“Privilege” is a stupid, obnoxious term.

SL65Academics have to be really careful about definitions. Problematic definitions propagate out in waves like a virus, and it’s tough to go back. That’s what’s happened with “privilege”.

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:

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. 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.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. 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.

2093445334_7074dfdbdfWhoever 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.

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401 thoughts on ““Privilege” is a stupid, obnoxious term.

  1. In ordinary language being “privileged” means having it all while being blissfully ignorant of having it all.

    Which is precisely the point of using privilege to describe the obvious advantages enjoyed by whites, by straights, by men, etc.

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    • Whites, straights, and men, etc. do not have it *all* though. Not in the sense that an ordinary person would say makes every last one of them “privleged”. They didn’t all go to elite prep schools. They didn’t all learn what each fork is used for. They didn’t all get internships at their daddy’s companies, and they won’t all inherit vice presidencies upon graduation.

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      • True, but they all do benefit from the fact that they are, on the surface, largely indistinguishable from those who have. A real 0.01%er can tell a phony from 100 feet away but J6P (or a cop, for instance) can’t if the phony puts even a token (ahem) amount of effort in. Which boils down to a thumb the size of Paul Bunyan’s on the scale of daily life, whether you’re aware of it or not.

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      • We should also consider that privilege is not static.

        In a give situation, one might be privileged by being a woman. In another, they might be oppressed by that fact. And in a third, it might be inconsequential. A black man has male privilege but not racial privilege in most instances. A white woman has white privilege but not male privilege in most instances. We’ve talked before about the difficulty in sussing out which one is more or less privileged, more or less oppressed, but it is important to note that privilege is somewhat fluid; it is not a fixed binary.

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      • ,
        They do generally have more than anybody else though, which is a privilege in the classic sense of the term.

        Yes! Exactly that! “A privilege”. So why don’t we say “As a white male, you have privileges you may not be aware of” rather than “As a white male, you are privileged and ignorant of it.” Surely, I’m not the only one who sees a huge difference between those two statements.

        ,

        Yes, if it were me, I would define “unearned privileges” and leave open for future investigation who has which unearned privileges. And we can then tally up whether white men or black females have more unearned privileges. That should be an empirically answerable question.

        If in contrast, we just start off by defining “male privilege” and “white privilege”, we’ve skipped some inferential steps. (I’m not saying that scholars in these fields have done this, but certainly public discourse has done this.)

        Even if both approaches lead to the same conclusion, the process matters if you care about truth.

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      • Vikram,

        My understanding is that that is what has been done. I’ll know more if I’m able to get out to the White Privilege Conference (WPC) this year. Colleagues who have gone in the past come back with a really intense understanding of how privilege functions.

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      • ,
        I broke a cardinal rule in not restricting myself to a single change. I submit that the following two are very different in how a prospective white man will process the statements:
        1. “As a white male, you have privileges you may not be aware of.”
        2. “As a white male, you are privileged and may not be aware of it.”

        #1 is more likely to get a “What privileges?”
        #2 is more likely to get a “But I’m not privileged.”

        Frankly, I think this ought to be a corollary to ‘s blame-the-act-not-the-actor thing. Having privileges is something *everyone* can accept. Even a child knows that he has certain privileges that get taken away. Everyone knows they can be a good person and still have privileges. It would be weird to even think they were connected.

        Contrast that with being called “privileged”. You are now describing a seemingly unalterable trait of a person. And maybe there are some good people who are privileged, but it’s definitely not a neutral label. You wouldn’t walk up to someone and call them privileged with the same carefree attitude that you might say they have privileges.

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      • Very well said,

        I am far from perfect, but I try not to make people feel guilty about their privilege. That runs directly counter to ending it. Especially for those areas where we want to expand access to the advantage.

        “It’s great you have great schools! We want to keep that. But we also want other people to have great schools!”

        This is similar to Jason once writing about how we should want MORE rich people and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t really thought about it.

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      • Privilege is not either a 1 or a 0.

        Actually, in this usage, where you’re “privileged” if your are white, straight, or male (or maybe two but not necessarily all three nor as few as just one of those?), in fact it often does gets used as if it is a 0 or 1 phenomenon. People don’t say to a mansplaining straight guy on the internet, Hey man, don’t forget you’re at least an 8.5 on the privilege scale! They say, Hey man, you’re forgetting that as a straight (white in this example?) guy in this society, you are privileged. As in, if you were someone different you might not be, but you’re not, so you are, and in any case it’s one of those.

        That’s how we talk about it. Of course that’s not how it is, but that’s basically Vikram’s point as I take it. If the concept was used in interactions and rhetoric in a way that actually reflected the kinds of gradations of social privilege that actually exist in the world it would totally cloud up the way the term gets used and take a lot of the rhetorical bite out of exactly the kind of usage that Vikram is talking about.

        Privilege actually isn’t 0 or 1, but it’s in large part because we talk about it like it is that using the term has as much social salience as it does.

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      • I’ve been thinking about this off and on all day. Until recently, the vast majority of the uses of “privilege,” in the context of race or gender, that I saw outside of academic contexts were in the form of the phrase “under privileged.” The very idea that one can be “under privileged,” as opposed to not privileged at all, suggests that people understood that it was not an all or nothing thing. Only recently, and for me only on blogs (and I believe it originated on feminist blogs, because I started seeing it on race-issue blogs after I started seeing it on feminist blogs), in more colloquial uses, have I gotten the sense that people are being (in some, but not all cases) somewhat sloppy about it, and actually treating it as an absolute. This is a shame, but I don’t think it’s a problem with the word “privilege,” or with the concept as it has been used for some time in academia and even colloquially as in “under privileged,” but a problem with the medium itself, which tends to favor mental farts over carefully thought out discussion. I also don’t think academics should have foreseen this, because again, even it its colloquial uses, it wasn’t a problem before. Maybe they should come up with a new term now that it’s being polluted, but I don’t doubt that any term they came up with would quickly be polluted as well.

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      • This is a shame, but I don’t think it’s a problem with the word “privilege,”

        By all means, the problem I’m describing is certainly a function of the particulars of the use, not of the term itself. The term itself pretty much just stands there like the Monolith from A Space Odyssey.

        And I was sloppy myself in suggesting that the term is used exclusively or primarily in the all-or-nothing context. It’s certainly used as a relative descriptor often enough, and it’s entirely fair to point that out. I think the kind of use Vikram is talking about and that I also feel pretty ambivalent about is the bloggy/para-academic use where it becomes binary, and if you agree that’s unfortunate, then I think we’re all on the same page. Because I understand what Vikram’s referring to with that kind of use, I probably tuned out memories of uses that don’t fall into that category to some extent, and you’re right to point out that they’re common enough too.

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      • I don’t think I was the first to say it, but, yes, I think when someone says a person is privileged, it sounds like a 0 or 1 thing, when it is not.

        In general, the places where “under privileged” is used–even sloppily, are not where I think there are big issues. I’m more concerned about how we speak to people who have never taken a social justice class before, has never encountered any of these definitions before, but turns on the radio and hears someone talking about white people like him are privileged and thinking “well, this person clearly doesn’t mean me or most of the people I know.” This guy doesn’t read blogs. He doesn’t read academic papers. He just comes across articles and news pieces here and there out of context.

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      • In general, the places where “under privileged” is used–even sloppily, are not where I think there are big issues. I’m more concerned about how we speak to people who have never taken a social justice class before, has never encountered any of these definitions before, but turns on the radio and hears someone talking about white people like him are privileged and thinking “well, this person clearly doesn’t mean me or most of the people I know.” This guy doesn’t read blogs. He doesn’t read academic papers. He just comes across articles and news pieces here and there out of context.

        This is really troublesome to me on many, many levels. I know people like that, no social justice classes, not prone to reading news, etc. And they get the concept of privilege. Believe me, they get it. For example, when they see or hear of some who’s trans; they get it. They’re astonished that someone would give the privilege of being male to be female; they get male privilege. And they get white privilege, too; if you don’t believe me, just go watch an episode of South Park.

        I think you’re seriously underestimating people’s comprehension of power differentials. You are, presumably, speaking of mostly Americans; I’d suggest you consider the ugly concepts of American exceptionalism. These people do not need tender language to help them understand power differentials, they comprehend quite well.

        I’d suspect, instead, that they do feel a lack of power over their own fate and fortune, and feeling more powerful than somebody else is sick way of feeling a little better about themselves.

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      • I’d be open to an alternative, though I think that if “privilege” is ultimately ineffective, “unnoticed privilege” is going to help much. I mean, it’s ultimately going to require as much explaining as “privilege,” save one word, because you’ve already included it.

        I know that, when talking about economics, I think of this in terms of equality of opportunity. For non-material things, like veronica’s story below, this doesn’t work, though. I mean, while it’s probably possible to talk about social dancing opportunities, it’s probably not a very effective rhetorical tactic. What about things like “male gaze,” or the difference between the social acceptability of talking about sex for men and women? I can’t imagine talking about these in terms of equality of opportunity. Privilege seems like the term at the appropriate level of abstraction that encompasses all these things without leaving too much out.

        That doesn’t mean that, as an abstract term, it won’t be open to misinterpretation and misuse, particularly in a medium as loose and, often, as lazy as blogging. I don’t know if you clicked over to the essay I linked earlier as an example of a discussion of these issues (in a particular context, though one with widespread implications) that is significantly less accessible but also less prone to widespread misuse and abuse (if not, here’s a copy, in case you don’t have access to JSTOR). I know the author isn’t very popular around these parts, and you may not be a fan either, but that essay contains a wonderfully succinct quote, one that summarizes a lot of the recent work on concepts in cognitive science (I’m thinking of the work of Larry Barsalou in particular, and that he’s inspired, since you’re a cog sci guy):

        Abstract notions always conceal a sensible figure.

        For any discussion of “privilege,” this leads to the obvious problem that people look not only to their own experience, but to salient, likely emotionally-charged elements in their own experience, in order to understand the word “privilege.” Since most of us — at least most of us who are white, male, straight, etc. — will therefore associate certain kinds of explicit “sensible figures” with it, those who are trying to explain “unnoticed privilege” (and let’s be clear, some of it is certainly noticed), or privilege that is not as obvious or as individually impactful as some brat’s trust fund maturing, will be fighting an uphill battle. But struggling with privilege, and struggling to get people to recognize it, or admit that it is in fact an issue, is an uphill battle, so that’s not surprising. The only alternative is to come up with an entirely unfamiliar term in the hopes that we can determine the sorts of “sensible figures” with which people will come to represent it, a task that requires not only coming up with a suitably obscure term (perhaps a neologism?), but convincing people to use it. I’m not sure that’s any less of an uphill battle, particularly since (as some of our right wing commenters here have demonstrated nicely), it will quickly become a partisan issue, and many of the same forces will be arrayed against it.

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    • It’s noteworthy that the first response immediately focused on defending the term’s technical accuracy, and wholly overlooked Vikram’s real argument; whether it is an effective word choice for getting those privilege folks to actually think about their privilege the way we supposedly want them to.

      That response can’t help but fuel the suspicion that getting privileged people to actually think about their privilege isn’t really the dominant purpose after all.

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      • Can’t it be both/and? Isn’t there something to be said for traditionally marginalized people to say, “We are going to define the terms for once”?

        And do you really think there exists a term that will get people who completely reject the idea of privilege to suddenly accept it?

        As I understand it, part of the reason the theory of privilege evolved was to give a more nuanced way of discussing racism (and sexism and homophobia, etc.). Talking specifically about white privilege, much of what constitutes it are artifacts of racism. But calling people who benefited from white privilege racists or pro-racism or benefits of racism… well, that didn’t go over so well.

        So a better term was developed: privilege.

        And, SURPRISE OF SURPRISES, that one is too loaded also. How… convenient… It ain’t the folks who steadfastly defend and promote whatever-it-is-we-call-it that are the issue, it is the words!

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      • And do you really think there exists a term that will get people who completely reject the idea of privilege to suddenly accept it?

        I do think that there exist people who will get defensive if you call them privileged or say they have privilege who will instead listen to your argument if you instead talk about “unnoticed privileges”.

        My argument isn’t that changing a term will change the mind of a Klansman. It’s only that you will get through to more people.

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      • Thinking about it now, I realize that except on the internet, where misusing words is a national pastime, I don’t think “privilege” is a word that’s extensively used in rhetoric or polemics. It tends to be used more in “literatures,” which is to say, writing for people who are already interested in these issues.

        I actually think privilege is a really good term to use, and my suspicion is that Vikram’s distaste for it have more to do with the way it is tossed around (often willy nilly, like so many words and phrases — “ad hominem” anyone?) on blogs. I know he’s relying on an actual book chapter for this post, but I suspect even his reading of that chapter is informed by his encounters with the term, and the people who use it, on blogs. I could be wrong, but given his particularly strong reaction, I doubt I am.

        My solution? Ban the internet.

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      • It is accurate to note that I haven’t really found an objectionable usage in the academic literature. My objections are to usage in blogs and personal conversations either overheard or participated in. I do think academics could have chosen more wisely though so as to be less likely to be abused by bloggers.

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      • , this sort of begs the question: which came first, the academic writing about privilege or the blogger bandying the term about?

        I actually think one of the problems here is that there is always privilege of some sort; someone with some set of advantages that somebody else does not have. When I was a young girl, sports, for instance. Organized sports were for boys, and if you were a girl? Be a cheerleader or get over it, at least in my school.

        There are other kinds of privilege, too. Women have plenty; the privilege to stay home, raise their children, or even take their children into a restroom for a diaper change with glances askew. Women also have the delightful privilege of dressing up in sparkles and feathers, of wearing makeup that pops the color of their eyes, of looking and feeling fabulous, without being looked at askew. I wish men had these privileges.

        Perhaps what you’re seeing is that the word, at least on blogs, is becoming a cliche (forgive the missing little accent thingy,) it’s grown to mean this specific set of privileges considered rich or white male, and not a measure of power differentials and how far back from the starting line those differentials put one while advancing another, simply due to their presence or absence.

        And I really liked you comment down thread about not looking at ‘white male privilege,’ but at privileges; because in many, many ways, ‘white male’ and the word ‘privilege’ together are cliche.

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      • do you really think there exists a term that will get people who completely reject the idea of privilege to suddenly accept it?

        As Chris said about privilege itself, it’s not a 0 or 1. A term could be better or worse for that purpose. And an argument that “privilege” is better for that purpose than Vikram thinks is perfectly legitimate. Certainly preferable to attacking him over the question of whether “privilege” is technically accurate enough.

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      • I do think academics could have chosen more wisely though so as to be less likely to be abused by bloggers.

        There’s a tension in academic writing, particularly in the humanities, between jargon and accessibility. The latter will always lead to a greater potential for abuse by lay people, and the latter will insure that much of the discussion remains inaccessible to lay people.

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      • This comment may be beating a dead horse, and if so I apologize for that. You wrote,

        I do think academics could have chosen more wisely though so as to be less likely to be abused by bloggers.

        Modern academics didn’t coin the term tho. They’re used an already existing term to describe something in the world, something (presumably!) that the word was initially intended to pick out.

        Here’s the first definition that popped up on the webs:

        Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

        I mean, that’s just the meaning of the word. The fact that it has such a negative connotation when applied to people is that it often describes states of affairs that folks have a hard time justifying or even recognizing. And of course, that in modern academic usage the meaning is extended to include (or even focus on) culturally established privileges as opposed to legally granted ones.

        The more I read your comments on this thread, the more I’m confused about what you’re objecting to. Maybe that’s on me for not understanding what the complaint in fact is, but really, I can’t see it. Seems to me you’re increasingly objecting to the fact that some people find the term offensive when it’s applied to them, which is a natural and completely rational reaction to any negative criticism. I certainly bristle when someone accuses my belief-set for deriving from privilege, independently of whether their right or wrong.

        But as zic said quite a while ago, it’s the content of the term they find offensive, not the various and sundry connotations associated with it.

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      • i>I just think treating privilege like it’s a point system is ridiculous.

        Who’s treating it like a point system? What does it matter if they do? It’s a concept that either applies to real world contexts, or it doesn’t. Isn’t that the interesting question here?

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      • The more I read your comments on this thread, the more I’m confused about what you’re objecting to. Maybe that’s on me for not understanding what the complaint in fact is, but really, I can’t see it. Seems to me you’re increasingly objecting to the fact that some people find the term offensive when it’s applied to them, which is a natural and completely rational reaction to any negative criticism. I certainly bristle when someone accuses my belief-set for deriving from privilege, independently of whether their right or wrong.

        I may have drifted off in some of these comments. My claim is this: by referring to multiple unnoticed privileges rather than “privilege” and by saying people have privileges rather than people being privileged, we will have an easier time communicating with others, and we are less likely to trigger a listener’s immune system.

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      • Modern academics didn’t coin the term tho. They’re used an already existing term to describe something in the world, something (presumably!) that the word was initially intended to pick out.

        You’re right.

        The problem, I think is this: modern academics (or whoever) had a concept of these unearned, invisible capabilities. They searched for a term and decided to call it “privilege”, which already had an established definition and connotations when used in certain grammatical structures. (As noted by Kazzy, “driving is a privilege” is neutral. But I say “he is privileged” is not. It’s quite negative)

        My claim is that if what you intend to say is “unearned, invisible capabilities”, then the singular “privilege” is a poor word to use, and the plural “unnoticed privileges” is a better term that will lead to less confusion.

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  2. Vik,

    I fear that this is another example of haggling over terms instead of actually discussing the issue at hand. We can call it privilege or unearned advantage or picketypop… it doesn’t matter… the theory remains.

    Something to consider is that some efforts to end privilege focus on eliminating the behavior. But others focus on spreading the behavior. As you note, being able to protect one’s children is something we wish all people could do. If we reach that place, the privilege is gone. But the behavior is not. The behavior is not the issue. The allocation of access to the behavior is. So, yes, that is privilege, because it is something enjoyed by some and not by all and, furthermore, the disparity is enforced and maintained.

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    • I think Vikram’s making a pretty important point here, actually.

      It may well be that it is technically an accurate term. However, it seems to me that Vikram’s saying that it’s a term that will not be understood in that manner by the very people whose behavior and worldview the term is most directed at and whose buy-in is most necessary for the social change sought to occur.

      In essence, the point of the term is to get people of all socio-economic statuses to be conscious of the advantages provided them solely by virtue of their race or gender or orientation. But except for the people at the very top of the socio-economic ladder (and even then it’s exceedingly rare), very few people like to, or are even willing to, think of themselves as privileged – the word is loaded with connotations that go far beyond what would be in a dictionary definition. As a result, the second it is used in a conversation directed at, say, a middle class white male, it is highly likely to just induce an eyeroll and deaf ears to everything else that follows.

      The point is that regardless of the truth of the theory, the theory doesn’t even get heard by the people whose behavior it most seeks to change and in no small part because the terminology used automatically conjures up particular images in the minds of that group of people.

      It’s not possible to meaningfully “discuss the issue at hand” at all if the terms being used mean two completely different things to the participants in the discussion.

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      • The point is that regardless of the truth of the theory, the theory doesn’t even get heard by the people whose behavior it most seeks to change and in no small part because the terminology used automatically conjures up particular images in the minds of that group of people.

        Privileged people are often unaware of their privilege. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, either. What it does mean is that they are unaware of the power differential; that their advantages empower them every bit as much as the super-rich person’s advantages empower. Yet the privileged white person (like me) is aware of the power differential between me and someone in the 1%; just not as likely to be aware of the power differential between me and somebody less empowered.

        In other words, we look up the privilege ladder to see our own disadvantage, not down to see our advantage. And we are taken aback when the rungs below us are pointed out.

        Yet pointing out those rungs us not helpful, because we look up the ladder?

        I’m sorry, but this is why it takes concerted effort over time to change the norms, not why we shouldn’t bother to try to change the norm.

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      • I will say that I often find myself at odds with others in this regard. And many of those are folks within the traditionally marginalized/oppressed groups. So I know I need to check this thought process at times.

        But, I am also within the most privileged groups 99 times out of 100. So I’m the guy next to these folks on the ladder. So, perhaps, my tack can/should be different.

        Practical considerations aside, there is something perverse about an ideology that rewards people who more or less say, “I’m going to keep engaging in harmful behavior because you haven’t asked me nice enough to stop.”

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      • I get that you’re trying to affirm ambition, aspirations, etc. But if a ladder is even a good metaphor, the assumptions of those higher up the ladder cannot be made be those lower down. Those who are higher up don’t have to question that, while those lower down have to deal with it as a fact of life. That is what using ‘privilege’ as a word to describe class/race/gender power differential is all about; this person over here gets some benefit without asking for it, and often, without even realizing they have the benefit. If you want those lower down to reach up, they have to do a lot more heavy lifting. And part of that lifting is working to rebalance those power differentials.

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      • Privileged people are often unaware of their privilege. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, either.

        Sure. Absolutely. But my point – and Vik’s too, I think – is that:

        (1) the only way to create the social change that is sought is to make those who benefit from the privilege – or whatever we call it – aware of those advantages; and

        (2) the use of the “privilege” nomenclature for this phenomenon, even if it is accurate under the dictionary definition of the word “privilege” makes it even less likely that those persons will be willing to do what is necessary to recognize their advantages.

        In other words, it’s nomenclature that may be perfectly fine for purposes of preaching to the converted and those who lack privilege, but is utterly useless for purposes of obtaining more converts from those who possess privilege (or whatever we want to call it). As it’s pretty much tautological that those who possess privilege also possess the power to do something about the circumstances that give rise to that privilege, it is virtually impossible to do anything about privilege without gaining converts from the privileged themselves.

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      • I should note that I find the ladder analogies inaccurate. A brown male like me is privileged in a different way than a white female. One way to position us on a ladder would be to assign our various privileges weights and come up with a summed privilege score. But the weights would be arbitrary, and I doubt anyone would be convinced by the final ranking.

        This is further reason to think in terms of multiple privileges individuals have rather than a big block of privilege you either have or you don’t.

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      • Practical considerations aside, there is something perverse about an ideology that rewards people who more or less say, “I’m going to keep engaging in harmful behavior because you haven’t asked me nice enough to stop.”

        It’s not an ideology, though – indeed, the whole point behind the theory of “privilege” is that these are benefits that groups receive but of which they are generally ignorant and unaware. Quite literally, one of the major points behind the theory of “privilege” is that the beneficiaries of it don’t recognize that they’re engaging in harmful behavior. So the only way to do something about it is to show those beneficiaries that they’re engaging in harmful behavior.

        In order to do so, one needs to deal with the reality of this psychology – it is not ordinarily possible to persuade someone without empathizing with them and -at minimum – speaking to them in language that they understand and recognize.

        The fact is that words mean subtly different things to different people based on their experiences of those words, the dictionary definition is nothing but a least common denominator. This has always been the case and it always will be the case as long as their is a diversity of human experience.

        When you don’t recognize this and don’t attempt to correct it, you will very quickly wind up talking about very different things. And in this regard, the burden to speak in a way that will be understood must inherently always be on the person seeking to do the persuading, not on the person being approached.

        If I, hungry for a sausage in a piece of bread, go to a wurstelstand in Austria, order a “Hot Dog” and receive in return a long empty, crusty bun without any sausage, is it my fault for failing to clarify that I wanted a “Hot Dog mit Kasekrainer*” or at least for failing to point to the item on the menu I wanted, or is it the vendor’s fault for not recognizing the slightly different connotation of the word for me as opposed to him? Pretty clearly, it’s my fault, I should think. I’m asking the vendor to do something specific based on his understanding of my words, which I have freely chosen based on my own experiences, without any consideration of his.

        In reality, though, whether it’s my fault or his fault doesn’t matter – I’m still not going to get what I thought I asked for unless I either ask again using his terminology or take a piece of sausage from him by force.

        Similarly, you can’t expect those with “privilege” to both (1) know what you’re talking about and (2) willingly surrender that “privilege” if you’re defining that “privilege” in a way that is unfamiliar to them. And under no circumstances can you reasonably expect to have the ability to take that privilege by force since, after all, they’re the ones who hold the power.

        *Seriously, one of the most wonderful things to exist on this planet. A perfect blend of gooey, oozing cheese mixed in with meat and a subtle blend of spices inserted into a hole in the aforementioned long crusty, almost baguette-y bun.

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      • Mark,

        A fair counter.

        The thing is… most of the people who are completely ignorant to the idea of privilege (including the term as we use it here) are at least amenable to talking about the idea once it has been hashed out. Case in point, I will be discussing privilege with my 7th/8th graders. For some, it will be an entirely new concept. There might be some pushback on the word, at which point I’m happy to have a conversation about it and possibly decide on other nomenclature.

        But most of the people (not Vikram) who resist the word aren’t doing so because they are confused or anything of the sort… it is often an attempt to manipulate the conversation to only happen on their own terms and, should it not, they refuse to engage.

        Because I am relatively certain that this segment of people will object to whatever new term is agreed upon when it becomes convenient. I can say this because I’ve had this happen. I’ve said to people, “We’ll call it whatever you want. But let’s discuss it.” Yet that discussion never happens. Instead we spent an hour arguing over words.

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      • But most of the people (not Vikram) who resist the word aren’t doing so because they are confused or anything of the sort…

        This is speculative. It begs to be tested. I’m not saying you won’t get any pushback if you use less prejudicial words, but I am hypothesizing that you will get less than if you use the standard terminology.

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      • I was going to reply, but Mark did it so much better than me.

        In short, & carrying the analogy (flawed as it may be), if you ask me to look down in a manner I find non-confrontational, I’ll be more inclined to look down & try to see what you see (assuming I am a decent person). If you grab my head & force me to look, my inclination may be to punch you off my ladder.

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      • The thing is… most of the people who are completely ignorant to the idea of privilege (including the term as we use it here) are at least amenable to talking about the idea once it has been hashed out. Case in point, I will be discussing privilege with my 7th/8th graders. For some, it will be an entirely new concept. There might be some pushback on the word, at which point I’m happy to have a conversation about it and possibly decide on other nomenclature.

        Sure, but I think this reinforces Vik’s point – in effect, you’re saying that those for whom the word has not taken on the connotations Vik refers to here, essentially those for whom the word has as yet come to mean little more than the dictionary definition, are amenable to the underlying theory. The contrapositive that proves the rule, by the way, is that the concept of racial privilege seems to have made its strongest inroads amongst those whites who would generally be viewed as (and would also be much more likely to view themselves as) fairly privileged under any definition – ie, whites from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds for whom the connotations Vik refers to generally applied to begin with. It’s a lot easier to be open to the notion of racial or gender privilege if you’ve already accepted that you’re economically privileged.

        But most of the people (not Vikram) who resist the word aren’t doing so because they are confused or anything of the sort… it is often an attempt to manipulate the conversation to only happen on their own terms and, should it not, they refuse to engage.

        Because I am relatively certain that this segment of people will object to whatever new term is agreed upon when it becomes convenient. I can say this because I’ve had this happen. I’ve said to people, “We’ll call it whatever you want. But let’s discuss it.” Yet that discussion never happens. Instead we spent an hour arguing over words.

        A few things here – if the topic has been introduced as being about “privilege” then I don’t think it’s possible to put that rabbit back in the hat by just saying “call it what you want.” Because you’re making it clear from the outset that whatever term you’re using is just a synonym for a word that is off-putting to them.

        Second, getting someone to discus in any kind of depth a topic that someone else brought up is never easy under even the best of circumstances. To do it you have to actively give them a reason to be interested in the topic unless they’re a truly captive audience (and with smart phones nowadays, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to have a meaningfully captive audience). “Let’s talk about how you’re privileged because you’re white” has about as much interest as a conversation topic to a working class white guy as a door to door evangelist who starts a conversation with an atheist (or even someone from a different religion or denomination) by saying “let’s talk about how you can save yourself in the Rapture,” and for much the same reason. They’re not going to be interested in talking about it because they (a) think they know what you’re talking about; and (b) don’t believe that what they think you’re talking about is a real thing.

        They’ve got better things to do than debate what they should be doing to overcome a problem that they don’t think exists. You’ve got to convince them that the problem exists in the first place and if doing so depends on getting working class whites to apply a word to themselves that they only apply to Kardashians, you’re not going to get very far. This is especially true if, as is quite often the case, the person attempting to do the convincing comes across as fitting their idea of “privileged” better than they fit it themselves.

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      • , for what it’s worth, if you were to do the test (e.g. usedifferent material for different groups this year or if you try it one way this year and another way next year) and if you got results contrary to my prediction, I would change my update my views to match yours. I do respond to evidence, and I would take your word for it.

        Until you try it both ways though…

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      • “Sure, but I think this reinforces Vik’s point – in effect, you’re saying that those for whom the word has not taken on the connotations Vik refers to here, essentially those for whom the word has as yet come to mean little more than the dictionary definition, are amenable to the underlying theory.”

        But isn’t Vik’s point that it is the dictionary definition that presents the issue? If people object because they don’t like the idea of being told they are privileged/have privilege, it is not going to matter much what we call it.

        My understanding of Vik’s point is that the way we use privilege does not jive with how most people use privilege, creating a certain dissonance that makes people less amenable. But if you are saying that the issue is that people DO understand what people like me mean by privilege, do not like it, and thus reject the term… well, what can we do about that? No term will assuage them because they object to the underlying issue.

        Unfortunately, I am not a social scientist capable of carrying out an experiment. But I must ask: What data did you use to come to your conclusion here today? What test did you perform?

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      • If people object because they don’t like the idea of being told they are privileged/have privilege, it is not going to matter much what we call it.

        I have asserted that there is a big difference between those two things that have a slash between them. I am making these numbers up, but my hypothesis is that when you tell people they are privileged 50% will get defensive, and 50% will listen. Perhaps more will listen and fewer will be defensive in an audience like you would find in a class.
        When you tell people they have unnoticed privileges, 70% will listen and 30% will get defensive.

        So, you notice that in either case, some people will always get defensive. That 30% will be there. But there’s another 20% you could have gotten through to if you pay attention to how people process different phrasings.

        Unfortunately, I am not a social scientist capable of carrying out an experiment.

        Dude. You don’t have to be a “social scientist”. That’s just a fancy word for making observations about the world. If you want to get published in a journal, you need to make sure you have controls and find the background theory for your hypotheses and learn how to assess who got exactly how defensive in each case.

        But if all you’re interested in is the truth rather than in convincing someone else, you just need to try it one way and then try it the other way. And if you told me that you did your best to make it a fair test, that would be enough for me personally since I don’t have a stronger test indicating the opposite result.

        What data did you use to come to your conclusion here today? What test did you perform?

        Great question!

        I don’t have a test. If I had done my own test then I wouldn’t have said I’d be willing to change my mind just because you performed your own test and got different results.

        The reasons for my conclusions are the following:
        – experience shows that wording matters to people’s attitudes (See “special education”.)
        – I have friends who are white males who say they are not privileged and express anger at the claim that they are. Specifically, they say that they worked for what they have (which is true). This response doesn’t only makes sense if what they thought by “privileged” was getting the rich heir treatment.
        – I have seen online discussions in which white males say they are not privileged and again articulate the same defense.

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      • Well, let me first say I agree with the “privileged/have privileged” distinction. And I like the term “unnoticed privilege”. So, if I may, it seems as if you are walking back the title of this post a bit (though I assume it was at least somewhat deliberately provocative… not that there’s anything wrong with that).

        But here is my question… is the conflation of “privilege” and “rich heir treatment” an appropriate one? I mean, we talk about driving being a privilege, not a right. Do only rich heirs drive cars? That doesn’t seem right to me. We talk about people having “privileges” with regards to accessing data or resources… “I don’t have the proper privileges to get into the database. Can you send me the numbers?” Is that calling upon a notion of the aristocracy?

        Because I’m tempted to think that even if you phrased it better, even if you said, “You have benefited from privilege,” which might be even more neutral than the modified terms you suggested, your friends/internet comrades might still say, “I work for what I have!” Thing is, working for what you have is not mutually exclusive of privilege. More often than not, privilege is a boost, not a ride across the finish line. You generally still have to make something of it. And if you get into the idea of privilege legacy, it becomes an even more complicated ball of wax. Yes, you worked hard in middle school and high school and earned grades to get yourself into college, where you worked hard and graduated and used your degree to make yourself rich. But… you lived in a neighborhood with a good MS and HS because your father had a good job, and he had a good job because he similarly grew up in a neighborhood with a good MS and HS, but that was only because your grandfather was able to secure work during a time when it was legal to racially discriminate when hiring and promoting, meaning he had less competition for his job. So, if you fully remove race from that equation, an equation where your hard work is undeniable, we still arrive at a place where you benefit from our system of racial oppression and privilege. Whether we call that a direct or an indirect benefit and just how much of your success was “privilege” and how much was “hard work” is probably impossible to parse out. But it is still important to note that both factored in.
        And, more often than not, when people invoke privilege, it is not because of some desire to discredit hard working white men or take the money they earn from their toil. When I invoke it, it is most often to respond to an argument that says, “If people work hard, they will be rewarded. It is as simple as that.” “No, it’s not as simple as that. Some people work just as hard, if not harder, than others but because of factors beyond their control (sometimes but not always related to race or gender or sexual orientation, etc.), they do not get rewarded.” If I can get someone to agree to that, I consider it a pretty successful conversation.

        Trouble is, the well has been poisoned with privilege. And I’m tempted to argue that the people doing the poisoning are not the folks like myself who want to resist privilege but those who want to resist the resisters. At which point I am not so inclined to adjust my language all that much because said folks will likely just taint those words as well.

        Talk to people who truly want to address privilege and very few of them embody the strawman I see so many folks referring to here today. As I said to Jaybird below, privilege itself is not evil. Many privileges are good or even great things. The goal is for more people to be more privileged; when we say we want to eliminate privilege, in most cases we simply mean we want the disparity gone. I want more people to be rewarded for hard work.

        But somehow, some cadre of people have painted folks like myself as wanting to steal peoples money and call them lowlifes.

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      • Right there, you used two different framings of the concept that may be better under what Vikram raised – “unnoticed power differential” and “rungs we don’t see because we look up ladders, not down them”.

        Both of those could lead to a more productive discussion than starting out implying that the advantaged person is a petulant oblivious brat.

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      • is the conflation of “privilege” and “rich heir treatment” an appropriate one?

        If the conflation happens, that’s all that matters. Pick something that won’t get conflated.

        I mean, we talk about driving being a privilege, not a right. Do only rich heirs drive cars? That doesn’t seem right to me. We talk about people having “privileges” with regards to accessing data or resources… “I don’t have the proper privileges to get into the database. Can you send me the numbers?” Is that calling upon a notion of the aristocracy?

        Notice how in every one of those instances you referred to individual privilegeS? We talk about driving being a privileged, not about the privileged driving. We talk about getting the proper privileges to access the database, not getting privileged enough to access the database. (Actually, you might hear the latter as well, but surely the former is a more normal way of saying it.)

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    • I fear that this is another example of haggling over terms instead of actually discussing the issue at hand.

      Yes! It is! And I am haggling over terms because terms matter! You walrus!

      We can call it privilege or unearned advantage or picketypop… it doesn’t matter… the theory remains.

      Yes, and we can call a rose a steaming turd, and it would smell as sweet. But it certainly isn’t helpful to call it that. It obscures meaning unnecessarily and prejudicially.

      [Protecting one’s children] is privilege, because it is something enjoyed by some and not by all and, furthermore, the disparity is enforced and maintained.

      You know I know what you mean, and I know you know I know what you mean, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to get across your meaning to others who haven’t heard the idea before.

      There is a reason supporters of Obamacare said “health care is a right” and not “health care is privilege, because it is something enjoyed by some and not by all.” Which formulation gets across the belief that it is important that everyone get access?

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      • isn’t getting to dictate the way we use terms itself a form of privilege?

        Yes. But that is not the same thing as saying that “all word choices are equally appropriate” or “I can choose whatever words to use I want without affecting whether I am understood”. As I mentioned in the OP, if you are concerned with your ideas being represented properly, you will choose words with that goal in mind.

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      • But who is the arbiter of how appropriately an idea is presented? And how do we parse between the people who object to the term privilege in a principled way (as I sincerely believe you are doing) and those who are looking to manipulate conversation to serve their own ends?

        Again, I’ve had multiple conversations in which I said, “We will call it whatever you want. Let’s just talk about it!” and people will remain shut down, muttering something to the effect of, “Well, if you even thought privilege was an appropriate word, clearly I can’t even talk to you.”

        That ain’t about effective presentation.

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      • There is no arbiter out in space to determine whether the right word is being used. But someone who is an advocate of a certain wording can mount a defense of it, as I have done here with “unnoticed privileges”. Anyone who reads this thread can evaluate whether this is less prejudicial than “people are privileged”.

        how do we parse between the people who object to the term privilege in a principled way (as I sincerely believe you are doing) and those who are looking to manipulate conversation to serve their own ends?

        Well, why do you trust that of me? I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that I did not critique the concept. I explicitly stated in the OP that it is important and deserves a label. That is not a concession that someone who was arguing privilege doesn’t exist would make.

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  3. I don’t have a problem with the term, though I do have a problem with how it is often deployed.

    It describes something real, and even though it does have the connotations that Vik refers to, I don’t have a better suggestion.

    Vikram touches on my problems with its usage in his 10:44 comment. Which is that while Chris is right that it’s not binary, it does seem to be treated as such. And we assume a lot when we talk about what “whites” can do. To use list example 1, most whites can do this (it’s far and away easier for whites than anybody else, at any rate) but it seems to imply the financial means to do so. While my wife and I can pick up and leave our mixed-race neighborhood whenever we want, a lot of our neighbors can’t really.

    And a lot of the deployment of the phrase assumes median white or aggregate white benefits. Once again, I had many more of the benefits of being white than many other white kids that I knew. Heck, some of my Hispanic friends and Asian friends had a lot of the “white privilege” benefits that a number of whites elsewhere lacked (because those particular benefits are a function of aggregate white wealth, that varies considerably within).

    None of this changes, of course, that in apples-to-apples comparisons, whites come out ahead. And even the wealthiest African-Americans have to endure things that poor whites don’t (the reverse is also true, but most of that is attributable to the benefits of wealth and the list of that which isn’t is rather short and less impacting in the greater scheme of things). Which is what makes the concept, if not the word, something of significance.

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    • I think this is one of those things where if we all tried to put “Some” or imagine “Some” being in front of all these comments, we’d be much better served.

      “White people can arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”
      “Well, what about this guy who can’t? Privilege isn’t real!”

      -OR-
      Some
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      • I thought NoPublic had a good point above. Which points to a rather distinct advantage of whites across the spectrum… when people see you, they see someone who has something in common with the privileged whether you are or not. Which is something real, although the advantages conferred are limited. The rich white guy from Silicon Valley has little intrinsic use for the poor white kid from Kentucky on the basis of shared race – the kinship is limited. But there is something there in terms of collective comfort levels and subconscious and conscious mental association.

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      • Well, yes and no.

        As Mike’s story about frogging showed, even down country white folks from Kentucky can enjoy privilege because of (presumed) kinship.

        But I think privilege is much more pervasive than just individual interactions. One of the major issues with white privilege is the norming of white culture, something we spoke about on Mike’s race/culture piece. Primarily the issue is that white people tend not to see themselves as having race; they just are. Everyone else has a race. So when black people do something, it is seen as black people doing it. When Asian people do something, it is seen as Asian people doing it. When white people do something, it is simply seen as people doing it… or some other demographic identifier (Northern people doing it… poor people doing it… Jewish people doing it…).

        The power of this to privilege some and oppress others cannot be understated. The Silicon Valley guy may have no use for the Kentucky kid, but he does not view him through the prism of race and is likely oblivious to it in any meaningful way.

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      • Kazzy, to clarify, I was not suggesting that the poor white guy from Kentucky does not gain any privilege by being white. In some ways, I suspect he may actually gain more than the guy from Silicon Valley, if we are looking very specifically at race (the latter getting most of his privilege from money).

        What I am saying, though, is that a lot of the privilege we confer to whites assumes Mr. Silicon Valley attributes. The assumption that Mr. Kentucky has money. The assumption that he has socioeconomic networks of value. And so on. Mr. Kentucky benefits from being assumed, on site, a respectable citizen just like the Mayor and Mr. SV. And that’s not nothing! But at the same time it’s easy to assume credits to Mr. Kentucky on the basis of what Mr. SV has, and to overassume the benefits of the association. (Not of being white generally, but of that particular aspect of being white.)

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      • I think I’m with both of you here. Either that or in the middle.

        It all depends on the next-best option. If the Silicon Valley guy and the Kentucky guy are surrounded by 100 Mexicans, they will act as if they were always lifelong friends. But if they are both happen to be attending the same football game, they will regard each other as aliens.

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      • I think it depends. If we assume the Mexicans different from both groups (let’s say we’re not talking about a very Hispanic-friendly software firm or something)… then yeah. Minorities (including whites, when they are in the minority) tend to flock together in the face of a significant majority. Which is why atheists and Born-Agains are friends with one another in Utah. So when I say “it depends” I mean “You are generally right.”

        It’s worth pointing out here that between Mr. Silicon Valley and Mr. Kentucky find themselves in a situation where they are a minority in their particular neighborhood or workplace or whatever, one of them is much more likely than the other to be able to change their situation to what they are more comfortable with. Which brings up all sorts of uncomfortable things (for both sides).

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      • Got it, Will.

        I think that is related to the tendency of white people to succeed as a group and fail as individuals and people of color to succeed as individuals and fail as a group.

        We look at all the wealthy white dudes in SV and say, “Man, white folks are getting it done!” We look at the white fuck ups and say, “That dude is fucked up.”
        Conversely, we look at Obama and say, “Obama is amazing*.” We don’t say, “Maybe we were wrong about black folks being dumb and lazy and incompetent.” But if a black dude does something sketchy, suddenly it is all about rap music and black culture and the like.

        My question for : Is there harm done to the KY guy by these misplaced assumptions?

        * Not everyone says this, of course. Some discount him all the same for one reason or another. But black people, collectively, haven’t gained in stature or perception because of Obama. He is seen as an outlier.

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      • Kazzy, I want to respond to the dynamic you lay out, but I can’t quite find what I want to say. It’s not exactly agreement or disagreement. I’ll come back to it if it comes to me.

        But in the dynamic you lay out, I would say that the harm that comes to Mr. K is thus: If whites are assumed successful, in part because every success story is further proof of what “whites” are inherently capable of it, then failure is attributed to the person rather than whatever disadvantages he might have had apart from the white-male-hetero trifecta.

        Which is to say that if he failed despite being white, he was probably stupid, lazy, of f’ed up. Not because he comes from one of the poorest counties in the country, his mother had to raise him alone, he couldn’t afford college and didn’t know the first thing about how to get a Pell Grant or student loan, and so on.

        Mr. Silicon Valley, who was raised in the tony suburbs of Boston and attended elite schools, had not a worry about affording college, can look at Mr. K and say “What’s his excuse? He’s white like me. We have all the important advantages.”

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      • That is a fantastic point. In a weird way, that might be the best avenue to getting people to resist privilege. “Dude, you’re a white guy and this screws even you (sometimes)!”

        I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Ultimately, it shows just how problematic this sort of tribalism is.

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    • I’m not sure how you can manage the dichotomy. I’ve always said people vote their ZIP codes. In your example, non-white people had white people’s benefits. Those benefits accrued — how? How did they earn the right for their non-white processes to execute with “white” privilege? Because privileged people granted the supposedly non-privileged processes their own execution privileges.

      If lots of whites have privilege, many of them went to elite private schools. Increasingly, as the Choates and Stony Brook Schools (my school) open their doors to non-whites, their graduates start processes which execute with sufficient privileges. They do get into better universities. They do form Old Boys Clubs. Most of the advantage of education is conferred by friendships with people who will become important. It doesn’t follow that white == privileged. It is true many white people have privilege. But privilege always inherits from privilege.

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  4. I have several problems with the word privilege. My main problem is that its often used to shut down debate rather than seriously engage with the issues at hand. So if a white man raises several good points against social democracy or something you simply call him privileged rather than refute his points. This is a horrible and intellectually unrigorous way to debate.

    Another reason is more personal. My phenotype is white, people look at me and see a white man. I’m also a Jew and think that history easily demonstrates that Jews aren’t what you could call a privileged group than or even now. Why should I be accused of having white male privilege when for the most part my ancestors were not allowed in the white male club?

    I’m also in full agreement with Vikram on how most people define privilege and how most people would react to it.

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    • So if a white man raises several good points against social democracy or something you simply call him privileged rather than refute his points. This is a horrible and intellectually unrigorous way to debate.

      But this cuts the other way; because his privilege allows him to not have to experience a problem first hand, he may not lend credence to the problems of those without that privilege; and because he has that privilege, he often gets to define the terms of the debate; those without it have to push, and often, push really hard and for a long, long time, to have their experience even become part of the discussion.

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    • history easily demonstrates that Jews aren’t what you could call a privileged group

      I so want to make a joke about bankers and popular resentment here, but…..I’m just not up to the task. Please imagine I said something totally tongue-in-cheek that was funny and actually mocked the popular resentment.

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      • You are kind hitting the point. Jews entered professions like banking because the laws of Europe barred them from many professions until the 19th century.

        There were long-standing rules against usury and money-lending in Christianity and the Catholic Church but the rulers of Europe still needed financial advice and money-lending/changing done. Jews were barred from farming and many skilled-craftsman jobs by law.

        What did this leave the Jews of Europe able to do? They could become bankers. This is why we have the House of Rothchild.

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      • ND, its way more complicated. Most Jews weren’t into money-lending and banking because you only need so many of them. By the late Middle Ages, the Italians, especially the Venetians, were edging the Jews out. Jews tended to do a lot of marginal work like second-hand shops, peddling, etc.

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    • Jews are totally a privileged group now.
      They may not have all the privilege of a WASP,
      but they definitely have privilege.

      I can say “I’m taking off for Yom Kippur” and
      not get any guff, or have to worry about losing
      my job.

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      • I take this whole thing as further evidence that the word “privileged” is poorly chosen. Jews have certain privileges that others lack. They do not have all the privileges that a white non-Jew might have. Said this way, you can actually make a list and see to where Jews fall rather than having an unanswerable debate as to whether they ought to be labeled “privileged” or not when clearly they are in some instances and aren’t in others.

        Hell, even blacks have *some* privileges. Any white guy listening to rap has to be on the lookout in case someone black sees him. Black people don’t have to deal with that. That doesn’t make black people privileged. It is just one (pretty damn trivial) privilege that they have.

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      • Sam,
        There are places where a white person driving will get harassed at night.
        These are places where black people generally live.
        Black people driving around (or walking) don’t get harassed.

        Even black people have a little bit of privilege. (which in no way shape or form
        makes up for police’s tendency to harass black people in white neighborhoods.
        Lot more white neighborhoods, for one thing!)

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      • Aitch,

        I don’t think the entirety of Vikram’s understanding of race relations comes from that scene. What he wrote though – explicitly saying that white people have to be afraid of listening to hip hop when black people are around – is ludicrously untrue.

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      • “Any white guy listening to rap has to be on the lookout in case someone black sees him.”

        I’m confused by this. I’m a white guy who listens to rap. I’m never really on the lookout for black folks when doing so.

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      • Yeah. My two kids – whitey white whites, both of them – aren’t aware that they should be careful about listening to rap music near black kids – which just shows how privileged they really are.

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      • Unless your understanding of race relations comes entirely from the traffic sequence from “Office Space”, I’m not entirely sure what that final paragraph is implying.

        Yes, it does. And it was accordingly made in some jest (though obviously not well).

        What I was trying to get at though was that we cannot really get totally clear answers as to whether certain groups are privileged or not. Jews are a good example as are Asians and white women. It makes much more sense to talk in terms of which specific privileges each of these groups have and do not have than to assign them a label that is wrong much of the time.

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      • Black privilege is going to exist in predominantly black communities, most likely.

        Growing up, I was the only white kid who went to intramural basketball. I wasn’t the best kid out there, but I wasn’t the worst. Yet I was picked last… every time. This didn’t sit well with 7th grade me. But, put in the proper perspective, it is but a drop in the bucket of the oppression I’ve felt relative to the privilege I’ve enjoyed.

        More recently, I was speaking with a friend about a new housing development in a predominantly black neighborhood. He said he wouldn’t recommend I live there, citing race as one (of many) factors. He said a middle class black guy would be accepted in the community in a way that I was unlikely to be. So if being part of the community was important, that would not be a good place for me to move. Now, this is obviously a very complicated issue given the racial history of this particular neighborhood, but I think it shows an instance wherein it was beneficial to be black. That presumes that living in this neighborhood could be considered desirable, which a lot of people would say is not the case but which I might argue otherwise.

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  5. It’s not a perfect term, I’ll grant you, if only because it sparks the defensiveness you outline in this post, but I really can’t think of a good alternative. A more scholarly or technical term is likely to be derided as out of touch with reality – c.f. Heteronormative – while all available colloquial terms are, as far as I can tell, even more prejudicial.

    And I’m reminded of Kazzy’s recent dust up in the comments over “white supremacist culture.” In that case, I have to admit that the term was misapplied and more likely to produce defensiveness than was justified, but his complaint that any more suitable term was likely to also be criticized seems spot on, judging by this post. Privileged people who are resistant to the idea are resistant to the idea, not the nomenclature. Finding a new word will only shift to us arguing about that word, too

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    • Privileged people who are resistant to the idea are resistant to the idea, not the nomenclature.

      This is a testable claim. We can have instructors in one social justice class introduce to their students the concepts of white privilege and male privilege while in another section they introduce the concept of “concealed unnoticed privileges” most of which accrue to white males. Afterwards, we can run some tests or experiments to see who got what out of the material. I know what my prediction is!

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      • Perhaps we could run it by the Computer Science department. They’d teach the chmod command. In this useful command, three concepts are outlined:

        u user the owner of the file
        g group users who are members of the file’s group
        o others users who are neither the owner of the file nor members of the file’s group
        a all all three of the above, same as ugo

        Owners and others, they’re reasonably easy to define. It’s groups where things get trickier. I can create a group with the groupadd command. People are added to groups with the useradd command. And people can be removed from a group with the usermod command.

        But everything is organised by ugoa. This is the way the real world works. There’s no need to be shy or embarrassed by using the word privilege. Someone has to grant a privilege, the right to read, write, execute and delete files in the system.

        Above all users is root, who has all granting rights. He’s such an important user, his rights are controlled by a special group called sudoers, people who are authorised to grant and revoke such rights.

        Social justice doesn’t apply to rights themselves. It applies to the granting and revoking of rights.

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    • James, I think you bring up some good points here. One of my tests on whether they are objecting to the terminology or the thing itself is whether they propose an alternative and what the alternative is that they propose.

      When there is no alternative, no “acceptable term” I think that says an awful low. Likewise, if the alternative is excessively euphemistic or complex (that it becomes hard to refer to with any sort of repetition), it may be a difference of opinion or it may be an attempt to manipulate the conversation through terminology.

      I think Vik is quite right here that focusing on the privileges rather than the privilege is a reasonable thing. Perhaps a helpful thing, or you might be right that it is not helpful at all.

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      • I think you have to conclude that if someone can’t get on board with the term privilege with a modifier like “relatively,” (as in “you’re relatively privileged compared to someone with the same income who’s not [white, straight, male]”), then you’re dealing with either a fairly hard-core idea denier on the one hand, or someone who’s more interested in a certain agenda relating to rhetoric (something I’m occasionally guilty of, and in fact affirmatively think doing is sometimes okay, so long as you’re prepared to acknowledge what you’re doing when called on it) than in actually describing the thing you’re talking about as accurately as possible.

        I’m not interested in that kind of game on this term, though. I agree with Vikram: insisting on the term “privilege” as though it’s binary and refusing to move to a more scaled description really does very little to get anyone to understand the idea, and repels anyone who doesn’t already accept the notion of privilege understood in this way from the person who is ostensibly trying to get them to understand it.

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      • if someone can’t get on board with the term privilege with a modifier like “relatively,” (as in “you’re relatively privileged compared to someone with the same income who’s not [white, straight, male]“), then you’re dealing with either a fairly hard-core idea denier

        , I think you asked somewhere about how to tell whether someone is actually trying to help improve the message or subverting the message. I think Michael has another possible identifier here.

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  6. Does anybody know where the internet concept of privilege came from? Who was the first person that invoked the privilege as undertsood on the internet meme? I’ve participated on usenet in its dying days and blogs shortly their after and never really encountered privilege the internet concept till 2012. It seemed to come from nowhere and was suddelnly everywhere.

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  7. I’m open to the idea of white/male/straight/cis/thin/whatever it is this week privilege, but the problem is that the term is so often used in really stupid ways.

    For instance, people often treat it as a form of original sin for which the privileged person must spend his or her life atoning for. Or at least be baptized in the rivers of identity studies.

    The other way is that it often involves really banal or otherwise shady “privileges.”

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    • I agree with this. Apparently there is a tumblr on internet that consists of photographs of white men who take up to much room on public transit. Besides the obvious skiviness of taking photos of strangers and putting them on the internet, its a major invasion of a person’s privacy, its really dumb to call a white man who happens to be sitting on a subway privileged. Apparently any sort of joy or simple pleasure experienced by a privileged person is a privilege. If everything is a privilege than the term becomes practically meaningless.

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      • For all its wonders, the internet seems to be doing a lot to bring out everything petty in human nature rather than whats good and generous. It is also destryoing the idea of privacy for ourself and others.

        There needs to be a sort of golden of privacy. Do not reveal about others what you yourself would not want revealed about you or something like that.

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    • Yeah, it’s intended as a tool.
      “here’s where I think you’re missing my experiences,
      because you haven’t had them yourself.”

      Most people have had the privilege of not experiencing
      incest (here cited because it is an actual element
      of certain subcultures in America). Most people have also
      not actually interacted with someone who has experienced it.

      It wouldn’t be surprising if someone thought ideas that were
      radically untrue about incest victims because they’d never
      realized they knew one.

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  8. 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.

    See also: statist, the conflation of racism with institutional racism

    I think you have a good observation, Vikram, in that you don’t generally want to use a term that comes with baggage attached to describe social phenomenon, for this reason more than any other.

    It’s also weird in that most of the things that one considers “white male privilege” aren’t privileges, really, they’re sort of the way we want humans generally to treat each other as a baseline, right?

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    • It’s also weird in that most of the things that one considers “white male privilege” aren’t privileges, really, they’re sort of the way we want humans generally to treat each other as a baseline, right?

      As a woman, I’m seeing a myriad of ways that, no, that’s not how we want people to treat each other.

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    • It’s also weird in that most of the things that one considers “white male privilege” aren’t privileges, really, they’re sort of the way we want humans generally to treat each other as a baseline, right?

      Yes, to the point that they might be better described as rights that happen to have not been distributed to everyone yet.

      I know this is a strong claim, but I think even moving from “white male privilege” to “white male privileges” would be an improvement. The former seems more like an unalterable thing that cannot be questioned, whereas the latter begs for a list.

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  9. On a related note, one thing I’ve seen more than a few times from racial activists is the claim that even white people who don’t engage in racist behavior still “benefit from white privilege,” usually with the none-too-subtle implication that this is something we should feel guilty about. For example, here. Just something I grabbed off the first page of Google results. Specifically, this:

    The point I’m making is that white privilege is so insidious that just by dint of having white skin in this country, you are afforded the benefits of white privilege. What has made it so hard to eradicate is that whites are afraid of losing something (WP) that they claim doesn’t exist, but gives them a societal advantage.

    This is deeply confused, zero-sum thinking. If black people are hurt by racism, it must be the case that white people benefit from it. Which really isn’t the case at all. If we take at face value the claim that higher rates of social pathology and underachievement in the black community are due to racism, then racism is hurting white people, too. If blacks had the same SES distribution as whites, we would have higher GDP, higher tax revenues, less welfare spending, less crime, less money spent, and more innovation. Sure, we’d have to compete with them for the best jobs, but there would also be more opportunities to go around.

    No doubt there are some individual whites who would be worse off under these circumstances, but as a group we’d be significantly better off overall. The idea that we benefit by confining blacks to an subordinate racial caste is just nuts.

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    • If black people are hurt by racism, it must be the case that white people benefit from it.

      It depends on how one thinks of “benefit.”

      Look, think of it this way. A straight, white, Christian couple can move pretty much anywhere in the country with their family and not have to worry “Boy, I sure hope people around here don’t have a problem with people like us,” with very few exceptions. This is not something that families comprising blacks or gays or Muslims, etc can say quite so reliably. Is this a tangible “benefit”? I dunno. I would say so, but since you can’t quantify it perhaps you disagree.

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      • Well, the house they move in to might not be available if black folks had the same opportunity to purchase it. So, in that way, I’m comfortable calling it a benefit.

        Also to consider: if racism doesn’t benefit one group, but only harm another… well, damn, just how evil must racists be?

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      • Brandon, I think I sort of agree. Again, going from McIntosh list, some of those white privileges are things I am glad white people have and want everyone else to be able to have them too.

        This is not in any way inconsistent with the ways in which privilege is usually discussed. For example, one form of privilege is the availability of better public schools in relatively wealthy areas. Recognizing this as privilege, or privileging, does not mean that we want well to do white kids to have worse schools. Sometimes privilege is about relative, not absolute values.

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      • “It’s not about giving up privilege but of extending privileges.”

        To build on what said, I think the assumption that people who are anti-privilege want to make everyone poor and miserable shows a fundamental misunderstanding of their stance and efforts. This is at least in part the result of people deliberately fostering this misunderstanding.

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      • Right Chris. When people describe a situation as an example of X privilege, they’re not saying that the benefits which apply to group X are bad and shouldn’t be extended. It’s usually the opposite, in fact: that because those benefits are more or less objectively good (having access to good schools for your kids or whatever) the privilege ought not be restricted or limited to only certain groups.

        The negative critique is that lots of holders of privilege appear to want to maintain exclusive exercise of them and actively desire to not extend them to others. Eg, if feminists are to be believed, there was apparently a time, and not too long ago at that, when men were reluctant to extend the “privilege” of gainful employment in certain economic sectors to women. Crazy, I know.

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      • To the extent that discussions of privilege do center around expanding good types of privilege, I think that happens despite a poor choice of terminology rather than because of it.

        I have little doubt that those who are already buy into the concept of privilege are not bothered by the word choice. It’s that that word choice limits the viability of the message beyond those small circles.

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      • I think privilege doesn’t always have that connotation. In fact, I believe many of the privilege conversations we’ve had around here have acted as though it doesn’t (I know that’s the case for the one’s I’ve had with Jaybird).

        Also, would you rather people say it like this?

        I think “privilege” was chosen precisely because people understand what it means. In turn, I think people like you, and me, and many others here, are going to tend to overthink it because we tend towards overthinking.

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      • “To the extent that discussions of privilege do center around expanding good types of privilege, I think that happens despite a poor choice of terminology rather than because of it.”

        How many conversations have you had with folks about privilege? Not the word, but the theory or concept? Some of your comments here make me think the answer might be not many, but I don’t want to assume that.

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      • Vik, I think I see you’re objection now. Given the list the OP of so-called “privileges”, the word does seem incorrect. I mean, if those are privileges, they’re clearly pushing the outer limits of correct usage. Here’s how I’d define “privilege”:

        A privilege is an advantage based on race, sex, gender, class, etc deriving from established cultural norms.

        So part of acting on a privilege is that the opportunities or outcomes that accrue to the individual are determined by preferential treatment and sometimes power structures which are entrenched and sustained by various cultural norms and beliefs. Another part is that a person doesn’t have to be aware of the benefits which accrue to them as deriving from institutional practices. So it seems to me things like hiring practices, pay rates, club memberships, acceptance into universities, acceptance into neighborhoods, gender role identifications, certain legal outcomes, career advancement, and so on are better examples of what most people think of evincing privilege than the ones mentioned in the OP.

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      • Some of your comments here make me think the answer might be not many, but I don’t want to assume that.

        I was wondering the same thing, kazzy.

        Vik, I cancelled a comment asking pretty much the same thing since it I got the impression that all this talk of privilege was pretty new to you. Is that true?

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      • Re: Experience on discussions about privilege:
        Well, this isn’t the *first* one I’ve participated in, but it is the first one here at OT. I do read a few feminist and women-of-color blogs, and I’ve read a few scholarly papers. I’ve also read discussions from privilege-deniers, and it’s their experience that I’m trying to communicate today. I reasoned that most of the audience here is already on board with the concept of privilege being important, so I wanted to communicate the reactions people who are not here seem to have. (That said, I’m willing to bet I haven’t participated in as many discussions as you have.)

        I don’t remember if I wrote this or not yet here, but I am really not questioning whether *you* can have a clear conversation about privilege amongst yourselves. I question whether you can with others who might not start off as receptive to the ideas. And I think minor modifications might get us there.

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      • Do you subscribe to the 20-60-20 theory (or a derivation thereof)? The one that says 20% of the people already agree with you, 20% of the people will never agree with you, an the 60% of the people in the middle are who you need to speak to?

        I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that in general.

        If you do subscribe to it, I wonder if “privilege deniers” might be part of the “never agree” 20% and, if so, whether they should be the ones we are taking cues from.

        Also, fully conceded: As a straight, white, cis male who has just about any form of privilege someone could want in contemporary American society, I know that I sometimes need to check the effectiveness of my advocacy. It is easy for me to say, “Damn the nuance, full speed ahead!” because if everything goes to shit… well, I don’t really feel the brunt of that. I’m working really hard on understanding what it really means to be an ally and an advocate. And I know I’m not there yet. So please do know that I am open to that which you say here, but I have a certain bugaboo whenever the conversation seems to be turning towards, “The main reason ISSUE X, which we all agree is bad, has not been resolved is because we haven’t been nice enough in asking those responsible for ISSUE X to knock it off.” Even if Mr. Nice Guy is going to be the most successful route, I’m still going to grumble about it, even if behind the scenes. But I must be aware of when that bugaboo has gone from being effective and useful to a hindrance.

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      • Do you subscribe to the 20-60-20 theory (or a derivation thereof)?

        Well, if the derivation is a-b-c where a+b+c = 100%, sure. :)

        I get the notion, but it’s never going to be one specific percentage across all issues. I know that when I blog, I always try to write something that I don’t think the audience will agree with. At least not before they read the post. Otherwise, what’s the point?

        If you do subscribe to it, I wonder if “privilege deniers” might be part of the “never agree” 20% and, if so, whether they should be the ones we are taking cues from.

        I don’t think privilege deniers needs scare quotes. People don’t pretend to accept privilege but secretly deny it. If they don’t think it exists, they will tell you.

        Take cues only from yourself. But take them knowing that they will affect how the 60% views your arguments. For what it’s worth, I would be surprised if a privilege denier would read this post and say “right on!”

        …I have a certain bugaboo whenever the conversation seems to be turning towards, “The main reason ISSUE X, which we all agree is bad, has not been resolved is because we haven’t been nice enough in asking those responsible for ISSUE X to knock it off.”

        I’m not saying to be nice. Be clear. This isn’t about massaging the egos of people with unnoticed privileges. It’s about clarity of communication so they know what you are talking about.

        You mentioned earlier about who is the arbiter. I have a different answer now. If you say something to someone, and they make an honest effort to understand you, but they aren’t able to, then you did something wrong. That is determinant of whether your language choice was good enough.

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  10. You might enjoy John Scalzi’s Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is which covers some interesting points. He makes a lovely analogy to a game and notes:

    As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up. If you start with fewer points and fewer of them in critical stat categories, or choose poorly regarding the skills you decide to level up on, then the game will still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.

    Which sums it up, really. Yes, a straight white male with all the privilege he unknowingly holds might lose. He might face truly horrendous difficulties few others will face. He might, indeed, have the hardest life of all those he knows (including minorities, females, gays, etc). That doesn’t change the fact that swapping his gender, or race, or sexual orientation would only make his issues worse as it would add on many difficulties he is only vaguely aware exist — and only for other people.

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  11. I’m of two minds here but largely lean on being with the people who think privilege is a good term.

    Privilege does exist and people who have it are often super-clueless about it and get very defensive. The Pax guy from Business Insider is a good example. He got called out and fired for making a lot of super-offensive tweets that really went Beyond the Pale in terms of their racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and classism. The calling out got him fired from his job as Chief Technology Officer at Business Insider. This got the libertarians of the internet up in-arms. Pax and some blogger at Popehat said that the tweets were supposed to be satirical/performance art and that everyone was misreading him.

    Cry me a river, if you need to point out that you are doing satire, you are doing it wrong. Yes every now and then an Onion story gets confused for reality but most people understand the Onion is a joke. I find a lot of “anti-PC” people like to accuse the other side of being humorless without understanding what it is like to be the victim of prejudice or a nasty smear word.

    So if people get defensive about being called on their privilege, tough. Maybe they are feeling what it is like to be the victim of an off-handed homophobic, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, whatever joke here and they don’t like it very much.

    *Whenever I hear someone describe themselves as “anti-PC”, I hear them say “I don’t want to treat people with dignity and decency.”

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    • Privilege does exist and people who have it are often super-clueless about it and get very defensive.

      Sorry for the passive aggressiveness: I don’t disagree. My argument is not with that claim. My argument is that we have settled on language that *makes* people get very defensive when we could have chosen language that would make people more curious about what we are saying.

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      • I think the problem is that we’re discomforting the comfortable, and it really doesn’t matter what words we use. Pointing out power differential to the powerful suggests that they’re not quite as good/talented/gifted/competitive/resourceful then they are comfortable seeing themselves as being. It potentially implies that the not-so-powerful co-worker in the next cubicle might be, somehow, better because that person may have had to work harder to achieve the same cubicleness. We’re asking the empowered to examine themselves critically, and not take their success for granted with an ‘attaboy’ pat on the back.

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      • What said, a thousand times.

        And look, I see much greater value in solidarity among those of us with less privilege compared to better propaganda applied against those with more privilege. Yes, bigots will bristle when their privilege is pointed out to them, and maybe a slightly nicer work would be better here and there. But not on the whole.

        People don’t deny their privilege because they don’t like the word. They deny it because they don’t like facing the truth.

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      • I think the problem is that we’re discomforting the comfortable, and it really doesn’t matter what words we use.

        This. We could change the word to narrow the meaning but all the scrapped connotations would almost instantly reappear.

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      • Zic does make a fair point, but I don’t think it is helpful to just say, “well, they would reject what we would say anyway,” even if it were accurate 70% of the time.

        There do exist people with privilege who nevertheless understand it. (Note the McIntosh link in the OP.) So it is possible for the empowered to admit to their power. Given that it is possible, why not maximize your chances that you will be understood when talking to your target audience? Why not grasp for any opportunity to make your message more palatable?

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      • “…why not maximize your chances that you will be understood when talking to your target audience? Why not grasp for any opportunity to make your message more palatable?”

        Because when this becomes the expectation, it reinforces privilege. Messages are only received if they are palatable. Well, for SOME people. Some other people just have to accept the message no matter how it delivered.

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      • Having your audience react defensively reinforces privilege too.

        This can also be a leading indicator that your campaign against privilege of a particular flavor might be gaining some traction. It’s no longer laughed aside as a joke, it’s now a thorn in your side.

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      • *Very* clarifying subthread here, with applications far beyond just talking about privilege, IMO. It’s worth everyone taking a moment to reflect on these two approaches to political (and other) communication in various contexts (which likely won’t and shouldn’t be uniform across all those contexts). I think these two basic attitudes (conciliatory or in-your-face) gets to some very fundamental differences in the ways people approach political discussions generally – it definitely illuminates my view of a variety of different political communicators in the blogosphere and beyond. I’m glad we have a good mix between these approaches here at OT, including, as I suggest, often within individual commenters and contributors, depending on context.

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    • I am anti-PC. Political Correctness has no interest in anyone’s dignity nor yet will it treat people decently. It mawkishly blows its nose into a tissue bought at an upscale supermarket, rattles on about White People and their supposed privileges — never you mind that poverty varies directly with income and not with race, facts have no impact upon such as these —

      Political Correctness is a vast, self-excusing sublimation of the obvious, that privilege is inherited. You may always test the Politically Correct with this experiment — they will tell you white people can live anywhere they want — tell them to move to some dangerous neighbourhood. See if they’ll do it.

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      • BlaiseP,

        The problem is that a large part of the anti-PC crowd are people who are outraged, outraged that they can’t use slur words or make casually homophobic, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic jokes around the water cooler anymore

        When I talk about being PC, it means treating people as humans with the innate dignity and decency that we all deserve. This means no sexist or homophobic or racist or anit-Semitic or Islamophobic or anything else phobic jokes around the water cooler.

        The solution is not telling minorities to lighten up!

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      • Those who have been oppressed are most welcome to express their contempt for their oppressors. I have no problem with them. My problem is with the PC Crowd itself. Were they doing something about tearing down the barriers which have kept the oppressed out, I would be somewhat more sympathetic. They don’t.

        Since they do nothing about these problems, will not rid themselves of their own privileges, I have hardened my heart against them and hate them all the more. Race, gender, sexual proclivities, height, weight — look at the checklists these Check Your Privilege lists contain. Who gets to assign values to such characteristics? Why, the PC Dungeonmaster, of course.

        Political Correctness feeds a hungry man with words, not food.

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      • Kim,

        It depends on the context and who is telling the joke.

        Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogan telling jokes about Jews are funny especially if done in a stand-up routine, movie, TV show, among other Jews.

        William Wadsworth IV and Felicity “Bunny” Hutchinson telling jokes about Jews at the Country Club or “inadvertently” as their one Jewish colleague passes by the water cooler is not funny.

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      • NewDealer,
        What about the straight guy writing jokes for Tobias on Arrested Development?
        (bear in mind that the actor playing Tobias is gay).

        Jokes are jokes, if they’re funny, I don’t care who the hell is telling them.
        Sometimes jokes are better in context (the one I made above (disregarding my ability/inability to tell good jokes) is less likely to be offensive if made by a Jew),
        but I deny the inability of someone to tell a joke simply because of their skin color.

        They had Colbert telling jewish jokes, after all (and I think he’s a WASP from SC!)

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      • Newdealer,
        that wasn’t really the part of the act I was referencing though.
        (and, yes, it would be funny if he was actually a conservative.
        Over The Top is always funny, and making fun of shills is
        always good for a laugh — the Burger King episode of
        Arrested Development makes that point rather aptly
        [Moral To Fox: asking comedians to do things they
        don’t want to do is really asking for trouble.]).

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      • Jokes at work are always stupid. Don’t tell ’em. Folks already have enough troubles, stumbling along in CorpSpeak, facilitating client-oriented learnings and leveraging synergies and other such mealy-mouthed bullshit. They won’t even speak English.

        The last thing anyone learns in a new language, is how to tell a joke well. CorpSpeak doesn’t understand jokes. Neither does the PC Crowd.

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      • In my experience, when any suitably large collection of straight white cis dudes (and I know you aren’t straight and I know some folks on this thread are not white — but when that is the majority) discuss things like privilege, they will spend the majority of the thread *illustrating clearly* that they have privilege — which is the power to remain entirely clueless to your advantages and how they work in the world.

        Which gets painfully predictable and tedious.

        And of course you are *allowed* to discuss these things. As if I could stop you.

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      • I guess by “allowed” I meant, “discuss with views that are viewed as legitimate.”

        I do agree that, until you know how it feels to not experience a certain privilege (beginning Vikram’s pardon), it’s hard to perceive that you enjoy it in the first place. Until you’ve sat down at an Applebee’s with your family and then wondered if people are staring at you, and if those stares are hostile, or maybe you’re just being paranoid, but boy the people two tables over seem to be glancing in your direction a lot… well, that’s a hard sense to convey to people who would never imagine having to worry about such a thing.

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      • When I was a kid in Niger, I was often the first white person some people had ever seen. Children would come up and touch my hair, try to rub the white off my skin, sure it was some sort of makeup. We were always gawked at. It never really made any difference to me. I slept in a bed with clean sheets. I drank boiled, filtered water. I shat in a sanitary outhouse. I bathed.

        I wore shoes!

        My life was so much better than anyone else I knew, I never felt as if I was part of the place. Truth is, compared to the States, we were living mighty poor. Didn’t seem like it though.

        This isn’t to say I have any particular insight into anyone else’s personal situation. But I’ve been gawked at because I was white. Sometimes, when you’re gawked at, it’s the first time someone’s ever seen someone like you. They might do dumb things, say dumb things, try to rub the white off your skin, they don’t know any better. At turns, it’s almost a relief for someone to gawk. At least they’re not studiously ignoring you, or giving you that tenth-of-a-second glare with the Stink Eye.

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    • 1. I’m pretty sure Vikram isn’t white.

      2. There are plenty of white dudes here who are defending the use of the term.

      3. To quote a famous New Yorker cartoon from the 1990s: “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog.” You are making a mental assumption of the appearance of a person based on what they are writing as their beliefs. This is probably a problem of the use of the word privilege on the Internet.

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      • A quick look at my avatar to the left indicates that on the Internet I actually am a dog.

        For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is a qualification for anything, but I am Indian American male. I have plenty of privileges. My intent here is not to deny that but instead argue for a better terminology that will help privilege-holders of all sorts understand the claims that are being made about them without feeling like they are being attacked.

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    • Oh look, a bunch of white dudes critiquing privilege.

      Hee, hee. I don’t think you wrote what you meant to write. :)

      I should note that I am not a privilege-denier. Neither do most of the commentators seem to be. I am critiquing our word choice.

      I wonder what’s on TV?

      You’ll want to check with Jaybird!

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  12. There are two kinds of privilege, it seems to me… and it seems that they’re conflated.

    The first is the type of privilege that it is downright simple to resent. Inheritance issues, for example. It’s the easiest thing in the world to look at a trust fund baby (Paris Hilton!) and hate her.

    The second is the type of privilege that is not zero sum in any real way and is privilege that you’d think we’d want a hell of a lot more of. Freddie writes about it here:

    http://lhote.blogspot.com/2012/03/there.html

    Understand: it didn’t even take one generation. Social capital reasserted itself. Privilege did what it does. At the very moments when my life was most broken, the vast advantages of being born white and male, to educated and caring parents, who read to me and told me I was good, who connected behavior to consequences and advised me to live life consciously– all these realities quietly worked in my favor.

    I can see wanting to blunt the bad kind of privilege but the kind that Freddie’s talking about here? We want *MORE* of that. Bucketloads.

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      • How many people are aware they are not universal?

        Or, how many people assume that their own experience is universal?

        “I never have a problem finding a book for my child with characters that look like her. Is this really an issue for people? I doubt it.”

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      • that’s a great point. I remember, back in the day, reading to the kids in my children’s classes, something I did three times a week (and this was 20 years ago, so there likely has been some progress).

        Girls were happy to hear stories about boys. Boys were not happy to hear stories about girls.

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      • I recall reading a study about this done a while back. The results demonstrated pretty clearly that stories with boy protagonists received much higher marks from girls than the other way around. Girls liked stories about girls better than stories about boys, and vice-versa, but the tolerance for the other was markedly different.

        As much as anything, I think this is what happens when there is a disproportionate ability of one side or the other to discriminate. If most stories have boy protagonists, then boys can skip over the ones that don’t while girls cannot. If most stories have white protagonists, white people can skip over those that don’t while non-white people cannot.

        (I’m not going to go into here, but this has repercussions on previous discussions about liberals and conservatives in entertainment media.)

        It’s definitely a thing.

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      • Ezra Jack Keats is one of the few authors who reliably uses characters of color without making the story a story about characters of color being characters of color. He also represents the urban landscape and lifestyle beautifully, something that is also missing from most children’s literature.

        I feel like there are more female protagonists as you get into slightly older grades… Ramona and Beezus and the like. Probably part of the chicken-and-egg issue with getting boys to read.

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      • But if we say that people have a right to find books with characters like them in it, people unaware of privilege will say, “Duh, everyone already has that.”

        But they don’t. How do we help them see it? Rights doesn’t get us any closer.

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      • People are aware of privilege, from their earliest days on the playground. Part of socialisation, coming to terms with the In Crowd, the Out Crowd. Who’s a Brahmin, who’s Shudra. To say we don’t see it is to ignore the obvious. We may lie to ourselves about it, pretend not to see it. But we do see it.

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      • Kazzy, is this a conversation you’ve had with people? I ask because I would anticipate a slightly different response to “They don’t have very many options in children’s book for characters with leads that look like them…”

        The response I would anticipate is “Why does it matter what race the lead characters are? (Maybe something something here colorblind race doesn’t matter.) Why can they only enjoy books with lead characters that look like them?”

        Which seems like a reasonable response, at least from someone who has never been in the position of being underrepresented. That’s something I struggle a bit to articulate a response to. Not because it isn’t wrong or overlooking something significant. I just have a hard time framing it.

        Have you run into this? If you say the response is more along the lines of “Everybody has access to such books” I’ll believe you. And be a bit relieved, because I think that would be an easier one to respond to.

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      • I think it is all of those, Will.

        Most people have some variation of, “I never thought of it that way…” which is sort of an amalgamation of all that.

        Books aren’t the best example, because people aren’t as tuned into them. And most adult books lack pictures so there is a certain degree of projection necessary/required.

        Let’s look at TV. How many times have you heard people say, “They have BET. Why can’t we have a white channel*?” I have to think at least some of that is the presumption that BET should suffice; that everyone has enough representation. Some of it is also built on a lack of understanding of the importance of representation. Not because these people would necessarily make an affirmative argument that representation is unnecessary, but because they have never had to think about the importance of representation because it has always been there for them.

        It is a really difficult knot to untangle. But there are no shortage of people who’ll point to BET or Tyler Perry movies and say black folks are sufficiently represented.

        * The best is when people go far enough and call it WET. There might have one time been a channel called WET, but probably slightly different than what they’re envisioning.

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      • Let’s suppose black culture isn’t sufficiently represented. When BET was started, it was backed by John “Mad Max” Malone. Seriously white guy. Saw the opportunity, backed with some serious cash. Not a particularly sensitive guy, Mad Max Malone. People also call him Darth Vader.

        All John Malone could see was an under-served market. That’s how most people get rich, creating something for markets nobody’s yet identified. It’s not the newness of the thing, it’s creating the market. In this case BET should have been invented decades ago. Stroke of genius. I think Viacom owns it now.

        “White” people are about to become a minority here in the USA. I don’t buy into these race categories, others might. Cable TV is a big old series of narrow-casted ghettos, cooking channels, football channels, rerun channels — nobody can generalise in cable. Everyone who’s tried has failed. CNN tried the middle of the road approach, Fox ate its lunch because people like being in their little ghettos. No coaxing them out, either. That’s been tried, too.

        So soon enough, we will see a White People’s Channel, just like a Black People’s Channel and Indian soap operas and Egyptian soap operas and France24. A good cable package gets you carte blanche access to a hundred little ghettos. Because everyone’s a minority now and they want a ghetto for themselves. And by God, as long as people like Mad Max Malone and Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone are out there, they’ll get a cable channel for it.

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    • “I can see wanting to blunt the bad kind of privilege but the kind that Freddie’s talking about here? We want *MORE* of that. Bucketloads.”

      No one I know argues otherwise. Well, some. But they’re usually the type that think “privilege” is invented.

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      • Yes.

        See, herein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of privilege.

        No one is saying that having privilege is, inherently, bad. What we/I are/am saying is that a system that privileges some to the exclusion of others is wrong.

        I would never criticize a parent for doing their best to help their child. But I would criticize a system that did not allow certain parents to do the best for their child.

        Why do you assume that a “privilege” is a bad thing?

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      • From the stories you tell of your students, would you say that you’re helping to make them more privileged?

        I see a confusion there too. One person can’t make another more privileged except by changing the cultural norms and practices that are entrenched in society.

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      • Why do you assume that a “privilege” is a bad thing?

        Because, in colloquial usage, privilege carries negative connotations. At least some of the time, for some people. Hence Vikram’s original point that using the word “privilege” as the technical term for the concept it refers to in social justice work is a poor choice.

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      • One person can’t make another more privileged except by changing the cultural norms and practices that are entrenched in society.

        Did you see how Freddie was using the word? Was he using it incorrectly?

        For the record, I don’t think that he was using it *THAT* differently than most folks.

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      • We say that driving is a privilege, not a right.

        We talk about computer access privileges.

        We give children more privilege as they demonstrate greater responsibility to exercise those privileges.

        Which of these connote privilege in a negative light? Because I would those are the most common usages I heard growing up.

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      • When we use the word “privilege” in discussions like this one, we’re talking about something else entirely.

        I agree. Are we talking only about what Freddie meant by the word, tho?

        Personally, FWIW, I read Freddie as much closer to my view of what the word means than you apparently do.

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      • I’m not sure it’s such a gigantic leap in definitional changes, though. “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.” That describes an ability I have, a license that others give me, which is at least impliedly not enjoyed by others who are different from me.

        Where I take issue with the notion is that the privileges we discuss are, of course, unearned. Therefore they are unfair. Therefore I am taking unfair advantage of my privileged position when I use them. But everyone ought to be able to rent or purchase housing in an area they can afford. I am part of “everyone.” So when I enter the housing market, perhaps I’m using that privilege, but I don’t think I’m doing something wrong.

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      • But I also see privilege as something that I *CAN* give to others. I go out of my way to find books for my nephews that they will actively love. Toys like those snap-in science kits and puzzle games that, sneakily, teach them things despite themselves.

        I tell them that they are good. When they were younger, I read to them.

        Are we talking only about what Freddie meant by the word, tho?

        No, it seems to me that we’re conflating two very different things… and using the same (negative) term for both when one is actually quite positive.

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      • i>Therefore I am taking unfair advantage of my privileged position when I use them.

        Well, certainly some people might accuse you of that. But I think the negative complaint arises when people who have certain privileges claim that they don’t have any of those privileges but as well as support policies which perpetuate the privileges they claim to be unaware of.

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      • But I also see privilege as something that I *CAN* give to others.

        We’re getting down to root paradigms here, which calls for caution, but I’d say it differently. You’re offering them opportunities, not privileges.

        But I think you and I disagree about what that word means. Seems like we’ve gone over this ground before and come to different conclusions.

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    • I can see wanting to blunt the bad kind of privilege but the kind that Freddie’s talking about here? We want *MORE* of that. Bucketloads.

      We don’t want more of the privilege Freddie’s describing, because that consists of his having the good stuff he describes (which we DO want gobs more of) and others not having it or not having nearly as much. If you really we want more of the privilege, well, I think you’re making a moral mistake. We want more good stuff. If we want those who already have more of it to get the most more as we increase the total amount, then we want more privilege. But as we increase the total amount of good stuff, if we want those who have less of it to get more, or even just the same amount, of the overall more good stuff that is created, then we don’t want more privilege. If we want more of the more to those who now have less, then in fact we want less privilege, because it will then become (if only slightly) less uncommon for someone to X amount (though: relatively a lot) of good stuff. Having X amount of good stuff won’t be as much of a privilege, because more people will have X amount, or more people will be closer to having X amount. There will be less privilege (yay!), though (YAY!!!) more good stuff.

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      • But when it comes to the “more good stuff”, that’s something that we have weird relationships with…

        I’ve mentioned my many nephews and the many books I go out of my way to find for them. I am under the impression that by giving them books that they like to read that I am giving them advantages that other people don’t have.

        Fair enough… but I don’t understand what my relationship is to the fact that other people out there aren’t taking care of their own nephews (their own *SONS*!) the way that I take care of mine.

        What should it be?

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    • , I only just now got through the link. Thanks for sharing that.

      I have one immediate reaction. The author mentions that it took less than a generation for social capital to reassert itself. It struck me that a lack of social does not reassert itself, which is a good thing. Once a family has gotten the social capital the author speaks about, there won’t be some downward pressure always trying to bring them to their original state. (I believe that is consistent with what the author is saying.)

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      • I was talking to a guy whose dad, in his 80s now, is an old-school Texas oil millionaire. He was telling me that in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, His Dad made tens of millions and lost them, to the point of being completely broke, several times. He talked about how they would have to move out of whatever giant house they were living in, and live with friends or family, and then a year or so later, they’d move into another giant house. I was thinking to myself, “Damn, when my bank account hit zero in the past, there was no point at which I was thinking, ‘Eh, now it’s time to make another thirty mil.'”

        In all likelihood, there’s nothing his dad knew that you (Jay), Vikram, or I couldn’t learn pretty quickly. That is, he wasn’t making millions and losing them and remaking them on the basis of some highly specialized knowledge. He just had experience in the oil industry, and he knew the right people. Every time he hit zero, which let’s face it would likely ruin our credit, he had someone who’d seed his rise to multi-millionaire again, or get him in on some new lucrative venture.

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      • Chris,
        Venture capitalists will pay an awful lot for things that are very stupid.
        It may not be possible for you to get $30 million if you don’t know the right people…
        But half a million isn’t out of the question, for a halfway decent product and
        a bit of marketing.

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  13. Story time.

    So, I usually go dancing on Tuesday nights. I love dancing. It helps me escape myself and let out a lot of stuff I keep inside. Plus it helps me keep fit.

    On Tuesdays there is a cool queer dance night at a little club in Cambridge. The DJ is amazing. The room is full of magnificent people. The dancing is top notch.

    (Although I’m usually the only trans gal there, which can get awkward.)

    Anyway, I didn’t feel good this Tuesday, so I didn’t go. And I regretted that all day Wednesday.

    The clear solution: go dancing Wednesday night. I felt better. I was brimming with energy.

    But where to go?

    So, here’s the thing: the Boston queer scene can be pretty dull. Which is a surprise, but still true. There are a number of gay bars, but there is seldom much dancing there. (Really, they seem mostly cruising joints. And I’m not gay, so gay cruising is no fun at all.) And the lesbian places — well, the fate of a trans gal in the lesbian scene is too dismal to discuss, so I won’t. Then there are the straight dancing clubs, but for a honking enormous tranny like me — those places can be hit or miss.

    Now, I’ve gone to straight dance parties and had a terrific time. But nevertheless I worry about my safety.

    Last night I decided to take a chance on a nice club in downtown Boston. I’ve been there before, but on explicitly kinky-fetishy nights. I’ve never been there on a normal night.

    I get dressed. I head out.

    On the subway I sit beside a guy smoking Crystal.

    (Not kidding.)

    On the way from the subway to the club I get laughed at, yelled at, hit on by straight dudes — who look terrified when at the last minute they realize I’m trans —

    And about that, last month a trans women was murdered in Harlem when a dude was street harassing her, but then realized what she was. He was so freaked out he beat her to death.

    Her name was Islan Nettles.

    However, in my case the dudes just laughed and said gross things to me. I gave them the finger and carried on.

    Then more, some lady standing outside a restaurant said shit to me. I kept walking but she followed, egged on by the dude she was with. I turned, faced her, sauntered toward her — putting on full tranny mode.

    She backed off.

    I arrive at the club. Outside is a line.

    I don’t mind lines. That’s life.

    But will I get in? A girl like me?

    But the line! It’s all dudebros with their collars turned up. They see me. There are guffaws, whispers, muttered voice. “Oh my god! What the fuck!”

    None of the dudes get in my face, but I decide not to stand in line with them.

    I do not go into the club. Instead I head over a few block to a little drag club I know. Nice place. I’m treated well. But no one dances there.

    The rest of you could JUST FUCKING GO DANCING!

    On the way home some big mean looking Southie dude blew me kisses while waiting for the Red Line. I blew kisses back. His friends laughed at me and then they all got on the train.

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    • “…but then realized what she was…”

      Hi Veronica,

      A question about your choice of language here. If I was writing that sentence, I would have said “who she was”. But, clearly, you are more informed on this matter. Is “what” the more appropriate term there? Were you using it to capture the thinking of the attacker?

      I thank you in advance for indulging my ignorance.

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      • — Well, in this case I wasn’t being particularly deliberate in my word choice. But, yes, I have no doubt the attacker was dehumanizing Islan, and I think my use of “what” reflects that.

        I have been called “it” to my face. It is unpleasant.

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      • Thank you. That was the sense that I got, but I wanted to be sure.

        More importantly, thank you for sharing your story.

        I think this sums it up: The rest of you could JUST FUCKING GO DANCING!

        If I may, I’ll share a story from the other side of the aisle, where I got (proverbially) slapped up the head with just such a sentiment.

        When I lived in Manhattan, I would ride the subway 24/7. Even if it took me through bad neighborhoods. I just never thought twice about it. One day, I was talking with a female friend and she was complaining about taking cabs. “Just take the subway.” She hemmed and hawed and we went back and forth for a bit. I just couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t take the subway when money was tight.

        Finally she just said, “Dude. I’m a girl. I’m not riding the subway alone at night.”

        It was an, “Ooooooooooh Fuuuuuuuudge,” moment. I was completely oblivious until she made it painfully obvious.

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    • I’m not from Boston so I don’t know what a “Southie” is. I can figure out what a “brodude” is from context.

      So was the last paragraph of your story a bit of a happy ending for the evening with a bit of a flirt, or was the guy mocking you and you just decided to pay him back in kind?

      Sorry that I seem obtuse. But I’d have thought that Boston would have a rocking LGBTQ scene.

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    • Veronica,

      Wow, that’s a great story. The weird thing is that it strikes me as not that dissimilar to lots of other stories you could probably tell. One question tho, because I want to be crystal clear about this: you weren’t intending to harm anyone by going dancing that night, were you? I mean, you just being you wasn’t causing … well … harm, was it? Cuz it sure seems like you were the one that was hurt while everyone hurling insults were rather enjoying themselves.

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      • — I kind of don’t understand the point of the question. Of course I intended to harm no one. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I did something with the intent to do harm. (Which is not to say I haven’t stupidly done harmful things.)

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      • Ahh, sure. Now that I read it again it’s pretty opaque.

        Here’s what I was getting at. There is a faction of people who argue that acting in ways which break down traditional social and sexual norms causes harm to others. Contrasting that view with the current discussion, tho, implies that the exercise of privilege by the dominant hetero community effectively permits members of that group to perpetrate harms against others based on the same rationale.

        That’s why I asked you if you were harming others: it’s a premise in a very strange argument about social norms and morality.

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      • — Ah, yes, I see. Well, I certainly made some people uncomfortable.

        And I wish I did not. But on the other hand, I refuse to hide in my apartment; to hide who I am, to dress down (I suspect much hostility comes from men who find me just a little sexy), and otherwise to live under some kind of rock created by cishet sensibilities.

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      • Veronica,

        If I may, you made reference or allusions in your story to your size/build/body type… “honking enormous” was the phrase you used. I assume that transgender people come with the same diversity of body type as cis gender people. If so, how much does the way one physically presents impact the response? Russell wrote recently about working with a transgender patient and made note of her build, which was slighter than you imply yours was. This, at least in part, influenced his response.

        Do you think the response you tend to get would be better if you weren’t “honking enormous”? Would it be worse (perhaps because more men might be attracted and then have to deal with that dissonance)? Just different? Or is the ugliness fairly universal?

        Please only answer what/if you want; you need not feel the need to be my or our “tour guide”.

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  14. I use privilege as a term to describe someone given unfair advantage in the rules. I do not assume every human starts from the same starting place. They don’t and cannot. For example, some of us are just not as good looking as others.

    The fact that I am not good looking does not mean that the handsome people people reading this are privileged.

    On the main post, Vikram linked to someone who appears to be peddling tribalism, resentment, envy, hate and zero sum thinking.

    I do not care if my kids are black, white or brown, male, female, gay or straight. I care that they are not dumb, evil or ugly. The brown gay ones will do great if they can keep away from tribalistic hate peddlers. The ugly dumb ones I worry about.

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    • This is all beautifully utopian but keeping away from tribalistic hate peddlers isn’t that easy. a lot of tribalistic hate peddlers have a tendency to like violence and will make sure to get in the way of your “brown gay ones”

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      • I have found the brown gay ones have done fine in reality. Much better than the less attractive or less intelligent ones. No comparison actually. If someone could peddle victimology to the latter group they would. Only problem is it is a group nobody wants to admit they belong to.

        My experience is the thing I need to protect my family from is not racists. They are insignificant in the big picture to their welfare. Not a non issue, but an insignificant issue to their long term prospering. Small enough that i see zero net advantage for the non minority members. What I do need to worry about is the hate peddlers trying to push victimology on them. This is the mindset which will destroy them.

        That is me. My experience with a very multicultural family across various states.

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    • My grad adviser published an article based on data from some lab experiments in game theory. One of the things they’d asked of participants was that they evaluate their own and other participants’ attractiveness.

      From the abstract: “s. Results indicate that subjects are more likely to enter play and to cooperate with others they find attractive. Men who see themselves as more attractive more often cooperate than other men, while women who see themselves as more attractive less often cooperate than other women. In addition, subjects who rate themselves as highly attractive are more likely to cooperate with others they see as also highly attractive.

      So maybe attractiveness is an unfair advantage.

      And is this a type of privilege we should be emphasizing in our concerns or not?

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      • Ted Chiang wrote a story called “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, about what happens when an operation that disables the common reaction to beautiful people becomes available. It’s quite fair, with characters pro and con given more or less equal time. One of the main subplots is about what happens to a couple where he’s homely and she’s quite beautiful once their treatments are reversed and they become aware of this.

        Chiang is an awesome writer. He’d be better-known if he wrote novels, or at least more than one short story every year or so.

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      • Probably not. Some unearned advantages are easier to fight against than others, particularly the advantages of being white and male because not everybody wishes they were or likes white men. Nearly everybody wants to be physically attractive and like attractive people. Most people have pretty conventional tastes when it comes to what they consider good-looking. Fighting against the advantages of being aesthetically pleasing is impossible. It’ll be like if short men like me have to fight against the advantages held by tall men.

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    • Roger,
      I’d like to point out that Peggy McIntosh first published that piece in1988. Let’s say you could skim a page like 100percentmen.tumblr.com in 1988, I’d argue you’d find many more all male and all white executive suites, newspaper editorial boards, university departments, etc. Further, looking at accounts of women breaking into predominantly male fields (Susan Antilla’s book “Tales from the Boom Boom Room” comes to mind) you’ll find environments that militated against their full participation.

      Now, fast forward to today and you’ll find that our society is still in transition from where it used to be to where we’re hopefully headed one day – a society where more people have your commendable attitude towards their children’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I’d also like to point out to you that a crucial metric in this score is not how you, Roger, feel about these things. I’ve already stipulated, commendable attitude. But the key for gender/ethnic studies, sociological examinations is the set of unequal opportunities society provides for individuals based on these categories. How will you be treated by the criminal justice system? By healthcare providers? Financial institutions? In hiring? Not only de jure, but de facto. The evidence is not reassuring.*

      As has been pointed out in this thread before, intersectionality, the matrix of statuses and identities an individual presents, has consequences for answering these questions. But as a shorthand: white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege… are all apt. Pointing them out doesn’t constitute peddling tribalism, resentment, envy, hate and zero sum thinking.

      * Here are some for instances that should come up easily in Google. I’ve highlighted a sentence, but the full pieces give far more context. Unfortunately, I could probably go on and on citing these kinds of findings in multiple domains of society.

      Sociological Images discussing a study, “The average suggested beginning salary for the male candidate was $30,238, while for the female student it was $26,507”. The study, Larry H., Shayna A.-S., and Laura F. sent in a recently released study, “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,”

      Sociological Images again, a study in Milwaukee “What was surprising was that race actually turned out to be more significant than a criminal background. Notice that employers were more likely to call Whites with a criminal record (17% were offered an interview) than Blacks without a criminal record (14%).” The SocImages post, “Race, Criminal Background, and Employment” by Gwen Sharp

      NBER writeup of a study, “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity…. It indicates that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. Race, the authors add, also affects the reward to having a better resume. Whites with higher quality resumes received 30 percent more callbacks than whites with lower quality resumes. But the positive impact of a better resume for those with Africa-American names was much smaller.”. The study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan.

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  15. Your article seems to be lacking a suggestion for an alternative term that would convey the same meaning. You can’t just say “don’t talk about privilege” while acknowledging that the issues it is meant to coney are ones that do exist; if you don’t like the current phrasing, suggest something else that would have a reasonable chance of catching on. Because we need something to describe the phenomenon.

    You define the common meaning of “privilege” as being “having it all while being blissfully unaware of having it all”. The only words in that definition that conflict with what privilege (used in its social-justice sense) means are “it all” – privilege is, precisely, “having [something] while being blissfully unaware of having it”. Or, perhaps more to the point in both definitions, being unaware that many other people do not have it.

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    • [From one of your above comments.]

      So why don’t we say “As a white male, you have privileges you may not be aware of” rather than “As a white male, you are privileged and ignorant of it.” Surely, I’m not the only one who sees a huge difference between those two statements.

      I’m not seeing a huge difference; and the most important difference is that telling a person they have something is less direct and thus less personal than telling them they are something, so the latter is slightly easier to get offended by. But I doubt a semantic difference like that is a major part of why many people don’t listen. A lot of the time people don’t listen because they don’t want to hear, and at some point blaming the messengers for that becomes more counterproductive than helpful. I think you’re at that point.

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      • ,
        I’ve amended the article to include an alternative: unnoticed privileges. The two differences from “privilege” are (1) pluralizing it, so that it is clear that there are concrete things that can be named (as opposed to a general aura of privilege) and (2) including the label “unnoticed” to make it clear that it is not just obvious stuff like driving.

        The only words in that definition that conflict with what privilege (used in its social-justice sense) means are “it all”

        Yes. But the “all” does a lot. It’s the difference between caviar with Dom and Cheetos with off-brand Coke.

        slightly easier to get offended by

        That’s really all I’m claiming. If we do have verbiage that is less likely to trigger an immune response, we should use that language.

        at some point blaming the messengers for that becomes more counterproductive than helpful.

        Perhaps I am being picky, but I can understand how it might be unhelpful (assuming that wording doesn’t matter), but I don’t see how it would be counterproductive, i.e. harmful. My read of this right now is that in the worst case, we keep using the language we’ve been using.

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  16. What should the privilege do about their privilege? Most people aren’t terribly reflexive and they don’t like thinking about these things for the same reasons that most people don’t follow politics that deeply. They simply don’t have time for this shit. The number of people involved in or even aware of the debates regarding privilege on the internet or in real life is probably rather small. Most people are simply going to live their lives and ignore the entire concept of privilege.

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    • The focus on “underprivileged” and “privileged” sets up a false dichotomy. It assumes someone else is privileged and privileged does not imply lucky or fortunate but unfairly so. It creates an imaginary zero sum situation.

      The dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

      When we go to an underprivileged school, what we are seeing is not someone who lacks privilege. We are seeing someone who is less fortunate. Very different word, but more appropriate. The kids with better teachers and schools are not privileged. They are blessed, or fortunate. They are not getting a special right, they are getting what we would like every kid to have (and which every kid would have if progressives didn’t force them into crappy schools run for their rent seeking union buddies).

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