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Privilege Burnout?

January 6, 2013

One thing I learned in the last few weeks is that I don’t always want to follow referring links back to their sources (especially when they say things like to see what people are saying. My favourite are the critics who came up with the wildly novel idea of scouring my posts about grammar and spelling errors to see if they could find any grammar and spelling errors, because nobody saw that coming. It’s a little disappointing, really – if you’re going to criticize me, at least make it witty and original. I pierce the sanctimonious bubble of your literacy privilege checklist with my finely-honed and grammatically-precise apostrophes, you waffling brutum fulmen of a failed pedant! More like that.


Anyway, I saw a lot of both support for, and disagreement with, the ideas I presented – which is great! Debate is important for learning and self-improvement. There were a few points I was called out on that have caused me to rethink some thoughts (e.g. I will never use the word “Nazi” on this blog again unless I’m writing about the actual Holocaust), and I deeply appreciate those who were able to express their arguments with civility and thoughtful consideration, even if I didn’t always agree.

Something that genuinely surprised me, however, was an argument I encountered repeatedly that went along these lines: “Okay, I’m on board with the concept of white privilege and male privilege and maybe a few others. But that’s enough! No more privileges! By turning this into an issue of privilege you are diluting other more valid kinds of privilege in some ephemeral way that I am unable to convincingly describe, so instead I’ll just tell you that you are wrong! Wrong, I say!” The people saying these kinds of things seem to be using a different definition of ‘privilege’ than I do, one that allows only for generally innate, unchanging states of being (skin colour, sex, sexual orientation, etc.). Personally, I use the word ‘privilege’ as more or less a synonym of ‘advantage’: if there are elements of your life circumstances that offer you advantages over other people, you have privilege, lucky thing. But before I go too much further, let’s see if this holds up in common usage.

Webster’s Dictionary defines privilege as “a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; a right or immunity not enjoyed by others or by all; special enjoyment of a good, or exemption from an evil or burden; a prerogative; advantage; franchise.”

Peggy McIntosh, the originator of the privilege checklist, talks about privilege as an “unearned advantage” based on sex, race, age, ethnicity, physical ability, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, social class, economic class and “other factors”.

Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog gives the following definition in their FAQ: “Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals.”

Brown_betty’s primer on privilege states that “Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal.” Examples given include being able to use the Internet, being free of food allergies, having a typical appearance and accent, and having connections.

None of these definitions limits privilege to whiteness, or maleness, or a small handful of other purely innate characteristics. So why the pushback? Why do some people who are open-minded enough to accept the very concept of privilege resist its usage in the context of literacy?

The more I think about this, the more I believe it has to do with a creeping vilification of the word itself. Having privilege is perceived to be a Bad Thing, or at the very least, having it and not knowing you have it is a PC faux pas of the highest order. Why? Basically, because people use it as a weapon. “Check your privilege!” becomes a smackdown in debate, a way to dismiss an antagonist. In some cases, the implication may be that if you have a certain kind of privilege, you have no right to voice an opinion. You are Privileged, the message goes, and that is a shameful and unforgivable thing to be.

No wonder, then, that people become defensive. Most of us, of course, don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, or insensitive, or uninformed – especially if we have already done all the hard work of taking stock of the advantages bestowed on us by our race, sex or other traits we can’t do much about. And now we’re talking about these other kinds of privilege too? Where does it end? Soon nobody will be able to express a point of view on anything!

Looking over my original literacy privilege post, I see that I may have inadvertently contributed to these misperceptions. I made a point of directing my criticisms toward myself, but they are criticisms nonetheless. Maybe I could have worded my post differently – but on the other hand, the way I worded it is likely what has drawn so much attention, and if I had written it differently there might be several thousand fewer people talking and thinking about literacy right now.

So let me be very clear about this now – I do not believe that privilege is an inherently bad thing. I do not blame people for not always knowing when they have it. I do not think it should be invoked against people to silence them. On the contrary, I want everyone to have the same advantages (which means they would no longer be advantages, I know, semantics. You get my point.) I want to help people become more aware of privilege when it exists – not in order to shame them, but because awareness is the foundation of social change. I want to help un-vilify the word. I want to open up dialogue, not silence it.  And I apologize if I didn’t make that apparent enough the first time around.

  1. January 7, 2013 2:44 pm

    This is precisely the reason I have always hesitated around this word – because, when overused, it normalizes disadvantage – as though men / whites / straight folks / etc. need to be beaten down in order for things to be equal, rather than women / folks of color / LGBT folks rising up.

    The shame you speak of around privilege is a blurry mirror image of the shame that oppressed people everywhere are made to feel about themselves because of their oppression. But it is the same monster of shame, and the more we understand that, the less we have to be hostile to people who don’t think like us, and the more we can make common cause.

    One other thing I would like to add, which seems to get wholly forgotten in the U.S. and many English-speaking countries, is that the biggest of the privileges is one of class. This is harder to see – because in this respect, the everyday norm is not the privilege. But you can bet a lot of poor, straight white men out there might look at Oprah and think “she has fewer privileges than me??” The class issue is important, because it sharpens every other inequality; no matter what discrimination you suffer from, the higher your class, the more you can mitigate it, and the lower your class, the more defenseless and voiceless you become in the face of it. We must not forget this, either!

    • January 8, 2013 8:27 pm

      I think you make some very good points, especially re. class privilege.

  2. Jayme permalink
    January 8, 2013 7:56 pm

    The topic of shame itself might make for an interesting post… just sayin!

    • January 8, 2013 8:26 pm

      I agree, and plan to write one soon (“soon” = sometime in the next 6 months). :)

    • January 9, 2013 10:28 am

      I have a short something to say about shame in general here on my blog. HINT: I don’t like it! :-)

  3. Jayme permalink
    January 8, 2013 7:57 pm
  4. mworfolk permalink
    January 9, 2013 6:13 pm

    It’s amazing the things I have taken for granted throughout my life becauseI have had . Teaching adult literacy learners has shown me some of the many extra hoops people must jump through if they have low literacy skills.

    I have appreciated reading your posts about privilege. You’re right that it is a very charged word; I remember trying to discuss privilege with my women’s studies students and meeting a lot of hard resistance.

    I like brown_betty’s definition of privilege as being about how society accommodates and gives certain people advantages–advantages that they consider normal. If I teach about privilege again I will make use of this definition.


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