If the Concept of Privilege Doesn’t Work for You, Maybe It’s Not FOR You

If the Concept of Privilege Doesn’t Work for You, Maybe It’s Not FOR You September 19, 2017

Yes, I know the concept of privilege doesn’t resonate with everyone, but that’s also kinda the point of it.

Photo from Unsplash by Paul Bergmeir. In public domain.
Photo from Unsplash by Paul Bergmeir. In public domain.

In blogging about privilege in general and specifically regarding gender, I knew some people wouldn’t be receptive to hearing about the concept of privilege. I knew I’d get some flack in the comments. And you know what? That’s okay.

There are two reasons why the average reader of a blog may not be receptive to the idea of privilege, and they both have to do with intended audience.

First, privilege is a term used in academic and social justice circles. The everyday reader isn’t necessarily the audience for these uses, as the former implies advanced education and the latter implies a commitment to activism. I don’t want to fall back on the tired tropes of “well if you can’t understand it, you’re too stupid to understand it” or “clearly all conservatives are mindless idiots” because that’s not what I’m saying. It’s more that I wouldn’t expect people outside my field to understand my jargon, even when those words are also used in an everyday sense with different connotations, so why would I here?

Second, privilege is a word used to illuminate the implicit workings of social hierarchy. Sometimes it works best when it is used to shine a light on shared experiences had not by the ones with privilege, but the ones lacking it. Here I’m thinking of the feminist conscious-raising (or “rap”) groups of the 1970s, where women would share their personal experience narratives and realize that though coming from different life paths, they’d all had astoundingly similar experiences due to the common thread of misogyny. The personal is political, and all that. Similarly, I’ve found it helpful to address rape culture among those people most impacted by it. I see the lightbulbs come on in the eyes of, for example, my female college students who’ve been told in orientation to watch what they wear to parties so as to not cause trouble for themselves.

If we think of privilege as a tool to unite people who’ve had similarly bad experiences due to their shared marginalized status, then it doesn’t really matter whether the people with the privilege “get it” or not. We should still try to reach them, of course, in the spirit of teaching people to look hard at the social systems that surround them. But if they’re not getting it right away, maybe we shouldn’t get discouraged.

And here’s the thing: if we incorporate the notion of privilege into humanities and social sciences education, we can change all this. It wouldn’t be that difficult to make it a term that gets used in history classes, literature classes, and so on. Goodness knows I already toss it in with most of the anthropology, folklore, and gender studies topics I teach.

Educators get to help decide which concepts become daily-use words, and which don’t. I’m sure there are plenty on the list of “we should all teach these ASAP” but I’d put in a plug for including privilege and other social-justice-oriented, empirically-grounded terms on there.

Me? I’m going to keep using privilege in my college classes, and blogging about it, and talking about it. These acts can help make a difference, especially when it comes to acknowledging intersectional oppression (by first naming, and then studying it) and building solidarity.

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