This article is part of a three-part series on privilege, society, and public policy. Check out part 1: “What is Privilege?”
In my last piece, I discussed the history and development of the idea of privilege in modern society. I lined out the history of the concept, tracing its roots back to Karl Marx’s critique of society and wealth, and demonstrated how it was appropriated by modern academic fields into newer forms of privilege.
However, simply because Karl Marx used privilege to justify the elimination of equal rights doesn’t mean that he is wrong about privilege. It is difficult, without intellectual acrobatics, to say that these characteristics do not influences an individual’s life at all or that these characteristics are not important social concepts to consider when analyzing society generally. A man, due to genetic differences, will be able to do heavy labor with less adjustment than a woman. Additionally, men who have a predisposition towards physical activities are going to perform better in these tasks than men who do not have this same predisposition. The question becomes more complicated when dealing with pre-existing cultural norms—especially norms that developed in a past generation.
Why Everyone Should Check Their Privilege
Because privilege is a characteristic created when the unprivileged individual perceives a benefit another individual possesses—not necessarily when that privilege actually exists—people can and should respond to the charge of privilege without offending the other person. (In other words, all people should make a good faith effort to be civil.) Perceptions can be wrong. At the same time, perceptions can be enlightening. Without first stopping to consider what is actually being charged, the person being accused of possessing a privilege can lose an opportunity to gain a better understanding about themselves and the opportunities that have been afforded to them.
The first step requires empathy. It requires you to look at the situation from that second person’s perspective and see what they mean when they are calling you privileged. If you are having trouble making this deduction on you own, ask them. Hopefully, they will give you a clear answer. (If they do not, then it may be simply a defense mechanism.)
You may come to the conclusion that the idea they are arguing is, in fact, true. Some privilege exists simply because we are different people. A world without privilege is a world where everyone is literally the same. Regardless, the next step is always to ask more questions. You must remember that you cannot defend the charge, but can only dig deeper into the other person’s understanding of the world. Their world, in their eyes, is not your world. Taking an interest in their world shows, at the very least, that you care about them as a person.
Taking the time to understand others is the antidote to the curse of privilege. It leads to a deeper understanding of you fellow Americans. It makes the country a better place. It is important to understand that everyone has some sort of privilege over another person: there is no single person that is the underling of all others.
The conversation should only divert to your experience when the other person is willing to listen. Some people simply are not willing to listen. It is really foolish to think that someone that assumes all people of a particular socio-economic, racial, or religious identity are exactly the same is going to actually care about your experiences. A conversation may be fruitless, unless you can somehow reveal that person’s confirmation bias and false-cause fallacy. But this still requires you to listen to their worldview and appreciate that their concern may arise from one of many factors.
Why Checking Your Privilege Gets a Bad Wrap
Critical sociology understands privilege in terms of groups. In this myth, one group has supreme advantage by mere membership above another group. Group traits act almost like upgrades in an RPG video game, but they are all granted at birth and nearly impossible to gain over time. Being born in the wrong group, in this understanding of privilege, means their can be no hope.
The argument becomes a defense mechanism (i.e., an excuse for personal failures) or an almost religious dogma. That person is not asking you to consider what you were born with and understand that they were not born with that same opportunity (i.e., that they had to struggle more to reach the same point). That person is using privilege to say that they cannot achieve what you achieve. They are saying that you achieved what you achieved largely due to cultural norms and blind luck. They are saying that if you had not been born with a single trait, then you would have never been able to achieve what you have achieved.
People who use privilege to argue in this way are subject to a type of conformation bias that prohibit them from considering that they attribute to privilege cannot be the sole cause for their predicament. It is a world of false dichotomies (brown or white; rich or poor; Christian or not Christian, etc.) that are false causes for all of existence.
Collectivism creates and perpetrates this erroneous perspective, and this perception of reality must change.
Why We Should Redefine Privilege
We must redefine privilege in terms of individuals. Individuals do have genetic benefits and cultural benefits, but these benefits do not cause success or riches. Merely attacking progressives who think of the world in groups (of course, only when it is politically beneficial) does not help.
The issue lies in the fact that attacking the argument on its face can serve (falsely) to confirm the bias of the argument. So, we must tread lightly. The first step is to perform that intellectual exercise of “checking your privilege” in good faith. You must look at how you have been blessed and where hard work alone cannot be the cause (the hard work false-cause is just as wrong as the privilege false-cause). Then, you point out to rational people, who are able and willing to have an open and honest conversation, where the privilege false-cause fallacy is truly false. This will most likely be for circumstances where privilege could only play a very small role in your success (or none at all, if you can show this beyond a reasonable doubt).
Simply rejecting privilege will not truly help correct the social narrative put forward by progressives, or help improve the problems faced by our society. Understanding those around us, and finding ways to respond to them with civility, is the better path.
Continue on to part three of this series: “Privilege and Public Policy: A Framework for Success.”