Education, History, Top Stories

The Privilege Paradox

Check your privilege. This is a phrase that many of us, especially from the college-educated class, have heard or read with increasing frequency in recent years. It is sometimes used to counter the views put forward by an opponent belonging to a supposedly ‘privileged’ social group, without necessarily having to refute them. It is also just one of a series of comparatively new phrases using the word ‘privilege’ that have proliferated in current social and political commentary. A quick search of the headlines on a single given Sunday in February shows the word appearing in large print in the New York Times (“Black With (Some) White Privilege”), the Seattle Times (“White Privilege Diminishes Our Humanity”), and Teen Vogue (“Kylie Jenner’s Privilege Helped Her Avoid the Stigma Other Pregnant People Can’t Escape”). Even this cursory glance reveals two important facts about the usage of the word ‘privilege’ today: first, it is usually paired with an adjective linking it to the putative advantages of a particular racial, sexual, or other identity group, especially ‘white privilege’; second, it is deeply embedded in the language of the young, particularly of college-educated or college-bound millennials.

Seen in historical perspective, the notion of ‘privilege’ that younger, educated English-speakers revile is a new and peculiar phenomenon. A century ago, the word was a favorite of the working-class Left, who used it to refer to the inherited wealth and power of the rich. Emma Goldman accused governments of “extending still greater privileges to those who have already monopolized the earth,” and the socialist Upton Sinclair called himself “an assailant of privilege” who had “attacked pretty nearly every important interest in America.” Today, by contrast, the word is yoked to identity, referring to social groupings irrespective of wealth — for instance, one has ‘male privilege’ even when one is unemployed and broke. The term has joined the distinctive lingo of media-savvy and socially-conscious young graduates, along with such neologisms as ‘intersectionality’ and ‘cultural appropriation.’ Most of them learn this new lexicon from their peers or from the humanities and social-science departments. It is almost institutionalized: in 2014, student activists at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government demanded that a class on ‘power and privilege’ be added to their freshman curriculum, particularly to redress “racial insensitivity” at the school.

The irony of the young academic attack on ‘privilege’ comes into relief when we consider that colleges and universities serve as the gatekeepers of class status in the West. A college degree not only boosts one’s likely future earnings, but introduces one to networks of friends and allies that largely define the elite and the upper middle class. In other words, antipathy to ‘privilege’ has become de rigueur among precisely the social class that would previously have been considered among the most privileged.

This apparent irony is not an accident. Rather, the re-definition of ‘privilege’ in terms of identity rather than wealth serves precisely to protect privilege in the older sense. Privilege talk forms an integral part of the worldview that contemporary colleges propagate, and that students often fiercely advance and defend on their campuses — and the more elite the college, the more aggressive the defense. As Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution have shown, the more a college’s student body is dominated by high-income students, the more likely that college is to disinvite speakers whose views the students reject. When an elite college refuses to disinvite a speaker, as Middlebury did with regard to Charles Murray, the resulting violence left a professor in a neck-brace.

A conservative critic might view the Middlebury incident last year as an instance of liberal political correctness run amok — but this neglects the crucial question of motivation. Why would largely affluent college students, seated near the peak of the global social pyramid, turn so fiercely against a speaker like Murray? Cui bono? Students’ ideological crackdowns on their opponents do not actually suppress the views that they abhor. Instead, they serve to dominate social and political debate, fueling the constant media and academic furor over symbolic identity issues — and shifting the focus away from wealth and economic inequality. Every student riot against a right-wing provocateur grabs headlines; in a similar vein, young activists can feed a constant conflict over racist Native-American sports mascots, even as actual Native Americans, when surveyed, consistently say that they do not care about the mascots, and instead are far more concerned about poverty, addiction, and violence in their communities. Strategic and attention-seeking attacks on symbolic enemies distract from ‘privilege’ in the material sense — and both affluent liberals and conservatives benefit.

This fact should come more clearly into focus if we consider the genealogy and usage of the word, ‘privilege.’ The term has always served the particular political needs of the time and of the social groups that use it. It derives originally from a Latin term for a law or bill affecting a particular individual; in the Middle Ages, it referred to the formal rights, powers, or prerogatives that law or custom reserved to a particular entity, such as a monarch, a convent, a town, or a guild. In the eighteenth century, social critics such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine made the previously neutral word into a weapon of satire and polemic, attacking the injustice of the unearned powers that enabled greedy aristocrats and churchmen to exploit the commoners (from real rents and tithes to the mythical droit du seigneur). A search of Google’s database of English-language books and newspapers shows that the word ‘privilege’ appeared most frequently in the eighteenth century, reaching its ultimate peak in 1790-2, as the world reacted to the French Revolution and its abolition of the noble and clerical privileges of the ancien régime.

Cartoon in Punch, Dec. 1870.

In the nineteenth century, as middle-class liberals throughout Europe reformed their respective countries’ law codes and abolished the prerogatives of caste, the use of the word declined somewhat. At the same time, the meaning of ‘privilege’ broadened: during the labor struggles of the industrial age, it came to refer to the special advantages — often informal — that accrued to the wealthy elite. The socio-economic meaning of the term was clear by 1945, when Clement Attlee, in the midst of a fierce electoral contest with Churchill, asserted that “the Conservative Party remains as always a class Party….It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege.” Indeed, by that time, denunciations of “privilege” had become such a common cliché of British politics that Hilaire Belloc could remark acerbically on the occasion of a general election:

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne and Bridge)
Broke – and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

Nonetheless, after the Second World War, the occurrence of the term continued its slow decline. It fell off especially rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s and, during the latter decade, it reached its lowest level since the seventeenth century. Since then, the word has made a modest comeback; by 2008, its occurrence in print was back at early 1970s levels and rising.

The reversal of the 200-year decline of ‘privilege’ is clearly due to yet another transformation in its meaning. Over the past forty years, the word has appeared more and more often alongside identity groupings other than class, beginning with ‘male privilege.’ The phrase, ‘white privilege’ began to appear in print in the 1970s, referring to the legally encoded special rights of whites in South Africa and Rhodesia. Only in the 1980s did ‘white privilege’ broaden to apply to the putative informal social advantages accruing to the possessors of white skin.

This trend was spurred on massively by the seminal 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which the Wellesley-based scholar Peggy MacIntosh catalogs some of the “unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day” as a white person. The essay helped to fuel a sea change in middle-class discourse, reflected in the skyrocketing occurrence of the phrase ‘white privilege’ over the ensuing three decades. Even more importantly, the article established that ‘privilege’ can be not only, in MacIntosh’s words, “unconscious,” but also “weightless” and “invisible.” This assertion effectively removes the subject from the realms of social observation or debate. White privilege and its equivalents are unfalsifiable; in a perfect Catch-22, to question the meaning or existence of white privilege is automatically to declare oneself its beneficiary.

As others have pointed out, many of the advantages in MacIntosh’s list actually pertain more to class than to race. For example, it is hard to see how the statements, “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live,” and “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege” can possibly apply to all or even most whites. Rather, the essay serves mainly as a meditation on the racist discrimination that some of MacIntosh’s colleagues of her own social class must endure but that she herself does not.

MacIntosh’s article is a good example of how the redefinition of ‘privilege’ as the negative corollary of discrimination serves to hide the existence of poverty and social class. ‘Privilege’ in the new sense of the term does not need to be instantiated in any actual, tangible wealth or power, but it exists nonetheless as a matter of faith. It may seem rather perverse to tell destitute widows of West Virginia coal miners, whose husbands suffocated to death in mine collapses, that they have ‘privilege’  – but that is indeed what the new doctrine requires. Sometimes the theory can even turn observable facts on their heads. After the 2016 election, a series of articles condemned Jill Stein voters for their ‘privilege,’ even though polls and surveys showed that the majority of them were lower-income and a disproportionate share were people of color.

Despite all of these tensions and contradictions, the new usage of the word ‘privilege’ has entirely erased the older socio-economic meaning. Proof of the transformation lies in the fact that many social theorists today include in their laundry lists of the varieties of privilege, ‘class privilege.’ This phrase would have struck Clement Attlee or Emma Goldman as obvious nonsense, because privilege and inequality define class. The phrase is patently tautological and redundant, like ‘political government’ or ‘illegal crimes.’ Moreover, it implies a further contradiction: to speak of ‘class privilege’ is to imply that the existence of unequal social classes is acceptable, so long as they are treated equally.

There is a method to this madness. The new usage of ‘privilege,’ especially in its most common formulation, ‘white privilege,’ grew rapidly during precisely the same time period that economic inequality in the US and most English-speaking countries ballooned. Affluent college-educated Westerners have gravitated towards the MacIntosh version of privilege because it assuages the anxiety or guilt that they may feel about the widening chasm between themselves and the working poor. So long as you disavow your white, male, or heterosexual ‘privilege,’ the new doctrine seems to promise, then you need not question your high rung on the socio-economic ladder; so long as identity-based prejudice is suppressed, then society is fair and just, no matter how materially unequal. Furthermore, for the bloated and increasingly rich administrative class that runs the universities and other institutions that propound the new doctrine, it has the added benefit of diverting the rebellious anger of the young away from themselves. Hence, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (child of a previous Prime Minister) can draw cheers and applause for his long, tearful apology to indigenous people in Newfoundland, even as he lobbies fervently for tar-sands oil pipelines opposed by First Nations people.

Of course, one might question whether the young scholars, activists, and social critics who propound the new faith are part of a grand class conspiracy. Are they sincere in their convictions, or are they intentionally spreading nonsense in order to protect their wealth and status? The answer is surely somewhere in between: in truth, human beings are very good at sincerely believing things that also serve their interests. The younger generation’s decision to embrace the new definition of privilege to the benefit of their own class was probably, in MacIntosh’ words, “unconscious” and “invisible.”

None of this is to say that discrimination, prejudice, or the enduring inequality that results from past injustices are are not serious problems. Racism is rightly considered a scourge and a menace. However, redefining ‘privilege’ as merely the negative corollary of discrimination robs the English language of one of its few tools for discussing the massive and growing inequality that conditions the lives of people of all backgrounds. The best response to this loss is not merely to revert to the older sense of the word; trying to undo changes in language is like trying to make a waterfall flow backwards. Rather, people of conscience must recommit themselves to examining and exposing the material operations of power — the control of information, the use of violence, the allocation of wealth — that tangibly shape our social lives. This renewed social critique, furthermore, must not be driven solely by the college-educated class with its own agendas and predilections, but must include all people who work and struggle in our unequal world.


Samuel Biagetti is a historian and antique dealer living in New England. He has had articles published in Early American Studies, Journal of Caribbean History, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, Jacobite, and Areo.  He also produces a podcast, Historiansplaining.