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Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?

(About  5 minute read)

Growing up, I had a keen sense that I could get away with a good amount of rule-breaking.  Not just little things, but some fairly sizeable offenses too.  I didn’t usually push things as far as I sensed I could, but I did have the perception I could get away with a whole lot of things — if only I wanted to.

The sense stayed with me when I got older, although it became a little vaguer.  When I was in my late teens, early twenties, majoring in philosophy I was aware that I wouldn’t have much trouble getting a good job upon graduation — despite some warnings that my major was impractical.

I knew — in a vague way — that being white, male, and degreed would see me though.  I was also aware that possessing the mannerisms of the middle class would help too.

None of those realizations made me feel guilty or ashamed. How could you rationally feel guilt for something you didn’t ask for?

Besides, when I was younger, I was not acutely aware that I could get away with more than most kids.  I had some inkling of that, but I put it down to my wits, rather than to anything else.  To me, anyone with wits could get away with what I could.

Things began to change when a friend, Terri, pointed out to me one night that, had she done some of the same things I had done growing up, she’d have served time in a juvenile prison.  Coming from her, that hit home.  Coming from a magazine article, a book, or even a professor, it most likely wouldn’t have.

Still it wasn’t until recently that I spent enough time reflecting on privilege to understand just how, why, and in what ways I’d been privileged. It wasn’t difficult, once I started thinking about it, to see that my mother’s position of authority in the community had protected me while I was growing up.  And that my race, sex, education, and mannerisms had given me an edge in the job market after university.

In fact, I think privilege, once you understand the concept and are clued in to how to look for it, is so obvious that no observant person with the least intellectual honesty could fail to acknowledge it.  It is not merely obvious, it is glaringly obvious.

But if that is so, then why do not more people acknowledge it?

I think one of the main reasons is that it has been politicized by both proponents and adversaries of the concept.  In many ways, I think it’s proponents have done worse than its adversaries to politicize it.  One nearly childish way they have done that is in the “You can punch up but you can’t punch down” explanation of what privilege is.

The notion goes like this: Privilege is determined by the power relationships between people.  The only people who can be genuinely privileged are people who have power over others.  And they are privileged relative to those others.

For example: A white person is privileged relative to a black person, because the white person has power in our society over a black person.  e.g. who is a cop most likely to believe in a “he said, she said” situation?  The white or the black man?

Again, a boss is privileged relative to an employee because the boss has power over the employee.  Furthermore, neither the black person nor the employee can be said to have any privileges at all in terms of the white person or the boss, because of the “you can punch up but you can’t punch down” principle.

To be blunt, that kind of thinking can only be properly described as an example of the imbecilic nonsense that runs rampant today perhaps largely due to the appalling lack of critical thinking skills among even the university educated.

The notion that privilege is determined by power is not science, it’s politics.  You do not arrive at such an opinion through logical reasoning supported by empirical fact, you arrive at that monstrosity through a desire to score political points, or through a mindless desire to go along with your in-group, your herd.

Ask any knowledgeable person if there are situations in which a less powerful person possesses a privilege a more powerful person does not, and he or she will be able to think of several.

There are neighborhoods where blacks are unwise to go, there are neighborhoods where whites are unwise to go.  There are jobs women are likely to get hired for, there are jobs men are unlikely to get hired for.  There are even jobs where it is best to be disabled if you’re going to have a good chance at getting one.  So far as I can see, you would need to be naive to really believe such things are not true.

I am not by any means saying that blacks and whites, men and women, disabled and able are on any overall equal footings.  I am merely pointing out the obvious fact that just about everyone has some measure of privilege in our society — although some folks have much more than others.

In my opinion, a second reason people do not see — or at least acknowledge — privilege is they either lack the intellectual honesty to do so, or the dispassionate critical thinking skills to do so.  Both are in short supply these days.  I blame both the media (which sets extraordinarily low standards for both) and the educational system as the prime culprits here.

So, in my view, a dispassionate person in possession of appropriate thinking skills and who values intellectual honesty will acknowledge the existence of privilege in our society.  I further believe that in most cases of unearned privilege, we should be doing whatever we reasonably can do to ameliorate or eliminate both the privilege and its negative effects.

As for whether anyone should feel guilt or shame about being privilege, I find those things worthless — not just in the case of privilege, but generally worthless.

Ideally, we would live in a society in which there were no unearned privileges. While that’s a pipe dream, I believe we can do a lot better than we have been doing.

Questions? Comments?

8 thoughts on “Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?”

  1. The major flaw in your argument is that you are attributing your own experiences to everyone else, without having firsthand knowledge of everyone else. To suggest privilege is a simple observation in a complex world. The sacrifices that are made by the individual usually go unnoticed, since the exterior is the only aspect noted without further review.

    1. I think you’re much more pointing out a failure on my part to communicate how large is the body of science that now backs up the notion of privilege, than you are pointing out a flaw in the concept itself.

      1. Scientists are just as biased as everyone else, but science — the methods — have built in checks against bias. It can take a while, even a long while to sort things out. They do tend to get sorted out in the end, though. That’s what makes the sciences so successful.

        Hmm…I think I should get Boyd to do a guest post on this matter.

  2. I really don’t like the word privilege, but especially the phrase “white privilege” (I think you also mentioned that in a comment on one of Sarah’s posts) It’s implying that some people have certain special rights that other people don’t. In theory, that’s not true. But in reality that may be the case. I think what makes some people deny that they have privilege is the slight exaggeration/ severity of that word.
    And you’re totally right about how the education system makes it worse. I think that fact that we have privilege should be a personal realization, like the one you had. But the fact that education is so liberalized makes its students believe in something they don’t understand fully, so when it comes to confronting the other side, it turns to animosity and name calling. I’ve been told that I have privilege my whole life, but I never really believed that until that incident with the African Americans loitering in Starbucks and being kicked out. I do that all the time and nothing has ever happened to me. That realization taught me more about white privilege than than anyone ever did.

    1. I loathe the word “privilege” and especially the phrase “white privilege”. I strongly suspect the terms became popular in part because of the nearly universal human desire to shame people for things we don’t like about them. Academics are certainly not above such childishness.

      Also, I agree with you that the educational system so often presents the concept in a way meaningful to the students. I see that especially in the tendency of some academics to related it as a matter of power dynamics. I would have scoffed at such a notion back in my day and probably have dropped the class it was presented in, thinking the prof was an imbecile.

      Best, as you say, to come to it as a personal realization.

  3. Here’s another random, not-entirely-applicable-to-the-discussion thought that I’ve had about racism/sexism/power that’s gonna get me called childish (YOU’RE CHILDISH!!!).
    If you ever have doubts about the existence of discrimination, look at the names people choose for their children. Women can have men’s names (I knew a girl named Timothy, several named Michael, Lauren, Madison, etc), but men can’t have women’s names (nobody make fun of Stacey, he was here first!). Anybody can have an English-sounding name (they might take a little bit of flak within their group but not much), but you don’t see many white people with colorful names. Nobody’s family wants the new baby to be named Pablo or Taquanda.
    Same thing applies to clothes, hair, any culturally prevalent trait. White people who take on traits of other races are regarded as pretty strange and worthy of a wide berth.
    Getting back to the subject, they’ve done blind studies on identical resumes and the white names got more callbacks. Hey look I actually talked about privilege for a second.

    1. I’ve read of those studies. Pretty solid evidence, but just a drop in the bucket of all the evidence that’s been mounting.

      Good points about naming, although — as you say — not about privilege.

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