Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University
Privilege is one of those ill defined words used in conversations and articles that rarely gets explored. Privilege typically has a negative connotation, as though being privileged is a bad thing. It is important that we critically explore this concept and how it is used. The idea of privilege should be seen in complicated ways from multiple points of view. We owe a debt to Peggy McIntosh for writing “White privilege: Unpacking the knapsack". While she was not the first to write about privilege, especially white privilege in the US, she articulated the issue so very well.
Democracy and privilege. Underlying our concern for privilege in the US is our idea of democracy in the US. If all people are created equal and endowed equally with inalienable rights then no one should have advantages, benefits, and rights that are not common to all. This is a laudable ideal and a cornerstone of what US citizens believe about ourselves. And then we go to work, to school, and to church, none of which are democracies. We live our lives co-creating inequitable environments that privilege some people and disadvantage others. We speak in favor of equity while co-creating inequity. That requires some exploration
So, what is privilege? Simply, privilege is some advantage, benefit, or right that some person or group of people has that other people or groups don’t have. The origin of the advantage, benefit, or right is a good starting point. Most forms of privilege, like legal privilege, positional privilege, or social privilege begin as a transaction between people. Economic privilege begins with having money.
Types of privilege
Legal privilege. Legal privilege comes from the courts or from the legislature. You get immunity from prosecution, legal exemption, and other legal privileges through legal action in the judicial branch of the government. Some people get legal privilege and others don’t. In TV shows the legal privilege of immunity from prosecution is traded for testifying. Informal legal privilege is what a police officer may extend to an informant by disregarding minor infractions in trade for information. You may also get legal privilege by getting a law passed to provide you with an advantage, benefit, or right, that is not for everyone. For example you may get a tax benefit for the wealthy that is not available for the non-wealthy.
Positional privilege. If I am a mid-level bureaucrat then I have certain advantages, benefits, and rights that a low-level bureaucrat below me doesn’t have, and fewer advantages, benefits, and rights than a high-level bureaucrat has. Business people with a high level of positional authority have privileges and corporate perquisites like access to the executive dining area, executive bathrooms, and to the corporate jet. An individual gets positional privilege from the organization through a transaction. The positional privileges in the military, where rank is observable through insignia, involve ritualized greetings and obeisance. Positional privilege is the result of a transaction in an organization giving someone an advantage, right, or benefit that is not available to all.
Positional privilege can be seen as earned privilege. If you have attained a level in the hierarchy, the assumption is that you earned it. In reality no organizational hierarchy is a level playing field. The inequities in organizational hierarchies are complex and an individual’s success in any organization is heavily influenced by a person’s social class of origin.
Social privilege. This is complicated. One way to understand social privilege is to look at the source of the privilege. Social privileging is a transaction between people that is often unconscious and in the background. Social privilege comes through a social interaction, not a legal or positional interaction and is a chosen of personal behavior giving someone some advantages, benefits or rights that are not available to everyone. The sources of social privilege are an effective way to differentiate among types of social privilege. These different sources are important distinctions in the dialog of privilege, but they all reflect the social construction and co-creation of privilege between people.
Cultural norm based social privilege is an interpersonal transaction based on social and cultural norms. When you give your seat on a bus to someone elderly because that behavior is a social or cultural norm for you then you privilege that elderly person. You assign them some advantage, benefit, or right that others don’t have. Respectful behavior, even ritualized respectful behavior, creates social privilege for whoever is receiving the respect. Similarly, perceived social class prestige is based on cultural norms and assumptions about personal status and prestige in the social hierarchy. This is socially constructed privilege based on widely accepted social norms within a culture. Giving and receiving privilege – advantages, benefits, and rights – is a social tradition in all cultures. The rituals and recipients of cultural norm based social privilege vary from society to society and from culture to culture, but is culturally ubiquitous.
Group membership based social privilege comes from membership in a specific group. While this can be membership in a campus fraternity or sorority it can also be membership in a gender or ethnicity. The idea of majority is contextual – being in a group composed only of members of a single fraternity or sorority makes the members a majority and everyone else a nom-member minority. Being European-American in a mall in Omaha Nebraska places you in the ethnic majority and gets you majority group membership based social privilege. Exploring Macintosh’s knapsack, much of what she describes as white privilege is majority group social privilege.
Economic privilege. Money gives you advantages, benefits, and rights, which have defined privilege above, but economic privilege does not come from legal, positional, or social interactions. Having money has the same effect as other forms of privilege, it is different process of being privileged, a different type of privilege. Certainly anyone with money can purchase advantages like first class tickets, or benefits like high priced attorneys. Certainly people with money can successfully influence legislators to provide them with legal privilege. Certainly people with money can successfully influence the media to reinforce social norms about deferring to people with economic advantage. There may be cultural norms about people with economic advantages that affects the interpersonal relationship and results in legal, positional, or social privilege. Economic privilege can play out interpersonally as social privilege.
The source of legal, positional, or social privilege is transactional. The source of economic privilege is having money. Economic privilege does not depend on the source of the money. Whether the money is inherited, earned, old, or new is largely irrelevant, anyone with money is economically privileged. This fails to address the question of how much money gives you privilege. Anyone who has more money than you has more economic privilege than you. Anyone with less money than you has less economic privilege than you. Like positional privilege, economic privilege is relative to your status in the hierarchy.
The privilege transaction. Some people give privilege and some people insist on being given privilege. Honorifics are example of earned privilege. Using titles on a US campus is interesting. There are regional variations in using titles, there are variations based on where people received their Ph.D., there are social class variations, and academic status variations. Insisting that others use a degree or positional title on campus is an example of demanded privilege. This is social privilege masquerading as positional privilege. Culturally and internationally the use of academic titles varies quite a bit.
Unearned privilege is based on some individual characteristic, like whiteness, or attractiveness, or personal height. Group membership based social privilege that relies on characteristics like ethnicity or gender is prejudice in action. “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” This quote, attributed to Barry Switzer, helps illustrate unearned privilege.
Privilege and Social Class
Privilege is both a cause and an effect of social class. Purchasing designer label positional goods is an example of manipulating perceived prestige to acquire social privilege. Positional privilege is one of the dominant features of the modern US corporation. More corporate perquisites come with higher positions. Position is a mark of occupational success which is one of the ways in which people compete for social status. Some forms of legal privilege, and all forms of positional and social privilege are about social class. Economic privilege demonstrated through conspicuous consumption is a traditional marker of social class.
It is important to explore what we mean by privilege and to use it clearly and with integrity.