In which I jump into the deep end and consider whether a better way exits to express the idea of “privilege.”

A few days ago, I saw a comment by Ta-Nehisi Coates commenter TheNortoriousPAUL (part way down comments page) that struck a distinct chord with me:

“I think both white guilt and white privilege would benefit quite a bit from a new name. I’m originally from a part of the country that recently adopted a white privilege awareness campaign that went over like a lead balloon. This is hardly a conservative area, it’s a very blue part of a purple state but it’s also very white and very much in decline. When those folks hear the word guilt and privilege it sounds to them like they’re being held directly responsible for something that had no direct hand in and hearing the word privileged attached to them makes them think that the speaker doesn’t understand the concept. Now I realize full well that that interpretation misses the concept entirely but I think the word choice causes the nuisance to be lost on an otherwise rather receptive audience. It triggers an emotional response when an analytic one would be much more effective.”

In social justice discussions, “privilege” is more or less of a term of art:  it means something a bit different than it would in general usage.  The Wikipedia definition of “male privilege” exemplifies this sense of privilege adequately: “Male privilege refers to the unearned advantages or rights granted to men solely on the basis of their sex, but usually denied to women. In societies with male privilege, men are afforded social, economic, and political benefits because they are male. A man’s access to male privilege varies depending on his other characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and social class.”

The extent of white privilege or male privilege in society is a potentially interesting subject of conversation.  Unfortunately, the conversation usually ends in anger before it can even start.  The problem seems to be the everyday connotation of “privilege,” as suggested by the adjective “over-privileged” and the phrase “a child of privilege.”  Put another way, when, in normal usage, people talk about “privilege,” they are usually speaking of the privilege of wealth.  Tell a son of the working class or the lower reaches of the middle class that he is privileged, and he will react with predictable annoyance.

A number of attempts have been made recently to defang the idea, or at least make it clearer.  The excellent John Scalzi wrote an (internet)-famous essay, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” in which he compares being a straight white male to playing the game of real life in “easy mode”–as in, the mode in a video game that lets a new player stay alive and the great challenges at bay.  It’s thoroughly worth reading as description of the “game mechanics” of privilege, but it does nothing to make the idea less explosive.

Picking easy mode in a game is a choice.  Being white, male, or straight is not.  To the extent that these traits confer advantage, the advantage is (usually) unsought and (nearly) immutable and inalienable.  To switch game metaphors, privilege is not you stacking the deck in your own favor; it’s the dealer stacking the deck in your favor and not telling you about it.

From this point of view, The Crommunist’s blog post “When the Goggles Come Off,” which explains a privileged point of view as like the perspective of a person who has forgotten that he or she is wearing colored goggles, gets at the matter better.  It does a good job of describing how unsought advantages can make themselves invisible to the person who has them, and thus makes clear that saying that someone is speaking from privilege is not an accusation.

None of these discussions is going to be disseminated widely enough to change the connotation of privilege.  The word will continue to anger even where it is used without intent to accuse.  (Intent isn’t magic, after all.)  Some substitute word or phrase is needed.  I’ll make an attempt at a substitute later–I plan to write another post in which I discuss what is valuable in Scalzi’s idea of describing privilege in terms of game mechanics.

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