The Politics of Privilege
Issue   |   Wed, 11/16/2011 - 03:43

A heated discussion took place in the AAS Senate meeting on Monday, and a large part of it concerned “privilege,” and being confronted with the “accusation” of being privileged. This article, while influenced by that discussion, is not focused on what happened at Senate, or on any other specific instance in particular, but aims to discuss a broader conception on what privilege is, and what being privileged means.

People react negatively when they are told that they are privileged. This is a more than understandable reaction. We’ve all — in the context of Amherst specifically — worked extremely hard to get where we are. Through high school, we have all studied hard, overcome obstacles, stayed up several late nights in a row and sacrificed something to achieve our goals. To us, being accused of privilege feels like we’re being told that our hard work and sacrifices meant nothing, and that it was only, say, the color of our skin, or our sexuality, or our gender, that has allowed us to get where we are in life. Such a suggestion is preposterous, and negates everything we’ve done to get to ourselves up to where we are. It is only natural that people are hostile to such a suggestion, as they should be.

However, that’s not what the concept of privilege means.

Privilege is a complicated concept, and it’s easier to start with what it doesn’t mean, rather than what it does. Privilege, again, does not mean that one did not have to significantly struggle to get successful in life. Privilege in one area of life does not also mean that one isn’t significantly disadvantaged by the lack of privilege in another. For example, a straight woman, while disadvantaged in not having “male privilege,” still cannot ever disclaim her “straight privilege” over a gay male. She will never be able to experience in the same capacity his struggles in a society can still be quite homophobic. In this sense of the word privileged, we all have areas of life in which we are privileged or unprivileged — class, gender, sexuality, race, able-bodiedness or cissexuality. This then makes privilege less a concept about one person being more or less advantaged than the other, and more an exploration of the way in which we all are all systemically advantaged or disadvantaged, and how our interactions with each other can and should be sensitive to that.

So what is privilege, then? It is a claim that a person, in a certain aspect of their life, is supported by one or all of the following: existing institutions, social norms, a history of power over lesser privileged groups and most powerfully, the status quo.

Most of us have, at some point, felt the system working against us. We also, however, may have been helped by invisible systems in ways in which we do not realize. Take for example, the concept of “straight privilege” again. If you are straight, then regardless of your gender, race or class, you have had the privilege of having your sexual preferences normalized in society. You have the privilege of seeing the kind of relationships you are most likely to engage in represented widely in the media. And while you may face other kinds of oppression in your life — very real, very valid forms of oppression — as a straight person, this is one privilege that you do have, and one systemic disadvantage you will never feel, nor fully understand the impact of in your life.

Being privileged doesn’t disqualify you from discussions, nor does it implicitly or explicitly blame you for the oppressions of the unprivileged group. What an acknowledgement of privilege does instead is allow us to understand that an unprivileged group may have a different perspective on an issue that we can’t entirely understand, and that this perspective is valid. So when a woman feels catcalling is threatening, this is a legitimate feeling, even if a man cannot fully understand it, and may perceive it as just a compliment. When a transsexual individual insists we use the correct pronouns in addressing him or her, understanding our privilege allows us to see how important this can be, even if pronouns have never been a “big deal” to us in our own lives.

Understanding privilege doesn’t diminish our achievements or silence us. Understanding privilege only allows us to take our empathy to a new level and navigate responsibly within a diverse community.

Alum of 88 (not verified) says:
Wed, 12/21/2011 - 09:23

The broad definition of privilege explored here diminishes an appreciation of the real and striking differences in family income that lie at the heart of the more usual discussion of the term. A tradition in American discourse frames accusations of privilege against work ethic and opportunity -- a tradition upheld, if tempered by an appeal to empathy in this article. Yet, a defensive posture with regard to economic privilege seeks mainly to obscure the facts: social mobility is on the decline, income inequality is increasing, and -- despite laudable efforts of elite colleges to be more income distribution inclusive, most Americans' opportunities are heavily influenced by where they begin on the income ladder. Hard work notwithstanding, admission to an elite college is, in part, determined by economic and social factors beyond students' immediate control.