Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The problem of “privilege”

NB: I’ll say it throughout this post, but let me be perfectly clear: I am totally down with the concept of “privilege”, I just think the phrase is inexact, and that bothers me.

I was having a discussion last night with some friends/colleagues (frilleagues?) about—well, all sorts of sociological and philosophical things, and at one point, the conversation turned to “privilege”. We were the three of us similarly privileged, being well-educated females of similar economic standing (although one was a woman of colour and the other two, very much including myself, were the kind of hilariously culture-less blinding pale that may be unique to Canada).

I bring this up only to contextualize my standard negative reaction to the term “privilege”. Note that it is the term and not the concept that I find viscerally aggravating. I absolutely agree with the idea that we tend to internalize the dominance of the dominant group, especially as a member of that group, which brings with it assumptions of innocence, value, and correctness, etc etc.

My problem with the term is that it implies a number of things that I don’t think are necessarily true. It also fails to take into account elements of the underlying concept like its essential fluidity, and that there are types that are earned as well as types that are inherent or congenital.

Using myself as an example, I understand that I have been spared obstacles because I am white, because I speak the dominant language, and because I am in other ways a match with the “average” Canadian. I do not suffer any physical abnormalities or outwardly apparent physical or sensory difficulties which would mark me out as the “other” to members of the majority or the elite in my society, keeping in mind the context in which I live and work.

I have never experienced my sex or gender as in any way detracting from my experiences of life, although that may be a function of my age and lack of current interest in children. I know many other women have a different experience altogether.

At the same time, I have a number of objective social and physical characteristics which mean I have faced obstacles and barriers not experienced by my peers. I consider elements of my life, namely my education and my financial position, to have been things which I worked extremely, even desperately hard for.

Which causes a problem. On the one hand, I know that I would have faced more barriers if I came from a difference background (health, race, socio-economic, etc etc). On the other hand, I got where I am by the sweat of my brow; there was no silver spoon, and nothing was ever handed to me.

I think this is the root of my discomfort with the term “privilege”. It implies an advantage which implicitly detracts from my own efforts and struggles. So while I recognize that I fit into the concept of privilege, I find the term very troublesome indeed. Perhaps it is too late to develop another term, and in any event I have no idea what it would be. Socio-normative? Pretty sure that’s already taken. Plerumque-normative? From the Latin meaning for the most part, generally, commonly, mostly? Not-un-privileged? Homo-normative is too redundant, and xenophobic is too strong…so I will have to leave the nomenclature to the linguists.


Ananya said...

Hi Sarah!

Privilege is a tricky thing. Since it is invisible, we don't see it at work. It doesn't simply imply an advantage, it is one. BUT I don't think the current concept of privilege excludes the consideration you put forth. The point that you have had to work very hard to achieve certain things in life, and have faced obstacles and likely experienced oppression, despite embodying characteristics that mark you as privileged.

A person usually stands at the intersections of various privileges and hardships/oppression. This is not not overlooked by privilege but is central to it. The white, heterosexual, male seems to hold the trump card on the ultimate in privilege in our society, but structural injustice may still work against him if he happens to be disabled or homeless. But he still may fare better than a homeless, disabled, white, gay man.

I feel that since privilege is based on structural injustice, it can't be challenged by the experiences of one person. On a population level people with certain identities are privileged over others. This may or may not mean that they had to work hard to achieve where they are, but it definitely means that others (who may just be only slightly different, like the example above) have to work a lot harder.

I, for one, feel pretty privileged. I don't think that all white girls definitively hold privilege over me. On a population level though white girls in Canada are in a more privileged position than brown girls. An example: getting a role at Stratford is difficult for anyone, but is way more difficult if you're not white.

I think I may be repeating myself. I guess...I'm wondering...what does this discomfort with "privilege"/ challenge to the term mean to the efforts and struggles of those who do not have the same privilege?

I enjoy your thoughts!

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Sarah L Boyd said...

@Ananya I agree with your analysis, insofar as the concept goes. I suppose what makes me uncomfortable is the connotation that "privilege" means, basically spoiled. OF COURSE that's not how it is being used in this context exactly (although I suppose they share an element of you-don't-know-how-good-you-have-it), but that's why I find the term imprecise. I'm much more comfortable with it when used with a modifier, as in, white privilege, anglophone privilege, hetero-privilege, and I can totally own being privileged in that sense. But being "privileged" full stop seems incorrect to me.

I may just be digging myself deeper here ;)

Anonymous said...

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