The current concept of privilege in progressive/feminist circles is one with which I have a love-hate relationship. The concept I mean is used in "male privilege", "white privilege", "thin privilege" and so on. It's even used (as a counterattack) in "female privilege" and "black privilege" as I have written before.
And that those counterattacks can be performed shows one problem with the concept: It's always possible, by serious digging, to find something that is good (or can be made to look good) in any social ranking, even the most oppressive one, especially if we simultaneously ignore all the horrible parts of that position.
But as I've written before, the concept of privilege is excellent for self-inspection, for thinking before one opens one's big mouth to say something uneducated and rude, for understanding how other people's lives differ, for avoiding mansplaining and whitesplaining and all the other types of uninformed preaching to people who, in fact, know more than one does. Thinking about privilege and the lack of it can also strengthen empathy.
Still, I'm moving more towards disliking the concept, and that's because the advantages of the earlier concepts we had are getting lost. By those earlier concepts I mean the familiar ones of race, gender etc. discrimination.
When we focus on the absence of discrimination as what needs to be fixed we have taken the wrong turning on the road. And really, that's what much use of the privilege concept in social media seems to do: We don't need to fix the problem of discrimination directly. Instead, privileged people need to acknowledge their privilege and then "do something to fix it."*
The way to do that is ultimately the same as the need to remedy discrimination of all types. But now we arrive at our destination through a long detour, and along that detour lots of privileged people** are going to drop out of the activist program.
Why? Because the message of being privileged, of having lots of various unearned advantages, is psychologically unpleasant and uncomfortable: It produces guilt, and not all people react to guilt in the way the users of the concept desire.***
It doesn't help that many supporters of the privilege concept stress that being privileged doesn't mean that one is a bad person, because simple logic here shows that not relinquishing that privilege does make one a bad person. At the same time, simple logic also shows that one person's act of relinquishing his or her privilege doesn't make any difference at all****! Thus, in some ways people are asked to try to relinquish their privilege while not knowing if it is at all helpful in remedying the real cause of that privilege. Not a great bargain.
But there's a second problem with the concept of privilege. It divides people into the groups of privileged and not-privileged along some dimension, but doesn't usually have the option of being neither. Yet that's the real goal of social justice movements: Remove racial and/or gender discrimination and treat all people fairly, etc. I think the older concepts (discrimination, racism, sexism etc.) are clearer in this sense, because they define the problem precisely and because they directly point to the needed solutions.
This long meditation on privilege was triggered by an article about the way people with class privilege (i.e. people with more money) see the world differently from those without class privilege. The article lists six examples, and they are indeed useful for that introspection I noted above. But one of those examples also shows the problems with the privilege concept, here in the context of class privilege:
5. You Got Paid for All Your Hours at Work
Luckily, most of us can reasonably count on being paid on time and at the rate we agreed on.
Data suggests that wage theft is widespread, and it’s reported in all regions of the US. And workers who miss out on fair compensation are losing billions.
Many of them are also low-wage earners, meaning an instance of wage theft could make them late in paying the bills or make it hard for them to put food on the table.
We don’t all feel like we get paid enough or are given enough opportunities to advance, and many of us aren’t. But if you can count on getting paid and getting paid enough at the end of the work week, consider it a privilege.You get this message: " But if you can count on getting paid and getting paid enough at the end of the work week, consider it a privilege." And what happens next? What actions should you take? Is the fact that you (the "you" the article is talking to) are getting paid privilege or, in fact, fairness? And does the answer to that question determine what you would do next?
I think it sometimes does, and I prefer the direct action implications of viewing wage theft as unfairness and getting paid what one has earned as fairness. This is one context where the concept of privilege doesn't make that much sense.
The point of this post is not to bash all the ways the concept of "privilege" is used in the current debates. As I wrote above, it has clear benefits. But I think its use has been overextended, too much is expected of it, and, paradoxically, it often leads to too little, such as the mere acknowledgement of one's privilege before speaking or writing.
* Many articles, posts and debates I've followed which use the privilege concept don't actually say what should be done next, so the above is my interpretation of the possible next step. Sometimes it looks like acknowledging one's privilege is enough. I think it's very insufficient.
Some articles or Twitter conversations argue for individual actions, such as refusing to take precedence in some social situation when that precedence is based on one's race and/or gender privilege. Speaking up when someone else uses, say, class privilege is also sometimes proposed.
But I haven't seen much about collective actions to remedy privilege. Those collective actions are important ones and include fighting for more fairness in education, labor markets, health care and so on, and that fight should not be only about language but also about money and laws.
A warning: Everything in this footnote is about my impressions. Those don't mean that the kind of coverage I yearn for isn't out there, just that I have not come across it, but I have come across much of the kind of commentary I talk about here.
** Practically everyone can be considered privileged on some scale, by the way. Many are privileged or unprivileged on several scales, but it's quite difficult to define someone who wouldn't be privileged along at least one generally used dimension (say the healthy-sick one or the thin-fat one or the cis-trans one).
*** I've read quite a bit about how one should react to these ideas if one is privileged. That is different from how human psychology constructs the situation and what follows from that. Of course the outcomes vary by personality and life experiences.
**** Can privilege be relinquished? Class privilege can, by giving all one's money away, for instance. But most privilege is embodied and cannot be relinquished.