A few years ago, a girl I was dating told me to check my privilege. It was tremendously frustrating for me as I couldn’t understand what she was actually trying to say. She went on to say that as a good-looking white male, I had all kinds of advantages afforded to me which weren’t available to others. I reflected on that statement and it still didn’t resonate. From my perspective, my path had not been easy and both my opportunities and successes were well-earned. I figured a good place to start would be with a definition we could both agree on. So we looked it up:
Privilege: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group.
That sounded rather general to me. By that definition, if white privilege existed, then so did black privilege – and every other kind of privilege for that matter. Tall people are privileged to reach things off high shelves while short people are privileged to not bump their heads on low ceilings. If privilege is simply referring to the advantages held by some and not others, aren’t we just talking about people in general? Maybe.
It would be easy for me to say that white privilege doesn’t exist because privilege doesn’t exist. I would go on to give an example: Would you rather be a black man being pulled over by the police in Alabama, or would you rather be a white guy getting pulled over by freedom fighters in West Africa? Then I’d remind us that while we all share a common blueprint, we all vary in our own ways and those variations provide inherent advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstance. If circumstance is the variable that determines if we experience an advantage or disadvantage, then does privilege really exist? Like I said, it would be easy for me to say that white privilege doesn’t exist because privilege doesn’t exist – but I would be wrong.
Everything that I just said is valid to an extent but I think that there’s another layer to what’s going on here that better represents what we’re looking at. I think if we explore this a little further, we’ll find some clarity
A granted privilege seems to be simply be an advantage given from one person to another. What I find curious here is that the word granted offers the possibility of earning your advantage. Consider a student who has good grades in high school and then is ‘granted’ admittance to a top-tier university – we’ll call her Priya. Now consider someone who had average grades, who also made it into that university after their parents made a significant donation – we’ll call him Bryce. I think most people would blow the whistle and call a privilege foul here on the latter, but what if the Priya was at a top private school with unlimited tutoring funded by her parents? What if Bryce’s parents grew up in poverty, worked hard, and were simply making a donation to their alma mater?
This is a rather interesting topic for me because in the context of a social conversation, privilege is what I would consider to be a poorly defined topic. It’s like we know that there’s something wrong but we’re not exactly sure how to articulate it. As in many other cases in society, we think we’re dealing in issues of fairness but in reality we’re dealing with issues of efficiency.
Let’s revisit the earlier example in a different context. Let’s say for the sake of simplicity, Priya is unprivileged and Bryce is very privileged. Both are admitted to a top-tier university and both approach their degree as an independent effort. Now they’ve both graduated and while Priya continued to work hard and earned good grades, Bryce worked harder and earned better grades. Now imagine that in 40 years, we’re reflecting on their life’s work and there’s a clear winner – Bryce.
If this were a real world example, what we commonly define as privilege could’ve led to the discrepancy in university grades and the career but that’s the point. What if it wasn’t? It’s certainly possible that Bryce did better because he had more resources at his disposal, but what if his circumstances we’re simply better aligned with his own personal strengths? What if Bryce simply wasn’t motivated in high-school, but once he had the autonomy and challenge that came with a top-tier university, he was motivated to perform? And what if his personality and degree were directly in line with his career path? And what if Priya who worked hard and got good grades her entire life had the genetic blueprint for a world class chef, but became an accountant as a result of her academic focus?
In reality, what we’re really upset at is a series of systems which are inefficient at allocating resources and creating value. The system we have currently is a ‘fair’ entry system predicated on prior academic performance and extra-curricular activities but it’s also the same system that would see Priya become an accountant and see Bryce not gain admission. It’s largely a level playing field, but perhaps it’s time to prioitize making sure people are suited up for the right sport and playing to their full potential.
With the progress we’ve made in understanding our genealogy and psychology, along with advances in our ability to collect and analyze data… I smell a revolution in how we determine fit. Imagine everyone being given the freedom to explore their options, while also being given the information to understand what they’re likely to be best at. Now imagine everyone having access to the same information and how much more efficient we’d all be… at everything. The goal isn’t to make privilege against the rules, the goal is to have a system in place that makes the use of privilege seem foolish and counter-productive.
If I were to offer up my best definition of privilege, it would be an applied, circumstantial advantage. When circumstantial advantages are used to further the collective interests (efficient), people seem not to mind. When circumstantial advantages are used to further self-interests (inefficient), there’s an issue. Our issue isn’t with having different strengths and weaknesses from one another. Our issues aren’t even with those who apply their strengths when competing. Our issue is those who take the short-sighted approach of putting their own interests ahead of collective progress. Our issue is with those who use their resources to create inefficiencies in the larger system at play.