Rethinking the Word “Privilege”

by Benjamin Studebaker

The word “privilege” has become ubiquitous in the United States, particularly among politically active left-leaning college students and graduates. Many different people are said to be “privileged”. There’s white privilege, rich privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and so on down the line. We are frequently encouraged to “check” our privilege, to be more aware of the extent to which racial minorities, women, LGBT people, and the poor are denied the same access to resources and social treatment we enjoy and take as given. I agree with the social justice movement that it does people born into affluence some good to remember the widely divergent environments and social circumstances their fellow citizens must endure, but I absolutely hate the use of the word “privilege” for this purpose. Here’s why.

Think about a lot of the things that we call “privileges”. Often, we’re said to be privileged if we:

  • Are not racially discriminated against by other people.
  • Are not the victims of misogyny on a daily basis.
  • Have access to sufficient educational resources to get into a good university.
  • Are not the victims of abuse or were not the victims of abuse as children.
  • Are not the victims of homophobia.
  • Had parents who were around, cared about us, and did a responsible job raising us.
  • Don’t suffer from unusual physical or mental disabilities.

I could go on–there is something that all of these things have in common. They are not privileges in the sense that the word “privilege” connotes. What is a privilege? A privilege is something you get, not because you deserve it or have a right to it or ought to have it for any particular reason, but because you are lucky. When we’re children, our parents might threaten to punish us by saying “watching TV after 7 PM on a school night is a privilege, and I can take it away”. The word “privilege” implies not that minorities/women/the poor/LGBTs ought to be treated the same way that affluent straight white males are treated, but that affluent straight white males are lucky, that they’re getting something they don’t deserve. No person should ever be a victim of racial discrimination, and whenever anyone discriminates racially against another person, that person acts capriciously and wrongly. White people are not recipients of a privilege, they enjoy an entitlement that ought to be universal.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some kind of advantages that do fit the word “privilege”. Some of the advantages affluent straight white males have they can only have precisely because our society is unjust in various ways. For instance, when a white man gets a job over a more qualified black woman, he enjoys an advantage that cannot be made universal and which he ought not to have. The same goes for an especially attractive person who is given special treatment over and above what an average-looking person usually receives, and there are many other like cases one might dream up.

There is a fundamental difference between a white person receiving preferential treatment over a black person, treatment that would not be possible in a just society, and a white person receiving treatment that the black person does not receive but could receive and ought to receive under just conditions. At present, we use the word “privilege” to cover two very different kinds of things:

  1. Unrealized Entitlements–things that all people deserve and can have consistent with one another, but which presently are only accorded to a portion of the population (e.g. being free from harmful racial discrimination).
  2. True Privileges–things that some of us have at the expense of other people, that we can only have under unjust conditions (e.g. getting a job I don’t deserve because I’m white).

We should never talk about an unrealized entitlement as though it were a true privilege, because the implication of doing so is actually quite conservative–that the disadvantages many people in our society must cope with are the natural, normal state of affairs, that being treated like an equal citizen is and will always be bizarre and abnormal.

We should “check our privilege”, but, more importantly, we should “redress unjust distress”, both by acknowledging the extent to which other people in our society do not yet have their due and by working actively to help them secure it. Perhaps there’s a catchier phrase out there to capture what I mean for the purpose of political slogan-making, but you get my drift–most of our “privileges” are really things everyone deserves that as of yet some of us still do not enjoy. The task for social justice campaigners is not to make us feel guilty about not being the victims of racial discrimination and so on down the line, it is to get us to pay attention to the fact that some of us are still not getting what they deserve and to motivate us to do something about it rather than sit idly by.

A change in tactics of this kind would likely do much to help social justice campaigners to have more influence with regular people, both college students who are less politically active and the overwhelming majority of Americans who haven’t been wandering around campuses recently and aren’t engaged in millennial political culture. People don’t want to be told that they don’t deserve what good treatment they get in life (in no small part because even reasonably well-off people often don’t have wonderful lives), they don’t want to be scolded by social justice activists the same way children are scolded by their parents and told that they’re enjoying “privileges” that they’re lucky to have, and, by implication, could (and perhaps even should?) lose. It’s far more persuasive to conceptualize the problem as one of opportunity and freedom. When affluent straight white males go through their days without being on the blunt end of discrimination or mistreatment, they are enjoying freedoms and liberties that ought to belong not merely to them, but to all citizens. The problem is not so much that some of us have more than we ought to have or are treated better than we deserve (although this does happen), it’s that some of us have much less and are treated much worse.

For the most part, it’s not that affluent straight white males have it too good, it’s that everyone else doesn’t have it good enough.