population takes on the lion's sharing of the unpaid care.

Given the last year, which feels more and more like the prequel to The Handmaid's Tale, it would be complacent of any western feminist to assume that there will never be a backlash, and a return to a time when sex is a more obvious point of discrimination earlier in life. So the reason that this argument - about which bits of discrimination arises from gender, and what from female bodies - has flared up so strongly now does not seem like coincidence. 

I'm tired of those columns that collapse in a blather of "why can't we all just get along?" Because this isn't playschool, and we're talking about the allocation of resources, aka the thing which has prompted innumerable wars throughout history. And because sex and gender influence public policy, and just because this discussion involves women we shouldn't expect it to be ladylike and dignified in a way that, say, the immigration debate isn't. Questions of identity inevitably provoke strong feelings. Even if  the resource is simply access to the conversation, that in itself is vitally important to many. Not having a voice is the same as powerlessness.

But clearly, something is not working here. The way we talk about identity and privilege can make it sound as though anyone in possession of a "winning" chip loses the right to complain about anything. They don't. It is hard to be white and poor, just as it is hard to be treated by the world as a boy and not feel like one. These facts do not mean that whiteness and maleness do not confer advantages at a population level. And saying a person has privilege should not mean that they do not deserve empathy.

Ultimately, the test for any political language must be: does it work? Currently, telling white people in Louisiana that they have "white privilege" does not achieve the political goal of the progressive left - achieving equal opportunities for minorities. Telling trans women they benefited from male privilege before transition does not achieve the political goal of feminism - ensuring equal treatment for women.

So there are two options for the left here: explain the concept of privilege better, or find a better word.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.