Flavia has a post up about "professional privilege," and because I coined the acronym YPIS, another blogger, Withywindle, lured me to the thread. The topic of the post - how to blog as a tenured prof used to taking an underdog stance - I can't exactly speak to, what with being a grad student. Although I might add that I once did refer to the complaint of a prof who almost had tenure at one amazing school and ended up instead with tenure at another as a Second After Sartre problem. I suppose I could address just how privileged I should feel to be in a good grad program, but that's not where I'm going with this. Instead, let's focus on something that came up in the thread, namely which biographical facts can be referred to as "privilege."
What "privilege" connotes:
"Privilege," to my mind, and evidently to the dictionary's mind, refers to something other than luck. It referred to something still more particular in the French Revolution, and has yet another meaning as it's used today, which is both the meaning that interests me most here, and the one that's toughest to pin down.
On a more basic level, if you refer to someone as "privileged," you're using a euphemism for "rich." Without any context, if I told you that X was "privileged," this would be your assumption. You wouldn't think that X was white, straight, male, good-looking, and a janitor. "Privilege," though, hints at something holistic, in a way that "rich" does not. It suggests cultural capital, other intangible advantages. It's meant to suggest that someone has never had to face any obstacles, and that anything "achieved" by someone with this quality doesn't count as an achievement. Someone rich can be impressive. Someone "privileged" cannot. Unlike "comfortable," a euphemism that diminishes the wealth involved, or "affluent," which I think is just there for word variation, "privileged" rounds up.
Furthermore, "privileged" implies not merely wealth/advantage, but a certain attitude towards that wealth/advantage. Someone "privileged" is probably also "entitled," "spoiled," and "out-of-touch." "Privileged" can be an accusation, in a way that "rich" cannot. It's meant to sting more if you make someone aware of their "privilege" than if you make someone aware of their wealth or advantages, precisely because "privilege," for whatever reason, has come to imply wealth and advantages of which someone is unaware, or that someone takes for granted.
This is what I'm referring to when I say that "privilege" is a loaded term, to be used with great care.
What "privilege" is not:
I have trouble with the use of "privilege" to describe the lot of someone who came from nothing and made it big. Sure, such an individual has wealth/advantages, and might exhibit cluelessness re: why others are struggling. But if you've personally experienced have-not-ness, you can't possibly exist in a rarified sphere of not knowing what that's like. Conversely, I'm also not such a fan of using "privilege" to describe adults from relatively privileged backgrounds who've regressed to the mean. The former example isn't aloof, the latter isn't rich or powerful.
I'm also not wild about using "privilege" to describe, well, privilege, as in telling someone who's privileged that they are in fact privileged. It will be interpreted as an accusation (even if it's a fair accusation - some people are, after all, wealthy and entitled), and will receive either a defensive or self-flagellating response.
Next, we need to distinguish between the absence of obstacles and privilege. Think the difference between being a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied man and having the last name "Kennedy." See also the Tavi Gevinson YPIS kerfuffle. For some, the default life is one of glamor, power, whatever. But just because you weren't abducted by warlords at age 10 doesn't mean your successes are meaningless.
A commenter at Flavia's, going by "i," describes a kind of self-directed YPIS, which sounds awfully close to "impostor syndrome":
I guess I think that in our commendable desire to acknowledge the aspects of our success that are not directly attributable to personal merit, we sometimes exclude merit and hard work altogether. [...] I think women in particular do this too often, and need to stop.And:
[...] I find it frankly weird to talk about having a boost on the job market from, say, the name on one's PhD diploma as some kind of unfair priviledge. What, pray tell, would be the point of working and fighting to get into an elite school if it didn't come with all sorts of perks: working with well-known faculty, good funding, great visiting speakers, and an advantage on the job market? Are you really suggesting that it is somehow unfair to reap the results of labour combined with luck?Privilege unacknowledged is annoying. But so too is privilege exaggerated. Whether the impetus for the exaggeration is excessive modesty or the desire to be reassured that of course you earned it, it's best avoided.
Also, we should separate out unearned advantage from indirectly earned advantage. This comes from Flavia's thread - as Flavia notes, having "Harvard" on your CV gives you a leg up relative to others who are just as qualified, whether or not "Harvard" got onto your CV via your own merits. Flavia argues that "Harvard" amounts to privilege, even for those who, pre-Harvard, led a scrappy existence. I argue, on the other hand, that if "Harvard" was earned, so too are any advantages it confers. Which made me think of a less ambiguous example: networking. If you're hired via who you know, this is less fair than if you were being judged solely on your skills (the proven ability to interact socially with colleagues being, presumably, just one of them), but there's a huge difference between benefitting from profession contacts and having your parents put in a good word. The rich get richer, but there's a difference between the self-made-rich getting richer and the born-rich doing the same.
Privilege - see, I get to the point eventually - is unearned advantage. It's advantage stemming from who you are, not what you've done. Certain categories point us to what it might be - wealth, but also gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance, able-bodiedness, etc. But it's also things like place of origin, family connections, or happening to wish to enter the same difficult-to-break-into career in which your parents are incredibly famous. So it's not necessarily systematic, unless we're using "systematic" to mean something like, if your father's a rock star, you can probably be a model no matter what you look like.
*I mean, official-ish. Between final revisions on a chapter before sending it to my committee, learning how to drive in traffic only mildly less traumatizing than Canal Street where I last attempted this, and having a dog that got up rather early this morning, I can't promise anything all that sharp here this week.