Employing the word “privilege” to describe the relative advantages of being white or male or heterosexual has become a litmus test of one’s sensitivity to questions of social justice. While I suspect many feel a certain discomfort with using the word this way, overcoming such feelings is understood as a rite of passage, crossing a line that separates the unenlightened from the redeemed.
I felt the same queasiness, but my reaction was to try to think it through. Why did I have this feeling, and why was I being asked to suppress it? Here is what that led to.
There is no question that inequalities are everywhere. It seems obvious to me that, separate from other factors, being white, male, nonpoor etc. confers relative advantage.
But there are two types of advantages in society. One is differential access to opportunities, liberties or benefits that, in principle, could be enjoyed by all. Access to health care is an example. Access is unequal, and the goal should be for no one to have their health problems undiagnosed and untreated. One could go a step further and claim it as a universal right. You might or might not want to (I would), but the possibility exists.
The other type of advantage is positional, being better off by virtue of being above or ahead of someone else. Much of the benefit of gender inequality for men, historically, was due to the corresponding subordination of women. The possibility of taking sexual advantage of someone else, for instance, can hardly be universalized, since its existence for some requires its opposite for others. The Marxist theory of exploitation had this structure as well: the profit of capitalists was regarded as inseparable from the surplus value extracted from labor.
In the past, the verbal distinction between these two types of inequality was captured by the differentiation between rights and privileges. Rights were benefits that could be claimed for all. If some had them and others didn’t, the solution was to extend them to everyone. Privileges were benefits that depended on exclusivity: membership has its privileges, benefits that would evaporate if membership were opened to all. The proper goal of an egalitarian is to dissolve privileges.
Here is another example. At one time it was common for many unions (in the US) to exclude blacks, and this allowed white union members to monopolize jobs in certain industries. That was a privilege that principled people sought to abolish. Meanwhile, only some workers are unionized, and this allows them to enjoy greater pay and say on the job than those not in unions. That’s certainly an inequality, but a reasonable response would be to call for laws that make it easier for any group of workers to form or join a union if they wish. This is a position in favor of labor rights.
During recent decades it has become common for antiracist activists to apply the term “privilege” to both types of advantages. This is a clever move, because it mobilizes the guilt most of us experience (or should) in the case of unjustified, positional advantages in the battle against all advantages. For example, if it is a privilege to not be assaulted at random by the police, a domain in which whites do in general have an advantage over blacks, then whites should feel a twinge of guilt and seek to “reject” this privilege. That may well be a more powerful motivator than the sense of unfairness whites might feel in thinking that the right to personal safety they enjoy is being denied to others. I understand why activists might want to elide the distinction between these two types of differential benefit.
The reason I don’t go along with it is because I think it’s beneficial to retain a language that makes relevant distinctions. While it’s possible to distinguish between rights that should be universalized and exclusive privileges that should be dissolved by explaining the difference in a paragraph, it is much easier to think in these terms if we retain the dichotomy between rights and privileges. Also, while eliciting guilt can be a convenient strategy for activists, I believe solidarity is a firmer basis for building movements to overcome unjust differences.
Next up: microagression.