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Attempt at defining "privilege"

I posted this in soc.singles.moderated and I'm putting it here for comments and future reference.

There are a lot of other people working on defining privilege and giving examples of how privilege affects people. I don't have time right now but at some point I'll come back and add links to some of those essays/web sites. (And please list some in the comments if you are so inclined.)

Privilege is the condition of being part of a group that is usually treated well by others, in the context of a culture that encourages people to systematically treat some groups of people well and other groups poorly.

This especially applies to groups that are defined by their appearance or some other superficial trait, rather than by the behavior of the individuals in the group.

The definition assumes the following:

When a person is treated well most of their life in most contexts, it is very hard for that person to understand what life is like for people who are systematically treated poorly.

Being occasionally treated poorly has different effects than being systematically treated poorly, so someone who is occasionally treated poorly still probably doesn't understand what it's like to be systematically treated poorly.

People who are treated well most of their lives have resources that people who are treated poorly do not. They are more likely to have more money or readier access to money and work. They are more likely to have psychological resilience to hardship because they haven't been ground down by poor treatment. They are more likely to believe in themselves because they learn their whole lives that they are important and worthwhile. They probably spend less time and effort hassling with people or bureaucracies who don't trust them or who try to treat them poorly.

Some people believe that all these extra resources give such people - privileged people - a moral responsibility to spend some of their resources to try to improve their limited understanding of how the system systematically treats others poorly, to try to change the system so that more people are treated well, and to try to understand and treat well more people who are in groups systematically treated poorly.

It's important to emphasize that the system works its effects on groups of people. This is important for two reasons:

  1. In order to understand or try to dismantle it, you need to address this aspect. It's not good enough to simply focus on one individual at a time. Once the system is dismantled that will be good enough but not now.
  2. This means being privileged is not your "fault" or something to feel guilty about. You didn't do anything to get treated well, any more than a person who is a member of an ill-treated group asked to be treated badly. It's an artifact of the system.

ETA: Good resource on how white people can understand and fight racism, via kightp: http://damaliayo.com/pdfs/I%20CAN%20FIX%20IT_racism.pdf


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 20th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)
This reminded me of a book I read during my philosophy studies, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. The phrase that comes to mind is circumstances alter cases. That is, we reason differently in different situations, often unconsciously.

More recently, I've been reading economists on the topic of rational decision making (as economists seem to be doing all the juicy work in this area). We reason in was which are often biased in consistent ways. And even if we know about this bias, it's often difficult to slow the process down enough to allow time for our knowledge of our biases to percolate into the decision.

In any case, it's always good to figure out the ways in which our decision making shorthand misleads us, and privilege is a good illustration of that. For example, juries are more likely to award large damages to attractive plaintiffs. And they're more likely to award large damages if they aren't given any scale to evaluate harm by.

It's a fascinating problem, which occurs almost every moment of our lives.
Dec. 20th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
I think that's an excellent summation. One of the things I've often seen is the word "privilege" thrown around like an epithet. Naturally it makes the "privileged" person (whether they actually are or not is immaterial at this point) get defensive, and that tends to create an atmosphere of not listening--on both sides. I like that your writing above clearly states that privilege is not a "fault." I think it makes it easier to understand what it's about, and will tend to create an atmosphere in which it will be easier to see and dismantle the system, because those in a position to change things won't be hampered by excessive guilt or feelings of being unjustly accused.

(Of course, the sensation of being unjustly accused can also be a useful one for a privileged person to have, IF they are sufficiently aware to be able to step outside of their experience enough to see the parallels to the unprivileged person's daily life--but IMO that doesn't happen easily. and the result is more often a shutting down of communication, rather than a facilitating of understanding.)

Anyhow, yeah, I like it.
Dec. 20th, 2007 10:24 pm (UTC)
Interesting - just last night I was listening to a debate on NPR about Affirmative Action, specifically with respect to race. (Nobody was arguing that economically disadvantaged people need extra help, nor was anyone debating the fact that women are disadvantaged compared to men. The discussion focused almost exclusively on whether Affirmative Action was still needed to compensate for systematic racism, particularly in education.) It was a very passionate debate with a lot of anger on both sides.

It's amazing to me how many people don't get it that systematic racism still exists. It wasn't even clear to me that all the people who didn't get it were white, since this was on the radio. But I already know that there are people of color who oppose AA on the basis of race, which adds an interesting dimension to the concepts you've brought up. Apparently, some people who are systematically treated poorly still can't see the barriers in their way.

This especially applies to groups that are defined by their appearance or some other superficial trait, rather than by the behavior of the individuals in the group.

You did say "especially", not "only", but I think that behaviors figure in to this idea, too. I think that racism, for example, is not just about color or other features of appearance, but also about culture. When we grow up in different cultures, we're taught different sets of rules about what is and what isn't socially acceptable. There's a lot of commonality, too, of course, but there are often behaviors that are acceptable within one community, that are either misunderstood, or just plain disliked by people in other communities.

So, some people - especially those in a powerful group - might feel justified in discriminating against people in a less-powerful group, in cases where it's based on the latter's behaviors or social interactions. I still consider this to be a form of oppression. And since the power group's cultural norms are considered the ideal for everyone, it's also an aspect of privilege to have their behaviors approved-of.

Example: Years ago I had a therapist who reacted negatively to the way I gesticulated a lot when I talked. However, I come from a Jewish background, which is a "talk-with-your-hands" culture. Her background was Anglo-Protestant, and she didn't move much when she spoke. She told me that my gestures felt like an "act of aggression" to her, and she believed it was important, from the point of view of psychotherapy, that we look at that as a problem. I just saw it as a cultural difference, but she couldn't see this because she was used to her own style of self-expression being the norm.
Dec. 21st, 2007 03:16 am (UTC)
I saw my psych today; he increased the Celexa. I told him at one point that he says all the time "I can see that." He said "Maybe that's so" and I told him it was his second-most common sentence. What he says most is "Um" and "Umhm," all of it in sort of comforting tones which makes me think he's faking it. I just have to see him until we find an antidepressant/dose that works, though.
Dec. 23rd, 2007 01:40 am (UTC)
I'm confused about this response. Not sure how it relates to the privilege discussion. Please excuse me if I'm being dense here. :)
Dec. 23rd, 2007 02:47 am (UTC)
You talked about how you had a therapist who thought talking with your hands was wrong; I offered an example of the psych having repeated behavior I thought was wrong.
Dec. 20th, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC)
That is the clearest presentation of the concept that I've encountered. Thank you.

Edited at 2007-12-20 11:03 pm (UTC)
Dec. 20th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
A good subject, worth discussing, and I don't have time right now.

The origin of the word "privilege" is "private law." One law for *you*, and one for *me*, and I get to pick. It seems to me important to keep that in mind during the current discussion.


Dec. 20th, 2007 11:31 pm (UTC)
Have you run across damali ayo yet? She's a Portland artist and woman of color whose work focuses on race and privilege in some realy creative ways - she hit the ground running a few years back with the outrageously satirical Rent-a-Negro Web site, and has been doing fascinating work every since.

Her current work includes I Can Fix It, (.pdf document) a set of practical solutions for addressing racism that, IMO, really *nail* some of the issues of race-based privilege, and by extension, other kinds of privilege as well.

Edited at 2007-12-20 11:36 pm (UTC)
Dec. 21st, 2007 03:13 am (UTC)
Good definition, thanks. I've added this to the IBARW Del.icio.us page.
Dec. 21st, 2007 11:23 am (UTC)
I like it :-)

me, I don't read ssm and am therefore glad to have the chance to see it
Dec. 24th, 2007 05:23 am (UTC)
Wow, that is quite a thread on soc.singles.moderated. I haven't read it (or its parent), let alone posted to it, in ages. The thread touches on some things I've written about some of the folks in my chorus.

BTW, I liked what you wrote in the thread that spawned the "growing up gifted" thread about giving yourself permission to experiment and make mistakes in hand crafting. I think that's an important part of skill and confidence-building. I want to write about this sometime with respect to my choral director, who's in the (envious, the way I feel sometimes) position of being able to try different things out with our chorus without having to worry (too much) about whether or not they work out. But this is a difference between someone who is "self-employed" and someone who works for another company.
Dec. 26th, 2007 06:35 am (UTC)
I'm glad you liked what I wrote. I hope you do write about it as well.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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