Privilege; What is it and how does it work?

Candice eetimesThis past year, I’ve noted an increase in discussion of “privilege”, who has it, and who doesn’t.  Or in far too many cases, people who clearly have it denying it exists.  But, as usual, I find that most of the discussion misses the mark by a very wide margin, largely because of a combination of failing to define what and how privilege is and operates and conflating privilege with advantage and entitlement.

Privilege is the flip side of bias and discrimination… one is privileged if they are free from laws, custom, or bias that reduces their rights and puts obstacles in the way of one’s pursuit of happiness.  Privilege doesn’t mean that one’s life is, or will be, easy; it means that law, custom, or bias doesn’t, or won’t, make it harder than it does for others.

The term “privilege” comes from “private law”, the acknowledgement that some people have legal rights and some don’t.  A king had a special status, a private law, that didn’t apply to his subjects, “rank hath its privileges”.

But there is another form, that which is given by custom and bias.  It should come as no surprise that, even today, most people, both men and women, still hold irrational biases that grant men more privileges than to women.  That bias is so strong that study after study have shown that women and minorities have to be demonstrably more competent and accomplished than white men to even hold their own in many domains. (Look up the “Matilda Effect“.)

Privilege of this sort does not lie within the individual.  It lies in those who surround the individual.  It is granted automatically, by law, custom, or bias.  One cannot consciously disown such privilege since it is not within their control to bestow it upon themselves in the first place.

From privilege can, and usually does, come advantage.  It is what allows some people to move forward in their lives in an easier manner.  It also accumulates.  When someone is accustomed to having privilege and to accumulating advantage, it often engenders ‘entitlement’, the personal belief that such privileges that come from law, custom, or bias are ‘owed’ to them, or that they ‘earned’ them, that they are due to them because of a perceived sense of superiority.  It should come as no surprise that most men, accustomed as they are to socially granted privilege, fail to see their privilege over their female peers.

Until very recently, men had legal rights that women did not in nearly every nation (and still do in far too many).  For example men had the right to vote, women did not. In Saudi Arabia, men can drive, women cannot.  Men weren’t likely to be fired from a job because they got married, women often were.  Men whose wives got pregnant were congratulated.  Women who got pregnant were often fired.  When I was young, one could open the newspaper to the “Help Wanted” ads to find that they were divided into two major sections, “Help Wanted – Male” and “Help Wanted – Female”.  Guess which category all of the higher paying jobs like tech and management positions were in.  This is ‘male privilege’ in its most naked and raw form.  But even when the laws change, the bias and discrimination will continue for generations.  (See my essay on James Damore and women in tech.)

During the first nine decades after the United States declared independence, people of African descent were legally held as chattel slaves with no legal rights while people of “pure” European descent were not.  This is ‘white privilege’ in its most naked, raw, and brutal form.  Even after slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment and legal equality established by the 14th, many states, mostly in the South, found ways to legally restrict the rights and human dignity of their black citizens with “Jim Crow” laws; laws that only slowly were dismantled, mostly by courts showing that they violated the 14th Amendment on one hand, and the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 & ’65 on the other.  The Federal government began to actively discriminate against blacks in the ’30s through redlining of largely black neighborhoods discouraging banks from lending money to buy homes and  investing in businesses.  This practice continued until the late ’70s.  This was also ‘white privilege’ in its naked and raw form.  But even when the laws change, the bias and discrimination will continue for generations.

In the mid-19th to the early 20th Centuries, a number of US cities and even the whole state of Pennsylvania, passed so-called “ugly laws” which made it a criminal offense for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view.”  This law made it unlawful for visibly disabled people to be seen in public, to go to restaurants, shopping, or to hold jobs.  Even in the absence of specific laws, in the same spirit, the justice system would fine, jail, and even involuntarily and indefinitely imprison disabled people in alms houses / state hospitals.  This is ability privilege in its most naked and raw form.  These laws were enforced until the mid 1970s when disabled rights activists worked to repeal them and replace them with non-discrimination laws.  But even when laws change, the bias and discrimination will continue for generations.

Around the time that the US declared independence, one of its leading statesmen, Thomas Jefferson, turned to reforming the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia including making gay male sex punishable by 20 years in prison.  This was considered very liberal in that it had been punished by death.  The year I was born, 1957, homosexuality was criminalized, punishable by years of imprisonment, in every US state.  Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1961.  A smattering of states slowly decriminalized it in the following decades.  But it took the Supreme Court to decriminalize it in all of the states in 2003.  There are teenagers today who were born in states where it was still punishable by years of imprisonment!  In 1953, the President of the United States signed an executive order calling LGBT folks “perverts” and declared them ineligible to be employed by the Federal government, government contractors, or organizations receiving federal monies in any capacity and strongly urged our international allies to do the same in their nations.  Thousands lost their jobs, some committed suicide.  For decades lesbian and bisexual women would lose their children as courts terminated their parental rights and handed over their children to heterosexual couples to adopt.  The ban on gays and lesbians in the military was only repealed in this past decade.  Marriage equality for all couples, regardless of sex, was only enforced by the Supreme Court in 2015.  There are school children alive today whose parents were denied the right to marry when they were born.  Recently some states have passed laws that allow governments to outsource foster and adoption placement to private agencies that will deny LGBT people the option of adoption under the thin guise of “religious liberty”.  This is ‘straight privilege’ in its most naked and raw form.  But even when laws change, the bias and discrimination will continue for generations.

During the 19th and until nearly the end of the 20th Century, transgender people were criminalized in nearly all cities and larger towns by “anti-impersonation” laws.  Laws that prescribed fines and jail terms for wearing clothing not considered appropriate for their biological sex.  These laws were still on the books and enforced into the 1970s and in some locales even into the 1980s.  Beginning in the 1960s, transgender people who were under physician care for “transsexualism” were careful to carry letters and special ID cards from clinics that some, but not all, localities would honor, a sort of, “get out of jail free card”.  Beginning in the ’70s, some states would allow change of gender status on ID, others would not.  Today, there are states and localities which are passing so-called “bathroom bills” which would de facto criminalize transgender people again.  And of course, the current president has called for the continuation of the ban on transfolk in the military.  This is ‘cis privilege’ in its most naked and raw form.  But even when laws change, the bias and discrimination will continue for generations.

privilegeSo, yes, “Able-bodied Straight White Cis-Male” privilege, the freedom from bias and discrimination, and the accumulating advantages that brings, most definitely does exist.  And when a able-bodied straight white cis-man denies it… well… I know entitlement when I hear it.

Further Reading:

Essay on James Damore and Women in Tech



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