Justin Li

Understanding Privilege: An Attempt


The usual disclaimers about not seeing outside my life experience apply.

Many of the blogs I follow, including those of my friends, often write about social issues. One concept that keeps coming up is privilege. The idea, according to Wikipedia, is to highlight not only the disadvantages that some people face, but also how the advantaged may not recognize that they are so. This concept is most commonly applied to gender and race, but people also talk about heterosexual privileges and able-bodied privilege.

Coming from a technical background as a straight (if asexual) Asian male, I have never quite understood the idea of privilege. To me, it seems like a mere reframing of the same issues around gender, race, sexuality, and disability discrimination. Maybe it makes the societal origins more visible, and how discrimination may be passive instead of active, but I don't think that's true of most discussions of privilege. As such, the idea of privilege seemed a little redundant.

The definition of privilege, however, is in some sense broader than discrimination. One of my problems with privilege is that it can be applied to a lot of things other than gender and race. An lo, I found articles about the literacy, food, and water privileges. These are not attributes that we commonly associate discrimination with, and it is difficult to imagine what it would mean to discriminate against those without water. (It should be noted that the lack of some other universal human rights do get discriminated against; this is the case for the lack of housing, or what might be called the shelter privilege.)

The article which originally introduced the idea of privilege is Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In it, the author noted that when confronted with male privilege, men

[have an] unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women's status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's.

McIntosh goes on to note that there are different kinds of privilege, that "some... should be the norm in a just society[, while] others... distort humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups." The implication is that, for the former type of privileges, it is sufficient to grant the same privileges to those currently without them, while for the latter types the current holders of those privileges must also give them up.

Which brings me to my last confusion about privilege: all this academic discussion is great, but what is the (now consciously) privileged supposed to do with this information? On the blogs I follow, privilege is mostly brought up as an argument for the privileged to be more sensitive (or, as this comment eloquently puts, "Shut the fuck up and listen"). More condemningly, privilege has been used to explain the prevalence of rape jokes on the internet. Michael Kimmel, in the foreword to Privilege: A Reader, suggests that the task (of privilege researchers and advocates) is "to make visible the privilege that accompanies and conceals that invisibility [of being white, straight, male, and middle class]." But then he continues:

While noble in intention, however, this posture of guilty self-negation cannot be our final destination as we come to understand how we are privileged by race, class, gender, and sexuality. Refusing to be men, white, or straight does neither the privileged nor the unprivileged much good. One can no more renounce privilege than one can stop breathing. It's in the air we breathe.

So what are we to do? Kimmel's analogy with breathing is apt, considering the discussions of food and water privileges. That his words are in a book is, itself, a sign of the literacy privilege that he holds. Everything we do is a product of privilege of some kind or another - here I am, typing this blog post about privilege (intellectual) on a personal laptop (wealth), in a text editor I learned to use (education), that I will publish on the web without fear of filter or governmental backlash (internet, or freedom of speech). There are potentially an infinite number of privileges to check, and it's unclear to me what results are desired. Deterrence of privileged speech does not apply equally to sexism and to the internet, and the idea of privilege doesn't contribute to distinguishing the two. While I appreciate new viewpoints as much as the next person, I'm not sure we need the idea of privilege simply to teach a lesson of respect.

I want to end with an example of privilege checking that made me further hesitate on the idea of privilege. A friend's blog (to which I will not link) quoted a blog post motivating people to leave their jobs and travel the world. In the middle is this passage:

You can say farewell to your family, your friends, and if they love you, they'll let you go, they'll know it's not forever. You'll make new friends on the road, people from near and far, from all walks of life, with one thing in mind: to travel. You might be surprised at the hospitality of strangers who will love you like family, usher you into their dwellings, give you a place to rest your blistered, wandering feet, and a plate of home-cooked food to eat.

My friend found that the whole post "reeks of privilege", and said specifically of the first sentence in the excerpt above that some people may "have family to support (not everyone can care only for their own needs)." The first part of this reaction I agree with: it's definitely true that many people have to support their families. (Although, I suppose this in itself is a privilege, considering the alternative of being orphans in a war-torn country.) What struck me was the second part, how people who "care only for their own needs" are privileged. Depending on your viewpoint, these people are variously described as "selfish" all the way to "sociopathic". Neither ends of this spectrum are attributes people find desirable, so calling them privileges seems at least odd. Certainly, not being close to your family gives you advantages - such as the freedom to travel - but if everything that gives you benefits is a privilege, then the idea is so dilute as to be meaningless.