Oxford Dictionary defines privilege as special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy has written a book (link to excerpt on right) analyzing the modern use of the word and the admonition to “check your privilege.” She writes:
“Privilege isn’t so much a concept as it as a worldview. It has a simple definition – unearned advantage, likely having to do with wealth – but implies so much more. The approach originated in academia and progressive activism, but its reach now expands to cultural commentary and mainstream (even conservative) politics.”
Bovy goes on to say:
““Privilege” is best understood not as a real trait, but as a construction. Anyone can be “privileged” if it suits someone else’s argument. There’s no wealth or income threshold for “privileged.” It doesn’t require membership in the One Percent, or even the top 50 percent. And anyone can, with proper rhetorical flourish, play the role of the implicitly underprivileged. To call out another person’s white privilege, you yourself can be white. And to call out class privilege, you don’t need to demonstrate that you yourself aren’t a J.Crew-wearing Whole Foods shopper. The trick is simply to announce that this other person is those things, and to do so in a tone that suggests that you go around in a potato sack and subsist on lentils (or better yet – because lentils suggest cultural capital – McDonald’s). YPIS is about constructing an underdog stance. It’s about making as if you’re craning your neck to look (and punch) up, regardless of where you’re actually situated.
“”Privileged” is part of a family of terms used for euphemistically describing the not-destitute (or the “middle class,” or – for a double whammy of socialism and Francophilia – the “bourgeoisie”). Like the others, “privileged” is ambiguous and can refer to everyone from unambiguous elites to people who simply have some advantages – a college diploma, say, or a childhood spent in a two-parent household. However, “middle class” and “bourgeois” allow, at least rhetorically, for the existence of an upper class, an aristocracy. They’re not just word-variance synonyms for “rich”; whereas there’s nothing above privilege, no implied higher rung. Referring to everyone who isn’t desperately poor as “privileged” may be inaccurate as well as off-putting. Yet it’s a shortcut to always seeming self-aware.
“From its inception, proponents of the privilege framework have warned against leaving it at that. Awareness, they remind in unison, isn’t enough. Critics of the framework, who insist that it’s all talk and no action, aren’t always being fair to proponents, who do – at least if we’re talking about scholars and activists, and not fourteen-year-olds on Tumblr – acknowledge this. Yet it’s never entirely clear, not merely how progress would follow from privilege awareness, but why it would, and, moreover, why the reverse wouldn’t be the case. Why, precisely, would rendering all hierarchies transparent lead to these hierarchies’ disappearance? Why, indeed, wouldn’t it just lead to those at the bottom of each despairing, while encouraging those at the top to view their unearned advantages as that much more precious? This implicit, but implausible, step after the awareness epiphany is, at its essence, my issue with “privilege.” Constantly reminding everyone of where they fall . . . why would such candor lead to empathy? Why wouldn’t a society where systemic injustices are front and center in everyone’s mind at all times only serve make interactions between men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, that much more fraught, inhibiting the development of everyday social and professional bonds?”
Peggy McIntosh’s account of white privilege and male privilege
One of the earliest exponents of the concept of white privilege and male privilege was Peggy McIntosh at the Wellesley Centers for Women (https://www.wcwonline.org/Active-Researchers/peggy-mcintosh-phd) who in 1988 published a paper entitled White Privilege and Male Privilege – A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (link on right).
BuzzFeed’s “How Privileged Are You?” quiz
One of BuzzFeed’s top posts, with over 11 million hits, is its “How Privileged Are You?” quiz at https://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you. The quiz has 100 questions, including:
- I am white.
- I have never been mocked for my accent.
- A stranger has never asked to touch my hair, or asked if it is real.
- I am heterosexual.
- I am always comfortable with P.D.A. [public displays of affection] with my partner in public.
- I am a man.
- I have never been raped.
- I have never done my taxes myself.
- I graduated college.
- My parents are still married.
- I have never considered suicide.
- I have never felt overweight or underweight or “too skinny.”
- I have never been shamed for my religious beliefs.
- I have never been self-conscious about any of my identities.
Atlas resource pages associated with this concept
Atlas topic, subject, and course
Oxford Dictionary, privilege, at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/privilege, accessed 15 March 2017.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy (2017), The Perils of “Privilege,” New Republic, 6 March 2016, at https://newrepublic.com/article/140985/perils-privilege-phoebe-maltz-bovy-book-excerpt, accessed 15 March 2017.
Peggy McIntosh (1988), White Privilege and Male Privilege – A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, at https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/White_Privilege_and_Male_Privilege_Personal_Account-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf, accessed 16 March 2017.
Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 16 March 2017.
Image: Amazon.com, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, at https://www.amazon.com/Perils-Privilege-Injustice-Accusing-Advantage/dp/1250091209/, accessed 15 March 2015.