Two aspects of the word "privilege"

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.

Annie writes:

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.

17 responses so far

  • Patness says:

    Interesting - shame I missed the show.
    I've been lumped in the same before - though I am typically pro-liberation in the aspects of gender, skin color, age and disability. I will always have white male privilege. This is not, however, always empowering (though it can be), and exercising it when it is, is not always intentional.
    In order to press equality in reform, we need to understand the systemic and viral influence these things have. I'm a firm believer that individuals spawn from communities, and drive them. Racism in individuals is the fault of the community as a whole; the question is, where are we still going wrong, and why?
    Here at University of Calgary, I've been thumbing around how to get more women into Computer Science, because there are far less of them than in, say, the School of Business, and because women get treated badly by professors in the department. Routinely. Yet we have tons of people claiming it isn't really happening. So there's the denial aspect. Then there's the population imbalance - more people in CPSC would definitely work to straighten some things out to normative behavior - but how good are the norms, really? The rabbit hole goes deep.
    Yet, this has also conferred opportunity - especially where women are objectified, I know of several that choose male professors because sex appeal plays in their favor. But, once you have to be at a peer level, then it backfires. Needless to say, it would be nice to keep things simple.
    The reason why solutions are slow to take effect is because it's not the University environment - it's our society as a whole. A lot of dumb shit gets perpetuated, especially with the ubiquity of media stereotypes. Don't knock the ostriches, though. Knowing what to ignore can be particularly powerful.

  • Alexis says:

    I think your logic got a little faulty in there somewhere (this is not to slam you by any stretch - I'm all for the civil, rationale discourse).
    Specifically, you say that the fact that you're "less likely to be randomly pulled over by the police than somebody of darker skin" [emphasis mine] is a privilege because it meets criteria one (granted by higher authority) and two (something you maintain). But then you switch to academia and say that because you are not guaranteed to stay in academia, it doesn't qualify as privilege.
    But in your first example of DWB (driving while black), you are not guaranteed to never be pulled over because you are white. You are less likely to be pulled over. Likewise, in academia - a completely parallel example, imho - you are not guaranteed to get and keep a position because you are a white male, you are simply more likely to get and retain a position.
    In other words, you initially stated privilege was "something you get to keep," but then you changed that to the word "guarantee" - but those two terms do not describe the same phenomenon. By extension, your two examples are the same - either both saying that you have privilege or both saying you do not - as the distinction between them you have introduced is in error.

  • Mecha says:

    *exhales noisily* Very nice way to be conducive to conversation, Rob. A very broad attack on anyone who _you_ think was wrong, without detailing who those people were.
    It's nice you understand your objections (which are the same objections you had before, and I, personally, understood that!), but I also think you're missing a point or three regarding your argument and the tactics involved. First, your initial post was incredibly accusatory. To specific feminists. You weren't exactly bringing up a light objection. You were being angry, not about injustice, but about... an interpretation nitpick, which no major feminist I can think of agrees with, and used insulting language to do it. Do you think that's an ally thing?
    Secondly, you are obsessing very heavily about how privilege 'doesn't give you everything you want, unlike some usages of the word.' Are you trying to tell me that you had never heard of the concept of someone being 'privileged' before now? As in a rich person? Are you telling me that the only sense rich people are privileged is in that they can get everything they want, and not just that things are easier for them? It seems to me you chose a specific interpretation yourself, without considering the context or ways the word is used generally, and then started castigating people for using it. People you were trying to claim you are an ally of.
    Thirdly, your initial objections _continued_ to use the completely denialist concept that 'Your word privilege means that you think that no white person/male person/straight person earned anything!' The standard, and inevitable, follow-up, which you in fact USED when referring to Zuska's post ('If you're not a part of the witch hunt...') is 'See how crazy feminists are?' That? Also an insult. And not a way of showing you 'get it.' Especially since you, in no way I can see, take it back.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Mecha, I have said before, I am not interested, really really not interested, in talking to you in particular about this any more.
    Anybody else, I'm interested in continuing the conversation.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I will have, as long as DWB is a "crime," the advantage; even if I do get pulled over once, I still have the advantage in the future.
    Any advantages I have in academia are moot after I've been booted out.
    That's the difference.

  • Hi,
    I hope the clarifications I have made to my post are satisfactory.
    As regards the analogy of being pulled over: white male privilege isn't only present in academia. So you will continue to have white male privilege to a greater or lesser degree in any job you go on to, in academia or out of it. I don't think anyone is saying that being white and male guarantees tenure, any more than being white guarantees you won't be pulled over.
    '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.'
    It's not that people think it's easy if you're white and male, but it is easier because you face fewer obstacles.

  • Alexis says:

    Fair enough - any advantages you have in academia are lessened (though I remain reluctant to say completely moot) after you've been booted out. But a loss of privilege in academia does not remove your advantage/privilege in other arenas. To that end, I find your insistence that male privilege does not exist (as opposed to male advantage) light of so much evidence to the contrary.
    I would agree with you that much of the discussion on this term is loaded and is at times used unfairly as a weapon, but I can't help but glean from your discussions that your problem with the term "privilege" is almost entirely personal. "Male privilege," as a concept, is by definition a generalization. Given that, it does not apply to all people all of the time. It applies to some people (white men), for instance, more than other people (black men). And even amongst white men, it can't ever guarantee positive results all of the time. But the loss of it by one person in one arena at one time is not enough for me to agree with your assertion that it is a fantasy.

  • Annie says:

    I really like Alexis' statement that "privilege, as a concept, is by definition a generalization." This is a really important detail that could be missed. It's also linked to the idea that society at large may 'grant' privileges, but individual actors still have their agency (i.e., it's not society at large that's making tenure decisions). Of course, this also means that it applies generally too: it may not be fair to focus only on academia in a discussion about a term which, by definition, needs to be applied broadly.
    And I think the point about likelihoods is really key as well, and my silly little example can be extended to get at this idea. So, let's say you have a classroom of 3rd graders, and each day, the kids who have been 'bad' don't get to go to recess, and the kids who have been 'good' do get to go to recess. If we were to tally things up, and find that 3rd grade boys are, on average, getting 100 days of recess a year, and 3rd grade girls are, on average, getting only 75 days of recess a year, then I think we could agree there was something going on. But let's say there's one boy who's definitely getting screwed -- his mom and the teacher are mortal enemies, and this kid can't sneeze without getting recess taken away. Say he's only getting 50 days of recess a year. Does his experience invalidate the overall experiences of boys & girls?
    Rob, I think what you might be saying is that, for him, *personally*, that definitely would be overriding any male privilege. In terms of him going on and living his life without recess, being a guy isn't helping him (although it could be helping him in many other areas of life). Where the idea of privilege could come in is that statistically, if not personally, he's still ahead of the game: if he were a girl, but the teacher still irrationally hated his guts, he might be knocked down to only 38 days of recess a year. That might not make HIM feel any better in his recess-less life, but it's probably making the girls feel worse.
    Or, to flip your statement on its side: Any advantages (or disadvantages) I may have in academia are moot if I can't even get in.

  • Rob Knop says:

    To that end, I find your insistence that male privilege does not exist (as opposed to male advantage) light of so much evidence to the contrary.
    I'm not insisting that at all! Why do you say that?
    What I was trying to do was explain why I reacted negatively to the term previously.
    Indeed, if you read the post, I clearly admit that it exists! It is just that some aspects that are implied by it are not fully realized in some situations.

  • Alexis says:

    Err...okay, I've obviously (embarrassingly) glossed a little too hastily if I missed that part. Which brings me back to my original point that I think you've conflated the ideas of "100%, lifelong guarantee" and "a really quite better chance."
    Here's what you say:

    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.

    The examples you have given above (or that Annie has given) are binary. If you are good, you go to recess. If you apply for a card, you get a book. But this is a different form of privilege than what is being discussed when referring to male privilege. Here is the definition of privilege (according to crappy, since I lost my OED access):

    a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most

    This says right, immunity, OR benefit. The binary library and recess examples apply to a right. Today, either you have the right to go to recess/library or you don't, based on whether you fulfilled a certain part of a bargain. But male privilege is a benefit (which is defined by same dictionary as an advantage). It means you get a better chance at things, not a guarantee. It is not binary option. On the sliding scale of a chance at success at X, you are at the upper end of that scale.
    Personally, I think a race example is a lot more conducive to understanding how social privilege works. Theoretically, a race can be handicapped to allow people an equal shot at winning - where the weaker racers are placed ahead of the stronger ones, allowing the race to be a lot closer. Social privilege, on the other hand, is like giving racers different degrees of a headstart based on an arbitrary and probably irrelevant variable (like what color their car is), thus giving certain racers a definite advantage over others. This is not to say that the racer given the greatest headstart is certain to win - after all, life is filled with chance, and there could be a storm that day, some dude in the back could be the fastest person in the world, or the person at the front just had a bad day. But it nonetheless creates a level of disparity that greatly improves their odds. In a perfect world, imho, everyone would start at the same time and place.
    Hell, that was all over the place, but I hope it makes some level of sense.

  • Rob Knop says:

    The examples you have given above (or that Annie has given) are binary. If you are good, you go to recess. If you apply for a card, you get a book.
    Yes, exactly, and in common parlance, very often when the term privilege is used it is in fact used for binary things.
    Obviously, though, "white male privilege" is not so binary-- and that's the reason behind why I had a negative reaction to the term, and I suspect why others have a negative reaction to the term. Privilege very often implies binarity, so it sounds like binarity is being implied here too, even if it is not.
    Again, I'm not trying to say "I'm right, everybody else is wrong," here, I'm trying to explain what I heard and why I reacted as I did, and why, perhaps, those who use this term to communicate with others might want to think about what those others might be hearing, and if it is really intended.

  • Annie says:

    In the long term, I'm definitely a newbie to this concept of privilege too, so I do wonder about one thing. Before thinking about the 'check your privilege' concept, I always understood what was meant about someone coming from a "privileged family" or someone donating to a charity for "underpriveleged kids." I understood that there was a complexity to the term, and this is a very common use of that term. And I understood it as meaning something more complicated and less binary than losing privileges as a punishment. I would have expected that this would be a common reaction -- that, in fact, using privilege to mean what we're discussing here is a very, very common use of the term (just as the meaning you inferred first, Rob, is also common).
    And this last part is going to seem like a flip or rhetorical question, but I really do mean to ask it sincerely: What about people who argue that scientists are using the term 'theory' incorrectly or are misunderstanding what the typical person means when they hear that word?

  • Rob Knop says:

    What about people who argue that scientists are using the term 'theory' incorrectly or are misunderstanding what the typical person means when they hear that word?
    It could be quite similar. We as scientists have to be aware of what most people think about when they hear the word "theory," and have to educate people accordingly.

  • Alexis says:

    Well, perhaps I will have to drop it due to a level of cognitive dissonance on my part. I mean, don't get me wrong, everything you've said is perfectly clear. And I do like to pride myself on being able to circumvent obvious problems in misunderstanding (I've both taught AND done tech support, and I think I've managed to get pretty good at figuring out what people mean to say as opposed to what they actually say, and what they think they hear as opposed to what they actually heard).
    But, I dunno. I went to a screamingly liberal college and had feminism shoved rather forcibly down my throat - hence my general dissatisfaction with it today...I usually run screaming into the other room when the topic comes up - but of all the approaches and attitudes I could never accept from it, the whole concept of privilege seemed pretty straightforward. I mean, not so much what was expected of people to do about privilege, but the basic idea of what privilege was and what it could bestow seemed pretty common-sensably basic to me. Of course, I also lived half my childhood in fancy private schools and the other half in rural poverty, so maybe I just got to study this stuff up close more than most.
    So I'm sorry. I can certainly see why that previous discussion would have pissed you off for other reasons, but I can't grok that the term would ever imply a guarantee.

  • SuzyQueue says:

    My view of someone with priviledge is one who has more resources (money, power, connections, influence, etc.) than the general populace around them. Money can buy things that help you get out of tough situtations, lead to political office, get you that good job by buying your way into the 'right' school and more. The general populace does not mean the general public around you but the people who are your peers at your place of work and around the country/world.
    Your example of being less likely to be pulled over compared to someone with a darker skin color works better in an area with a 'mixed' population. If you were another area where 99% of the population is white, who is likely to be pulled over? I have seen local studies that young, single males (mostly white because there are mostly white people here). The other category is of people driving older, more road abused vehicles. Since there is one crunch on the vehicle or a tail light with a problem, they get pulled over. They may not have the monetary resources to afford a better vehicle or to fix the one they have so they are continually 'harrassed' by authorities as they have a visual reason to pull them over. This latter example may apply to people of color as well since they, on average, are less well off financially than the average white person.
    As far as academia, there is a twist on priviledge. There is the inherent priviledge that someone who is like the people already in a discipline will be more likely to succeed in that discipline but there is also the continual non-discretionary issuing of priviledge by those who are able to give it out. The typical physicist is a white male. He is more likely to choose others like him to mentor, offer assistantships to, and give a good assignment to. On the other hand, in limited funding climates, the person who is in power (i.e. is already funded, tenured, full professor) may be good at giving out priviledge to those who can keep him in power, such as graduate students and possibly post-docs, but not to give out any priviledge to anyone who will be a competitor. Once you are no longer an underling, you are now an enemy after the same limited funds.
    In other fields that do not have such a limit on funding, a former advisor might offer the privilidge of a co-PI position on a grant to a former grad student so that individual can be more successful in their career. I personally have never seen this in Physics recently but was told about it many times by the professors when I was an undergraduate. Each of them was 'taken under the wing' of a more influential PI who guided them through the early stages of their careers and they assumed the same would be true for others entering academic physics. Of course, the professors were in their early career stages when the atom bomb was developed, the cold war, or the Kennedy era when funding science at every level was highly important.
    Physics has suffered from the 'we turn out too many physicists' argument for many years as if the only measure of success for a PhD holding Physicist is an NSF grant - which are damn hard to come by. The biggest problem is the narrow manner in which success is defined and true collaboration discouraged (as this would cut the research funding pie even more). Arguments that the way 'we' train graduate students needs to change rarely make it past the big speech stage. 'We' still turn out more than can be 'funded' since 'we' still need large service courses taught, specifically engineering physics as it is required for almost every engineering student to take two semesters of a two calculus level, lab based physics course.
    I will refrain from offering any advice on what you could/should do in your present situation. I felt forced out of physics but chose to leave early enough. My various friends from graduate school who graduated in physics are on their second, third, or fourth faculty position without tenure while I have tenure and a promotion (but no external funding at this time). It makes for very bitter conversations and a lot of me just listening. Should I be embarrassed that I 'made it' and they 'did not'? that I chose to get out when I did? that I cannot help them out of their plight? The only person who can help them out in today's physics is someone with a lot of money who decides that basic research in Physics needs funding so that there is a greater likelihood of obtaining funding.
    The only other alternative is to devalue the amount of funding as an indicator for success in academia which is the best approach but not viewed highly by the all-mighty dollar needing 'research' universities.
    One of the undertones of the messages that you (Rob) have postes has a great deal of anger for being led down this path. I'm sure ten years ago you were not explicitly told how hard it was going to be to get anything funded and maybe you should go into a different field, or alter you graduate school study so that you were in a more fundable area or a thousand other things that might have tipped you off on what to expect. The biggest priviledge you were denied was a 'heads-up' on what to expect so that you could make choices.

  • SuzyQueue says:

    Simple question:
    What advantage does 'white male privilege' give you when you are competing against a large group of mostly white males?
    Nothing, as the majority of the group all have the same privilege. At this point, other group priviledges come to play. Are you at a 'better' university as perceived by the people judging the group? Are your credentials 'better' as perceived by the judges? Have you made the right network connections as perceived by the judges?
    Privilege isn't isolated and all encompassing, it operates in context. In one case, say graduate physics classes, white male privilege may have played a role. Now, what was once a privilege is now a non-privilege, maybe even a disadvantage.
    On a side note, as you saw in a previous comment, I keep spelling privilege with the ending 'ledge.' Maybe subconsciously privilege is associated with a ledge that if you go over, you no longer have privilege. Once someone with money loses that money do they have the same privileges that they had before?

  • Anonymous says:

    What advantage does 'white male privilege' give you when you are competing against a large group of mostly white males?
    It gives you the privilege of competing against mostly white males, as well as not having your success judged as less impressive due to the limited competition.