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.



  1. Phil says

    Interesting almost nobody dares to mention female privilege, especially when women living in western society with university education are the most privileged women in history.

  2. AC Harper says

    It’s a shame that I feel compelled to nit pick an otherwise interesting article:

    “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. ”

    Is inequality growing, or is sensitivity to inequality growing while inequality itself is unchanged? I don’t *know* the answer although I’ve read arguments that suggest inequality is decreasing and contrary arguments that inequality is increasing. Perhaps ‘check your privilege’ is just a rhetorical device?

    • erLeo says

      There are charts about the distribution of wealth in the last 50 yrs, and yes , inequality is growing. What lately is referred to as “class inequality”, what this article considers the actual inequality. So don’t think about the current meaning when referring to inequality under this article.

      • AC Harper says

        Can you point me in the direction of these charts please?

        • Justin says

          My understanding is that global poverty is being eradicated at an unprecedented rate, but wealth distribution *within* nations is rapidly favoring a select few. Google the “elephant graph.” Many think this is why we’re seeing a resurgence in populism in the western world.

    • Yes, ‘check your privilege’ is a kind of bullying used to silence others. If you just look at what’s happening in China you’d have to say that phenomenon alone means that inequality is reducing in the world.

  3. ga gamba says

    I suspect many reading this article will find much to agree. Accusations of privilege do grate the nerves and insult clear-headed thought, especially when the accused can cite many facts to debunk its existence or at least its omnipotence and permanence.

    I don’t know whether Mr Biagetti is a traditional Socialist or Marxist, but there are a few reveals in his article that suggest he is a leftist leveler of days long ago. He writes:…the gatekeepers of class status in the West; …to speak of ‘class privilege’ is to imply that the existence of unequal social classes is acceptable, so long as they are treated equally;
    …discussing the massive and growing inequality that conditions the lives of people of all backgrounds; and 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.

    We’re offered class-based leftism as the legitimate alternative to the postmodernist privilege players. It isn’t.

    Firstly, there will always be gatekeepers. Even Trotsky himself saw the emergence of a bureaucratic class, which was a gatekeeper, in the Soviet Union and he stated they were as tyrannical as the class they replaced. Hierarchies are inevitable. What we need to recognise there are different types. Not all hierarchies exist to sustain power and its corruption exclusively. Hierarchies of competence and merit exist, though there needs to be checks and balances to ensure corruption, including ideological corruption, doesn’t take hold. It’s when social engineering is implemented that unviable alternatives are given life and sustained. In the West we see this emerge with the new group of diversity and inclusion bureaucrats; since that’s their remit, be assured that’s what they’ll do no matter how many out-groups are trampled upon.

    Secondly, this “massive and growing inequality”, i.e. the (mis)allocation of wealth, exists where? Worldwide? This is certainly not true. More wealth has spread worldwide in the last three decades than ever before. Was it the transfer of wealth from the wealthy West to the developing East? Only if one views this as a zero-sum game where wealth is finite. It is true many jobs once performed by working-class Westerners were off shored. It is also true this transfer resulted in the growth of a middle-class in these developing nations. As much as US workers enjoyed the post-war economic boom, it must be acknowledged this phenomenon was in large part due to the US being the sole major economy untouched by war on its productive areas. It’s unrealistic to expect the high-growth high-wage economy of the 50s and 60s, which often academics and activists point to when decrying the today’s stagnation, was sustainable unless the US imposed an imperial trade policy like pre-war Britain on the globe, which would have been impossible. Due to geopolitical concerns, the US sought to build up allies’ economies through preferential trade to establish a bulwark against communism. This worked, though at cost to some industrial workers, such as those in the textile and footwear industries at first, and at great cost to the US taxpayer to defend allies and trade routes.

    Many of our problems for the displaced industrial workers, who have seen their numbers employed and wealth decrease, were due to how GATT and later the WTO were structured. They violated the Ricardian principle of comparative advantage. Developing economies gained access to the wealthy West’s markets, displacing steel workers for example, yet were allowed to restrict access to their home appliance and auto markets through tariff and non-tariff barriers because it was “fair”. There was no immediate quid pro quo. Displaced steel workers, who should have moved to the expanding home appliance and auto factories, were denied this because the expansion of exports to developing markets didn’t happen. The developed world too erected barriers, for example against the agricultural commodities produced by some of the least developed countries of the world, i.e. the countries in the greatest need for just about everything minus more poverty – expanding agricultural exports would have had knock-on effects to infrastructure such as roads, rail, and ports. The free-trade agreements are really managed trade ones, and those least at risk to global competition, such as the credentialed class of doctors, lawyers, and academics, together with government workers, have been amongst its greatest beneficiaries. It’s no surprise the elite are amongst so-called free trade’s greatest supporters.

    Though the number of billionaires has increased, it hasn’t happened due to pillage – excluding the families and cronies of some nation’s rulers. By and large, billionaires offered goods and services wanted by many, and with expanded access to more consumers across the world, the many became many more. Further, many of these billionaires created publicly-traded companies, so as their wealth increased so did that of the many share holders, from individuals to employee pension funds. Too few people know how to have their money work for them.

    People wail about income inequality, but what does that mean to most people in the industrialised world? Does it mean less food on the table? No potable water? An absence of sanitation services? No, not really except for the homeless. Some cite the Scandinavian countries as being “more equal”, which is true when measured by GINI coefficient, yet Belarus, Pakistan, and Cambodia have less income inequality than Germany, Canada, the UK, and the US. Where would you prefer to live? Ukraine is more equal than Norway.

    Mr Biagetti would also have us believe control of information and the use of violence is on the rise. Certainly information is at its freest and most accessible in human history presently. We are inundated with it. The greatest library ever in the history of mankind is at our fingertips. Further, it’s never been easier for a person to be a disseminator of information, whether by being an independent journalist, founding a publication such as Quillette, or broadcasting on youtube, podcasts, etc. As for violence, I suppose where one lives or looks will determine whether it’s on the rise. We’re seeing an increase in terrorism around the world, though mostly contained in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Some European countries have experienced a spike in violent crime due to decisions made by their respective leaders, yet where these decisions were rejected the violence has not increased. In the US, despite all the cries about violence, it’s been trending downward since the 1960s. Mexico and much of Central America have seen a significant upswing in violence, both by state and non-state actors.

    As much as it may pain some people to acknowledge it, the social ills such as poverty, disease, inequality, suppressed speech, and restricted assembly have decreased as capitalism has expanded globally. It’s an imperfect equaliser (though it never claimed to be one), but in bringing about tangible and measurable improvements to lives worldwide capitalism is unrivaled. Rather than fretting about equality, which is unobtainable, better to endeavor for improved access of opportunity and eliminate the barriers that protect favoured in-groups such as political clients, oligopolists, and kleptocrats. Having thorough and clean records of land ownership would do more for opportunity than any UN action. Fighting money laundering and tax evasion is an attainable goal. Aim for transparency in government contracts. These are some of the ways to improve the lives of the many.

    • Man that was deep. Would you be willing to write and article (Capitalism/inequality) similar to what you have above for the stoopreport? DM twitter handle @stoopreporters.

    • V 2.0 says

      Couldn’t agree more. The problem with all this talk of inequality is that there seems to be this notion that wealth magically appeared one day and somehow the rich unfairly got hold of it (who knows how). Whenever I hear someone moaning about the unfairness of it all I want to ask them what they would have if all those one percenters just disappeared. Would the ‘ordinary’ people, the oppressed masses get together and explore for oil, invent the next iPhone, make sure supermarkets and hospitals exist? They had millenia to do it but somehow ended up eking out a somewhat precarious existence with a couple of sheep and a hut until someone invented the cotton gin and convinced a bunch them to spend their lives in misery standing in front of it.

      • Robert6 says

        This idea about the 1 percent being all super genius, heroes of humanity types is a laughable idea. Yes, a few of the super rich worked very hard and moved us forward with innovative ideas, but many come from wealthy families. Who would create the next iphone? Lol, well how could they have the opportunity when so many are stuck at the bottom, receiving poor education to further compound the problem. A certain amount of inequality it good for society, but rampant inequality is disastrous for the future economy and living conditions. Many of the rich are capitalizing on rent seeking forms of profit, buying up private assets to pass down to future generations, and not in the least inclined to invest or innovate.

    • Robert Paulson says

      One of the reasons I read Quillette is the overall quality of its comments section, of which this comment was excellent example of.

    • Would you be able to expand this into an essay for Quillette or similar? I found it clear and interesting.

    • You’ve succinctly managed to debunk most of the writer’s ideological sophistry. Well done.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      ‘in bringing about tangible and measurable improvements to lives worldwide capitalism is unrivaled’. I imagine that to believe this you’d have to really want to. The questions becomes – why do want to?

  4. TJR says

    Indeed, “privilege” seems to be largely a way for privileged middle-class people to draw attention away from their own class privilege.

    I’ll just repeat what I put on WEIT a few hours ago:

    For what it’s worth, my proposal for an improved list of the most important privileges

    Middle or upper class
    Living in the first world
    Good health
    Good looks
    High intelligence

    • Tony says

      You are absolutely correct.

      Personally, I find it appalling that “stupidity” is pretty much universally regarded as deserving of condemnation while intelligence is regarded as praiseworthy.

      Even one of my intellectual heroes, Bertrand Russell, says, “There is not a single word in the gospels in praise of intelligence.”

      This is horrific! Whether we are intelligent of stupid is not under our control, so it should not be subject to praise or blame.

      To praise the intelligent (regardless of whether they use their powers for good or evil) seems to me to be merely the same as praising kings.

      Likewise, the stupid have done nothing wrong. They deserve our respect just as much as the intelligent, especially if they devote their energies toward good, which many of them do.

      I long for a future wise society in which these things are understood and incorporated into the habits and manners of civilized peoples.

  5. Caligula says

    The concept that a group lacking privilege should have the power to shut down the speech of those who are more privileged seems inherently flawed, as the group that can do this must obviously be privileged if it has this power to determine what others may say.

    And perhaps in the larger sense, many “privilege” discussions (if they can be called that) might best be described as aspects of will-to-power in that they are attempts to arrogate power to oneself or one’s identity group, and probably at the expense of some other group.

    Perhaps there is something somehow utopian in deciding disputes with displays of force (shout-downs, shunning, violence) as an alternative to discussion on the merits, yet somehow it seems more Hobbsian than utopian. How reasonable is it to assume pure, altruistic motives to those whose behaviors may appear to violate others but who insist that, really, it’s OK so long as it’s in the service of utopian ideals?

    • Tony says

      I think we are seeing the difference between peacetime and wartime morality.

      If we are at peace, we talk, and allow each other to talk, and listen, and do not attack each other.

      During war, we respect no rights of the enemy.

      Somebody is telling the youth that the current situation is war.

      We fail to see this, and retain our peacetime habits and customs, and allow them to take power, at our peril.

  6. Debbie says

    “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.'”

    Awesome: privilege was redefined because of privilege. Haha!

    I think the article makes a more reasonable case that privilege has been adopted on a more micro level — i.e., that privilege can (and has now been defined to) exist within horizontal social strata. That’s not unreasonable, but I don’t think it is necessarily the result of class guilt. Couldn’t Melinda Gates rationally draw privilege inferences from the way store security pays more attention to Missy Elliott on their mythical high-dollar shopping spree on Bond Street?

    • Joe says

      You have just demonstrated the problem with leftists assigning “privilege” in the modern definition.

      A particular demographic is statistically more likely to commit a certain type of crime and, consequently, are more actively scrutinized. Therefore, all other demographics are privileged.

      This word is being used more and more to assign blame and ignorance (even malicious, willful ignorance) where the offended party would be much better off examining the root of these perceived injustices and encouraging people to take a little personal responsibility and fix their own problems.

      • Debbie says

        Wait, I think you just made MY point, Joe:

        “A particular demographic is statistically more likely to commit a certain type of crime and, consequently, are more actively scrutinized. Therefore, all other demographics are privileged.”

        To paraphrase you: rational people can make decisions based on group attributes and apply those decisions to individuals. That’s like the definition of racism, but OK, if you say so. So let’s say I’m a rich black woman who is followed by store security while shopping. I presume you’d agree that I’m being treated differently than the rich white woman shopping in the same store at the same time who isn’t being followed by security. I presume you’d agree it’s better to not be followed by security than to be followed. How can you suggest the store doesn’t grant the white woman a privilege over me in the way it treats me? Is it the word “privilege” that offends? Would it be better to say the store’s conduct puts the white woman at an “advantage” over me, by subjecting her to less scrutiny?

        • Joe says

          Every rational individual is entitled to make decisions based on group attributes, not to do so would be exposing the individual to unnecessary risk. Do you walk down a dark alley or a well lit street to get home? Without knowing any data about crime rates for the area recent incidents at those particular locations, you automatically prefer the well lit street because you know dark alleys present higher risk of danger and loss of property.

          It’s entertaining that you immediately jumped to racism. I didn’t mention race anywhere in my initial reply. Incidentally, you’ve mentioned it in both of your comments AND you conflated race and class. Demographics do not automatically translate to race. In case you need to refresh your definition: a demographic is any portion of a population that shares an observable trait or behavioral pattern.

          Nevertheless, I’ll humor your “racist” example… Store security is responsible for making sure nothing gets stolen. Since you can’t do a full profile background check on everyone who enters the store to establish risk data on an individual basis, you may only act in accordance with aggregated statistical data based on appearance and behavior. If a particular store is primarily victimized by people who wear hoodies, would you expect the security for that store NOT to treat people wearing hoodies any differently? No. Is it right to treat people wearing hoodies differently? It depends on the perspective. To the average person wearing a hoodie, no. To the store interested in preserving its merchandise, yes. Does the store owner’s right to protect his property supersede the individual’s [non-existent] right to be treated precisely however they want to be treated regardless of appearance or behavior? Yes.

          “Privilege” or “advantage” have no bearing on this. Unless you’re getting kicked out of shops purely based on appearance, you have no actionable complaint. Your proclaimed victimhood is subjective and confined to your own perspective. Why should anyone else have to acknowledge a “privileged” status because of your feelings?

          • Debbie says

            I didn’t bring race into the discussion. The article is about the origins of the contemporary concept of white privilege. The whole thing is about race.

            I’ll just note that Joe from Quillette thinks increased surveillance is no big deal. Cool.

          • Joe says

            So, saying that a store owner should be allowed to protect his merchandise is arguing for “increased surveillance”?? That’s fine Debbie… I will note that Debbie from Quillette responds to well-reasoned arguments and questions with strawmen and dismissal.

          • Debbie says

            Fair enough. My point is that white privilege might actually be based on race rather than class. Your point seems to be not that [adjective] privilege doesn’t exist, but rather that what some people perceive as [adjective] privilege is based on rational reactions to perceived group attributes. So I don’t see where this went off the rails.

            But even if based in rationality, do you at least recognize there’s a difference in treatment of persons in the group with the perceived attributes? And regardless of motive (rationality, prejudice, law, whatever), isn’t the difference in treatment exactly what people describe as privilege (i.e., the privilege not to be treated that way)?

          • Joe says

            I’m not accustomed to the tenor of discussion on this site. Perhaps I interpreted some of your comments with some undue hostility. I appreciate you bringing this thread back into the original scope.

            You have made a fair summary of my expressed views, but you are missing a key element because I was trying generalize away from race. I reject claims of race-based privilege entirely. To say that individuals of a particular race are privileged (or underprivileged) *based on their race* is tantamount to admitting racial superiority, especially in a society which already enforces equal opportunity for everyone. The same could be said for any immutable characteristic (race, gender, etc).

            The term “white privilege” is just as offensive to me as “white supremacy” and they should be treated the same. Both are a dismal attempt to explain the disparate socio-economic status between races; and both are used as an excuse for preferential treatment, resentment, and division. The only difference between them is that one is used by insecure white people against everyone else, and the other is used by everyone else against white people. I shouldn’t need to point out what happens in societies which place the blame for all their ills on a particular group of people.

            Regarding feeling watched while shopping in a clothing store: it’s an unfortunate reality that some people are watched more closely than others. I acknowledged this in my hoodie example. However, attributing it to “privilege” is completely self-defeating. In doing so, you simultaneously admit inferiority and helplessness. I would contend that it is better to accept reality and figure out what you can do to change it (for yourself and possibly for society) without playing the victim and blaming society at large.

          • Debbie says

            That’s a perfectly defensible position and great explanation. I look forward to seeing more of what you have to say about these contentious topics.

  7. Craig says

    I’m sure it is not a coincidence that the term ‘white privilege’ has grown in use at the same time that the word racist has weakened in its power to silence dissenting opinions.

    • Tony says

      I believe that the word racist *should* have weakened, due to overuse.

      But I think it is more powerful and terrifying than ever.

      An accusation of racism ends your livelihood.

      At the same time, there is no punishment for false accusations of racism.

      The change in language usage is an indicator of what is coming.

      It used to be, “White supremacists are a problem.” Everybody agrees. We condemn those guys.

      Now we hear that, “White supremacy is a problem.”

      With a small change like that, the problem shifts from a few racists to all white people in prominent positions in society.

  8. Caligula says

    If having a lack of privilege can itself confer privilege, then does a lack of privilege become a form of privilege?

    Are all privileged privileged, or are some privileged more privileged? Are there higher and lower orders of privileged and, can privilege be recursive?

    There must be a PhD in there somewhere (for someone).

  9. According to Wikipedia, “[T]he Jewish question was a wide-ranging debate in 19th- and 20th-century European society pertaining to the appropriate status and treatment of Jews in society. ”

    I presume the “Question of White Privilege” is a way of asking the “White Question”–the appropriate status and treatment of [White Men] in society. Given the resistance of this dying minority to trends towards progress, and its apparent propensity to cling to its religion (which was part of the problematic “Jewish Question”), as well as their over-representation in elite jobs (sound warm?), you could almost cut and paste into a 19th century pamphlet.

    I think the problem with calling it the “White Question” is the negative associations people have with “nationality” questions. Privilege sounds nice, although every ancient anti-Semitic canard can be translated in the “problematic” issues related to “Jewish Privilege”. In the same way, the classic “International Jewish conspiracy” morphs into structural “white supremacy” (and given US support for Israel, someone talking about “white supremacy” would be accused of employing dog whistles, if they weren’t Leftists in good standing).

    Nothing like recycled Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to make you sound woke!

    • FattyFatMan says

      I had the same take. “White privilege” rhetoric is closely related to anti Semitic canards. We are wired for out group hostility evolutionarily. There are biological reasons this type of thing is an easy sell.

  10. Julien Couvreur says

    The title pertains to a “paradox”, yet the essay mentions no such thing. What’s the paradox?

    • Biagetti seems to be making the point that in contemporary progressive usage, the term ‘privilege’ doesn’t denote actual wealth or power. Instead it’s being used to deflect attention away from those who do.

  11. “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.”

    Further to ga gamba’s remarks above, I found Mr. Biagetti’s article interesting and informative, while noting the not-so-subtle progressive signalling poking through the seams. For example, the line referring to Justin Trudeau’s pandering to “white guilt” reads as a play for an obvious slam dunk. Fair enough, if there ever was an obvious paragon of white privilege, Trudeau might be it. Still, I’m surprised the author doesn’t claim Trudeau as a comrade, politically speaking, given the latter’s fervent promotion of leftist ideology in Canada and abroad.

    On the home front, Trudeau continues to proactively expand the notion of white guilt. On Monday (03/27/18) our Prime Minister offered an official exoneration for six Tsilhqot’in men hanged in 1864 for leading an uprising against colonial authority in British Columbia. This incident pre-dates Canada’s formation, and joins a growing list of apologies by Canadian politicians.

    As a Canadian, I could go on. And on. Since his election, Trudeau has operated Canada’s federal government far to the left of what many voters expected. For example, the focus of the Trudeau government’s 2018 budget was ‘Gender Equality’, dropping the ‘g’ word no fewer than 359 times in 367 pages. Actual, you know, budgeting was treated as a secondary priority and seemed somewhat overlooked.

    Which brings me to Mr. Biagetti’s statement that Trudeau, “lobbies fervently for tar-sands oil pipelines opposed by First Nations people.” Beyond his telling use of the freighted term ‘tar sands’, quite the opposite is true:

  12. Or we can say the “paradox” emerges because the Left equates high SES with possession of “power” even though, for example, in the US, there are a bunch of highly educated, high SES Iranians who came over after the Islamic Revolution, but there is little indication they have any type of political influence or cultural influence.

    The reality is there is “talent” and there is “political power”. A group can be talented but lack political power, this is pretty much the lot of Asian-Americans, and a group can lack talent but gain opportunities through political power, like the 19th century Irish-Americans running political machines. Further, a group can have both talent and political power, or lack both talent and power.

    This myopia is the direct result of the denial of anything like innate merit. For example, when two armies war, the result of the battle is not a result of the size and effectiveness of the competing armies, it is based on how much structural “power” or “mojo” each army possesses. If one army wears their “ghost dance” shirts and stays ritually pure, the bullets of the other army will not penetrate. Likewise, the US has nuclear weapons and Nigeria doesn’t because of “structural white supremacy”, what amounts to “mojo” granted by a malevolent supernatural agent. It has no reference to an objective world which operates on principles of cause and effect.

  13. RealityEngineer says

    It used to be that people were concerned about helping the “underprivileged”. The presumption seemed to be that the life of a typical middle class white male and how they were generally treated by others was to be viewed as normal. The concern was to lift up those who weren’t as fortunate.

    It seems the focus of some today is to instead imply those typical middle class white males have undeserved privilege, that they are “overprivileged”. Referring to something as a “privilege” implies it is special treatment that isn’t normal and the connotation is usually implied that such a “privilege” can be taken away. The intent seems to be to find excuses to potentially drag down the status of the more fortunate, rather than lifting up the status of the less fortunate. It doesn’t seem useful to implicitly lower the bar for what is viewed as “normal” by implying it is “privileged”.

    • Joe says

      Excellent insight!

      This really cements the assertion that “privilege” today is used as a pejorative to discredit someone’s opinions or arguments, or as you put it, “drag down the over-privileged”.

  14. Iffia says

    I believe we should replace the word “white privilege” with normal or even neutral. If we take class out of the equation (please bear with me), much of “white privilege “ is simply being afforded a certain neutrality at minimum (not jumping to negative conclusions, not attributing negative attributes without evidence of said attributes) or nepotism,at best or worst (depending on which part of the colour wheel you fall) being treated as part of the inner circle, attributed positive characteristics that have yet to be evidenced. Having “White privilege” is simply being treated with certain level of respect/humanity before proving “worthiness.

    What if we thrived to extend “white privilege” to all of humanity.

    Remember I separated wealth from the equation. This privilege will have to be tackled another day…

    May you all be granted “White Privilege “ today

  15. Here is the project: establishing and protecting legal privileges on the basis of identity categories, while having to give lip service to egalitarian norms.

    A good offense is the best defense, so you come out swinging claiming people with other identities have special privileges that must be erased by creating legal privileges for others. So now you are promoting a set of special legal privileges for some on the basis of race and sex, while defaming the group who is not getting special favors as “privileged”, and then using denunciations of heresy to shut down criticism, rational debate, or even scrutiny.

    But let’s face it, its just good old-fashioned Tammany Hall corruption and ethnic nepotism with a social justice paint-job.

    • Joe says

      I like your style; you’ve clearly illustrated the double standards that exist with these people. Why do you think people of the supposed “privileged” class fall into the self-defeating trap of supporting this system? Societal pressure? Absolving guilt? What is to be gained from embracing an ideology which places you squarely at the bottom of an identitarian caste system?

      • Joe Bob says

        You get to be feel morally superior in a world full of immorality. You get to feel part of a team fighting for the “underdog”. You get more meaning in your life than you previously experienced in your atheistic, unmoored, consumer celebrity culture.

        You also get to easily understand complex social reality. Oppression rules everything, and pointing out disparities between groups is easy and is rewarded within the media and within academia. You have a ready made dogma that doesn’t require complex thought.

        It’s also a new form of “white mans burden”. In the white privilege worldview, who has all the power and agency? Not those poor “people of color” who you are defending and uplifting. You do.

        • You could also consider a thought experiment. You are a tribe who has been conquered by the Aztecs. Every year, the Aztecs come and seize a certain number of 16 year olds to sacrifice to the Gods. I would imagine the 17 year old members of the village would be the biggest supporters of the annual sacrifice, because they survived, and if the rules changed, it might subject them to peril (sacrifices might end, or might expand to other ages).

      • My hypothesis would be the following: because only white trash people complain about it, and by playing along, you establish that you are a good, respectable professional person and not some white trash piece-of-sh__. Remember, most of the white SJW’s are produced at elite colleges–they made the cut, so what do they care? What cost is there for them? Its like asking the faculty of Harvard to stand in solidarity with the suffering of the people of West Virginia. Its all status signalling, the new pronouns, etc., to establish yourself by esoteric social signals that you are a member of the upper class.

        Plus, never forget the power of weaponized guilt. The Catholic Church profited off of it for thousands of years, and Social Justice has adapted it to their program.

        • Joe says

          Comparing social justice to religion does produce some uncanny similarities…

          Orthodoxy & Dogma = Hate speech laws & imaginary genders
          Repentance = Self hate & checking your privilege
          Excommunication = Social banishment for expressing or fostering wrongthink

      • AC Harper says

        “What is to be gained from embracing an ideology which places you squarely at the bottom of an identitarian caste system?”

        Some people prefer (over-simplified) order to chaos, especially if they can forge a community of people with similar outlook. Of course when you find out that your companions have a slightly different view of the world not only are they wrong but they have also betrayed you. Which might explain why the edge cases of the political world are often riddled with splits.

      • Tony says

        For white women: Victim status, evading the accusation of being the oppressor, moral righteousness.

        For white men: Hope for sex.

  16. JBR says

    Good article. It’s right to point out that privilege talk comes from the affluent, college-educated class. But I have to question the notion that identitarian privilege discourse is a way for affluent people to assuage their guilt and protect their privilege. First of all, because I’m always skeptical of purely psychological explanations of social phenomena, especially ones that ascribe a class’s reason for electing a particular course of action to a collective need to discharge a cognitive burden. I think aggregates of people act according to their interests.

    Secondly, I doubt that it has to do with protecting their existing privilege so much as with certain affluent groups seizing new privileges. Why? The pervasive occurrence of rent seeking at the top levels of our economy has led to a widespread sense that economic life is a zero-sum game, a win-lose competition over scarce economic (employment, salary) and social (status) resources. Confronted with the prospect of genuine scarcity (whether real or imagined), affluent college-educated individuals don’t target the real source of the problem — the aforementioned rent-seeking behavior of those who extract rather than produce wealth.

    Instead they target the nearest vulnerable group they see as better off than them — whites, males etc. of the same socio-economic class but perceived as enjoying unearned advantages. It must be noted that the perception of unearned advantages is rather convenient for the ones doing the perceiving. Any actual advantages are exaggerated, fictional advantages are fabricated, and all this is chalked up to unprovable nefarious motives such as implicit bias.

    The function of all this is to enhance the competitiveness of affluent women, PoC, sexual minorities. How? By hamstringing the competition and appropriating unearned advantages (in other words, privileges) to themselves. They even engage in public smear campaigns to remove respected men from their positions, which opens up opportunities for the new revolutionary guard to seize those positions for themselves.

    Voila, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to obtain those scarce resources. It’s a dirty, dirty game.

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  18. ” 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.”

    Not so simple, I think.

    “A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference on whether or not the University of North Dakota’s sports team name “The Fighting Sioux” was derogatory. Near the end of the discussion a young American Indian student stood up and told the crowd that he thought the name honored the Sioux Nation. He said Indians had diabetes, alcoholism, and other more pressing issues to worry about. I said I was no psychologist, but if I was not mistaken, demeaning names and images are an assault on every human being’s self esteem and sense of personal worth. And would this young Indian man please correct me if I am wrong, but poor self esteem can have a direct negative impact on a person’s physical, mental and emotional health.”
    Mark Anthony Rolo,

    • Joe Bob says

      A key insight of buddhism is that our habitual conditioning (genetic, cultural, family etc) shapes and colors our experience. The same “objective” phenomenon affects different people differently. What one individual experiences as deeply offensive doesn’t even register for someone else.

      In recent years, what we have been seeing is supposedly well-meaning activists telling people from designated identity groups (or really anyone) how they *should* feel and experience certain words. The entire field of microaggressions is built on this foundation. Words and phrases are now viewed as “objectively” offensive. Intent on the part of the speaker is irrelevant, and the subjective experience of the listener is often considered irrelevant as well, particularly if her experience doesn’t match the official activist dogma. After all, the individual who belongs to a “marginalized” identity group could just be “internalizing” their own misogyny or their own self race hatred.

      That’s where the supposedly well meaning professor/activist comes in, to tell the poor oppressed how they should be feeling. And his prescription usually is that they should be feeling oppressed.

      All the activist talk about “listening” to women and people of color only goes so far as the women and people of color are parroting the activist dogma. Once individuals go off script, the “helpful” professor/activist/clergyman is always around to correct them.

    • Tony says

      Italians, like the Irish, are often called fighters as well.

      If it is an insult, it’s the insult I want. Give me aggravation, expect some back.

      Not so bad if you’re going into a harsh environment. Jail, school, work, life.

      Demeaning names and images are an assault on your self esteem and self of personal worth?

      Yes, of course.

      But have you had your head held under water while bullies flush the toilet?

      There are real bullies in the world. There’s real injustice.

      Let’s not spend our energies on name-calling, please.

      When I see people ignoring gang rapes and trying to stamp out winking, I wonder what’s going on.

  19. Sylv says

    There’s a guy in Paducah, Kentucky whose job is to pump gas. He has no medical insurance, no dental coverage, no retirement plan, he never finished high school, and lives one paycheck away from the streets. He’s a white guy. One day another white guy who has graduated from Harvard with a Sociology degree pulls into the station and says “fill it up with premium, please.” They strike up a conversation, and in the course of that conversation the Harvard grad helpfully explains to the guy pumping his gas that, in spite of all appearances, he is actually more privileged than Paris Hilton; “You see,” he says, “while Paris Hilton has white privilege, you have white privilege and male privilege.”

    Upon hearing this, the attendant reacts badly, cutting the conversation short and very rudely instructing the Harvard Sociology grad to perform an action that is anatomically impossible. The Harvard grad shrugs climbs back into his Mercedes, telling himself as he drives off “You just can’t talk to these people.”

    He may be right, he may be wrong, but if Mr. Harvard Sociology doesn’t understand why his audience didn’t embrace his message, he needs to give it some more thought.

      • I think you’re missing the point of intersectionality: Paris Hilton also has socio-economic privilege, which in her case vastly outweighs any disadvantages which derive from her gender. Not all men are “better off” than all women, but women in our society still face obstacles and challenges which men do not. (Women are privileged in some ways as well — e.g., they don’t have to register for the draft — but on balance I think men retain the upper hand.) “Privilege” refers to unearned advantages which people possess because they belong to a particular group. When evaluating the position of any individual, whether Paris Hilton or the man from Kentucky, all of his or her identities and circumstances need to be taken into account.

        • What in the blazes is an “obstacle and challenge” that women have but men do not? Menstruation? Hitting the Wall at 35? Having men you aren’t attracted to hit on you?

          Are these “obstacles” in any way quantifiable? Did the intersectional caste hierarchy descend from the sky on stone tablets? Or do people with power, e.g. elites, define who is “truly oppressed” and who is “privileged”? If power defines, then the groups power defines in favor of can only be part of the elite power structure, and the oppression Olympics is as rigged as Professional Wrestling.

          Its about having and exercising real legal privilege, and hiding your agency and attacking people without those privileges based on some bogus egalitarian rationale. Dishonest, corrupt, nepotistic.

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