Privilege; Noun – a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.
Verb – to accord a higher value or superior position to.
In sociology, privilege is the perceived rights or advantages that are assumed to be available only to a particular person or group of people. Civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP W.E.B. DuBois wrote about this type of privilege as it relates to white Americans in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. In 1988 American feminist Peggy McIntosh documented 46 privileges she experienced her writings, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account Of Coming To See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”. She explains white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets” which white people don’t want to acknowledge making them oblivious to racial issues. I believe that this explanation of white privilege sounds like the talking points I hear coming from some people in the media today as well as being taught in my church. As a white liberally minded woman with a great deal of experience in male dominated activities I will not buy into this narrative of privilege which distorts the actual meaning of the word!
To attach the word “privilege” as an umbrella in this way to any group is wrong. Assuming a perceived bias goes completely against the golden rule to treat others as you would like to be treated and only wishes for others to feel shamed. How can anyone apologize for their race or their gender? These are differences that cannot be changed…Instead we must talk about behavior, the true focus of shame and guilt.
Behavior; Noun – the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others.
Being racist, showing unfair bias, acting aggressively or greedy, and coveting power are all shamefull behaviors that must be called out when recognized in any person. Privilege on the other hand can only be granted to a person or group. Let’s think about how privilege is granted. I contend that unless someone earns a privilege through hard work and perseverance the only other way is through someone feeling so unworthy of their own self respect that they give an unearned deference of privilege to another. To perceive or assume privilege on another necessitates blame and thus removes the obligation for the “accuser” to see their own power to positively change themselves for the betterment of community.
For instance, to be a U.S. citizen is a privilege granted to those who are born or naturalized on U.S. Soil. An illegal immigrant does not have this privilege, but has some opportunity to acquire legal citizenship thus earning the privilege. Or how about this example; an NFL player has the privilege of playing football for a team because he has applicable athletic talent and worked hard for the opportunity. An NFL fan respects this privilege of his/her favorite player because they know that they can never accomplish this endeavor and so it’s fun to cheer their favorite player on, they can almost feel like they are with them on the field!
Sociological privilege actually relates to family or group dynamics where familiarities of relationship allow community to flourish. For instance, I may take away my child’s ability to use the cell phone I purchased for them because they disobeyed a rule or obligation. Having that phone is a privilege for being a team player in our family. The team must follow rules and obligations, otherwise chaos could occur within the family unit. Earning back the privilege to have a cell phone ensures that compliance in the family is maintained. This type of privilege is assumed because the perceived order within the family unit is instilled from birth.
The duty of privilege is to acknowledge the advantages of it and use the power of it to help influence the success of those around you (the principle of the golden rule). The condition of privilege is that it is open to everyone if they put the work in to acquire it. Role models are everywhere. Let’s put a positive spin on privilege and make it an aspiration for all.