The Problem with ‘Privilege’

Valerie Tarico

The concept of privilege as used by the activist Left is problematic.

To be clear, unless we are able to see the advantages we have been given—often unearned and conferred simply by the circumstances of our birth—we are quick to take credit for our successes and blame others for their failings. Psychologists call related tendencies “self-serving bias” and “fundamental attribution error,” and they contribute to race, class, and gender stereotypes.

At its broadest, “privilege” means simply that some of us are exempt from one or another kind of hardship that plagues other people. More specifically, some of us are exempt from social attitudes that actively disadvantage specific groups—such as females, queers, racial minorities, or religious minorities (including atheists)—and that have gotten encoded in cultural institutions such as religion and law.

Unfortunately, the term privilege or male privilege often gets wielded with a bit of a sneer or a tone of righteous superiority, accompanied by “Check your privilege.” In fact, some social-justice circles have created an inverse social hierarchy based on intersecting membership in groups that traditionally lack privilege or experience oppression. In this inverse pecking order, a black queer female might be at the top while a straight white male would be at the bottom, unable to question things said by people above him lest he be accused of bigotry. More and more, this state of affairs generates dysfunction and resentments on the Left and elicits derision and backlash from the Right.

That is a shame because, when used well, privilege is a valuable concept. White privilege means that white people—for the most part—are exempt from hardships caused by racism and, in fact, that light skin color often confers advantages. This doesn’t mean that the life of any given white person is easier than the life of any given black person. No question, the life of my mentally ill sister is harder than the life of her black psychiatrist. But, mercifully, she doesn’t have to deal with racism on top of the brain malfunction that has destroyed her career, bank account, and family and left her body broken.

The idea that we each have different kinds and degrees of unearned privilege keeps us humble and helps us see the world with less self-serving distortion. But used as it is by the activist Left, it creates a different set of distortions. It disproportionately elevates tribal identity—specifically membership in traditionally oppressed classes—over shared identity and individual identity.

This means that discourse fails to reflect the actual degree of struggle in the lives of individuals when that struggle doesn’t correspond exclusively to their degree of membership in these tribes. In addition, people fail to differentiate the kinds of privilege that are harmful (say, getting better interview marks than others simply because you are a white male) and the kinds of privilege that we want for everyone (say, a decent education).

This causes other problems. Here are five examples:

  1. Activists who are focused on privilege have a huge heart for people whose struggle is caused by membership in traditionally oppressed tribes while being pretty uninterested in the struggle of others (for instance, the unemployed, white, small-town male whose skills have been made obsolete).
  2. A worrisome percentage of left-leaning activists care more about who said something and what the assertion’s impact might be than about whether it is true. This is undermining science and evidence-based social policy and creating a parallel to the Right’s indifference to truth. It is taboo to talk about complex realities that are perceived as threatening to traditionally oppressed tribes (such as that the Qur’an prescribes violence and subjugation of women or that at the very top and bottom of the IQ Bell Curve, men exceed women eight to one).
  3. Many social-justice activists define stigmatizing behaviors as “microaggressions” whether or not they carry aggressive intent. This entitles the person who feels transgressed to respond with actual intentional aggression, which is justified as “punching up,” again without regard to the lived degree of privilege or struggle in the lives of the two individuals in question.
  4. Dividing people into tribes based on privilege (or lack thereof) distracts progressives from their own foundational hypothesis about how to create a better future: the idea that we are all in it together, profoundly interconnected and interdependent—even including with other species—and that our shared fate depends more on cooperation than competition. Forgetting this, progressives foster division, speak in the language of displacement rather than the language of inclusion (“brown is the new white”; “the future is female”)—and cede universal values (for instance, “all lives matter”) to far-Right propagandists.
  5. Telling struggling people to check their privilege is counterproductive and generates resentment and alienation rather than sympathy for the legitimate structural inequities that social-justice activists want to see addressed.

I could go on, but imagine if instead of talking about privilege we talked about struggle and how best to reduce the struggle in people’s lives, whether it comes from structural racism or structural sexism or from some other kind of hardship, such as mental illness or technology-induced unemployment and poverty.

One high-school teacher beautifully brings home the concept of inequality for his students. He tells them that the class represents the U.S. population and that a garbage can placed in the front of the room represents the upper class. Each student gets to wad a piece of paper and try to “make it big” by throwing it into the can—from his or her own seat. Needless to say, the kids in the front row are most likely to succeed. In the protests and discussions that follow, students get to explore their own experience of differential privilege, each from his or her slightly different position in the room—all within the context of the classroom’s shared community. That’s what I’m talking about.


Further Reading

Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist, author, and founder of WisdomCommons. org. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light (Oracle Institute Press, 2010).