Monday, June 25, 2012

Privilege: the official* WWPD definition

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.
[...] 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.


PG said...

"Next, we need to distinguish between the absence of obstacles and privilege."

But that distinction is a matter of perspective and what you assume to be the "normal" way of life. If you are born white, being part of the majority group that has most of the wealth and power is normal to you, and the way non-whites live is the one with obstacles. If you're born black, your life feels normal to you and whiteness looks like a privilege.

I've probably had my privilege most explicitly laid out to me not in the area of economic class (where I'm reasonably aware of it and hopefully not prone to saying egregiously stupid things), despite that being where I have above-the-average level of privilege, but with regard to physical disability -- even though I'm probably more physically disabled than the average. And a lot of that "calling out" was with regard to assuming my level of able-bodiedness as "normal." I don't think I've used it, but this kind of perspective is typified by using the term "wheelchair-bound."

Phoebe said...

There are, as I mention at the end re: categories, many forms of privilege, although, as I mention higher up in the post, if we say that a person is privileged, with no further explanation, we assume this person has, and likely grew up with, lots of money.

In terms of whiteness looking like privilege if you're black, I mean, sure, but I'm not sure how that changes what I've said here. In a case like the Tavi YPIS, even if you think Tavi was aided by the fact that she's a thin white girl (which I do think, and I'm not even black!), you can be aware enough of how the world works to get that her success has been one in a million, and is most definitely not something you're handed as a reward for being white. Whereas it is something handed to many as a reward for being the child of the right people - people who are usually but not always white. It's obviously a spectrum, and there's a point at which a lack of obstacles morphs into privilege. But common sense should make a great many cases clear-cut.

Re: disability, this is a particularly tough one in terms of YPIS. As you say, not every disability is visible, and there are people walking around who are actually in a much more challenging spot health-wise than others in wheelchairs. It's so fundamental to YPIS that you can know who has and hasn't dealt with serious challenges, so if someone who's otherwise privileged turns out to have a severe disability, that throws off the desired narrative about privilege and entitlement. But not everyone with an invisible disability will want to share their health records with those telling them how easy they've had it.

Britta said...

I agree that privilege gets thrown around in unfortunate ways, but I disagree that privilege is something bad, or only applies to 'unearned' things, rather than just a fact. Of course we're all born into circumstances (families, backgrounds, bodies) which we can't control, and I don't see the point in endless self flagellation about it. We also make choices to do things or not do things, and no matter how much wealth and power we're born with, we can still to better or worse things with it. But I agree with Flavia: if you can put Harvard on your resume, that's a form of privilege, regardless of how you got there or who paid for it. There's no asterisk next to Harvard saying *legacy or *scholarship kid on your resume. I think there's space for accepting responsibility for one's actions, recognizing other's achievements, and also acknowledging that we're on on some level privileged. Of course, what Tavi has done is extraordinary, and she has rightly received accolades for it. She is also privileged in many ways. I don't think that takes away from what she's done, it's simply an awareness of fact, and luckily, she seems pretty grounded about that.

I also agree with PG that almost everyone in some way takes for granted some thing that someone else doesn't, and the point of acknowledging privilege is to, on some level, be aware of that. I don't feel bad for conforming to mainstream beauty norms, or for having it 'easier' in that respect than most other people, but it's something that I should be aware of, and to recognize that other people have to spend significant amounts of time, money, and energy to look the way I do when I roll out of bed. I didn't know that everyone's hair wasn't wash and wear until late high school. I had no idea that hair straightening was something people did on a daily basis, much less that straight hair was often seen as necessary to look professional and put together. I had an attitude of "why do people spend so much money on unnecessary beauty products, when they could just shampoo every other day, comb their hair and be done with it?" I also didn't know that body hair removal involved anything beyond shaving below the knees and armpits every once in awhile until college. In part, this is because I grew up surrounded by hippy-types, but in part because I have blonde invisible leg hair and not much unwanted hair anywhere else. I had no idea that waxing was done by anyone besides celebrities and swimsuit models, and not until my mid-20s did I ever realize that women could have unwanted facial hair.

Realizing this hasn't changed my attitudes in general towards beauty standards or social pressure to look a certain way, but it's definitely made me less disdainful of 'high-maintenance' women and aware that it's way easier to be quirky and low maintenance and still get social approval/male attention if you are conventionally attractive, so I have totally abandoned "why doesn't everyone just do what I do it's not that hard" attitude.

Phoebe said...


I agree that Harvard is advantage, straight hair is advantage, non-hairiness is advantage. Where I differ from you (and Flavia) is in my sense that there's a real danger in labeling all forms of advantage "privilege." We need to accept that the word is used to imply something sinister, that the term itself is an accusation, in a way that simply stating what the advantage consists of is not. So, while as a woman with thick and poufy hair, I agree that it's nice for women with naturally straight hair not to denigrate women who straighten their hair high-maintenance, I'm not sure it's that important. Being white is a form of privilege, but having straight hair, assuming this is relative to a white (non-ethnic, esp.) person with curly hair, isn't exactly "privilege." Just "luck."

It's good and polite not to be clueless, to put yourself in others' shoes, but the word "privilege" suggests a magnitude of unearned advantage - very unearned, very advantageous - that just isn't equally appropriate in all situations. It's not so much a question of approach - I think you, Flavia, and I mostly agree there - as of terminology.

Precisely because "privilege" holds so much weight, I'm not quite on board with a really broad definition of "privilege," one that would require Tavi to acknowledge hers (which, as you note, it seems she does, unprompted). Why can't Tavi acknowledge the role luck and certain advantages played in her story, and let someone in her position who got their via immense wealth/famous parents acknowledge privilege?

PG said...

I think there are multiple meanings for "privilege," though, that are context-specific.

Certainly when the NYT refers to somemone as a "child of privilege," they mean "rich kid." (And probably to qualify at the NYT level, you are not just the 1% but the 0.01%.) It would be bizarre for the NYT to call Tavi a child of privilege. "Privilege," sans modifiers or context, defaults to "economic privilege."

But if a black anti-racism activist is complaining about Tim Wise's privilege, it's pretty clearly his racial privilege that she's talking about. If someone tells me I'm unaware of my privilege when discussing how to educate children about disability, I understand immedately that that she doesn't mean my economic privilege. To be a liberal and an ally is almost by definition to be clueless and well-meaning. As my conservative friends tell me, they never have to deal with this stuff because no one expects them to care in the first place.

PG said...

With regard to the Harvard thing, though, I think that takes the concept of privilege to an absurd level. Pretending I'd delighted my mother and gotten into Harvard: My privileges were to be neurotypical (no impairing level of ADD, etc.), to afford test prep and tuition, to have no circumstances that would impede me from presenting an excellent application. Those are unearned by me. But surely the blessings of birth can be recognized as privileges without everything that they help us obtain being deemed privileges as well.

Actually, this exasperates me less with regard to Harvard than in the immigration debate. Wannabe immigrants who have skills that are needed in our labor force are seen as somehow unfairly privileged over low-skilled laborers. Possibly the former began life with privileges, like inborn IQ and countries that were poor but not in the middle of civil war, that the latter didn't have. But eventually it just gets ridiculous to run a system that has a limited number of slots on the basis of "We're not going to give more visas to nurses, even though we're in desperate need of nurses for our geriatric population, because that would reward their privilege over someone who can work construction, even though we have an oversupply of housing and work space." At that point, we're letting anxieties about privilege (anxieties that are fundamentally about moral self-examination) crap all over real-life problems.

Phoebe said...


Why bring the NYT and its particular definition of wealth into this? If in conversation, or in any publication, including one by and for a marginalized minority group, "privilege" was used without further explanation or context, I'd think "wealth."

To further elaborate on why "privilege" is too loaded to use too often, one big problem with the term is that it implies that the real problem isn't inequality, but insensitivity. Once "privilege" is "acknowledged," that great enemy - out-of-touch-ness - has been addressed. As if, if only you were more sensitive to particular disabilities, if only Britta were more sensitive to the concerns of the frizzy-haired, the disabled would be treated fairly, and beauty norms would cease to frown on curls.

This is true of YPIS, but also self-directed privilege accusations, acknowledgements of privilege, etc. If all of this is about being liberal and caring about inequality, it would seem necessary to insist that being sensitive is a first step, or a form of politeness, and nothing more. Awareness of privilege ends up being less about making life less unfair, and more about the feelings of those with, or accused of having, some form of privilege.

Britta said...

I agree. I think that's why, as an insult and as something we should examine, 'privilege' has its limitations. Yes, we're all privileged to some extent in some way. It's important we're aware of that in general, but not much more. It's far more important to work at the policy level to make society better. It's like easily parodied act of raising 'awareness,' where somehow a bunch of kids in a first world country being aware of human trafficking or AIDS is magically actually helping the issue. I suppose our difference is really just semantic, since I think privilege is a term that is so widely applied to be mostly meaningless, whereas you see it as so negatively charged that it should be discarded.

Like I said, I don't feel any sense of guilt or shame or responsibility based on the way I look, nor, as you point out, does the awareness that being an attractive Scandinavian woman makes it way easier to conform to Northern European beauty norms do anything to change those norms. In fact, I could even be aware of this and supportive of it, since I'm a beneficiary (I'm not). At best, being aware of any 'privilege' in this area helps me from being an oblivious asshole in certain situations, which isn't much and doesn't really benefit anyone but me. Actually changing beauty standards or whatever other more serious injustice requires things like voting, lobbying, suing, protesting, anything that brings about real substantive change, and the focus on 'privilege' actually can detract fromt that.

PG said...

At best, being aware of any 'privilege' in this area helps me from being an oblivious asshole in certain situations, which isn't much and doesn't really benefit anyone but me.

I think if you are positioning yourself as an ally, then it's also helpful to the people to whom you're supposed to be an ally that you're not an oblivious asshole. This sort of ties into the safe space concept: having physical or online places where, e.g., there won't be some oblivious Nordic-American woman wondering why other women put all this effort into their appearances. Such assholery may be merely insult added to the underlying injury caused by beauty norms (or by cissexism, ableism, racism, etc.), but it's still an unnecessary insult.

To the extent one is actually interacting with people lacking one's privilege, this is somewhat distinct from the "awareness raising" about Ugandan child soldiers. Such raising is perhaps beneficial to people like Rush Limbaugh who combine massive ignorance with a huge microphone, but otherwise really makes no difference to the child soldiers until awareness translates into effective actions. I try to be an "ally" to LGBT folks, PWD, et al., but it's sort of ridiculous to think in those terms about Kashmiris whose sons were dumped in mass graves by the Indian army. I'm probably never going to interact with those people; if I sound like an oblivious asshole, they'll never know the difference.

Possibly I'm perceiving this differently from y'all because the only times when someone has tried to "call out" my privilege and I haven't responded with "you're an idiot and here's why," the caller was someone who actually lacked that privilege and thus had standing, so to speak, to say that she was in some way hurt by my obliviousness. If someone is just trying to make you feel bad because that's how they make themselves feel good, screw 'em.

i said...

A total aside, having read, enjoyed, and agreed with much in the post and comments --

one of the nice things about Flavia's post is that I discovered your blog, Phoebe, and have been delightedly reading back posts when I get a bit of spare time. I really enjoy it!