I am not fully familiar with the feminist, social justice, or race studies literatures, so don’t trust my criticism as unanswerable, but the choice of the word “privilege” to describe the phenomenon that it is supposed to describe appears to have been stupid.
The problem is not the concept of privilege. If we only look at harms towards marginalized populations, we will miss other types of unfairness–the types that Peggy McIntosh describes as “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”
Quite usefully, McIntosh provides a nice list of examples of white privileges. Here are the first four on the list:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
These do seem to fit her definition. They are largely unnoticed and unearned (though obviously she did eventually notice them, and being able to rent or purchase housing does mean she probably earned a down payment or rent in somehow). Still, why name this privilege? Would you look at that list and say “look at all that privilege“?
Skip to #11, and the word choice becomes even more puzzling:
I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
Doesn’t that seem like something everyone ought to get? And that having it means your kids are safe rather than that you are specially privileged?
There is a reason economists use terms like “signaling” instead of “showing off” and “rent seeking” rather than “money grabbing”. The former terms make listeners curious as to what the term means since they don’t already have a commonplace definitions. It is an example of when jargon makes things clearer. The fact that rent-seeking is not an intuitively obvious term means that people will bother to listen to you define it. And the term is not intentionally prejudicial. It’s a neutral term, as it should be if the truth interests you and representing ideas properly is more important than making people you dislike feel bad.
Whoever coined the term privilege either was ignorant of or indifferent to how people would react to the term. Privilege is a term laypersons associate with Gilmore Girls characters and The Rich Kids of Instagram, meaning that the modal response to telling a normal middle class white male who hasn’t hurt anyone else that he is “a privileged white male” is for him to reject the label.
And that is not his fault. In ordinary language being “privileged” means having it all while being blissfully ignorant of having it all. Your language choice accuses him of driving a Maserati he got on his 16th birthday when he knows he worked a summer job to buy a used Focus that needs servicing. If what you meant was that he could buy flesh colored bandages at the store (#26 on the privilege list), then you should use a less condescending word that doesn’t already have a well-established alternate meaning.
If you tell a nice, young lady that she looks like a walrus but you define walrus to mean “a good-looking human”, she is still going to mad and rightly question why you insist on using that particular word.
Unless you meant to use that word.
This is speculation about what lays in the hearts and minds of people other than me, but I think some of the people who say “privileged white male” with the most relish intend to cleverly denigrate someone with the colloquial meaning of “privileged” while retaining the ability to defend themselves with the more restrictive, academic definition. The double-meaning for these people is a feature, not a bug.
Addendum: Thanks to some commenters, I think I’m ready to offer an alternative term. We ought to talk about multiple unnoticed privileges. Any given person would have multiple unnoticed privileges. In general, people of some races and genders would tend to have certain privileges that others do not. That would then lead us to discuss “unnoticed white privileges” and “unnoticed male privileges”. I would suggest other races and genders be discussed for completeness and to show the listener that you didn’t just decide to focus on white males out of spite. Additionally, we ought never say that someone is “privileged” however grammatically defensible that might be. Rather, they possess certain unnoticed privileges. Yes, this is babying the audience, but that is what you do when delivering sensitive material.
Photo credit: dart47 of DeviantArt and Apostolos Letov of Flickr