Why “privilege” may be the wrong argument to use

Within religious studies, gender studies, and probably history and political science (and others I can’t think of), the word “privilege” has come to mean “a group of people is accorded special status due to their appearance or caste.” In my culture, it generally translates to WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and in particular, WASP men. Especially WASP men who own land and have decent jobs. And what privilege gets you is a long list of benefits, such as being able to assume you are generally right, and that you’ll have food and a home, and that you can get a job, and that police won’t harass you, and that your opinion won’t be dismissed due to your gender, race, or religious beliefs.

The concept isn’t one I encountered until college, and even then it wasn’t until around my senior year. To put that into perspective, my senior year was around my seventh or eighth year of college, so we’re talking around the age of 25. April was pursuing a master’s in counseling, which features a number of classes about diversity and privilege and taking those subjects into account so you can treat people well and help them treat others (and themselves) well, and I took a class named “Women in Religious Traditions.”

I can boil that class down really quickly to: “Women throughout history have been under-reported and under-represented, not because they did not practice religion, but because their writings were destroyed, their stories hidden, and their experiences deemed unimportant.” It was a sobering lesson because, for me, it was simply something I had never thought about. Why aren’t any of the books of the Bible attributed to female authors? Why wasn’t ancient Buddhist poetry written by women published and circulated? Despite having a panoply of female deities, we don’t hear much about female followers. The class was fantastic and helped me apply the public affairs mission at Missouri State University more than any other class I took during my undergraduate career, and I came to understand what “privilege” really meant.

But when we start talking about privilege beyond the historical and the academic, and we start using it in arguments about statutory rights, access to traditions, or societal need for change, I think we diverge from the path we ought to be taking. I think this for two reasons. First, I think that when we appeal to an argument against privilege we undervalue both the “unprivileged” and the “privileged” alike. Second, I think that appealing to an argument against privilege is little more than an attempt to wield fear against an enemy.

Undervaluing ourselves and others

I recognize that I am naïve in this, but I think it important that all people are evaluated on their personal merits. I don’t want women in the workplace treated differently from men–we all have a job to do, and that’s all that matters. Our work ethic, intelligence, and creativity are not due to our gender.

When privilege is used as an argument for why someone who is consider “unprivileged” should be elevated, it borders on ignoring that person’s merits. This is one of the main arguments against affirmative action, and drives at the need to take race and gender out of the equation. It is certainly possible to use the argument that, due to a lack of privilege, a well-qualified individual is being passed over or ignored–their opinions are discarded, their writings go unread, etc.–and if such a thing happens, it is terrible. But I think we need to instead focus on the quality of those writings and opinions rather than focusing on the question of privilege.

Even as I write it, I recognize that this is naïvely ludicrous. I know. You don’t need to tell me. There are still a lot of people out there who think women are biologically inferior, or that blacks are, or that the Irish are. You cannot appeal to reason in those cases. If they will not be reasonable about merit, though, they’re certainly not going to be reasonable about gender or race. It would probably be more productive to find more reasonable people either entirely elsewhere or who are superiors to the unreasonable so that the unreasonable can be dealt with.

To put it bluntly, I think that we should listen to what everyone has to say, regardless of race or gender. We should not, however, take the next step and conclude that what a person says is worthwhile just because he or she comes from a traditionally unprivileged or under-privileged group.

In addition, by appealing to an argument centered on privilege alone, we can generalize against those who are privileged and assume very nasty things about them. We can undervalue their reasonableness, their compassion, and their open-mindedness when we paint everything as black and white, us vs. them, one group or caste against another. Appealing to privilege as an argument just muddies the water. It confuses us about why something is or is not worthwhile, and it confuses us about who is or is not worthwhile.

Wielding fear like a hammer

Several years ago, I had a night class about Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t recall the full title, but ostensibly we were to be studying his life and the lessons he taught as well as their affects on our society. What I got instead, during the first 4-6 weeks of the class, was our professor’s ranting and ramblings about how the white man is keeping people down. Our professor was a black male, and the class roster was made up of me and one other white man, and about twenty women. The lectures often left me uncomfortable because they featured stories of the professor being oppressed by white men, and I didn’t always feel they were fair. He used those incidences to generalize and state that this was a societal issue. Obviously, racism and oppression are society-wide things, but in his specific stories, I could see the possibility that maybe his negative experiences were due to people reacting to him personally rather than it being a race issue. But I’m fine being challenged, and I recognize challenge as an opportunity to grow, (plus I needed the credit hours) so I went with it.

Eventually, though, there was a story that was presented in such a biased fashion that I had to beg the question. Is it possible that maybe he wasn’t given this job because it was in a field completely outside his education and experience? It was obvious from the story that this was the case, even with his reporting, but he was set on it being a racial issue. I didn’t attack, but I just asked if maybe that was possible in this instance.

In reply, I was pointed at, yelled at, and told that I was personally responsible for the oppression of all blacks and women. Because of my white privilege, I couldn’t see it, but it was my fault, personally, that these things happened. I was personally perpetuating it and oppressing him and all the ladies in this classroom.

The other male student wilted at this. I was shocked and hurt. The next day, I dropped out of college and didn’t return for 9 months.

This is the road we walk down when we start to use the concept of privilege in an argument. I think it is deceptively easy to begin overgeneralizing when we talk about privilege because there’s a lot we can’t see when we look at someone’s gender or race. I was talking with a fellow about this one day regarding a diversity seminar and he stated that the entire experience made him feel like he was being pointed at for oppressing blacks because he was white and male, but what was ignored was that he was essentially a first generation immigrant who had been homeless and had seen his share of oppression. I have spoken with a doctor who is white, male, and wealthy, but felt oppressed because we live in a very Christian and conservative part of the country and he is an atheist who is afraid to voice his beliefs. I grew up non-Christian, and I was beat, threatened, and shunned throughout elementary, junior high, and most of high school. But you don’t see those things when you look at me. You can’t tell.

When we say that a person’s statements are less relevant because they are “privileged,” we discount the experiences they have had that make them unique. We can’t know who is and is not privileged. When we say that a person’s statements are more relevant because they come from an unprivileged or underprivileged group, we are telling them that the main reason they matter is because of their race and gender, and we tell others that the main reason we should listen to them is for the same reason.

What’s more, we make people afraid. A lot of people these days are afraid to say something that might possibly be construed by anyone as being racist, or sexist, or anti-something. I know a lot of “privileged” people who work very hard to try and keep their place in society from influencing them a great deal. One of the things about privilege is that it is part of the air we breathe–it’s hard to notice and impossible to keep its influence from us 100%. But by just looking at someone, we can’t know where they are on that path of self-discovery and learning, and we can’t know how much they are working to treat others well and actively striving to take everyone equally and as they are.

By appealing to privilege, we appeal to fear. We use it to keep certain people quiet, and no culture, society, or fellowship can truly move forward with that as a foundation. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, he didn’t say that black people need to take power and white people need to lose power. He said he wanted equality.

Privilege is, by its very nature, not equal. There are privileged groups and unprivileged. It is defined by way of comparison. When our arguments rest on privileged vs. unprivileged, we are building them on the wrong desire. We should be seeking more equality, not a swapping of power levels. And we cannot achieve that by pointing fingers, shouting down, and causing fear.

Instead of appealing to privilege

I try to live according to the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ on these things. I’m not great at it, but I think there are two relevant lessons here. First, that we should strive to make every word edifying to others. Second, if someone will not listen to us, due to racism, sexism, or a perception of privilege that they feel elevates them such that they can ignore others, we should shake the dust from our feet and leave them. I’m not advocating ignoring them–we should speak out about oppression and oppressors–but we need to speak to the reasonable and rational, and perhaps to society as a whole. We must confront evil, but we mustn’t stoop to its level by using the same weapons with which it acquits itself. It is important to extend grace and attempt to help others learn and grow, but if their hearts are hard and they absolutely refuse to listen, that is their choice. It is the choice that God gives us all.

We should all strive to listen to people because they are fellow human beings and their experiences and words may have relevance and import. We should then gauge their words based on the situation, our knowledge, and our best ability to decide whether it is relevant and worthy. Each individual is just that, a unique individual, and we have to take them as they come. We cannot generalize a race or a sex or a gender, and we should neither elevate nor discount based on those criteria.

If we can do these things, and more of us do them in greater and greater numbers, then we will find that we need not discuss privilege except in a historical context. As we educate people, invest in them, and show them they are worthy as an individual, society as a whole will improve. Not overnight, certainly, nor in a generation. But perhaps in three, or five, or ten more generations. I can see improvement in our society generationally, and I am hopeful that the trend will continue. I believe that we can become better.

To continue the conversation, comment below, and you should also check out Krista Dalton’s post, White Male Privilege: Why I’m Scared of the Witch Hunt, which inspired this blog post.

7 thoughts on “Why “privilege” may be the wrong argument to use

  1. Hi! I enjoyed reading this.

    I also feel like I should say that “unprivileged” is not a term typically used. It’s “underprivileged.” I guess, because it assumes everyone has some degree of privilege in this life but some get more than others in certain areas?

    When you’ve absorbed as many words on this subject as I have, certain terms just sort-of stick in your head.

    -Wife

    P.S. I am not an expert, as you are very well aware.

    P.P.S. I look forward to discussing this further with you in the future.

    P.P.P.S. Another word that sticks in my head is “socioeconomic status.” It’s not “poor people” or even “people in poverty.” “Poverty” is a thing, not a state of being, and “socioeconomic status” or “SES” is a complex term that signifies every thing about a person we might ever need to analyze to determine just how privileged or underprivileged they really are. Whew.

    1. I disagree with myself. Poverty can be a state of being but it is less specific. You can be poor in many ways, including money, knowledge, experience, skills, etc. . .

      SES uses the term “economic” specifying money.

  2. This was a good read! Permit me to come at it with my black hat first, for that’s what a good read deserves.

    I’m glad that you titled this post with a “may” instead of an “is.”

    At the outset, you point to a few things that writers about privilege (including WASP privilege in particular) are happy to admit.

    First, there are a LOT of kinds of privilege: race, gender, class, religion, and positions of authority. None of these exist in a vacuum, so there’s overlap & interference between them, and plenty of outside influences unrelated to privilege can further confuse a situation.

    Second, making people feel shame and fear about their particular positions of privilege doesn’t really help anyone, though it often feels like a great way to blow off steam. Oppressed people don’t need our shame or our fear. If anything, our shame and fear are going to make us less likely to listen to them talk about their hurt, because we’re going to take it personally. That can only serve to further divide and defeat. Your story of your professor is doubly painful for that reason, because it brought alienation where there could have been understanding.

    Still, I’d offer caution when it comes to the idea of merit. Merit is overrated. Our measures of it, be they job interviews, standardized test scores, grades, years of work experience, popularity, wealth, charisma, or even good ol’ academic degrees are all terrible; that is, they are all fallible enough that they undermine the core concept that they are supposed to support, namely, that excellence should be encouraged and rewarded.

    By itself, that wouldn’t be a terrible thing. Merit measures are basically just social software, and the nature of software is that it is buggy and constantly changing (see http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2004/10/we-make-shitty-software-with-bugs.html). The problem starts when we start actually making decisions about how good of a life a person gets to lead, the kind of schools their kids will have access to, and so forth, based on these bad measures.

    I submit to you that conventional ideas of merit are inconsistent with your closing paragraph, which rings with notes of investing in people and showing them that they are valuable. It’s as though you believe that people have to be both taught and convinced to be merit-worthy. If so, then why talk of merit as a measure of people? Isn’t it more a measure of the lessons that they’ve learned from every other person that they’ve encountered in their life?

    1. When I write “merit,” I mean it not in the context of job performance reviews and college grades. The definition, according to my quick Google search, is “The quality of being particularly good or worthy, esp. so as to deserve praise or reward.”

      What I mean in this post is that a person should be judged based on what they’re saying and doing, and if I and/or we deem what a person is saying or doing is good or worthy, then great. The focus is that we evaluate a person based on what they say and do, not on what faith they claim, the colour of their skin, or their gender.

      I’m reminded of another religious studies class here at good old Missouri State University in which we were studying white supremacist groups. The class began mocking the beliefs of this group, mocking its members, and generally tearing them down.

      Now, WSG are generally pretty bad. But in this context, the class and professor were saying, “They believe X and therefore are terrible and should be disregarded.” I was appalled. If I met someone who was a white supremacist, I would rather evaluate them on their actions and speech. Perhaps they do believe things with which I disagree, but if they treat others with dignity and respect regardless, then perhaps they have other opinions that are valid.

      On the flip side, you might have a very good, kind, nice, intelligent, respectable Jewish person, and they encounter someone who hates Jews and disregards everything a Jew says or does because they feel Jews can’t be trusted. I reject the anti-Semite for the same reasons I reject the anti-white supremacist. I think we should judge individuals based on what they say and do, not what we perceive of them based on assumptions due to their affiliation.

      To give another example, how many false assumptions are floating around out there about Christians? As if “Christians” were all identical and there was no disagreement between them. In the context of appealing to the argument of privilege, one might say that nothing a Catholic has to say should be given any attention because Catholics enjoyed such a privileged place in society for so long–anything they might say has been tainted by that privilege such that they can’t comprehend the stance of anyone else. Or that because Catholics at one time believed something, they must all believe it now, so it’s not worth listening to them.

      It comes down to making assumptions based on identifiers that don’t necessarily reflect the unique experiences of the individual, and then acting based on those assumptions. I think it’s hard not to make gut-level assumptions, but I submit that we should not act on them, and instead should learn more about the person to discover whether or not their actual words and deeds have merit.

      1. But aren’t religions things we say and do? And don’t most of us make judgments about the worthiness and goodness of others through a rather biased lens? I’m not against learning to unbias that lens, but you can’t fix what you don’t believe is broken.

        It seems to me that your examples prove my point. Aren’t the anti-Semites, anti-Catholics, etc. all making judgments about what seems good or worthy? Our judgments of another person’s merit are riddled with our own prejudices, which have a reasonably high probability of being unjust. To really leave prejudice behind, I think we need a much more radical willingness to embrace all people, even if it scares us, even if they mistreat us. I have difficulty practicing that, so I’ll stop preaching. 🙂

      2. “But aren’t religions things we say and do?”

        I think most people have different definitions of what “religion” really is. I say this as a student of a religious studies program that opens and closes with us writing an essay titled “What is Religion?” and having my own definition change between beginning and end. To put it briefly, I define religion as that thing which reconnects us with the numinous. I believe all humans feel the need for a connection to something greater, and we find that in spirituality, ritual, money, drugs, football, etc. To that end, I define religion as internal and ritual as external. To give an example, my religious belief is that abortion is wrong, and my political view is to uphold Roe vs. Wade. My action does not follow my religion for a variety of reasons.

        As an aside, I don’t declare my definition to be right. I think there are numerous ways to define religion, and I wanted to share mine so you understand where I’m coming from on this.

        Similarly, a person may be anti-Catholic or anti-Semite but not act on those thoughts or feelings. I may have mean or evil thoughts myself, but if I do not act on them, I should be judged based on my action rather than my thoughts.

        We begin the work of unbiasing our lens by exploring and discovering our biases. The class Women in Religious Traditions helped me with that, just as the book White Like Me confronted you recently. We begin thinking about these things and analyzing our thoughts, assumptions, and reactions. We may still make snap-judgments, but we can then confront those snap-judgments and actively reform them. We can discipline our actions so they become meritorious. And we work to view others as we want to be viewed ourselves, not based on the deeds of our parents or where we are born but on our own merit.

  3. It occurs to me that people who misuse the privilege argument are the same people who fail on a merit system and are the same people who will react badly to this post. In short, when people misuse a term for their own personal gain, of course it doesn’t go well.

    Today, I had an early meeting and that makes me a misanthrope.

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