‘Privilege’

For many, the likes of Mitt and Ann Romney are the poster couple for privilege, but few would see themselves as 'privileged' if they had a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis as Ann Romeny had to endure.

For many, the likes of Mitt and Ann Romney are the poster couple for privilege, but few would see themselves as ‘privileged’ if they had a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis as Ann Romeny had to endure.

The term ‘privilege’ has several definitions, but when used in the context of conversations on race, it often implies, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, a “special advantage, benefit, or favour” or “an exceptionally rare and fortunate opportunity”.  There is a belief held by some that being ‘white’ comes with inherent ‘privileges’.  Similar ideas are upheld concerning women’s rights with respect to men, the belief being that men have a degree of privilege due to their sex.  It is true that being a certain sex or having a certain skin colour can benefit in specific contexts, but this is not universally true for everybody who happens to have fair skin or a penis.  In fact, there are a number of people who happen to have penises and/or fair skin whose lives are far from privileged.  We live in a kyriarchal system, which is to say a system with different layers of oppression.  People are often discriminated against for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to), their sex/gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, age, physical disabilities or mental illnesses, ethnicity, religion, economic standing and educational background.  For any person to tell another person whom they do not personally know that they are ‘privileged’ is an extreme act of ignorance, arrogance, and condescension that does not serve to correct issues of discrimination, but instead serves as an act of categorization that creates barriers where they should be taken down.  It is an academic way of disguising the act of finger-pointing as social commentary.  Aside from this condescension, the act of telling somebody else that they are ‘privileged’ also ignores the privilege that that person making the accusation may very well have. 

Though some might see a beautiful white woman like Jenifer Lawrence as 'privileged', few might consider the pain of mental illness one endures, like the character Lawrence played in the film Silver Lining Playbook.

Though some might see a beautiful white woman like Jenifer Lawrence as ‘privileged’, few might consider the pain of mental illness one endures, like the character Lawrence played in the film Silver Lining Playbook.

One of the best example of assumed privilege in North America is that of the white male.  One might suggest that whether it be something as important as a job interview, or as seemingly trivial as hailing a cab, that a white man likely has a distinct advantage over a person of colour.  This is sadly true in many cases, however, it is not true in all cases.  If, for examples, a white man and a white woman are both applying for a job with law enforcement, the white male will, in most cases, have an unfair advantage over the white female.  If, however, this male suffers from depression, or anxiety, there is little doubt that he would be immediately excluded from consideration for the job, regardless of the fact that he may be receiving effective treatment for his mental illness.  Aside from the overt disadvantage he might have in looking for employment in certain fields, the man who suffers from depression and/or anxiety also has his illness to deal with and the struggle to pay for medical treatment.  In a kyriarchal system nobody is ever defined by simply one thing.  It is not enough, simply, to be white and male.  Being white and male does equal privilege in such situations.

Though most white people might have an easy time hailing a cab, one's skin colour is not the only factor in hailing a cab.

Though most white people might have an easy time hailing a cab, one’s skin colour is not the only factor in hailing a cab.

Hailing a cab has always been regarded as a kind of litmus test for discrimination.  It has long been believed, and for good reason, that it is easier for a white man to hail a cab than it is for a man of colour.  This may be true in many instances.  If, however, you alter the situation slightly, it is easy to see how one’s ‘whiteness’ can be cancelled out.  If an able-bodied man of colour were hailing a cab alongside a white man in a wheelchair, I think most would agree that the able-bodied man would have a far easier time hailing a cab than the man in the wheelchair.  One’s skin colour does not, in this situation, ensure ‘privilege’ over another person.  Likewise, one might suggest that men are, in a patriarchal system, ‘privileged’ above women, but if an able-bodied woman were hailing a cab alongside a white man in a wheelchair, she would find that her gender proved little hindrance to her in such a situation. 

Though Harvey Milk was able to obtain political office as an openly gay man, he was later assassinated.  His 'white privilege' was, in most instances, canceled out by his orientation.

Though Harvey Milk was able to obtain political office as an openly gay man, he was later assassinated. His ‘white privilege’ was, in most instances, canceled out by his orientation.

Orientation can also prove to be an issue.  If two candidates were running for public office and one were a heterosexual man of colour and the other  an openly homosexual white man, the white man might see his orientation outweigh whatever ‘privilege’ may be afforded by his fair skin.  Though homosexuality is fast becoming accepted, people who are openly gay still suffer from many forms of discrimination.  Film director Lee Daniels has noted that as a man of colour, it is even harder to come out as gay in the ‘Black’ community. Many still indulge in overt forms of discrimination and oppression against homosexual men.  Binyavanga Wainaina has also spoken to this bias, addressing what he calls ‘homophobia in Africa’.  Even people within groups that have been marginalized can prove overeager to marginalize other members of the same group for something as trivial as their sexual orientation.  This is obviously not the case with all men of colour, but it does demonstrate the presence of multiple layers of discrimination.    

 

Binyavanga Wainaina has recently spoken out against what he calls 'homophobia in Africa', demonstrating the different layers of oppression in kyrarchical societies.

Binyavanga Wainaina has recently spoken out against what he calls ‘homophobia in Africa’, demonstrating the different layers of oppression in kyrarchical societies.

There are other problems with employing the term ‘privilege’.  An educated, affluent person of colour may argue about ‘white privilege’, not realizing that such a generalization actually alienates potential allies.  For a young teen with fair skin to hear himself or herself described as privileged due to skin color would seem absurd, especially if said teen comes from a working-class family and cannot afford an education or proper health care.  Likewise, a teen who is the victim of sexual or physical abuse being told by a person that doesn’t know them that they are ‘privileged’ because of their skin colour isn’t going to respond well to such an assertion.  It will create a divide between that person and social issues.  For a person enduring great pain to be told that they are ‘privileged’ is frankly a warped form of abuse. 

While academics and pundits project privilege onto others via Tweets posted on the iphone 5, children around the world struggle to find enough clean water to survive on.

While academics and pundits project privilege onto others via Tweets posted on the iphone 5, children around the world struggle to find enough clean water to survive on.

Aside from these issues, for one person to articulate that another person is ‘privileged’ is to ignore one’s own privilege.  Speaking in general terms, most people in North America, regardless of skin colour or sex, can consider themselves privileged when compared to the majority of the global population.  Be it India, or China or Africa, there are any number of people who don’t have access to clean water, or medical care.  Billions of people who live in poverty and are on the brink of starvation.  While many in North America might find themselves complaining about being over charged for purchases in an app store related to games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, others are more concerned about where they will get their next meal or whether or not they should use the water they have to drink or clean themselves.  For a pundit to argue that a working-class person who has fairer skin than him/her is ‘privileged’ seems like an act of ignorance when put into a global context.  There are literally billions of people in the world who do not have access to clear water and are on the brink of starvation.  To call attention to another’s person ‘privilege’ whilst the enjoying a position that is far more privileged than 90% of the rest of the planet is an insult to the trials endured by the destitute of third-world countries. 

In a kyriarchical society, we all have 'privileges', just like those in mental institutions are given 'privileges'.

In a kyriarchical society, we all have ‘privileges’, just like those in mental institutions are given ‘privileges’.

As for myself, I am admittedly a person who enjoys a degree of privilege.  More than many, less than some.  That said, I deal with my own trials on a daily basis.  I do not need somebody who does not know my life to tell me to what degree I am privileged.  I do not assume to know how good or how bad another person’s life is, and I would appreciate if others offer me the same courtesy.  Living in a kyriarchal system, we all endure some degree of oppression.  The kyriarchal system turns society into an institution of sorts and the ‘privileges’ that many refer to come within the context of an oppressive institution and are not ‘privileges’ at all.  They are more fitting another form of privilege defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “An entitlement enjoyed by all the inmates of a penal or psychiatric institution as part of the normal regime, but which the authorities may withdraw as a punishment.”  We are all inmates in the kyriarchal institution and all face oppression to some degree, be it based on our age, gender, sex, orientation, skin colour, economic standing, educational back ground, physical abilities or disabilities, mental health, or lack thereof, religion, ethnicity and any other number of categories.  A person who defines themselves strictly in terms of skin colour, or gender, fails to see all the other categorizations, and when these people project privilege onto other inmates, all they do is create barrier between themselves and other members of the oppressed classes.  Rather than challenging the system that oppresses, they seek to point their fingers at people who they perceive as ‘privileged’, which reinforces the authority of the kyriarchal system and alienates people they should be trying to unite with. 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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