Thoughts on the Use of the Word “Privilege”

By Pinellas DSA Member Bruce Nissen

Progressive and leftist discussions and memes these days commonly employ the word “privilege.” In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of another word more frequently used. The term is intended to educate those of us who do not face the types of discrimination or unfair treatment against certain groups that is regrettably so prevalent in the U.S. today.

The most common usage of the term is “white privilege” or “white skin privilege,” referring to the long and deeply institutionalized racial discrimination against African Americans and other people of color compared to lighter-skinned European Americans. But the term can also be used to point out the superior position society places some groups compared the less-favored categories: “male privilege” over females; “ableist privilege” over those with a handicap; “heterosexual privilege” over LGBTQ populations; and the like. In this essay I will only be discussing white privilege, although the arguments I develop can be equally applied to other types of labelling people as privileged.

Before directly addressing examples of the usage of “white privilege” rhetoric, I want to cover a few basic principles we need to adhere to if we wish to be persuasive in getting people with backward or socially harmful attitudes to change their perspective. First, our goal as Democratic Socialists must be to build a powerful working-class movement composed of all races, genders, sexes, sexual orientations, etc. to confront and defeat what are commonly referred to as the one percent, the capitalists, or the corporate elite. This movement must oppose all the discriminatory “isms” both because we are fighting for a society where they no longer exist and because movements divided along racial, or sexual or other lines historically fail.

Second, we want to choose the rhetoric that is most likely to lead to the change we seek. For example, anti-racist rhetoric is wisely chosen if it leads to a reduction in racist attitudes and practices. Rhetoric that fails to achieve this, or that may even reinforce racism in all its variants is to be avoided. The goal is to achieve results; all other objectives must be secondary.

Our rhetoric should help to build the most powerful and widely shared common front against the evil we are addressing, in this case racism. Rhetoric that alienates potential allies in the fight against racism should be avoided, while rhetoric that shows the common interests of all those who would benefit from reducing and ultimately eradicating racism should be our first choice.

While the above points are true, our rhetoric should also be truthful and accurate. It should not water down or cover up existing evil racist practices in the interest of maintaining friendly relations with everybody. To do that would be to abandon the goal, which is to reduce and erase racism in all its many forms. In other words, our rhetoric must “keep it principled” and maintain an unwavering focus on the evil we are combatting.

With these criteria in mind, I want to examine the current propensity of progressive and leftist producers of memes and analyses to use the language of “privilege” in attempts to combat racism. From the beginning, let me acknowledge that the language of white privilege is used in a wide array of ways, some with more nuance than others. A short essay like this cannot possibly get into all these differences between these different usages of the term. Perhaps a few who use the term white privilege do not fit the depiction I will be giving here, but I believe the more widely shared and popular usages of white privilege analysis fit the mold I will be portraying.

One thing that all proponents of white privilege share is that they wish to focus intently on the differences between those who are treated in a racially discriminatory manner and those who are not. They correctly perceive a widespread tendency among white U.S. residents to downplay, ignore, or even not be fully aware of the extreme differences in the way our society treats white folks and black folks or people of color in general. They also (correctly) know that the life prospects of whites versus non-whites in the U.S. overwhelmingly negatively affect the non-whites. The tragic loss of human potential and even to some degree loss of being treated with dignity or as a fully human being is evident, and the desire of white privilege proponents is to force white people to acknowledge and confront this reality.

The above sentiments are laudable, and I fully share the sentiment that the reality of institutional (and of course attitudinal) racism must be squarely faced and combated. However, I have a problem with the usage of the word “privilege” to describe all such racially discriminatory practices. What is the source of my objection?

Let’s examine the meaning of the word “privilege.” Dictionary.com defines privilege as 1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a particular person or a restricted group of people beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.

2. the unearned and mostly unacknowledged societal advantage that a restricted group of people has over another group: white privilege based on skin color; male privilege; children of privilege.

Both definitions point to a privilege as something given to people that they did not earn. The implication is that it is something they do not deserve. It should be taken away from them if we want to be fair or just. While that is not explicitly stated in the definitions, it is a strong implication to most people if they hear the word “privileged.” Applied to oneself, being called “privileged” is inevitably pejorative; it is something to be avoided or is something that is disapproved. Think of our attitude toward a young adult born into the lap of luxury whose parents bought them the best private schooling from kindergarten through an elite college like Harvard or Princeton (admission gained through a large donation to the college). We consider them privileged, and believe their treatment compared to an individual born into average circumstances to be unjust. The struggle for a better world includes ending such privileges: take away their unfair advantages.

Now consider the practice of labelling all white people by describing them as having white privilege. An average working-class white person is very likely to hear this as an attack upon him/her: they hear that they have undeserved privileges that probably should be taken away from them. They are likely to no longer listen to whoever made the accusation against them, insisting that they worked hard for whatever they have gotten, etc. This is not a good scenario for uniting people in a struggle against racism.

Even for those (relatively few) white working-class people who do not react defensively, the “white privilege” message is not productive. If they accept that they are privileged because their skin is white, this is a very dis-empowering message. It is highly unlikely to spur them into anti-racist action. Since their skin color is beyond their control, there is little that they can do to correct the situation. The white privilege analysis is very similar to the Christian doctrine of “original sin” — it is a deficiency that one is born with; it is beyond your control. The best that one can do is live with this undesirable condition (“whiteness”) and accept one’s unworthiness and inability to challenge what cannot be changed. The best that one can do is to realize one’s unworthiness and submit to the dictates of those not tainted by whiteness. This means unquestionably following the leadership of whoever is (falsely) considered the unquestioned leader of a unitary conflict-free non-white community that has no class distinctions within it. (No such community exists; like all communities the African American (or any non-white or non-advantaged) community is riven with class and other distinctions that lead to different interests and therefore political programs.)

The white privilege analysis is equally dis-empowering in non-white groups. Its focus is on victimhood within minority populations. A non-white person is offered few or no powerful or majoritarian opportunities to combat unequal treatment since most of the population is alleged to be permanently advantaged by the system simply based on their skin color, and therefore has an interest in perpetuating racism and discrimination.

Consider the situation of the following four people and how the white privilege analysis relates to each:

A. George is a white man born into a multi-millionaire family; his grandfather and father were both U.S. Senators and his father even became U.S. president. Despite his being a poor student his father bought his way into an Ivy League University and gave him tens of millions of dollars-worth of stock in Texas oil companies. George later becomes President of the U.S. (Think of George W. Bush).

B. Henry is a white man born into a poor family. His father worked as a janitor who faced frequent layoffs, while his mother had unstable jobs as a cashier at various gas stations. From age 8 up Henry was home alone frequently because both parents were working 2nd shift simultaneously. A mediocre student, Henry left high school and drifted through a few jobs until he landed on his current job as a road crew member in a non-union construction outfit. He supports a wife and two young children on wages that put the family right at the U.S. poverty line.

C. Emily is an African American woman who was raised in a solidly middle-class family; her father was a city administrator, and her mother was a public-school teacher. Emily went to the state university and is now Executive Vice President of a social welfare agency at an income of $110,000/year. Her husband is a lawyer working for the ACLU. Their combined family income approaches $200,000 per year.

D. Camille is an African American woman in her late 20s. She was raised by a single mother in poverty and unstable circumstances. Camille became pregnant at age 17 and ended up with a child but no adult partner. She has struggled to attain a stable life, and with the help of extended family caring for her 10-year-old daughter, she has just earned a GED high school degree and is working at an entry level office job, earning $21,000 a year.

Who among the four individuals detailed above deserves to be labeled as privileged? I would argue, only George. Here is a man given many unearned and undeserved privileges, and the world would indeed be better off if they were taken away from him and redistributed to those born into less favorable circumstances. But the white privilege analysis argues that Henry should also be accused of being privileged. Let’s examine the basis for this claim.

Henry lacks the generational wealth advantages and the “zip code” advantages that clearly privileged individuals like George possess. These types of advantages, which are clearly structural and systemic and full of obvious racial dimensions, are clearly absent from Henry’s life.

Yet according to the white privilege analysis, Henry is privileged because he will not face the possibility of being pulled over by policemen for a broken tail light and possibly killed; because he will not likely face the prospect of being beaten by cops for loitering on the street; because he will not face the possibility of being call the “n” word and being treated as less than human because of the color of his skin; because he will not face housing discrimination due to the color of his skin, because. . . we could go on and on with a list of the mistreatment Henry is not likely to face simply because his skin is of a certain color.

And all of that is true: Henry will not face these forms of mistreatment. But does not being mistreated mean that one is privileged? Is it a privilege to be given human rights? To me, receiving basic human rights should be considered a right, not a privilege. And no one will bristle and act defensively if they are told they have basic human rights, even if they are told that others are denied those same rights.

Upholders of the white privilege analysis believe that my analysis above will allow white people to downplay or ignore the racist treatment (institutionalized in major ways throughout U.S. society) of people of color? In their view, isn’t it necessary to accuse white people of having white privilege if we are to get them to own up to the deep racism carved into our society?

I don’t think that is the case. We can in fact get people (including white working-class people) to recognize and acknowledge the deep racism of our society and draw their attention to racist treatment of non-white folks without using the term “privileged” with all its disadvantages.

If we tell white U.S. citizens (particularly working class U.S. citizens who are white) that they have many human rights (we shouldn’t go overboard and say ALL human rights, as many poor and working class whites are also denied many such rights due to inability to “pay” for them), AND THAT MANY OF THEIR FELLOW CITIZENS ARE DENIED THESE SAME RIGHTS SIMPLY BECAUSE OF THE COLOR OF THEIR SKIN, we can then press the case for solidarity to extend those rights to all. That is not whitewashing or minimizing the deeply racist nature of current U.S. society. We can in fact press the case that all of us except the few who benefit from dividing us have a real material interest in combating racism and similar divisive doctrines.

For those who are cynical about such a “human rights — solidarity” message resonating with most white U.S. citizens: think how much harder it will ever be to get a receptive ear to accusations that they are privileged (implying they should lose their presumably unjustified advantages over people of color). The privilege language will immediately shut down receptivity to our anti-racist message. In fact, it is likely to drive a certain percentage of white working-class individuals right into the arms of Donald Trump and his ilk. It is also a dis-empowering message that at best will encourage apathy toward attempts to build a strong united working-class movement to combat all forms of discrimination and bigotry as well as class exploitation and extreme inequality.

Recall the criteria laid out earlier in this piece for effective anti-racist rhetoric. It should be language that is most likely to lead to our goal of decreasing and ultimately eradicating racism. And it should be most conducive to building a powerful and wide united front of all who have a stake in reducing racism. And it should not ignore or downplay the degree of racism in our society. I believe the “human rights — solidarity” framework is much more congruent with these criteria than are accusations to white working-class people that they are privileged. Let’s start using a more effective language!

(I want to acknowledge the incisive feedback and comments of Sean Armil on an earlier version of this essay. He is not responsible for any of its arguments — only I am — but it is much more sharply focused and clear thanks to his commentary.)

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America