Monday, January 13, 2014

What Is Privilege?

Most theoretical discussions become entangled in semantics, either deliberately because it is a way to push a narrative, or by default because often times the proper words don’t exist to describe a situation or phenomenon. In my mind this is what is happening when we discuss privilege.

Privilege is:
a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most:
Beyond is the key word. If you are fully enjoying the rights, immunities, and benefits provided under our constitution and sets of laws, then you are not privileged but rather “baseline”. Privilege comes when you, for any reason, have extra rights, immunities, or benefits.

If you are for any reason being kept from fully enjoying those rights, immunities, and benefits, then you are the opposite of privileged, operating under the baseline. The word most often used to describe this situation is under-privileged but I would argue that in this case disenfranchised makes more sense. Why? Because it is assumed that if you are not under-privileged, you are “privileged” and that is not necessarily the case. All of us who exist at the baseline are also under-privileged in the sense that we do not enjoy any rights, immunities, or benefits beyond the basics afforded to us by our laws.

Continuing on, if you are being denied a basic right and I am not, that makes you disenfranchised but it does not elevate me to a status of privileged. This is where I see the arguments for privilege in general breaking down. For example, if you are not cisgendered and are harassed for using a public restroom that does not match your physical makeup, that does not make me automatically privileged because I am cisgendered and do not suffer said harassment for using a bathroom that does line up with my physical makeup.

In other words privilege, baseline, and disenfranchisement are not necessarily a zero sum game. You experiencing discrimination does not make me privileged for not. If I was sexually abused and you were not, that does not make you privileged. If I got accepted only into a state university but you, with similar grades, had your dad call his friend, the president of Harvard, to get you accepted there, then you are privileged.

There is another definition of privilege that pertains to this discussion:
any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government.
When using this definition it is much easier to ascribe the status of privileged to anyone in this country who is able to partake of the rights, immunities, and benefits afforded to us all in our constitution. This status of privileged is citizen specific, not skin color related.

However, because the set of rights, immunities, and benefits that exists in the USA was not completely equal for all people from the get-go (and still is not), systems and cultural attitudes (stereotypes) arose that disenfranchised various groups of people. For example, there was a time when women and African Americans did not have the privilege of voting. In order to justify this, narratives concerning intelligence and emotional stability were created. While we now have the right to vote, the stereotypes that were created to support disenfranchising these two groups of people have not dissipated. For example, think back to when Hillary Clinton was running in the presidential primaries. Messaging was developed based on the “emotionally unstable” stereotype. For a couple hundred years, the systems in place have neglected to include non-white examples (and where applicable, female, GLBT, non-ablebodied, etc) in an equal way. This is slowly being rejected and fixed.

And when it is finally fixed, we will all be baseline under the first definition of privileged and equally accessing our privileges under the second. And yes, there will still be those who truly are privileged by their wealth, fame, or position.

Responses to some of the thoughts raised in the comments on my last post:
To some degree I think our differences have to do with how we define privilege. I do not agree that if I am able to participate in the set of rights, immunities, and benefits afforded to all US citizens that I am privileged. In my mind, that makes me baseline. Having the “rules work for me” doesn’t make me privileged. Having the “rules not work” for someone non-white does make them disenfranchised and we all need to be cognizant of that and working to change it. To insist that my white skin has brought me benefits beyond the basic rights and opportunities that I was born into, assumes that there have been racists in my life who have promoted me above someone non-white who was better suited or more qualified than I. (Jisun, that is where I thought you were going with your first comment but I saw in your follow up that you did not mean that.)

As for judging books by their covers, I would agree that happens due to the stereotypes I talked about in this post. Is that wrong? Yes, and each one of us needs to continue working to change it. Does it automatically make me white privileged? The answer to that is situational. Sometimes stereotypes work for you and sometimes against you. Take this scenario: there are 4 people in a corporate technology office, a male African American, me, a female Asian, and a male Indian, and a new boss, who knows none of us personally, walks in looking to make a snap judgement on who is the hardest working, smartest person to do a special project. I likely would not be the one chosen.


Anonymous said...

There's also the privilege that comes from how you were raised -- whether you've got a sense of (for lack of a better word) entitlement that gives you the ability (and confidence) to try to have the world bend a little tiny bit in your favor. The parenting approach Anne Landau calls "concerted cultivation":

"Concerted cultivation also emphasizes the use of reasoning skills and variations in language use. Parents start to encourage their children to learn how to speak with adults so that they become comfortable and understand the importance of eye contact and speaking properly at an earlier age. According to Lareau, with these type of experiences, middle class parents try to pursue the concerted cultivation approach. They also try to promote a sense of entitlement in their children, middle class children get use to and they learn to see adults as their equals.[1] Concerted cultivation causes a transmission of differential advantages, meaning they end up having a financial and educational advantage in life over children reared based on other methods. Children who are reared using the concerted cultivation method are set apart in academic environments, such as college campuses, and they also learn to have more confidence when confronted with social interactions."

The theory is that this approach gives many, many middle class / upper middle class kids the "entitlement" / "confidence" to ask their doctor why they're being prescribed a certain medicine, to politely request an extension on a deadline from their 7th grade English teacher, etc.

TUC said...

Thanks for the link Macey. After reading the wiki definition of Concerted Cultivation parenting, I now want to read Lareau's book, Unequal Childhoods. Kimani's PCA is a college student and she told me the ethics class she took last semester was all about this parenting style, but that it was portrayed very negatively. I did get the feel from wiki that there are negative connotations associated with it. I never would have thought that eating dinner together as a family every night might be instilling a sense of entitlement into my children. "With concerted cultivation, the practices often infiltrate into the family life. Frequent gatherings provide opportunities for further cultivation such as eating at the dinner table together." Anyway, she seems to tie parenting styles more to wealth (or the lack of) than race or any other factors. I look forward to reading more about it.

jisun said...

I don't really know. I want to discuss this because a) I'm really upset about what you're writing and b) you've always been open to hashing things out, but I don't even know where to respond. The privilege comes at the cost of the disenfranchised, they're not separate things but work together. What you call baseline is privilege because to the privileged, it is baseline, whereas for the disenfranchised it is often painted as "extra". (I say this as a person well aware that I've enjoyed privilege and have been denied it in different ways.) Are you really saying that somehow your looks and gender got you out of a ticket, but your whiteness didn't? Do you really think that somehow you have managed to buck the well documented and studied phenomena of privilege given to people based on skin color? Yes, privilege can be situational, but that doesn't change the fact that you have some by being white, end of story.

And we can disagree on privilege vs disenfranchisement, and clearly you think what you think, but the way you seem imply that believing you might enjoy some amount of white privilege somehow reflects on your character or worth, while advancing Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric, well I think that is hurtful. And if you and I are on the same side of wanting LESS inequity, I hope you'd at least hear that point.

Let's talk somewhere else if you'd like. I can't subscribe to your comments still.

TUC said...

I am going to start with just two parts of your comment. First, the cop. There are two ways that same scenario (with that same cop) plays out if I was not white. He either would still have felt sorry for me because I was young (and scared) and pretty; and let me go... which is what I believe would have happened. Or he would have not felt any mercy toward me because, while I was young and pretty, I was not white, and he would have ticketed me. If in fact, the second option is how it went, then he was a racist, and I benefited from a racist being kinder toward me because I have light skin. A couple of times now you seem to be insisting that my skin color had something to do with this situation, and that means you are assuming that this cop, and by extension, all cops are racist. When I said I found that idea, (that you are saying that I have benefited from racism) so upsetting that I was "smh", you explained that is not what you meant. But it cannot go both ways. You can't make a general claim that I benefit from being white without conceding that there must have been specific interactions where I might have actually had this happen, can you? If you accept that benefiting from being white must have real-life moments and consequences, then you are randomly assuming that I have racists in my life that have helped me to benefit from my skin color in some way. I don't believe that to be true, even if there are studies about it. Did those studies conclude that every single white person has benefited from having a racist give them preferential treatment? I can't accept just a general pinning of "white privilege" on me because I exist within systems that are not always fair to all people. I need something more concrete, a real solid example of where I got some white privilege in my life.

Second thing I wanted to talk about is the "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric." I did not realize I was saying that. What is it that made you think I subscribe to that theory? Was it when I said that anyone can have what I have? If you don't believe me or agree with me, then you are making quite a few assumptions about what I have. I honestly think that anyone with my able body, intelligence, and health, regardless of skin color or financial beginnings could achieve what I have.

I am happy to talk here (even though it is hard to discuss this stuff) because I think it benefits other readers to engage in this aspect of the conversation... but if you do feel the urge to tear me apart and make me cry... pm me on FB instead :-)

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