Privilege: An Exploration of an Important Social Phenomenon

by Mr.Ellipses

We must first begin with a statement of fact. There is no such thing as a meritocracy. It does not exist at this moment in time, anywhere in this world. What exists instead are systems of unfair hierarchies, that push people towards the top, and push others towards the bottoms – often in arbitrary ways. There is ample evidence of massive racial inequalities, gender inequalities, sexual orientation disparities, the existence of class systems that limit economic mobility, and the fact that entire countries work to ensure their socio-economic conditions stay on top at the expense of other weaker countries (Colonialism, Imperialism, Globalization, Post-Colonialism… and maybe Capitalism). With all those factors operating on this society, there is no real chance of any legit meritocracy forming (putting aside objections to the very idea that a meritocracy is a legitimate socio-economic structure to strive for).

Now, the trouble with this, that many have, is that there is no single person at the wheel, rather these social forces are all the quite natural outcomes of human behavior and environmental factors. If we wish to fix these disparities and promote justice and equality, we must identify where inequalities exist, and then work to mitigate their influences. To do this, one must be able to recognizing how these things function. For to be able to dismantle the mechanisms, gives us insight on how to fix the machinery.

So there are two points to take away from this.

1) If you realize that huge unfair disparities exist, than you must also conclude that these disparities prohibit any true meritocracy from forming.
2) In order to stop disparities, you must understand how they happen, how they function.

These unfair systems have two ends, ones on the bottom end, the ones who are oppressed, and the ones at the top end, the ones who receive the benefits of that oppression. You see, oppression is not just done out of irrational hatred, it is also done for its utility. It is not enough to simply discuss the plights of the ones at the lower end, that just gives us a fairly lopsided view of the issue… you also must discuss the ones at the top. You have to have the full picture to understand the problem. Especially because history has taught us a good lesson, that the ones on the top will almost always resist the change of the infrastructure that seeks to make things more equal. The ones at the top, get so accustomed to being there, that they feel entitled to be there, and think that things have to be this way and they must be there.. therefore, any effort to change the system, will be met with resistance from those near the top. So to make a change, we must understand not only the plights of those on the bottom, but understand how those at the top behave, so that we can combat them when they inevitably resist change.

Take this with you as you read on:

3) Oppression does not just keep others down, it works to put others up.
4) History, and current scientific research, tell us that the resistance to social change will most likely come from the people that are relatively satisfied with the way things are at that moment. It tells us that the people that likely benefit from the current system are invested in keeping it from changing.
5) Merely talking only about the plight of disenfranchised, delocalizes the problem. To promote social justice, we must look at all aspects. This includes understanding where these benefits go, not just where the plight is located.

This is the center reason why talking about this group, the ones that get the benefits, the ones we call privileged, is important for social change. This is why we give it a name, why we give this side of the equation of socio-economic phenomenon, that result from unfair hierarchies, a name. Here is a working definition of privilege in a larger, more general, social justice way. In a system of unfair hierarchies the ones who receive the benefits of such a system, are the ones we call the privileged.

6) Privilege: The other side of oppression. The people who receive the benefit of unfair social structures.

That is it, that is the definition. Yet what does it mean? What can we extract from this? What can we expect from giving “it,” that hidden phenomenon that people hardly talk about, a name? What is there to gain in this identification? There is a lot to take in besides this definition, more than I can write on here, more than I even care to write about.

Let us explore this through an example. An example, that reaches across almost all boundaries – except maybe one. We must start with “a universal”, then we go into the territory of “controversial conclusions” of privileges.

Companies work to maximize profits, and minimize costs. (Labor Laws exist for a reason.) One way to do it, is to find cheap labor. Sometimes when they are unable to do it here to the degree they want, they move their workspaces elsewhere. Somewhere in another country, were perhaps labor laws do not demand a high minimum wage, if any at all. It gives this company the ability to sell lots of things, at relatively low prices, while making lots of profits. Who receives the benefits from such a low price system? The company and it’s consumers in the mother country. Who ends up being oppressed? The laborers in the foreign country, the economy of that country as a whole, and the laborers back in america who lost their jobs. I imagine this is working class economics 101, again this is why labor laws exist, and I gather everyone reading this is working class…. so this, is “our universal.” One we can break barriers with.

Lets bring this home. American consumers receive the benefits from such systems. As an American, I, and all of us, buy relatively cost efficient items at the expense of other people in other countries. I am privileged in this respect, as a consumer. If I wished to eradicate this unfair system and promote a more fair and balanced system of wages, I have to understand what this will do to me and my privileges.. that I will no longer be able to get that affordable merchandise anymore. I must be willing to sacrifice cheap goods for social justice. Putting it that way, you wold wonder why cheap labor is such a world wide issue. Well because everyone demands cheap goods, and no one really cares how they get so cheap.. so they maintain a “system of demands” that disregards how companies meets those demands, and this keeps this unfair wage labor system in place. Even if, some good peoples, like myself and you, want equal wages for them, we are part of a system that keeps their wages low. We have that privilege, and we must understand our role in this system of oppression, and understand that ending that system means putting a stop the the benefits we get from it.

This system does not just hurt the oppressed either, it also hurts the privileged. You see, while it is true that as a consumer I will be able to afford cheap goods, it is also true that such labor market forces make it almost nearly impossible for american labor parties to develop strong unions. As the company would simply move the factory overseas as soon as a strong union starts to develop…. as such, the mere threat of this move keeps places that do not have unions, de-unionized. Ultimate this type of system is not only oppressive to the foreigners but it is also oppressive to Americas working class – even if they do benefit from it by being consumers. The real benefits in this system will go to the CE0’s of the company and Americas business class. So only a tiny fraction of the privileged actually are unaffected by the negative repercussions of such an economic structure. The rest of us, kind of fcked ourselves while benefiting from the system. This also provides an incentive for us, the ones with the privilege to break the system, because, in the end, we also benefit from a more balanced way of life.

This is as straight forward as I can be. Let go of the complications of economics for a bit, and instead just analyze the analogy for the underlying rational. Bridge that gap in reasoning to other social justice issues. Understand what privileges you may have, and what ones that you may not have. Understand that American consumers benefit from the unfair economic practices that America foreign policy does to maintain economic dominance and stability. So merely being born in a rich and stable country, is in fact a privilege. If we were merely born in one of the Latin American countries the US dominates with unfair economic policies, we would be born into the group we would call the oppressed. Instead we, as Americans, are part of the privileged.

Privileges manifest in very odd ways, ways that one ceases to see when one is part of the privileged class, but one can not help but see when one is part of the oppressed class. We must, seek those privileges out, take them out of the darkness, and show them to ourselves and everyone. Keeping them in the dark, where no one talks about it, will prevent people from identifying the full spectrum of the problems when it comes to societal issues of inequality.

On a personal note…

Does this insidious fact of our society, that it is in part built on the suffering of other peoples, degrade our personal struggles? That is a decision that is up to you. I am conflicted on this one. I feel like it does degrade some of my struggles… you know, as “first world” problems. However, it does not negate that the bad things that happened to me, are indeed still bad things that are worth a lot of moral condemnation. I just think it puts those things in perspective, like.. “Hey it could be worse.” I think it also makes me not just want to concentrate on my plights, but also recognizing that all plights. That all people deserve some amount of my recognition and support,and many oppressed peoples are far worse off than I am. That, is, at least, how I take my privileges. I too suffer, despite my privileges, but I also put this suffering in a larger perspective.

I also have this vantage point in being one of the oppressed in regards to color. I see how it effects me negatively, I see how emotional it makes me, how racism humiliates, degrades, and dehumanizes me… and that I do not want that for anyone else. I see how people of privilege treat me when I speak about my feelings in a raw human way… and it makes me not want to treat others when they speak about their feelings and I happen to be a part of the privileged group. I try, at least, to be understanding as I can be, when I can be, when I think it is fair and just.

This is just my personal take – I felt it was important to include this so that I do not ignore individual pathologies of both the privileged and the oppressed. Everyone has some privileges, and are probably also a part of some group of another that society treats unfairly for arbitrary reasons. You have to take that personal connection (what are your privileges, what are your plights, however small) and try to find that connecting line to the suffering of “the other.”

Now lets take this back to the wider cultural picture. The argument made here is that in order to stop the system, you have to learn what your place is in it, and how it effects your behavior… because no matter how strong of an individual you are, your behavior will be effected, Awareness, is one of the few things that can mitigate personal prejudicial behavior, and actual structural changes in how society functions is the only thing that can end inequalities – which is what the end gaol of all social justice movements really are.

So lets take this to a “controversial issue” of white privilege. What is it? How do racial inequalities grant whites a social privilege? Well first we have to grant, that inequalities exist, and that they are caused by some sort of social structure that keeps people of color down. Then we have to recognizing that this social structure puts some people up, in regards to racism…. it puts white people up.

Lets start with a very small general example. There are negative stereotypes of black people. Yes, hard to believe. We are all influenced by such stereotypes, yes also hard to believe, so we have this hidden bias inside of us. In this case, that makes us treat black people according to some negative stereotype we have internalized due to culture. This causes us to hire them for less jobs, and on top of their economic disparity which prevents access to high level jobs, they are also kept out of high level jobs due to hidden racial bias.

How do whites benefit from this? Well the direct benefit is that there are more positions available to whites because they are not being filled by people of color. The other thing is that this culture does not just associate negative things with blackness, for a negative means nothing if it is not referenced to some other standard, it also associates whiteness positively. So there are these positive stereotypes of white people, that they speak correctly, that are imbued in this culture at the same time they add negative attributes to black people. That way when a white person goes in for an interview, not only do they benefit from less competition via the exclusion of minorities, but they also are given a leg up via the fact that all people think positive things about this white guy just by being white. So just via the notion that “white is the norm” he is looked at not just in a neutral way, but a positive way because he is white. This small aspect comes from white privilege.

Does this guarantee him a job? Nope. If anything there are intersection of privileges that play a role. A person may be white, but maybe is he from the south and his accent is bad…. or maybe he is poor and as a result did not get a good education and does not dress well enough for the interview, or maybe he is actually a she.. and suffers from gender discrimination, or gay… etc… There are many factors to include, such that it makes it difficult to know which social privilege or lack of privilege plays a role in what events that take place. This is why studies are done to find a more concrete basis for this or that inequality. We have discuss them one at a time, in a more simple fashion, to understand separate pieces, before we bridge them all together and build a more concrete picture of what goes on in this complex intersection of social privileges, and individual actions.

This, I think, for now, is a good summary on what privileges are, in general. That wold allow one to begin identifying specific privileges that play a role in different phenomena.