What has privilege meant?

Anyone reading this in June of 2021 (and probably later) has heard the term “privilege” used pretty often; I’m guessing that those in more liberal circles might hear this more often, albeit this is an assumption on my part. There are probably a handful of people who have tired of the term privilege or have found that it is used so often for increasingly broader reasons; it still has meaning, but it is not as exact as it may have been in the past. So, here I’m going to try to make more sense of the term privilege, how it has been used in the past, how it may be best understood going forward, and if we should all consider changing our language and terminology a little bit. So I’m going to take on what will probably be a multi-entry investigation into privilege. As someone who has worked in independent schools and in schools where there is not only significant amounts of money but also significant beliefs in getting the best possible education for their child. I’m taking on something that a number of people in the world take very seriously and trying to make sense of it a little more; it may not be perfect, but I hope it’s thoughtful.

Privilege, in my albeit basic research, seems to step originally from law (particularly exemptions from law) and comes out of feudal Europe. The Latin privilegium can be translated as private law, and these immunities from law were granted by government to specific groups or individuals (an example of this might be land titles in medieval and renaissance Europe, which were granted to specific people by the government). Efforts for democratic change, such as the French Revolution, sought to eliminate privilege by law; rather than privileges, democratic movements emphasized people’s collective rights.

In reviewing all of this it reminds me of the beginning of Democracy in America, when Alexis de Tocqueville compares wealth in Europe, which he associated with a landed aristocracy and with true privilege, with his initial impressions of America; in his observations, he found that in New England and in northern towns there was no landed aristocracy and while southern areas had a landed aristocracy (and slavery, as he discusses significantly later in his work), this could fade and fail within a few generations. There are still elements of legal privilege today, however I am not aware of how many there might be. Those that may exist or do exist are more latent, and those focused on inequity will probably focus on the de facto issues of privilege rather than de jure issues of privilege. Tocqueville saw promise in America as a land where privilege would not only be challenged but eliminated. There are many reasons why I can find value and appreciation in America and our foundations of democracy, but this is one that I’ve been reminded about a lot recently. America, from its beginning, has been a place of promise and of social mobility. Yet Tocqueville notices what we as a country were slow to notice during his visit; the horror of slavery and the horror of America’s treatment of their native peoples, which soured his views on American idealism. Despite the promise Tocqueville sees, he sees the issues of privilege (then, by law) that made so many men and women in America directly damaged by its people and its government.

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Our idea of privilege present in greater pop culture and pop academia today is social privilege. While there have been allegories to the idea of privilege for a century or more, but as citizens, courts, and the country challenged de jure segregation and de jure privilege, the focus was on the law and the practices. While W.E.B. DuBois noted the privilege of white men who saw their success as a means of their hard work, he was more focused on the laws that kept Black men, women, and children in Albany, Georgia impoverished and as second-class citizens. As laws banning voting discrimination, segregation in schools and public places, redlining and housing discrimination, interracial marriage, and a gambit of other racist practices became commonplace in America, focus rightfully turned to areas where the law might be equal or appear to be equal, but in practice and in reality there were still great inequities.

In 1988 Wellesley professor Peggie McIntosh noted that, in sessions she led focusing on new research in Women’s studies, that the men who attended the session were open to the idea of learning new research and topics especially pertinent to Women’s studies, however when it came to its implementation these men were hesitant to include it in syllabi and in coursework (a common explanation being that there was no time or space for it). She notes, in an interview with the New Yorker, that she felt conflicted; these men were very nice and friendly and did not seem to be oppressive; could they be both? She made the connection to her own thought process and experience working with black women in Boston earlier in the decade, and noting her similar thought process. Most interesting and most potentially troubling, she notes her having racist attitudes of how she, and others like her, were good people because they were working with black women. After these experiences teaching these sessions and in her own experiences, she started writing about privilege: coining the term white privilege, providing examples, and engaging white people about the concept of privilege in a way where it was focused more on personal experience and understanding rather statistics or data.

The world has (hopefully) changed a lot since the 80s, but this has stood out to me. There’s a lot more research I hope to do on privilege and to continue to write about here. Yet something about this has impacted my thought process. From this research, discussions and research on privilege focus on what specific groups have. This is where the term white privilege comes from, where the term “check your privilege comes from”, and where the welcome conversation about who gets a voice in America comes from, and why some get more of a voice than others. I will dive into this more in time (and this is talked about a lot more in the greater world), yet something untold in this whole account is how the men in the session want to know the ideas and understand them, but don’t want to implement them. They are nice people, but in this case they are obstacles to progress. It is that feeling, of people wanting to be nice but not committing to a dirty work of critical implementation, that I am left thinking about and what I’ll hopefully be writing about soon enough.

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John Baker

Teacher, administrator, and educator trying to make a little bit of sense of the world.