What Is Privilege?

I had to come up with an innocent enough sounding title that would convince a newcomer to not X out the tab as soon as they got here.  I think a simple 3 word question will do.  Get ready to rage quit about half way through though.  This one’s gonna be fun.

Lets start off by actually defining what the word means in social parlance.  According to the dictionary:

PrivilegeBut of course we’re not going to rely on just the dictionary definition.  We do have other sources.  And if you’ve been a reader of this site for any length of time, you probably know which source we’re definitely going to include.

According to the Fox News of social science, privilege is “Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status“.  The article goes on to mention white privilege 4 times, male privilege 4 times, and even “right-handed privilege” twice.

By the way if the editors at Everyday Feminism ever happen to find their way here, sentences can be grouped together in paragraphs.

You don’t need to make every sentence it’s own paragraph.

It’s true.

You really don’t.

And according to http://www.whiteprivilegeconference.com – which boasts an annual attendance of 1,500 of education workers from around the globe, and even offers Continuing Education Units for participants – privilege “exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do“.

Now those aren’t too far off the mark, to be honest.  But lets make this even easier using a fun analogy!

Lets say you and I are standing at the bottom of this wall, and we’re about to climb it:

climbing_wallWe’re gonna see who can get to the top first.  But before we do, someone comes by and straps a 50 pound backpack on your back, then says “ready set go!”

I don’t have a pack on my back.  Does his make me privileged?

NO!

It doesn’t.  It makes you disadvantaged, but it doesn’t make me privileged, because remember the definition of that word; it’s first and foremost an unearned advantage that I have that you don’t.

Now some might point out that you having the pack on your back “gives me an advantage”.  That’s true in one sense, but if my privilege were really defined by your disadvantage, then there would be no end to privilege.  After all, someone out there has asthma.  Does that mean I have breathing privilege?  Someone else was born without legs.  I have walking privilege?  Someone else is blind.  I have seeing privilege?  Oh hell lets make it INSTITUTIONALIZED SEEING PRIVILEGE because most of the world is designed with eyesight in mind!  You can think of a million things another person has that’s makes them worse off – this doesn’t mean you’re privileged.  It means they’re disadvantaged.  This is important because the focus belongs on removing their disadvantage, not on penalizing me for not having their disadvantage.

If you showed up to a car accident and someone was bleeding all over the pavement, you wouldn’t look at me and start blame me for not bleeding – you would get some gloves on and start patching up the one’s who’s injured.

Okay now back to our rock climbing wall… lets say I had someone at the top of the wall who was pulling on my rope and helping me climb.  Would that be a privilege?

YES!

That’s exactly what privilege means!  It’s an unearned advantage that I have that you don’t!  I have someone helping me, and nobody’s helping you.  This means I might have privilege where you don’t have any disadvantages.  Or I might have a privilege and you could be disadvantaged at the same time.

There are also some gray areas.  In real life, I just happen to be a performance athlete.  I can land around a hundred one-armed pushups in generally less than 4 minutes, and can pull 385 off the ground at a body weight of 140.  So if you’re not an athlete, and we’re about to race to the top of this wall… am I privileged?  This one’s tricky – I’m definitely advantaged!  However, I earned that advantage.  I hit the gym nearly every day for a year, and worked hard to get where I am fitness-wise.  I followed a super strict diet that entire time.  I made the sacrifices.  So yea, I’m advantaged, but for it to be a privilege, it has to be “unearned”.  Keep that in mind because we’ll come back to that in a bit.

And here we’re at that rage-quit part I mentioned earlier, so go ahead and place your cursor over that X at the top there and get ready to tell your friends about this horrible conservative neo-nazi KKK page you stumbled upon.

If we’re climbing that wall, someone could be tugging the rope at the top for you………. even if you’re black.  Or you could have that 50 pound backpack strapped on and still be white.  Colour does not automatically necessitate privilege or disadvantage.  Now, there’s lots of times where that’s the case!  It’s indisputable that institutionalized and systemic white privilege does exist, and Laci Green – as much as she is wrong on so many things – actually did a good job of laying this out.  But let me say it again – colour does not automatically necessitate privilege, advantage, or disadvantage, in any given situation.   This means that each individual instance of privilege must be examined independently, and according to the facts, avoiding narratives and presuppositions as much as possible.

Whether or not you want to call white privilege “racism” depends on how you define racism.  It’s very possible for a system to be set up in favor of one race or the other without any conscious intention of racism being present.  So if you mean to call a situation racist, or call it “systemic racism”, then that’s probably accurate.  Just be aware that the people running that system may not themselves be racist, and the way the system is designed may be a left over artifact from an earlier generation that made it that way.  Address the problem without attacking the people (unless you can show the people are the ones at fault).  This same thing applies to all forms of privilege.  You solve more problems that way, make more allies, and piss fewer people off.

Alrighty, now with that out of the way, lets examine how privilege is discussed by your typical SJW (Social Justice Warrior) by looking here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/dayshavedewi/what-is-privilege

Nice heartwarming look at how much worse everyone else has it than you, and why you should feel guilty and ashamed for having it so good (i.e. being “privileged”) – although there are a few legitimate examples.  We’ll only cover 10.

1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.

^^^ This might make me disadvantaged in some ways, but how does it make YOU advantaged?  Or even privileged?  Remember my 50 pound backpack doesn’t give you climbing privilege anymore than my asthma gives you breathing privilege.

2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.

^^^ We’ve covered this pretty extensively in another post.  But yea, if you walk through a developed nation like the US with fear of sexual assault every day, you may want to speak to a therapist.  Either that or stop visiting Everyday Idiots.

3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.

^^^ Definition of privilege.  My disadvantage doesn’t mean you have an advantage.  We need to focus on the stigma of a man kissing another man, and fix that, rather than focusing on a man kissing a woman, since that’s not the issue.

4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.

^^^ Again, my wheelchair doesn’t mean you have walking privilege.

5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.

^^^ I can see how this one would be connected to other areas where privilege did exist.  White neighborhoods are generally better off because of racist housing policies (some of which were outlined in Laci’s video earlier) that existed in decades passed, and those neighborhoods would speak English.  Someone fleeing economic disparity might have grown up in a household that didn’t speak English.  It’s important to examine each item on it’s own merits, and this one might have some truth to it.

6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.

^^^ Well, this is an advantage.  And it’s one you didn’t have to earn.  So this one checks out.

7. If you have ever tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back.

^^^ This one seems pretty scattershot.  All of us change our speech and mannerisms throughout the day, depending on the situation.  We don’t act at an interview the same way we would at a family reunion.  How would this equate into a privilege?

8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.

^^^ I’m going to admit some ignorance on this one.  I see aisles for hair and skin products for black folks in Wal-Greens all the time, but I’d rather have black folks chime in on this one, since it’s a personal thing and they’d know more about it.  Is it really that hard to find what you need?  Do you have to drive for miles and miles looking?

9. If you were embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.

^^^ If you were embarrassed growing up……. um…. okay, every single person who has ever lived through the ages of 13 to 17, take 10,000 steps back.

I get how economic disparity means some people are privileged, but this one isn’t saying that.  It’s saying “if you were embarrassed”.  Hell even the richest kids have to go through that.

10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial/gender group, take one step forward.

^^^ I’m white, and I’m constantly told how I don’t understand, how I’m part of the problem, how I oppress others, how I’m so lucky, how I’ll never have it so bad, PLUS!  If I’m homeless, sexually assaulted, robbed, beat up, or wrongfully arrested, I’m told “I was still privileged” (usually by people affiliated with #BlackLivesMatter who’ve not taken any time to understand what “privilege” actually means).  I hear all the time about how whites are hurting everyone else.  Sounds like a flaw in my racial group.

But then it’s not all black folks who are doing that.  It’s only a few of them.  Same like how blacks are judged in that same way, because it’s not all whites, it’s only a few vocal and open racists.

Either way, this is a narrative, not an actual unearned advantage belonging to any group in particular.

Finally, in doing research for this post, I looked far and wide for any identifiable “Black Privileges” so I could list them here, but wasn’t able to find any.  Similarly, I’ve not yet been able to find even one example of an actual male privilege, though we do have a list of numerous female privileges.

For black privileges, I found a few sources, but these failed just as badly as most of the ones we see on the BuzzFeed link above – keeping in mind the definition of “privilege”.

http://reverseracism. tumblr.com/post/63340296481/the-black-privilege-checklist

I chose this page because, to be quite honest, other lists I found were just laughably bad, and I didn’t think they should be taken seriously.  So just a handful from the link:

A black person could potentially benefit from affirmative action. There is almost no affirmative action for white people on the basis of skin, even for foreign-born whites.

^^^ This was originally placed as a counter-measure to white companies refusing to hire blacks.  So this isn’t really a privilege, it was a necessity needed to integrate blacks into the workforce.

I can pursue a career in rap, R&B, or gospel without being considered controversial.

^^^ I can’t offhand think of a “controversial” white gospel singer.  Or even why that would be controversial in the first place.  Or why controversy in any of these categories would be bad – Eminem stated himself that if he were black, he “would have sold half”.

African-americans invented the biggest forms of music in America, namely Jazz, Rock, and Rap.

^^^ How is this a privilege?

African-americans are historically portrayed as underprivileged in history textbooks. Ethnic whites who were historically underprivileged like the Irish and Italians, and Appalachian Miners are given footnotes on the side.

^^^ This is probably true.  However, how does this translate to an “unearned advantage” in any discernible way?

I can be sure of watching a football or basketball program and seeing my race widely represented.

^^^ That’s because your race puts in the time and effort to make this happen.  It’s done by choice.  There are whites who play NFL football, and there are blacks who compete in the World’s Strongest Man.  It’s just that one race tends to gravitate towards the other – but the individuals still put in the time and effort.  This isn’t a privilege.

And this of course isn’t to say that black privilege and male privilege DON’T exist – just that I haven’t been able to find any.  So feel free to leave some examples in the comments section if you’ve found a few that check out.

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17 thoughts on “What Is Privilege?

  1. Pingback: A Reponse to the Male Privilege Checklist | 4th Wave Feminism

  2. Pingback: These 25 Examples of Female Privilege from a Trans Woman’s Perspective Really Prove the Point | 4th Wave Feminism

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  4. You point out that white privilege exists but don’t examine what the privileges are or even disassemble any like you did for the black privilege checklist. It might help people to see what is an actual privilege versus an advantage/ disadvantage.

    On another note, wouldn’t affirmative action (the favoring of certain individuals because of historical oppression and/ or discrimination, based on race, color, creed, etc so that they may have an equal “playing field”) be an unearned advantage to those individuals? The fact that it is a necessity has no bearing on whether it is a privilege, advantage or disadvantage. Did the person earn the advantage because they worked hard for it or was it handed to them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Rose, and thanks for commenting.

      I didn’t point out examples of white privilege in this article because I felt Laci Green did a fantastic job of doing so, which is why I provided a link to her explanation. In the above, where I stated:

      —– —–
      It’s indisputable that institutionalized and systemic white privilege does exist, and Laci Green – as much as she is wrong on so many things – actually did a good job of laying this out.
      —– —-

      ^ I hyperlinked to her video. She lays out a number of examples of white privilege. (Here’s the link again if it’s easier: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AkF5honPoM )

      Now in regards to affirmative action, if something is necessary, I don’t know if it’s a privilege… because a necessity isn’t an advantage, right? In the analogy of rock climbing, it would seem like pulling on the rope of the person climbing *because* they have a 50 pound pack doesn’t really come out to a privilege, but rather it just levels the playing field.

      Like

      • You stated above “lets say I had someone at the top of the wall who was pulling on my rope and helping me climb. Would that be a privilege? Yes.” However now you infer that by adding “because of (say a historical disadvantage, etc)” in to the phrase, necessity (of affirmative action) makes the unearned advantage no longer a privilege? So as an example, if someone bought me a car (unearned advantage) because of a need to get to a job, which is the necessity, it would no longer be a privilege, according to your logic. That’s a little flip-floppy, don’t you think?

        Yes, I watched Lacis video. She explained the historical and continuing disadvantages that POC face:
        Between 1934 and 1962 the government gave financial backing to white only households. That funding may (yes, she did say may) have led to lower property taxes used by schools in primarily black neighborhoods, which led to low paying jobs from the lack of education. She went on to note that prisons are privatized, meaning more inmates provide greater profits. She then explained police brutality and racial profiling.

        However, did you know that the definition of racism is: “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior OR superior to another race or races.” So by promoting phrases like “white privilege” (which by definition lumps all white skinned people together including Jewish, Irish, Russian, Polish, etc) and the like, that in and of itself is promoting racism. Is it the thought that only POC can be discriminated against and only white skinned people can be racist? There are some interesting comments on Lacis video that suggest that POC cannot be racist, which is why I was wondering if you’d illustrate further as to what white privilege is to you.

        So, as to my original question, what is your thought and examination of “white privilege”?

        Like

      • Okay –

        It would seem to me that if a black individual were facing a massive obstacle that a white individual was not facing, and we could not simply remove the obstacle, then one thing we could do is create a way around the obstacle. I think the analogy holds. If the black person is being forced to wear a 50 pound pack, then pulling on his rope with the effort of approximately 50 pounds should definitely even things out. This wouldn’t provide an advantage, this would simply make things fair.

        I don’t think this is the same with buying you a car, because anyone can have a car purchased for them, no matter what their skin colour or ethnicity. People of every group can have a car bought for them, or, have access to reliable transportation (like a bus system). Now if you’re referring to the extremely rich vs the extremely poor, then sure, there we have a completely different set of privileges – though this is even more gray than the question of race, since simply the act of being rich is not enough to indicate privilege, because it’s not privilege if you earned it.

        It is very true that the dictionary definition of “racism” is different than the definition we’re using to describe systems that create a power differential, like the one’s Laci described. In this case, I believe both definitions are accurate for what they describe. Neither definition excludes the possibility of white people being discriminated against. It’s very possible to be black, and racist. In regards to privilege, I’ve not seen any examples of systemic black privilege, though this is an entirely different question from whether or not blacks can be racist.

        As for white privilege, yes, this is a real thing and really does exist – but it does not mean that all white people walk around being privileged everywhere they go. We only see white privilege in a few specific instances, like white people getting lesser sentences than black people for the exact same crime, or black people being targeted for drug possession much more so than white people. These are two very well documented examples.

        However, privilege necessarily includes an *unearned advantage* – a white homeless person may not have any advantages over a black homeless person. A white rich person also might not have any advantages either. Both can experience racism. For it to be privilege, it must be an example of some unearned advantage – for it to be white privilege, it needs to be an unearned advantage belonging only to white people. As as with anything else, for it to exist, we need evidence of it’s existence.

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  9. So, white privilege is a thing in America ? Is feminism right in that regard ? I know you said not everyone is privileged, but I am never saw any inherent advantage whites have over others in the modern world.

    If you have, please tell me.

    Like

    • Hi there Tim,

      I’ve never seen a valid example of male privilege given by anyone, despite this article and others like it being linked to numerous feminist forums, asking them to provide at least one example.

      This doesn’t mean that male privilege *doesn’t* exist, just that we have not yet seen any examples (and 3rd Wavers claim we live in an ocean of something they can’t show a single example of). White privilege might also exist, but I’ve not seen many examples of that either. A few studies have been conducted that seem to hint that there might be white privilege (and at the time I made the original post, these seemed to be rather plausible), but over time when these studies were more closely scrutinized, it turns out that the evidence is not as credible as once thought.

      I’m currently under the impression that white privilege is very unlikely, and that male privilege is extremely unlikely.

      Like

  10. It’s a complicated subject, and I appreciate the way you’ve made distinctions– I think over-generalization is quite often the underlying error leading to unreasonable extremes.

    That said, I can’t resist the challenge of providing “a single example” of male privilege, as requested. I’m a pediatrician, a woman, and I think most sexist experiences I’ve had have related to my career been more about disadvantages than privileges, but there are examples, and I’ll give just one.

    I’m a faculty member who teaches medical students in the apprentice model. I’m surprised at how often parents of children I’m treating assume the male student accompanying me is my boss and that I’m the nurse.

    Example scenario: I go in a room, trailed by a younger male student (I’m 53), wearing my nametag with my credentials. I introduce myself as Dr. Abston, the pediatrician on call, introduce the student (as a student), and ask if the parents have any questions about their newborn. The parents turn toward the student and ask a question. The student doesn’t know the answer and looks at me, and I answer. This goes on. Finally, they may look at me and ask when breakfast is coming.

    ****** I’ve never had that happen with a female student. And that’s what I want to get at, not the comparison of the male student with me, because for all you know, I could be presenting myself inadequately. You could be thinking– lol, maybe this chick doesn’t dress like a doc, etc. But that wouldn’t explain parents behaving this way only with male students. And, I know from comparing notes with other female faculty members, that they’ve noticed the same phenomenon.

    Now that is NOT by any means every day or even every week. It’s a few times a year. I have enough perspective that it does not dent my confidence in myself– it does make me think something like “how silly are these folks, who would trust an as yet inexperienced student to answer their questions, just because he is male?” It seems like a tremendously risky move on their parts!

    How is this privilege? The student is being granted unearned respect and authority– he is being treated as if he out-ranks me in knowledge and skill. We have multiple studies in humans and other species demonstrating that status is a factor in health outcomes. It may affect confidence differentially, which could have long lasting effects.
    I am not personally worried about status, which I am told is likely a mark that I have it. But my male students are given this status boost they didn’t earn, and my female students are not. I don’t think the women are disadvantaged here, because they are treated like students by patients– and they are in fact students.

    Does this meet your criteria for male privilege?

    Like

    • It would depend on whether or not this is systemic. As you said, this happens only a few times a year, and there could be other factors that play into it. It may in fact be just a few people who have their eye caught by a taller and broader looking person who stands and speaks a certain way. Switch those details and you may switch the results.

      I recall a study in Australia some time ago where whites would try to board a bus without money, and aboriginals would try the same thing. By a two to one ratio, whites were allowed on the bus more so than aboriginals. However, when the authors changed the way they were dressed, the differences all but vanished.

      Now if this were something we could test in regards to doctors, and control for other differences, and we found results that people trust male doctors more than female doctors, then sure, it’d be a privilege. However, we actually *have* tested this, and that’s not what we find: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1495193/ <– it appears female doctors are ranked better overall.

      You're welcome to post any other examples that you believe might fit the definition of male privilege. We can continue this discussion here, but just so you know, we've moved to http://www.4thwavers.net .

      Like

      • Ah… well, idk if following up on the current site will make sense without repeating the first comment, so I’ll just do a short f/u here. I certainly agree there would need to be a formal study to prove anything systemic. In some specific cases, I felt pretty convinced it was a male-female thing, because of other attributes the families in question exhibited, such as the dynamics between the parents… and the male students were not uniformly physically imposing compared to me.

        Some of this may be regional. I’m in Alabama where we have a high population of people in religions where women are supposed to defer to men, so it’s hard to know if the UCLA study can be assumed to apply here. That study was also testing a slightly different issue, and sometimes those small details matter. I’ve never had the thought my patients didn’t trust me due to my gender. Just that if they’ve never met me and I’m side by side with male and female students, some of them turn to the male but never to the female student, as if they think he is in charge. To the point that some of the male students comment afterwards. That seems to be a different issue to me than what the study assessed.

        I don’t know how to add up little bits of privilege from either side… but I have noticed certain disadvantages male students have. Sometimes parents of female children resist chaperoned male student involvement with the unclothed physical exam– but not female students. I won’t stand for that– it isn’t good for training purposes. Of course no one is examined without consent, but if families are unwilling to participate in the teaching clinic in a non-sexist manner, they do have to transfer to a different practice. If they want me as their doc, they get students too.

        But most issues I have experienced were simple maltreatment, not additional privilege of my male colleagues. Things like– when I was a student, there was an attending who hit female students on the head with a clipboard, and not gently, when we got the right answer. It was bizarre. Surgeons who hit us on the hands with retractors. Leaving bruises. I don’t think those abuses are common anymore, thank goodness.

        Like

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