In Opposition to "Privilege"

In social justice theory, one big focus point (for UCLA's Office of Residential Life, at any rate), is the concept of privilege. The basic idea is that there are "privileged" and "non-privileged" racial/gendered/sexual orientation/ability/etc. groups, with the former holding social power over the latter. The "privileged" group is almost always the one with a social majority (I actually can't think of any cases where this isn't true, but I don't want to make an absolute statement). When this power is exerted (especially with the aim of maintaining the power gap), you get oppression. An easy example is the Prop 8 campaign in California - the privileged, heterosexual majority imposed their will, oppressing the homosexual minority, taking away their right to marriage.

Now, privilege clearly exists. There's the example above, and countless others - like how I can walk alone at night with relative safety, while my female friends don't always enjoy the same luxury, simply because they were born female. Or how a white person is, for the most part, immune to racial profiling by police (many of whom are also white). Denying the existence of this phenomenon, and the problems it can lead to, is naïve at best; oppressive at worst.

That said, I've never been able to sit through a talk about privilege without becoming increasingly frustrated at the presenters. Because while privilege clearly exists, the way the concept is applied is shaky at best.

A presenter could start by saying how I have inherent privileges for being a straight, white, able-bodied* male. And I would agree wholeheartedly. Then they could say how I have inherent privileges because of my age. And I would counter that people older than me ALSO have inherent privileges (don't suffer from "youthism"). And the presenter would concede that both groups have certain privileges that the other does not, and that as we grow older, we essentially "trade" our old ones for new ones. And I would agree.

But this is about as far as we would get before I would start to get annoyed. Because the next thing to point out is my college education. They would then point to the fact that I live by myself in good-sized one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment in West Los Angeles. They would mention my car. They would point to the obvious luxury goods I have in my apartment (Xbox, nice TV, nice laptop).

And they would use all of this to "prove" just how "privileged" I am. And at this point, I would want to punch them in the face. Not because "the truth hurts", but because they are cleverly using double-meanings to devalue my accomplishments.

See, the word "privilege" is VERY carefully chosen - the word, on its own, means "a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor" (via the Merriam-Webster online dictionary). The important takeaway from this definition is that privileges are advantages that are granted to a person. And by carefully choosing to use this word, it allows people to basically devalue the accomplishments of other people.

I am not privileged to have attended UCLA - I EARNED that right through hard work. And lest anybody try to suggest that my high school's quality or something helped me get there, keep in mind that many of my classmates, attending the same high school, taking the same classes, living in the same city, with the same resources available to them, did NOT get into UCLA. My hometown demographic may have given me some help over other people, but I still had to EARN it.

And when I got there? I worked TWO jobs for my last three years there to help pay for it. I made SACRIFICES to be an RA and lower my cost. And I needed to, because my "privileged" background afforded me a whopping ZERO dollars in financial aid.

After graduating, I was offered the opportunity to work full-time at the place I had interned at for those 3 years. I got that offer because I WORKED HARD, and proved my importance to the company. And I know that I'm fortunate to have a good job, especially in this economy, but nothing was GIVEN to me - I EARNED this job, and I pay for my apartment, and all my luxury goods, entirely with money that I EARN.

Of course, my current status could be used to oppress people who lack these same advantages. And in that regard, it's still valid to discuss them - but we need to discuss them as "advantages", not as "privileges".

And we can include characteristics that are ACTUALLY granted (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) in the label of "advantages". So let's start doing that, and stop trying to be sneaky in undermining the hard work people put in to get to where they are.

*I'm not technically able-bodied - my eyesight is incredibly poor, and without the aid of corrective lenses, it would be much harder for me to function in society (without my contacts, I can't even use a computer normally - I need to lean in really close and squint. Hard to do my job that way!). But since I can very easily, with very few (and very mild) side effects, overcome this handicap, I generally consider myself able-bodied.


Aubrey said...

Well put.

Sadly, however, hard work means very little in a society where we can blame our shortcomings on a lack of these "privileges." For example, I couldn't imagine demanding admission to Harvard because my parents couldn't afford to spend thousands on classes to boost my SAT score, music lessons, athletics, etc. But you can certainly demand admission to a UC based on coming from a lower income neighborhood.

Nick said...

I think I did take away a lot from the ORL training, but boy am I glad I never have to sit through another one of those god-awful presentations.

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