FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2016 file photo, Loren Glass talks about White Privlege and Structural Racism in post-election America. (The Daily Iowan/Osama Khalid, file)

Williams: What is privilege and what do we do with it?


Understanding what privilege is and how it functions is essential in any sort of social justice.

By Dan Williams

Last week, colleague Laura Townsend wrote about the reality of white privilege. Her column relays the experiences of three college-age individuals who feel they have been affected by white privilege. This is an important topic that deserves a public discussion, because, as Townsend’s column illustrates, there’s some confusion about what white privilege is.

Not only is talking about race difficult, which makes talking about white privilege difficult, but it is necessary to understand the notion of privilege before we can understand the notion of white privilege. Therefore, when talking about white privilege, it is prudent to at least mention the wider concept contained therein: that of privilege itself.

The relevant notion of privilege I define as the receipt of certain benefits wholly through accident of birth. It is undeniable that privilege itself is a reality. Any of us could have been born the unluckiest person on the planet, which, by definition, picks out precisely one person. But we all have the privilege of not being that person. We are all privileged by comparison.

There are many kinds of privilege besides white privilege: cognitive privilege, for example. We now know that intelligence is not something we have significant control over but is something we are born with. We are living in a society in which success is increasingly linked to one’s intelligence. This is not to say that intelligence is the only factor that is important. All that is implied is that below a certain threshold of intelligence, there are fewer and fewer opportunities. These opportunities are being shifted upward to jobs that require heavier cognitive lifting or else are being replaced by robots. Thus, the accident of having been born smart enough to be able to be successful is a great benefit that you did absolutely nothing to earn. Consequently, you have nothing to be proud of for being smart.

Once we have admitted the reality of privilege itself and identified some species of privilege, we are better able to talk about the temperature-rising topic of racial privilege.

But when doing so, we must also bear in mind the purpose of drawing attention to privileges. The purpose is not to instill a sort of Catholic guilt in someone’s psyche, nor is it an excuse to make oneself feel better by demonizing another. The purpose of pointing out someone’s privilege is to remind them of the infinite number of experiences that are possible and the very large number of experiences that are actual that they know very little about. The purpose is to enlarge their moral consciousness, to make them more sympathetic to people who are less fortunate than they are.

Feelings of guilt are natural when coming to consciousness of one’s place in the scheme of things — and noticing that one has been conferred benefits through sheer accident — but guilt is an impediment to social-justice action, not a motivator (guilt slides easily into resentment). Keeping the general notion of “privilege” in mind allows us to notice that there are different species of privilege. We can debate whether “whiteness” is a sort of “master privilege” that overrules all others. Personally, I don’t find this believable — I don’t think our present society is that racist — but I imagine it once was. And that is enough to make one shudder.

Daily Iowan TV

Special Sections

Print Edition

Front Page PDF

Text Links