In a recent post, I expressed frustration with the observation that those who sometimes question the tactics and language of some fighting for gender-equality then get lumped in with "everybody else who is clueless and oppressive," even if we care deeply about the issue. One of my complaints was irritation with the word "privilege," which generated a lot of hostility and confusion which, unfortunately, ended up obscuring my core point.
I would like to thank Annie (commenter in the previous thread, who continued the conversation with me in e-mail) for her calm and reasoned and non-attacking e-mail on the subject which helped me understand where it was all coming from. At the same time, I would like to say "foo" to those of you who thought that my objection to the phrases "white privilege" and "male privilege" were a denial that there was any unfairness or that anybody else has it harder than I do. I have seen a few have those sorts of reactions— and objecting to those sorts of reactions were exactly the point I was attempting to make with the previous post.
I think that what I think of the term "privilege" is that
it's a little different from advantage because privileges are a subset of
advantages, but advantages are not a subset of privileges. Maybe the best
example if the most basic one, that I heard time and time again in elementary
school: "Recess is a privilege, not a right!" I think of "privilege" as being
something that's *given*, whereas an advantage is something that gets you ahead.
In that really trivial example, getting to go to recess is an advantage for kids
who behave, but it's also a privilege, because it's granted by a higher
There are two aspects to privilege; I only had one in mind when I was objecting to the use of the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege." In an attempt to be as clear as possible and at least fend of some of the inevitable hostility that will result from any questioning of the use of these terms, I shall attempt to be as clear as possible.
Aspect #1 : privilege is an advantage or perquisite granted by some higher authority. In the case of "white privilege" and "male privilege," that higher authority is society itself. As a white person, I have the advantage that I'm far less likely to be randomly pulled over by the police, for example. This isn't a true native advantage like being stronger than average, but something artificial imposed by a society that is not as egalitarian as it would like to be. Because it is so granted, it is a form of privilege.
Aspect #2 : a privilege is something that, once granted, you have. Consider the recess example Annie gives. If students are given recess privileges, they can go to recess. If you have library privileges, you can check out books from the library.
Some may object that aspect #2 is "not what sociologists are talking about," but it is an aspect that is naturally inferred by those who hear the term (even if the implication was not intended by those who use it). The purpose of this post isn't to say that everybody else is using the term wrong, but to help y'all understand (a) why I am put off by the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege", and (b) why others may also be put off, thereby potentially harming the valid communication attempted by that those who would educate the world about the existence of white male privilege.
Let us assume for the time being that I am not the only one who considers aspect #2 as something that is at least partially implied by the term "privilege." Let us now apply the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege" to that.
I will, my whole life, have the advantage that I'm less likely to be randomly pulled over by the police than somebody of darker skin (unless our society is happily able to shed the residual racism in its infrastructure). It's something that I have, and so I would say that the term privilege is certainly apt considering both aspect #1 and aspect #2. I do want to add one caveat: people often point out that "white males have to give up their privilege if we are to have equity." I don't think this means that I should get randomly pulled over by the police more, however. The problem here isn't that I'm not randomly pulled over by the police, but that black people are randomly pulled over by the police. I will happily give up the privilege of "not being pulled over as much as black people;" I don't need others to be harassed to be comfortable in my not being harassed! The solution is to end the unwarranted random police stops.
Let us turn now to the situation in academia. Where I completely lost it on Zuska's thread, and what generated my previous post on this topic, is the fact that I am said to have "white privilege"— i.e. something I get just because I'm white— but aspect #2 very much does not apply to my situation. I'm facing the likely end of my career at Vanderbilt because of funding difficulties. I'm still white, I'm still male, but my "white male privilege" is not guaranteeing that I get to stay around in the same way that "recess privileges" guarantee that you are allowed to go to recess. The authority that grants me an unfair advantage (aspect #1) isn't going to change my white maleness (and hence I will always have "white male privilege"), but that privilege is not sufficient to guarantee that I get to stay in. When I am constantly reminded how "privileged" I am, consideration of aspect #2's inapplicability makes me grouchy; it sounds like, even if this is not intended, that people think it's easy just so long as one is white and male. This is what led me to propose the term "advantage" or even "unfair advantage" as a better term.
I fully admit and acknowledge that aspect #1 applies to academia, and, thanks mainly to Annie, I have come to understand that the term "advantage," or even "unfair advantage," is inadequate to describe the situation. However, at least to some of us, saying that you have privilege implies a stronger grant of rights, abilities, security, power, or whatever than we really receive. This is where my objection came from, not from any sense that "there isn't a problem," any sense that others don't have problems, any sense that I want to deny that I have an advantage, a refusal to give more than lip service to the issue, or any of the rest.