Friday, January 04, 2008


I am still learning about the concept of privilege as used in academia and among those who work for a more fair society. I am beginning to see the utility of the concept and the truth it represents. But I'm also starting to wonder whether talking about privilege outside of a couple of very narrowly-defined venues is good.

I observe that people who are defined as having privilege (and I have some kinds of privilege) when confronted with that definition are often defensive, as if they were being accused of personal agency both in whatever degree they had opportunity to benefit from privilege and as unwitting or willing accomplices in keeping privilege defined to exclude others.

It's also my perception that some people who are defined as not having privilege use that as an excuse for past failure or future lack of effort.

Because I usually focus on agency, I notice that both of these reactions arise partly out of the privilege concept's disregard of effort on effects. Granted, privilege isn't (as I understand it) really about results but about opportunities, it must still be that observing privilege happens because of results. The other major contributor to these reactions is failure to explain (on the one side) and understand (on the other) that privilege in this sense is not a personal, individual thing: it is really only meant to be discussed in terms of an entire society.

What if talking about privilege makes individual situations worse? If so, it's because the concept is basically jargon: it has a narrow definition that is not aligned with the casual use of the word. It doesn't mean the kind of privilege that we talk about when we take away a child's privilege to watch tv because he didn't do his chores, or the kind of privilege that we say driving is when we take away her driver's license because she drove drunk.

Most people who are using this jargon definition of privilege toss the word into conversation without explaining exactly how they're using it, without giving the context that would illuminate the conversation instead of send it off into the same boring dead-end of "But I didn't have privilege, even though I'm a white male! Look, I don't even own a home!" I suspect they do this because they're accustomed to conversing with people who already share their context, and that defining terms isn't necessary or happened long in the past in most of those conversations. And that's a big mistake: it leads to wasted effort, misunderstandings, and alienation.


Rory said...

I think it is confusing because people use the word, sometimes deliberately, incorrectly.
A privilegeis something extended to you by a higher authority that can be removed.
Being a white male is not a privilege. If you have a job based only on the fact that you are a white male, the job is a privilege. When the job can't be taken away, it is an entitlement.

The things that get called privileges in these conversations are unearned advantages- but they aren't granted by anyone except chance and for the most part can't be withdrawn by an authority.

I think that is where the language problem comes in. Not all unearned advantages are privileges, but some privileges are unearned and most or all privileges are advantages.

(This is what happens when I read Greek philosophers)

jaylake said...

I find the privilege (or per Rory, advantage) discussion slippery for two reasons. One, it's almost impossible to define due the malleability of the term in discussion. I've been told recently that my choice to give up watching television was a point of privilege, which seems bizarre to me. Two, at least in the context of the writing community, it seems to be a codeword for "you succeeded because you're special somehow", which devalues the hard work or sacrifices of a person who is otherwise privileged (as I am, surey).

Kai Jones said...

Entitlement isn't quite it, either, because it includes outcomes; this privilege doesn't. Indeed, unearned advantages is a better term, it's both a more accurate description and a less antagonistic phrase. An advantage doesn't necessarily lead to a better individual outcome.

But it's not just chance, except in a sense so largely historical (e.g., whites have privilege because Northern Europe basically succeeded best) as to be meaningless; and you can successfully legislate them into fairness (e.g., housing laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, family status).

Yup, some people use it as a club to beat others down or to justify different outcomes due to effort or talent, as you describe, instead of a teaching tool and filter for how we might jointly decide to change society to extend these unearned advantages.