The Problems with Privilege

One of my daughters, Molly,  has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege.  She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege.  It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege.  It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students.  Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context.  Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds.  (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)

But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy.  She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.

The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants.  We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life.  We want to be “first in line.”  It might be first in line for a new technology.  We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets.  We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others.  We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay.  We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work.  Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays.  It’s in us instinctively.   Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are.  We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.

The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives.  Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom.  For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us.  We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below.  All of us are more privileged than some.  Some are more privileged than most.  Most are more privileged than the least.  I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most.  So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”

Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it.  We seem to feel as though everyone else has it.  No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives,  we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged.  The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others.   There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention.  But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.

Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less.  The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been  cause for debate throughout our history.  It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government.  That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.

If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation.  It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion.  But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….

 

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