Friday, April 24, 2009

Types of Privilege

You hear about privilege a lot in gender, identity, and ethnicity politics. Privilege entails certain abilities, benefits, and well.. privileges that society gives specifically to various groups but not others. Describing a privilege means naming the group who benefits from it and it's specific effect (this article will focus on the latter). It's generally characterized as a bad thing, and it is a bad thing (for the most part). Pretty much every kind of privilege entails some kind of problem with society. However, that doesn't mean that the actual terms of the privilege are a negative thing. Allow me to explain:
The way I see it, there are four kinds of privilege. The first would be what I call "positive privilege." Like all kinds of privilege, this is includes some kind of benefit that's placed on only certain groups in society. The nature of the privilege though is some kind of good and positive benefit, which should really be bestowed on everyone in society. For a good example of positive privilege, travel back in time 100 years to the early 20th century, when only white men could vote. It was obviously bad that this right was restricted to a small group, but the right to vote itself was a positive thing - something that should have been extended to everyone. So, voting was a positive privilege.
The second kind of privilege would be the opposite: negative privilege. That is to say, a privilege that is only bestowed on a small group, but really no body should have it. For example, let's say a friend of yours is the child of a very influential person (say, a senator). Your friend goes out drinking one night and tries to drive home afterwards, only to be pulled over by a cop. When the cop realizes who your friend's parent is, they immediately decide to let them go without so much as a warning, despite the fact that they were clearly unfit to drive. Being able to drive while drunk (and get away with it) is a privilege that no one should have. Therefore, negative privilege.
There are some kinds of privilege that can't really be imagined as "everyone having" or "no one having." They only exist if they're restricted to a certain group. These are the third type, which I call "comparative privilege." The best example of this that I can think of is the gender wage-gap. National surveys say that, when you average out the wages for all full-time workers in America, women tend to earn about 80 cents for every dollar that men earn (or, men earn $1.25 for every dollar women earn)1. This kind of privilege really can't exist in a way that everyone can have it or no one can have it. It would be impossible for everyone to make %25 more than everyone else, and it would also be impossible for everyone to make 20% less than everyone else, because there needs to be a separate group making a different amount of money for the gap to exist. The benefits that one receives from this kind of privilege only exist comparatively, and not absolutely.
The last category of privilege is probably a controversial-sounding one, but here me out. It's "justified privilege," and it does exist. There are some kinds of privilege, that are based on merit (rather than race, gender, class, or any other group one is born into) and also just make sense. For instance, people who don't know C# probably isn't going to be chosen for a job as a C# programmer. If you never bothered to learn Spanish, you're probably never going to be hired as a Spanish teacher. And only people who can cook are realistically going to get hired as chefs. These are all examples of groups of people receiving a certain benefit for being in that group; they're all privilege, but each one of them is a privilege that should exist. They are justified privileges. Of course, with every example of a privilege, it's completely up for debate whether it's justified or not (as is true with all these categories) It bares repeating, though: any privilege based on a group someone was born into is never going to be justified.
In addition to the types of privilege, I believe that there are also 3 levels. From most-significant to least, they are: legally-enforced, socially-enforced, and non-enforced/symbolic. The first, legally-enforced, involves any sort of privilege that is written into law. This would include, for example, any kind of restriction on who is allowed to vote.
The second level is socially-enforced, and (as the name would imply) includes privileges which are not legally put into law, but exist because of how people act and the expectations they hold. It's not (I'm fairly sure) illegal for men to wear dresses or skirts, but the expectations that they don't and the reactions that people give to men wearing them generally act as a deterrent that prevents men from dressing in that manner.
Non-enforced or symbolic privilege is a kind that doesn't really effect you in any tangible way, other than to subject you to certain ideas or stereotypes. This includes things like how people of your sex/religion/ethnicity are portrayed on TV, or gender-specific language. Granted, these kinds of privilege can create shifts in public perception that can lead to socially-enforced privilege, but they don't (in and of themselves) really effect how you live your life.
I offer up these classifications of privilege as a better way to understand and think of ways to react to it, but they do not work as perfect cut-and-dry categories; which type of privilege one is dealing with is certainly open to opinion. And there are some grey areas between the different levels of privilege as well (for instance, if the law is written in such a way that it would create equality, but courts always ignore it in favour of passing on their own biases, is that legally-enforced or socially-enforced privilege?). However, I believe that that descriptors I have given in this article provide an accurate way to mentally organize privilege, and that their scope covers all instances of privilege that I can think of (though I'm always willing to entertain suggestions that I've missed something). Here's a chart:

the privilege box.

1: There’s a lot of different estimations out there on exactly what the pay gap is, ranging from 70% – 98%. I’m just using 80% for simplicity’s sake.


  1. Nice chart :) The gender wage gap is more likely around 76-77% I want those extra cents! But hey I'm unemployed, I want any cents I can get right now :(

  2. Did you read my footnote on the gender wage gap?

    Thanks for the compliment on the chart. I think it looks nice, but I feel bad for leaving all the squares blank. I just didn't want to try to squeeze in examples or anything like that to each to them.

  3. you just need a diagonal line on it somewhere