Matt Yglesias has an amazing ability to summarize complicated issues simply. Last week, he wrote, All Politics Is Identity Politics. He noted that people generally define “identity politics” as those of race or gender — and increasingly sexual orientation. And he summed up his point with two simple but powerful sentences, “The implication of this usage is that somehow an identity is something only women or African-Americans or perhaps LGBT people have. White men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal.” Yeah, that’s about right.
This is the essence of “white male privilege” — at least as far as I’m concerned. There are other elements to it of course: having an easier time finding a job and not having police think the default way to deal with you is to kill you. But the fundamental issue is the invisibility of whiteness and maleness. If you are a white male, you are an individual in our society. If you are a woman or a person of color, you are seen through the prism of your membership in a particular group. And that’s what’s so great about Yglesias’ observation. The “identity” is not about the individual; it is about the label that the society broadly places on the individual.
Yglesias goes on to highlight complaints about Bill de Blasio focusing on racism in New York City policing. He noted that not focusing on this is as much of a choice as focusing on it. But we see this kind of thing all the time. Allowing corporations to continue to illegally bust unions is considered somehow morally neutral in a way that doing something about this illegal activity (which the federal government has ignored for four decades now) means siding with one side. Implicit siding with the corporations is oddly considered not taking a stand.
Here is where it is really helpful to be identity invisible. Let’s suppose that it is the 1970s and you get cheaper housing because you aren’t black. You have the luxury of thinking the status quo is “natural.” You aren’t getting a lower interest rate on your mortgage; you are getting the just interest rate. And those African Americans are asking for laws that apply specifically to them — because of their identity. That’s so not you because you aren’t asking for anything because of your identity. Because you are already getting it by default.
Yglesias summed up the situation perfectly:
Ultimately, this is all about who sets the parameters of the debate. This is why I have little tolerance for all the whining about the “new political correctness” and things like that. At core, it is all about powerful people claiming that their their power is being challenged. The great thing about privilege is not having to ask for special rights. But that doesn’t mean the privileged don’t still ask for them.