Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kyriarchy 101

Ok, I'll bite.

I want to introduce the concept of Kyriarchy into the frothing screaming discourse on privilege and various "ism"s in the Fatosphere.

Kyriarchy is a new word introduced by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, although the concept had evolved before that, mostly through discourse by WOC and others with stacking or intersected levels of privilege and non-privilege.

Essentially it refers to a complex social structure in the form of a pyramid. There are many overlapping and intersecting parts, where various groups gain and lose ground in their posession of and quest for social power.

For instance: If I were to say that men have social power over women, and white people have social power over black people, that's a very simplistic way of stating something that's easy to poke holes in. Kyriarchy says that a person's privilege and social power is more complicated than that. Barack Obama is a black man who has more social power than I do as a white woman. That does not negate or dismiss the fact that I have more social power than some black men in other circumstances and social structures, or that there are certain situations and social structures where I have significantly less. Et Cetera for gender, race, ability, weight, height, age, etc. They all intersect and interact in complex ways.

It is much easier to simply say that JD has more privilege than I do because he's a man. It is more accurate to say that in certain circumstances, JD's male privilege will dominate and show a clear advantage, while in others it will not help him at all.

Here's the scenario to illustrate the Kyriarchy concept:

We go out to a restaurant. JD is male, so the waitstaff may automatically assume he's paying for the meal. The food is terrible. JD's male privilege means that if he complains to the management, he's more likely to be taken seriously and get compensation. Then we both get food poisoning. my socioeconomic privilege now trumps his male privilege. I have excellent insurance and am able to expect good care and be seen the same day. JD has terrible insurance, and his only real option is emergency room or to call all around town trying to find an urgent care facility that takes his insurance. Once we're in to see our respective doctors, his (relative) thin privilege gives him an advantage because the doctor is more likely to take him seriously and treat his illness instead of blaming it on his weight and telling him he wouldn't be nauseous if he didn't stuff his face. BUT, JD is in therapy, therefore in the mental health system. In this case, my current mental health privilege may mean I will get better care because my doctor won't ask me condescendingly if I've been feeling a lot of stress lately and conclude that my illness is psychosomatic.

See the layers of privilege intersecting like that? By the way, every single one of those examples has happened to us.

The polarity conscious reactive thinking around privilege, race, gender and fat ignores the fact that our privilege is more or less apparent depending on who we're with and the social construct we're working within at the moment. Privilege doesn't change, but it's effect DOES.

If you need another example, I suggest you read this. Here we have a successful white man, whom we would think would top the privilege hierarchy in almost any situation. BUT you put him in a situation where the perception of him is that he's homeless and the talent that made him famous is not enough to get people to even make eye contact. He is suddenly labeled as "sick" and "dangerous" because the homeless are so stigmatized that his gender and race privilege does him no good whatsoever (except maybe to make him seem even more of a threat).

The point is not whether he has lost privilege. The point is DEFINITELY not to minimize those who are the victims of the various power structures or their experiences. The point is that if we want to discuss "ism"s, we need to make sure that we're taking into account the experiences of everyone who has experienced discrimination based on something not in their control. We want to make sure that in the quest for Fat Acceptance or feminism we don't step on the heads of others on the way up, we don't try to argue whether "my lack of privilege is worse than yours", or other similar red herrings, and we work to elevate, not drag others down kicking and screaming. That's no way to make allies. And face it, no social movement succeeds without allies.


CTJen said...

JoGeek FTW!

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Thank you for posting this. The simple, group-oriented version of privilege has a tremendous amount wrong with it, and a lot of time and effort has been wasted on punishing people for not signing on to an unsound concept.

I've been hoping that a kinder, saner version of RaceFail would develop, and kyriarchy is a huge step in that direction.

JoGeek said...

Nancy: You're right, there is a lot wrong with the approach that pits groups against each other like discrimination death-match. This approach lets me say, "This man is being denied custody of his children because of his gender, and that's wrong" without dragging all kinds of layers of whether it denies the message of feminism or somehow evens the playing field because a man is now being discriminated against too.

It also lets me say "This woman is being passed over for promotion in her workplace because of her gender, and that's wrong" without needing to haul all the baggage of The Feminist Movement into the simple fact that someone is being discriminated against because of something outside their control.

Because in both cases, what's happening is wrong, and needs to stop. Isn't that what really matters?

Anonymous said...

Very very well said, and thank you for posting this!


hsofia said...

Nice introduction to the term!

Heidi said...

That was a really fascinating post on a word that I'll confess I had never even HEARD of until yesterday. Thank you so much for sharing...the issue of "privileged"-ness is just not a straight dichotomy.

Lori said...

Thank you so much for this. As one of those big bad academic feminists ;), I've been antsy about how one version of feminism is being presented as what academic feminism is all about. Honestly, the simplistic "Your opinion doesn't count because you didn't acknowledge your privilege" and women as victims stuff I've been seeing lately on FA blogs looks NOTHING like the academic feminism I encountered during my 7 years taking women's studies courses at two universities, and kyriarchy is far more in line with what most of the academic feminists I know believe than what is being passed off as Feminism 101.

Of course, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is a feminist theologian, so she probably wouldn't make the cut of people who "really" count in some people's version of feminism. Which, again, is the problem. There is so much feminist theory coming from so many different fields, and to present one version of it as the One True Feminism is alienating, not enlightening.

JoGeek said...

Lori: I'm not surprised. There's been an increasing rift between academic and populist feminism in the U.S.

Anonymous said...


Thanks JoGeek. You make so much sense. This also quickly dismisses the argument (and I am giving an extreme example) I am a white man and no one gave me a job. That sort of thing. You see things from all angles and that is so helpful.

Did I mention I love your writing style?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for restoring a bit of my faith in the non-asshattery of humanity; I lost a lot of it earlier this week. -- Vixen

Meowser said...

I read the Kyriarchy theory before and always liked it, but I really like what you've done with it here with your "food poisoning" example. I do think people forget that there are dozens of potential privileges and subprivileges, not just four or five, and that different situations weight them differently and that that complicates things quite a bit. And anyone who wants to revoke my feminist card over saying that needs to know that I had the damn thing before they were born.

Becky said...

Well said.

Atchka! said...

This post is now officially a national treasure. I'm in favor of anyone that can explain such a complex social issue in such easy-to-digest terms. When I first read about "kyriarchy" the other day in the comments somehwere (was it you?) and was invited to "look it up," I did. Here's what I found:

"Kyriarchy is "a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for 'lord' or 'master' (kyrios) and 'to rule or dominate' (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination....Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.'"

After that, my brain 'sploded.

You've done a great service to the privilege conversation. Great job. :)


Bri said...

This is a great post, one which I am bookmarking for future reference. Thankyou!

Danny said...

Nice breakdown. This is an excellent way to show that having one particular characteristic is not the key to the kingdom that some say it is.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I only had a vague idea of what kyriarchy was before this, and now it's a lot more concrete. Thank you so, so, so much.