“Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security, and prestige, it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege.” –Steven Biko
Are You “Privileged”? Yes? No? So What?
“Privilege” is a hot topic today – around the dining room table as well as in the mainstream media. One thing that I’ve noticed is that the people that have the strongest feelings about it seem to have the most trouble defining it.
Merriam-Webster defines privilege as “a right granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” As in, “Driving, my reckless son, is a privilege, not a right.”
This, of course, is not what privilege means to those in academia and the media that have made it an integral concept in social commentary. Privilege in that sense is the idea that in America there are certain groups (i.e., white men and to a lesser degree white women) that are entitled to social, economic, academic, and health advantages that (a) they did not earn and (b) are denied to other groups (people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community).
If you listen exclusively to Fox News, you might think this is a novel form of radical lunacy. It may have become wacky in recent years, but it’s hardly a new idea.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that while African-Americans were very aware of white Americans and conscious of racial discrimination, white Americans hardly thought of African-Americans at all. Nor did they think much about the effects of racial discrimination. The social privileges white Americans enjoyed, he contended, included courtesy and deference, unimpeded admittance to all public functions, lenient treatment in court, and access to the best schools.
There is no question that white Americans did indeed enjoy all sorts of privileges denied to black Americans at the turn of the 20th century, when Du Bois published his famous book. The wackiness emerged in 1988, when Peggy McIntosh published an essay titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” In the essay, she listed 46 privileges that she believed she enjoyed as a white woman in the US. Among them: “If I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me,” and “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism.”
Her essay has since been credited with getting academics interested in the study of “privilege theory,” which includes the concept of intersectionality – i.e., that every individual has a mix of privileges and disadvantages depending on his gender, color, and sexual preference. Thus, a black woman has less privilege than a black man, and a black homosexual man has less privilege than a black heterosexual man. And a white man… well, he sits on top of a stack of every social privilege there is.
One of the criticisms of intersectionality (advanced by the moral philosopher Lawrence Blum) is that its categories are too broad. It does not distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Vietnamese, for example. They are all grouped together as Asian-Americans, even though their relative economic, social, and academic success in America varies widely by group. (The same case is made with respect to black Americans by social philosopher Coleman Hughes, who notes the differences in advantages – i.e., achievement – by Caribbean blacks compared to African-Americans.)
Another criticism of intersectionality is that it is too narrowly focused. It does not include the obvious advantages of being good looking, for example, despite overwhelming evidence that physical beauty plays a major role in social, economic, and even academic achievement. Proponents of privilege theory also give a surprisingly low intersectionality “rating” to personal wealth, arguing that a wealthy black man or woman has less privilege than a poor white man or woman.
Also rarely discussed is being able-bodied and healthy – which anyone that lives a life so compromised recognizes as a huge privilege. And nowhere in the discussion is the recognition of perhaps the greatest privilege of all: having extraordinary intelligence.
It’s a messy area of inquiry, to be sure. And although it’s an easy concept to sell to college students, it’s much harder to get those on the higher end of the privilege scale to accept. (Especially if they are not particularly smart and well spoken, or if they are not, or were not, wealthy.)
Privilege theorists dislike having conversations about these sorts of privilege. They often argue that the mere mention of other privileges or disadvantages is invalid as it comes from people that are in some ways privileged themselves.
What they prefer to talk about is their views on a solution for social inequality – a solution that is usually a demand for advantages that are above and beyond what the privileged enjoy (e.g., preferential treatment in education, job placement, and social welfare assistance).
These are difficult conversations because there are all sorts of social inequities. And despite decades of legislation and trillions of dollars in funding, programs designed to fix the problem have failed to achieve their goals. In fact, the result has been greater inequality.
Still, one wants to believe that we can move towards a social environment where there is more equity in terms of such privileges. Or at least eliminate any actual institutional hindrances to people based on color, gender, or sexual preference.
So what can be done?
In a future essay, I’ll attempt to answer that question on a larger scale.
But on an individual basis, I think it’s fairly obvious that progress can be made, because it has been made. Virtually every proponent of privilege theory that is not a white man is proof of that.
What can you do? What can I do?
I think it starts with making an honest effort to recognize whatever privileges we have, as well as the ways – consciously and unconsciously – that we take advantage of them.
Here are 14 questions that might give you some insight into your own sense of privilege, regardless of your gender, race, sexual preference, income, etc.
- What goes through your head when you see a police car behind you?
- Do you feel underpaid and underappreciated at work – even though you are doing as well as your peers?
- If you’re a Liberal, do you believe that your views on political issues are morally superior to those of Conservatives?
- If you’re a Conservative, do you believe that your views on political issues are morally superior to those of Liberals?
- Do you think a really interesting book could be written about the stories your grandparents/ great grandparents told about coming to this country and pursuing the “American Dream”?
- Do you feel slighted when someone doesn’t remember your name?
- Do you think it’s okay to cut in line because you are in a rush… as long as you smile and apologize?
- Are you insulted when someone cuts in front of you… even if they smile and apologize?
- In terms of your lifestyle, would you describe the coronavirus shutdown as (a) annoying, (b) devastating, (c) Shutdown? What shutdown?
- In terms of your finances, would you describe the coronavirus shutdown as (a) annoying, (b) devastating, (c) Shutdown? What shutdown?
- Do you believe that your children are gifted?
- When someone who makes more money than you is paying the bill, do you feel justified in ordering a more expensive meal than you normally would?
- Do you believe that your lack of success in life has been caused by circumstances beyond your control?
- Do you believe that only a smugly privileged white male could have come up with these questions?
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