The Problem With 'Privilege'
Students are heading off to college around the country this month. In addition to the disciplines of chemistry, history and psychology, they will also learn a great deal about the politics of their faculty and administrators. One key word they will encounter and be expected to understand is “privilege.” They should be prepared.
Today, the Left is busy trumpeting an ever-expanding list of privilege (e.g. white-privilege, hetero-privilege, Christian-privilege). The Right, on the other hand, either works itself up into a lather or poo-poos the whole idea.
As is often the case with such issues, both sides have a point and both are missing the larger issue. We have once again oversimplified a complex social reality, creating a stereotype of “privilege.”
First of all, “privilege” is a misnomer. Privilege has to do with special treatment. If one group faces discrimination, it does not necessarily mean another receives a particular privilege. If Gingers get picked on, it doesn’t mean the rest of us enjoy non-gingered privilege. What we are talking about are relative advantages, which are indeed real. Overuse of the word “privilege” turns people off; they are then less likely to stop and listen.
Opponents of privilege discussions must recognize, generally speaking, that life is easier in this country if you are born white, male and heterosexual. Denying this is an over-reaction. We must acknowledge that not everyone begins life with the same resources and benefits. Many face unfair hardships along the way – some are linked to race, gender, and religion.
Admitting that certain folks have relative advantages over others, however, does not make you a Lefty. I can admit the realities of my own unearned advantages without self-flagellating, liberal, white guilt.
Liberals who talk the most about “privilege,” however, need to recognize that they do not go far enough. There are numerous potential advantages that affect one’s chances in life. It is not just race and gender identity. Consider the enormous and disparate impact of wealth, attractiveness and intelligence. A man’s height is statistically significant when considering his potential for professional success; a person’s posture and weight also play a role.
And consider one of the most powerful unearned “privileges” that only some children enjoy: a two-parent home.
If racial discrimination can affect some people’s progress, research from Stanford University shows that personal politics may be an even greater help or hindrance. Depending on where you apply for work, your politics can play a tremendous role in what kind of “privileged” treatment you receive.
The term “white privilege” also perpetuates a colossal misrepresentation of race relations. It suggests a common experience of “people of color” as compared to whites. But Asian-Americans earn more than white-Americans. Is there “Asian privilege?” Is there “black-immigrant privilege” when compared to natural born American blacks? How do we categorize that?
The other essential point missing from this discussion is that the United States is not a monolithic entity. What relative advantages or disadvantages does a Korean have in rural Oklahoma when compared to San Diego?
One need not travel hundreds of miles to see a change in attitudes. The town-and-gown divide is a clear example of the fluid nature of these “privileges.” My liberal atheist colleague with the foreign accent may be treated with some suspicion by certain folks where I live in central Pennsylvania, but those same attributes earn him greater respect as soon as he walks on campus. For a straight, white, Christian Republican, it works the other way around.
When we multiply these variables with the fact that people hold multiple identity markers, we end up with a twisted web of relative advantages and disadvantages that no one can untangle through policy or decree. Who has it easier: an attractive girl brought up by a working-class Puerto Rican family in the Bronx or an autistic boy of Greek heritage raised in an upper-middle class, single-parent home in West Virginia?
Our social reality is a tremendously complex interrelationship of economics, education, religion, ethnicity, national origin, individual psychology, appearance and gender that play different roles in different times and in different places. Recognizing these identity markers – and the relative advantages they may carry - is important in creating a more just society. We may then work toward greater equality of opportunity by minimizing discrimination and favoritism, not adding to them. In the long run, that works to the advantage of us all.
Jeffrey K. Mann, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Susquehanna University.