Opinion: Social advocates misconstrue ‘privilege’ definition

Lucas Misera

Lucas Misera

Throughout 2016 and the corresponding election cycle, one particularly polarizing term surfaced: privilege.

The word became a sort of rallying cry for social advocates, popularizing the phrase “check your privilege” to highlight inequities that derive from differences in gender, sexuality and race.

The term “privilege” was initially coined by civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois in the early 20th century to refer to “white-skin privilege,” according to The New Yorker.

The more modern version of the phrase comes from women’s studies expert Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.”

The paper argues that men — although they typically admit that women are socioeconomically disadvantaged — are unwilling to recognize that they themselves are privileged as a result.

The case, according to McIntosh, is the same for white people: She argues that a white person and a man will each be raised to acknowledge the less preferable position of their counterparts, yet their own privilege goes unmentioned in an effort to prevent the concept from being “fully recognized, acknowledged, lessened, or ended.”

McIntosh’s piece, however, fails to take into account the true dictionary-definition of the word “privilege,” which is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

Using this meaning of the word, her argument would be sensible if used to analyze a caste system — where a person’s social and financial well-being is determined at birth. That individual would be immune to the threat of poverty, and such an immunity is available only to those born under similar circumstances.

The argument could also certainly be used throughout most of America’s history; when women couldn’t vote and the black community faced fierce oppression, white males were — without question — privileged.

However, today’s social landscape is drastically different. To insinuate that being white and male in contemporary society immediately equates to privilege is a foolish notion and, quite frankly, wrong.

Consider Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project, a nationwide study that aims to increase opportunity for low-income individuals, particularly children.

In a 2014 paper associated with this project, entitled “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” five major elements are found to dictate the social mobility of an individual: family structure, social capital, school systems, economic inequality and segregation.

The major element — in regards to how social justice advocates defend the existence of “privilege” — is segregation. The authors conclude that race does have an impact. For example, a black resident in a predominantly white community will typically suffer from a more rigorous climb up the socioeconomic ladder.

The paper further states that “white individuals in areas with large African American populations also have lower rates of upward mobility, implying that racial shares matter at the community (rather than individual) level.”

In short? We are a product of our environment.

The research suggests that being a minority on the broader, national level is unimportant. Instead, the demographic makeup of those who are in most immediate proximity to us dictate our opportunity to succeed.

Yet, by the liberalized definition of “privilege,” a white boy raised in Flint, Michigan — a city that is 56 percent black with unprecedented infrastructural frailties — is guaranteed a financially and socially stable future via mere physical characteristics. Proponents of privilege will argue that the child in question is being raised in a society that favors patriarchy and racial homogeneity.

However, data from the paper suggests that when compared to a white boy from a wealthy household in a community that features a superb school system and a plethora of financially well-off individuals, the odds of upward social mobility favor the latter example, despite similarities in sex and skin color.

Privilege — by McIntosh’s definition — ignores paramount external factors. Her skewed interpretation suggests only two words are enough to gauge an individual’s opportunity to succeed: “white” and “male.”

Ultimately, surface-level characteristics like skin color don’t draw the boundaries in terms of social mobility. Rather, it’s more likely the complex interactions between race, education and economic indicators within a community that shape one’s future.

Promoting the current definition of privilege is dangerous. It’s divisive. It’s factually and statistically incorrect.

If advocates want to see a real step toward racial or gender equality, discontinuing such recklessly broad assumptions in relation to “privilege” will be the only route to doing so.

Lucas Misera is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected]