The other day I checked my points balance. I felt ashamed by how high it was, and wondered what I could do to forfeit some points or assign them to someone else. This wasn’t about air travel or ballroom dancing. It was about privilege, and that’s not the kind of leaderboard you want to be at the top of.
I came across the privilege worksheet that students at Saratoga Springs High School were recently required to complete, tabulating their privilege based on various identity and other factors. E.g.:
+25 for white, -100 for black.
+25 for Jewish, +5 for Christian, -50 for Muslim.
+25 for male, -50 for female.
+20 for straight, +10 for bisexual, 0 for asexual, -150 for gay.
+20 for cis, +10 for trans (passable), -100 for genderqueer, -500 for trans.
Able-bodied +25, ‘retarded’ -200.
And there were other categories, such as for family income, and even for attractiveness. Participants with total scores of more than 100 were told to check their privilege daily, and less than -50, were told they are ‘disprivileged’, the word itself being a revelation for me.
I ended up on the privileged side of the ledger, tipping the scale because I’m Jewish and had also given myself bonus points for off-the-charts attractiveness!
You might ask what the point is of these points. Privilege as an analytic framework posits that dominant identity groups (particularly white people and males) should not think their identity is invisible or assume the universality of their experience. Of course, systemic inequities and disadvantages, and unconscious biases, have been present in every society and can still exist, so the survey was apparently intended to teach teens about empathy, and understanding that not everyone has ‘equal access’.
However, there is much that troubles me about this exercise.
For a start, I don’t know if I’m white. There was no skin pigmentation colour chart. My skin is some shade of white I guess, but I’m generally described as having an olive complexion, and I get quite tanned in the summer. Could it be I’m less privileged in summer than in winter?
Certainly the two white supremacists who have recently massacred worshippers in American synagogues would consider that I’m not white, and while I don’t make a habit of seeing myself in the way abominable antisemites do, you would think their views do have a bearing on how privileged or otherwise I am.
After all, I don’t feel that privileged when I walk past armed police into synagogue and get swastikas in the mail. Which leads me to another perplexing matter. How does one determine privilege? While the drafter thoughtfully made an exception for black Jews, who got to deduct 25 points, why is that other Jews, a minority of less than 2 per cent in the US and a target of almost 60 per cent of religious-based hate crimes in 2017, are 5 times more privileged than Christians? Perhaps the drafter studied at Chicago’s University of Illinois where two years ago, the campus was strewn with fliers explaining that ‘ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege’, and decided it’s never too early to start teaching kids a spot of antisemitic stereotyping.
The most disturbing aspect of this survey is the very idea of assigning scores or ranks to people based on what are in many cases immutable characteristics, as if a person’s whole is no more than the sum total of his or her identity parts.
Identity politics and its bedfellow intersectionality, under which marginalised groups ally together against the powerful and privileged, operate on a hierarchy of victimhood. It is therefore just a natural extension to assign scores to people based on their standing in that hierarchy. Next stop, eugenics?
It turns out privilege calculators are not novel. Statistics New Zealand, a government department, defended its officials playing ‘Check your privilege Bingo’ last year. Squares included ‘not a red-head’ and ‘well-connected family’.
Call me sceptical, but I’m not convinced that this ideological ghettoisation is the best way to advance towards an equitable and unified society. I doubt we can defeat prejudice by prejudging and divisiveness by dividing people, but this is everything that identity politics requires us to do, while telling us that it is just and progressive to do so.
And for those on the disprivileged side of the ledger, presumably the purpose is not to teach them empathy for privileged people. Is the lesson that the world is against them, they are without autonomy and responsibility, and their destiny is beyond their control? This disempowering mentality is fertile ground for resentment and conspiracy theories.
I cannot see how identity politics offers redemption for the disprivileged, especially when victimhood is portrayed as a virtue. In the oppression olympics where the biggest victim wins the gold medal, victimhood confers its own kind of protected status and privilege. In the current debate raging in NZ over ‘hate speech’, following Christchurch, white males who dare to speak in favour of free speech are treated as being complicit with racism, by those who use their marginalised identity as both a sword and a shield from scrutiny of their ideas.
Those who have had the mantle of victimhood ripped off of them, by daring to not conform to the correct way of thinking or behaving, have discovered that in the binary of intersectionality, they must then be cast as oppressors. Zionist Jews have known this for some time, as have conservative black Americans. In NZ, this has been exemplified in the recent debate about sex self-identification legislation. Gender-critical lesbians who have questioned the rights that trans people (who are currently top of the victimhood hierarchy) should have, have been excommunicated and vilified by those who worship in the temple of intersectionality, belying the illusion that the ‘rainbow community’ is a homogenous group.
Once I might have scoffed at a privilege points exercise and thought little more of it. But now I understand how dangerous and dehumanising this caste system is. It’s hard not to see a connection between an obsession with whiteness on the far left, the activation of whiteness as a reactionary identity, and the resurgence of violent white supremacy on the far right.
I think of Elie Wiesel, who understood the dangers of dehumanising people better than most, when he said: ‘We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.’