Privilege – what does it actually mean?

The dictionary definition of privilege is:

noun. 1. A benefit, immunity, etc, granted under certain conditions. 2. The advantages and immunity enjoyed by a small usually powerful group or class, especially to the disadvantage of others: one of the obstacles to social harmony is privilege.

But what does it mean as a concept?

The origins of privilege

Privilege as a social concept was first explored in relation to race by Theodore Allen, whereby his interest in the work of black writers and activism in the 1960s American civil rights movement led to an exploration of what he called “white-skin privilege” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017).

The concept was further developed by American feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh in her 1988 paper White Privilege and Male Privilege. McIntosh writes: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one if its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage”.

In benefitting one person or group over another, privilege upholds inequality. McIntosh therefore asked people to “check your privilege” through 46 examples.

The examples comprised statements for the reader – and for herself – to consider in order to determine what do I have (or benefit from) on a daily basis that I did not earn; that is, what is given to me. For example, “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented” or “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.”

The problem with privilege

Privilege does not mean you’ve lived a charmed life. There are more innate factors at work here; it is the influence of your race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, physical ability on your social standing.

Checking your privilege means understanding and recognising that certain categories of self in society bring with them certain advantages – greater (or given) opportunities in education, financial stability, employment, leadership etc.

Nonetheless, the concept of privilege makes people feel uncomfortable. Why? Because it involves turning the spotlight on oneself.

In acknowledging privilege, you’re also gaining awareness of how hierarchies are upheld, and how your attitudes, actions and views are influenced by the advantages gained through the social categories in which you belong – could you be inadvertently contributing to injustice or passively accepting injustice, allowing for it to continue to exist?

As a result, being told to “check your privilege” can be seen as accusatory. The reaction to which is either to fight back with examples of your own experience of injustice – a tit-for-tat inequality tug-of-war if you will – or to withdraw from the conversation altogether or discard the concept as a passing craze. Indeed, online privilege calculators and quizzes aren’t helping matters here.

So, what can be done?

Understanding privilege increases awareness of inequality – it requires empathy, which underpins diversity and inclusion.

Checking your privilege encourages you to question, to call out and to challenge injustices and why they exist. Most importantly, it demands that you look inwards and redress the ways in which you yourself are unconsciously upholding certain inequalities.

It is therefore the responsibility of us all to challenge and to question the norm, as well as support others who do not benefit from the same advantages as us to do so too.


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