Privilege (social inequality)
Privilege is a special right or advantage available only to a particular person or group of people. The term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly in regard to age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, sexual orientation, religion and/or social class. Two common examples would be having access to a higher education and housing. Privilege can also be emotional or psychological, regarding comfort and personal self-confidence, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society. It began as an academic concept, but has since become popular outside of academia.
Substantial analysis of privilege and specific social groups have been published and have included a variety of perspectives. Some commentators have addressed limitations in the term, such as its inability to distinguish between concepts of "spared injustice" and "unjust enrichment", and its tendency to conflate disparate groups.
The concept of privilege dates back to 1903 when American sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois published the essay The Souls of Black Folk, in which he wrote that although African Americans were observant about white Americans and conscious of racial discrimination, white Americans did not think much about African Americans, nor about the effects of racial discrimination. In 1935, Du Bois wrote about what he called the "wages of whiteness", which he described as including courtesy and deference, unimpeded admittance to all public functions, lenient treatment in court, and access to the best schools.
In 1988, American academic and professor Peggy McIntosh published the essay White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, in which she documented forty-six privileges which she, as a white person, experienced in the United States. For example: "I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me", and "I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection". McIntosh described white privilege as an "invisible package of unearned assets" which white people do not want to acknowledge, and which leads to them being confident, comfortable and oblivious about racial issues, while non-white people become unconfident, uncomfortable and alienated. McIntosh's essay has been credited for stimulating academic interest in privilege, which has been extensively studied in the decades since.
Historically, academic study of social inequality focused mainly on the ways in which minority groups were discriminated against, and ignored the privileges accorded to dominant social groups. That changed in the late 1980s, when researchers began studying the concept of privilege.
Privilege, as understood and described by researchers, is a function of multiple variables of varying importance, such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship, religion, physical ability, health, level of education, and others. Race, gender and social class are generally felt by sociologists to be the most determinative of a person's overall level of privilege. Privilege theory argues that each individual is embedded in a matrix of categories and contexts, and will be in some ways privileged and other ways disadvantaged, with privileged attributes lessening disadvantage and membership in a disadvantaged group lessening the benefits of privilege. For example a white lesbian university professor benefits from racial and educational privilege, but is disadvantaged due to her gender and sexual orientation. Some attributes of privilege are ordinarily fairly visible, such as race and gender, and others, such as citizenship status and birth order, are not. Some such as social class are relatively stable and others, such as age, wealth, religion and attractiveness, will or may change over time. Some attributes of privilege are at least partly determined by the individual, such as level of education, whereas others such as race or class background are entirely involuntary.
In the context of the theory, privileged people are considered to be "the norm", and, as such, gain invisibility and ease in society, with others being cast as inferior variants. Privileged people see themselves reflected throughout society both in mass media and face-to-face in their encounters with teachers, workplace managers and other authorities, which researchers argue leads to a sense of entitlement and the assumption that the privileged person will succeed in life, as well as protecting the privileged person from worry that they may face discrimination from people in positions of authority.
Awareness of privilege
Some academics highlight a pattern where those who benefit from a type of privilege are unwilling to acknowledge it. American sociologist Michael S. Kimmel describes the state of having privilege as being "like running with the wind at your back", unaware of invisible sustenance, support and propulsion. The argument may follow that such a denial constitutes a further injustice against those who do not benefit from the same form of privilege. One writer has referred to such denial as a form of "microaggression" or microinvalidation that negates the experiences of people who don't have privilege and minimizes the impediments they face.
McIntosh wrote that most people are reluctant to acknowledge their privilege, and instead look for ways to justify or minimize the effects of privilege stating that their privilege was fully earned. They justify this by acknowledging the acts of individuals of unearned dominance, but deny that privilege is institutionalized as well as embedded throughout our society. She wrote that those who believe privilege is systemic may nonetheless deny having personally benefited from it, and may oppose efforts to dismantle it. According to researchers, privileged individuals resist acknowledging their privileges is because doing so would require them to acknowledge that whatever success they have achieved did not result solely through their own efforts. Instead it was partly due to a system that has developed to support them. The concept of privilege calls into question the idea that society is a meritocracy, which researchers have argued is particularly unsettling for Americans for whom belief that they live in a meritocracy is a deeply held cultural value, and one that researchers commonly characterize as a myth.
Kimmel wrote that when privileged people don't feel personally powerful, arguments that they have benefited from unearned advantages seem unpersuasive.
In 2014, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote Checking My Privilege, a widely debated article in which he condemned classmates who told him to "check his privilege" for attributing his success in life to "some invisible patron saint of white maleness", and "for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth". McIntosh afterwards told the New Yorker that Fortgang was resisting seeing himself systemically. She argued that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage, and should aim to try to see themselves in the context of societal patterns of discrimination and oppression.
The concept of privilege has been criticized for crudely ignoring relative differences among groups. For example, researchers have argued that in American culture there are status differences among Asian Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Cambodians, and among African Americans, black immigrants from the Caribbean and black immigrants from Africa.
Some scholars who believe that privilege exists and is systemic nonetheless criticize the label itself, saying that the word privilege implies luxuries rather than rights, and arguing that some benefits of privilege such as unimpeded access to education and housing would be better understood as the latter.
Some academics posit that the consequences of assigning the label to a collective instead of on a case by case basis result in discrimination and identity politics under the guise of social justice. This is because the assumption is that an individual who happens to belong to the privileged group is patently undeserving and vice-versa, without any investigation needed. Breitbart contributor Ben Shapiro argues that this line of reasoning dictates that if someone who happens to be white has achieved something, they are treated as though they are "an arrogant person undeserving of [their] success, a secret racist, and subject to demands of every sort from those who are not beneficiaries of 'white privilege'."
- Christian privilege
- Cisgender privilege
- First World privilege
- Horizontal inequality
- Ingroups and outgroups
- Male privilege
- White privilege
- Body privilege
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