My Privilage

Privilege seems to have become a new watchword in popular American culture, especially when discussing race. It has rattled around the world of academia for some time, but only recently has it hit the general populace through social media.

Most common privileges discussed are Male and White privilege. I’m both white and male so that puts me firmly in the privileged category, and I don’t disagree with that. I’d go on to say I’ve got a whole host of other privileges to go along with those two. Before I get into that, I want to talk a little about what privilege means.

What is Privilege?

Google tells me the first definition is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” In this definition, there seems to be a clear indication that this is a controlled effect. In other words, to have a privilege, someone, or some group must be giving it to you. It is neutral on whether or not it is an earned privilege or unearned.

Much of the current popular talk of privilege seems to be inspired by the work of Peggy McIntosh an active and professional feminist. I read her work WHITE PRIVILEGE AND MALE PRIVILEGE: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies (1988) which you can read here. She does a good job clearly explaining her contention and drawing conclusions. I suspect many who discuss the subject are ignorant of her work whether they support it or oppose it. Most of us have an opinion of it based on the context in which people we encounter discuss it. Give it a read if you have not yet done so.

Inferring from a list of privileges she has experienced, she is taking the word a bit beyond my dictionary definition to include any and all advantages she may have. She then later discusses the distinctions among privileges including those earned, or unearned, and those that are by circumstance or by active oppression. She doesn’t go into detail about how all must be dealt with but is instead most concerned with the awareness of their existence and noting that those who possess privilege are often the least aware of it for they have little need to be.

I think there are multiple threads of what people discussing privilege are aiming at. There are those like McIntosh who’s main thrust is simply to create some awareness that they exist and invite reflection as to what a range of privileges are out there. For some, they are indictments against unjust privileges created by the dominant group for its own benefit. Others are trying to engage sympathy for any intrinsic advantage held by the privileged group whatever the cause of that privilege. It seems to me those complaining about it see it as a moral indictment of themselves as being to blame for the state of those not privileged.

Awareness

I think it is always good to be knowledgeable and aware of things. Thus I see the effort to make people aware of privilege as a good. I think it is important when doing so to try and communicate this in as neutral a way as possible. Many seem to be put on the defensive by the issue of privilege because of the justice aspect of it, but I think it’s better if folks understand what it is before we launch into what to do about it.

I also think it’s important we make distinctions, which is why I’m dividing up this article in the way I am. I think that privilege in terms of injustice carried out by a powerful majority is very different than privilege which is an intrinsic advantage maintained not by any authority but simple circumstance. The meaning and remedy for the two types of privilege are very different even if the effect is very similar. I’m hoping that I expand some awareness through this article.

Awareness can be very difficult. My wife sometimes bemoans that it’s rare that she can be in a public place where people look like her. Very often there isn’t an Asian face to be found. That is something incredibly hard for me to understand the impact of. I only rarely have that experience and when I do, it’s a novel exception to the norm so my reaction to it is clearly very different. Unless I were to go live in another country for a good long time I just can’t know what it is like. Her telling me about it is one level of awareness, but even with that knowledge, you can’t fully understand, nor can you be expected to.

Injustice

Privilege resulting from injustices is the ground in which I think you can find the most agreement in America today. A bank that issues loans disproportionately by race holding financial qualifications equal is something only bigots would have much support for. There are bigots in the world but issues like white privilege are utterly lost on them. They simply seek to maintain them aware or not. I think myself, and most of my generation (X) and beyond are pretty well against injustice and when we become aware of it, want to stamp it out.

How you stamp out privileges can be very tricky. Many parts of our government such as law enforcement involve individual judgments. The law could not afford a white privilege, but if the policeman is even unconsciously fearful of minorities, then he/she may well apply the law unequally. Statistical analysis may tell us there is a problem, but how does the policeman actually apply that in making judgments? I think it is very hard to escape. It’s an area where diversity of police and training in treating people as individuals rather than profiles is important. In short, awareness and consideration at the individual level are the only ultimate solution.

Of course, government policy and employer discrimination are not the only areas where some kind of decision making is at play. I think an active area here is social inclusion. Women, minorities, and others are so often expected to “prove themselves worthy” as where others are often assumed to be worthy by default. It’s inductive of all of us to simply assume everyone is equally worthy of whatever until proven otherwise. If you are distrustful you should spread that around to everyone you don’t know. If you are trusting, try to trust everyone equally until you know them. I think this comes down to individual respect. While it may be true, some stereotype often plays out, you should respect a given individual enough to find out whether it holds true for them or not.

Intrinsic Advantage

Here I mean to discuss a privilege that is largely a result, not of a decision or policy, but a simple fact of circumstance. For instance, as a man, I have a penis and thus have the privilege of peeing standing up. Women by virtue of a womb have the privilege of bearing children. There is no remedy by which we can take to equal the playing field on these types of advantages, and even if we did, it would amount to punishing people for simply being themselves, something we would generally consider unjust.

I think there has always been a misunderstanding about discussing this kind of inequality. One popular critique of communism is the idea that if someone was exceptional, they should be effectively hobbled to provide a level playing field and make others feel equally good about themselves. I think it comes from seeing exceptionalism as a complaint, and then formulating a simple solution with which they can straw man their ideological opponents. It then becomes accepted as the other side’s case as it makes the rounds. I think the same goes for privilege. People with privilege hear about it and think the implication is they should somehow be responsible for divesting themselves of it or giving the benefits of it to someone else.

I think where it most fittingly comes into play is judging of others. Judging from a place of privilege without taking it into account in your judgment is unfair. The old “If I can do it they can do it.” so they must be lazy if they failed. Not knowing the challenges for someone without your privilege may make such judgments ring false to those who face them and incite anger. Unless you are actively providing technical coaching to someone, trying to guess why they fail is pointless. If you want to help, take the circumstances they are in and help, your judgments are useless otherwise.

I will say that there is a fine line between recognizing a privilege and/or relative disadvantage and using it as an excuse to avoid trying. If one precludes the possibility of achievement because of a disadvantage, you rob yourself of any possibility of success and at that point your own resignation is a much stronger determinant in your fate than your lack of privilege. This is especially true of an intrinsic advantage because there is no reasonable remedy anyone else can provide for not having it. Blaming others for it will only make you out to be whining.

Earned vs. Unearned privilege

The common consensus is that an earned privilege is more just than an unearned one. A person who works hard to study at school and gets good grades earns the privilege of scholarships and awards. Few would argue that hard work and talent should not be rewarded in this type of way. On the other hand, a young man who gets a scholarship because his father is dean of the school may be seen as unjust to more deserving students. Often, however, there is a kind of mixed message. A successful businessman may well have had the privilege of a good father (unearned), being a white man (unearned), and yet worked exceptionally hard to make his business work (earned). Has he earned his privilege as a rich businessman or not?

Another wrinkle is whether or not the privileges earned are commensurate with the effort to earn them. Honestly, there seems no good way to really judge this except by direct comparison, something that is often difficult. Salaries are a good example. It is well-known men and women with similar titles at the same company often have disparate financial rewards. Presumably, they do the same level of work and should be rewarded the same. Yet we all know that there is often a premium offered to men due to sexism and that not all people work as hard as others in the same position. The uncertainty makes it very difficult for us to judge effectively. Even were we to mandate equal pay, it could remain unjust because the two do different amounts of work and yet get the same pay.

Guilt

The emotion of guilt is central to the debate on both sides. Whose fault is privilege and what responsibilities does it entail? Does great responsibility come with great privilege?

I think that people will have a hard time feeling guilty for Intrinsic Advantage. I know I don’t feel guilty for being a man or white or any other privilege that is merely a gift of birth. Nor am I likely to feel guilt for privileges I feel I’ve justly earned. My money was earned through hard work. I may have gotten a bit more than someone else, but I don’t feel any guilt as I didn’t determine it myself. Nor would I even feel guilt for a privilege that was unjust but given to me by someone else. I didn’t ask for it, nor did I determine it.

I think that I would feel guilty if I was found to be perpetuating an unjust privilege. If it became clear to me I was treating women unfairly as a manager, I’d feel very ashamed. If I take more privileges than I have earned, that also gives me a feeling of guilt. I think it is something I’ve done from time to time and I do feel sorry for when I’ve done it. I also feel guilty when there is an injustice I have some power over and I fail to try and rectify it. If try to speak up whenever I see something I feel is unjust. I’d also feel guilty for judging someone when I don’t really understand their circumstances.

That last part, understanding someone’s circumstances is a tricky one and I think a real point of contention. I can’t tell you exactly what it is like to be a woman. I can probably make some approximation but I don’t really know. We could say that we should simply never judge others, but I don’t think that is realistic. There are circumstances such as being an employer where that is your duty and obligation. Also, a wise person judges who they want to be friends with. I do think that if you don’t need to make a judgment of others, you should try to avoid it or at least keep it to yourself. Further, when you do make a judgment, make it qualified as much as you can manage. There is great wisdom in knowing that you don’t know and acting accordingly.

Social context

It is worth mentioning that privilege is part of social context. In many societies, privilege may be seen as entirely appropriate or a good. In monarchies, the king’s privilege is a divine right, and absolutely necessary for the good governance of the country. We in America see that as monstrous despotism. “All men are created equal.” is one of our founding principles and we have spent centuries trying to live up to that creed, not so much expanding it but trying to achieve its full meaning. It’s worth noting that anyone not ascribing to that principle has a hard time in in this debate. Everything I’ve written here is under this ideal assumption, that the virtue of every person is equal but for their own actions which merit reward or punishment in appropriate measure.

Parents and children

I think it is worth briefly reflecting on the privileges of being an adult. In law, in society, and in nearly all human cultures there is a near universal understanding that a great many privileges come with coming of age and that prior to that children are rightly to be denied them. While we may well have cultural conflict about exactly what they should be, few question the fundamental notion that there is some differentiation and that it is essentially just and practical. What principle exactly justifies this?

I think primarily it is pure pragmatism. Children need guidance and don’t have the knowledge or skills needed to exercise some privileges that adults enjoy. Also, many privileges are a matter of liberty and such liberty could well endanger their lives so we allow their guardians to assume control over those privileges. Which ones are denied and which ones granted tend to be decided on pragmatic lines deemed good for the child.

Secondly, I think that there is an understanding that all people are children and we think of people as a whole of their lives. Thus while we don’t have the same privileges concurrently, we none the less get them all in the same fashion and measure.

OK, what about my privileges?

I’ve got lots of them…..

  1. I’m white in a white majority country. That means much of society is assuming I am the standard and tries to appeal to my aesthetic and identity.
  2. I’m a man in a society that is traditionally patriarchal. That again means society is assuming I am inherently better in some ways.
  3. I am big and strong. This means I am less likely to be victimized and obeyed by others due to fear. Also admired as a protector and hero.
  4. I am smart. This means I am going to have a strong advantage on competing with others in our market economy.
  5. I am healthy. This means I can live cheaply, get to work more, and have the strength to compete.
  6. I am well educated. (see advantages of being smart)
  7. I have good parents. This is a huge advantage compared to someone without, or with bad ones.
  8. I am wealthy (though was not always). At least wealthier than most and this also has more advantages that I can possibly enumerate.
  9. I am well spoken. I can communicate my ideas and reach peaceable understandings with others.
  10. I am charismatic. I can command people’s attention effectively and more easily manipulate them to get what I want or need.
  11. I am an American. As such I have the best economic opportunities and am protected by the largest military in the world.
  12. I speak English. It is a huge advantage in the world as the most commonly spoken language in countries that do not natively speak it.
  13. I am happily married. Having a life partner who loves you and is faithful and generally awesome is a huge advantage in so many ways.
  14. I have good friends. Having good and reliable friends is really another big advantage in life.
  15. I live on the road. I can visit any part of the US any time I like without any added expense. This gives me all kinds of advantages

I’ll stop there. I could go on for quite a while and I did big categories rather than intimate details s McIntosh does in her essay breaking down advantages of being white in America. Partly this is just a personal exercise of awareness which I think matters. Partly it is to try and illustrate that even if you don’t have some of these, you probably have others. We all have numerous privileges large and small and knowing them is useful both in helping ourselves, and being able to better understand others who don’t share them.

I generally feel proud of my privileges, or for the unearned ones, fortunate to have them. I don’t feel guilt for them unless I use them unjustly to lord over others. I am however respectful of the fact that others don’t share them and I try to be understanding and sympathetic. I try to advocate that others enjoy the privileges I do whenever possible.

I think the discussion is an important one. I think the reactionary resistance to it is partly from misunderstanding and partly an overly defensive reaction to a perceived condemnation. I also think those who do seek to condemn those with privilege are working against their own interests because when you put people on the defensive they are much less likely to try and understand what you are trying to teach.

Sigfried

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