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On Privilege

  • Posted on March 9, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Over the last several months I have been exposed to a lot of statements regarding privilege.  This concept of privilege has been used to cite “white privilege,” “straight privilege” and “neurotypical privilege,” just to name a few.  These concepts seek to describe the discrepancy of treatment between individuals among a majority and a minority.

From the minority perspective, this language describes experienced differences.  In other words, the discrepancy is real.  However, this does not make the concept of privilege (as used in this context) real.  It is this concept I seek to address.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of privilege:

  1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most
  2. a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities
  3. any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government

The dictionary definition of privilege does not support the use of the word in the context of a discrepancy between the majority and the minority.  For example, men tend to be assumed competent in work situations whereas women are more likely to be assumed incompetent in the same situation.  The men who are assumed competent are not privileged; the women who are assumed incompetent are disadvantaged.  There is a subtle, but significant difference.

Consider a few of the dictionary definitions of disadvantage:

  1. absence or deprivation of advantage or equality
  2. to subject to disadvantage

The word disadvantage more accurately describes the discrepancy of treatment.  Being privileged suggests that you are getting something you shouldn’t have, that you are being treated as special or above the norm.  If you are assumed to be competent at your job, you are not being treated special and you are not being assessed as above the norm.  You are being treated fairly.  On the other hand, being disadvantaged suggests that you are being denied something you should have, that you are being treated as inferior, below the norm.  If you are assumed to be incompetent at your job, you are being denied fair treatment.

The majority is not being given special rights above what most receive.  The minority is being denied rights and privileges (3rd definition listed) that they are entitled to and put at a disadvantage.

So, the use of privilege to describe the discrepancy between the majority and the minority is linguistically and rhetorically incorrect.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s also politically damaging.  When you accuse someone of being privileged, you are saying they have a benefit they are not entitled to.  This puts that person on the defensive.  Unless they are highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to resist your false accusation and miss your valid claim of discrepancy of treatment.  You are discredited for making a false accusation; the real meat of your message isn’t even heard.  On the other hand, if the person is highly sympathetic to your cause, they are going to feel guilty, because they’ve internalized your false accusation and will feel responsible for having a benefit they shouldn’t or, more accurately, for having the benefit you were denied through no fault of their own.

Whether the individual you accuse of being privileged is sympathetic or not, a statement regarding privilege implies that individual has done something wrong by being “privileged.”  They’ve done nothing wrong (at least, not by accepting their “privilege”), because they are being treated fairly.  The wrong is not in the majority having privileges (3rd definition again), but in the minority being denied these same privileges.  Thus, the majority isn’t privileged (1st or 2nd definition), the minority is disadvantaged.

People need to understand the discrepancy of treatment between the majority and the minority.  When you’re in the majority, it’s difficult to imagine that those ordinary, every-day benefits you take for granted are denied to others on the basis of spurious reasons like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological makeup.  People need to learn about the real examples of these discrepancies.  Listing the benefits they enjoy and take for granted that are denied to others is an effective way to make people aware of the real discrepancies minority groups experience.  But calling them privileges is a mistake.  It conveys the wrong message.  It is inaccurate, because it is the wrong word.  Leave privileged to the powerful few—the senators and CEOs, the princes and dictators, the celebrities and the tycoons—and stick to accurate words that describe the majority, like benefits, rights, and advantages.  The difference may be subtle, but truth is powerful.