What Is Privilege?

What Is Privilege?

The academic definition of privilege used in critical social justice may be different from how our readers know the word in everyday usage. Consider by way of analogy how most people use the word average to mean ordinary. In contrast, mathematicians would use the term average to specifically describe the mean, median, or mode of a series of numbers. In mathematical usage the average is the sum of all the numbers divided by the total number of items (the mean), the number in the middle when a series of numbers is ranked lowest to highest (median), or the number that occurs the most frequently in a series (mode). As you can see, while the lay usage (“ordinary”) may be loosely related, the mathematical usage has much greater specificity.

Similarly, the lay usage of privilege means to be lucky, to have fortunate opportunity and to benefit from this luck and opportunity. These definitions suggest that privilege is a positive outcome of happenstance. However, when academics use the term in describing how society works, they refer to the rights, advantages, and protections enjoyed by some at the expense of and beyond the rights, advantages, and protections available to others (Kimmel & Ferber, 2016; Johnson, 2006). In this context, privilege is not the product of fortune, luck, or happenstance, but the outcome of advantages some have and others do not. Because dominant groups occupy the positions of power, their members receive social and institutional advantages; thus one automatically receives privilege by being a member of a dominant group (e.g., cis-men, Whites, heterosexuals, the able-bodied, Christians, upper classes).

In Chapter 3 we described our immersion into our cultural socialization as similar to a fish immersed in water. While the fish is moving through the water, the water is also moving around the fish. Even when the fish is simply floating without expending effort, currents still affect its movement. When you are swimming in open water, your outcome (where you end up and how long it takes you to get there) is not determined solely by the effort you expend, but in larger part by the particular current you are in.

If the water is moving against you rather than with you, the amount of effort it takes to move forward is enormous. Yet this effort results in only the smallest increments of advancement. On the other hand, if the current


is with you, swimming is almost effortless. With minimal effort, you can quickly travel a great distance and are seldom aware of the current at all (we are much more likely to be aware of the current when we have to swim against it). Privilege is like having this powerful current propelling you forward throughout your life.

While this metaphor may be useful for understanding privilege, we do not want to reinforce the idea of privilege as natural or an outcome of luck and happenstance; privilege is neither. Privilege is socially constructed to benefit members of the dominant group. Further, structures of privilege are not just artifacts of a racist, sexist, or classist past; privilege is an ongoing dynamic that is continually reproduced, negotiated, and enacted. An example is The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray), a bestselling book published in 1994 that argued that there were genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups, a perspective that is in line with the scientific racism that legitimized the enslavement, extermination, genocide, and colonization of racialized groups around the world. Geneticists have debunked this “fact,” yet books such as these continue to be published and widely read (Gould, 1981/1996; Nisbett, 1998).

Another more recent example is the research into the “causes” of homosexuality and how that research is used to justify the denial of privileges and opportunities to same-sex partners and gay and lesbian people. Still another is the immensely popular writing of Ruby Payne (2005), who promotes the idea of a “culture of poverty.” She argues that those who are at the bottom of society are there because they are culturally deficient—that is, they lack the attitudes or work ethic necessary to “get ahead” in society. Perspectives such as these are sometimes referred to as cultural deficit theory.

In this chapter we want to unravel two interrelated dynamics that are central to understanding social and institutional privilege: the external and structural dimensions and the internal and attitudinal dimensions. We will use the example of ableism to examine how these dimensions of privilege play out.

Cultural Deficit Theory: The explanation that minoritized groups do not achieve in society because they lack the appropriate cultural values (e.g., “They just don’t value education”) or because their culture is deficient in some other way.

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