A Privilege Undefined

Mad Men

My friend just asked me to define privilege, so I thought I’d share my response here:

Q: So I am wondering if you can explain “privilege” to me. At school it seems to be used to end conversations (“how can you know, you’re privileged…”) or in other negative ways. People almost fall over themselves to decry privilege, almost like a Maoist struggle session. I don’t get it.

A: I don’t know if there’s any one definition for it, nor do I think it should end a conversation. Generally, one might be considered privileged for enjoying qualities/identities that are valued and rewarded by society. In the U.S., such privileges include the cultural capital of being perceived as white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, attractive, intelligent, educated, etc. (Certainly not limited to the above.)

So, ‘privileged’ isn’t a monolithic state with a clear threshold of entry. Most people are privileged in some ways and not in others – checking some, but not all, boxes. The separate boxes don’t always represent equal cultural capital to one another. And one person’s intersection of privileges is hard to compare to another person’s. Given how way leads on to way, it’s also difficult to disentangle privilege from privilege, advantage from disadvantage. It’s not meant to be quantified. But it is meant to be discussed.

I generally consider myself privileged, because my socio-economic status, education and experiences intersect in ways that attract substantial rewards. Yes, I worked hard, but my parentage, primary schooling and ethnic narrative (‘model minority’) made me feel efficacious in school. No one treated me like a criminal, so I didn’t become one. Everyone thought I was going to succeed, so I believed I would. By my view, that’s pretty privileged. The rewards have been undeniably significant.

That being said, I perhaps wouldn’t be as privileged if we were speaking solely about gender, or even about race. In some ways, the perks of being a ‘model minority’ is simultaneously a hurdle to being many other things. So, you see, there are no clear definitions.

Still, as I said earlier: The introduction of ‘privilege’ should further dialogue, not shut it down. I’m sorry that others have wielded it to shut you out. To me, the point is to unpack it together (whenever possible).

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One thought on “A Privilege Undefined

  1. Students using poorly-defined terms to shut down uncomfortable self-reflections? Heaven forbid!

    Interesting take on the issue (I particularly like the imagery of box-checking, as if going through an imaginary census). I try to define privilege by contrasting it with rights. I haven’t done anything illegal (nothing they’ve caught me on at any rate) so I have a right to not be jailed in the middle of the night. There’s a big official-looking document somewhere and a social consensus that this should be, no matter how annoying I am otherwise. In contrast, my upper-middle income upbringing was a privilege; there wasn’t any grand law of the cosmos ordaining that I ought to have it, and if through some tragic accident my parents had died before I came into adulthood people would have grieved but no one would have swooped in to make sure that I had new clothes for a school year or a starter car at 16.

    I suppose in this sense most of what we enjoy are privileges and that a person who reaches a certain critical mass of privileges becomes “privileged” (and in practice a working definition of which might be “someone who has a competitive advantage over me that they did not earn”). A more thoughtful person could point out the murky origins of rights (which I blithely ignore) or reflect on how what the West commonly thinks of as rights can be privileges in some contexts (I imagine whites in Zimbabwe have a different interpretation of their speech and property rights than their counterparts in Palo Alto). An interesting topic all the same.

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