Why We Still Need to Talk About Privilege

Recent online discussions of race, class and gender privilege have been dismissive of the concept. Here's how they miss the point.

By Jamilah King Sep 30, 2013

Not one but two prominent online discussions about privilege popped up last week. The first was sparked by Kate Menendez over at Thought Catalog, who defended her right to lead an upper middle class, debt-free life in high-rise apartment with a doorman without feeling guilty about it. The second, by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, was a tongue-in-cheek jab at the whole notion of discussing oppression and domination at all. His "Privilege Tournament" was an NCAA bracket-style contest to determine which segment of the American population gets screwed over most often, taking into account everything from race and gender to physique and allergies.

Aside from being obvious attempts at trolling, both of these pieces touch on an unpleasant fact about power: People who have it hate talking about it. But instead of shutting down, they’re striking back or poking fun at the discussion of privilege and equity. 

This, of course, isn’t a new thing. It’s happened for as long as people without various degrees of institutional power have had the means and access to make their grievances known. It’s why gains in education, employment, voting and housing made during the Civil Rights era have been slowly eroding. It’s at the core of the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s.

What easily gets lost in all of this is the fact that meaningful discussions about privilege deal with survival, not just semantics. Being, say, black and transgender is beautiful but, as the case of 21-year-old Islan Nettles shows, a lack of privilege can still be deadly. And that’s not because some magic fairy makes it this way, it’s because of structural issues such as routine sexual harassment, criminalization by police and job discrimination do.

I reached out to some people who’ve made talking about institutional racism and structural inequality their life’s work. Here’s what they had to say about why we can’t abandon discussions of privilege:

Terry Keleher, training director at the Applied Research Center, Colorlines.com’s publisher

"I think that it’s really important for white people to understand that they are racially privileged. Regardless of how anti-racist or racist or racially clueless they are, they still have privilege. No amount of guilt or shame about it, if that’s where they want to go, is going to change the fact that they have privilege. Rather than trying to hide your privilege or step outside of your privilege, it’s more important to figure out how to utilize your privilege in ways that are going to be constructive. And privilege can actually be an asset. When you have money or access to information or access to relationships, those can all be delivered in service to racial justice and social justice. You have to do it ways that are thoughtful and skillful and accountable and not recklessly or in ways that are patronizing.

I think what’s problematic is that they’re often treated as individualistic notions when really [privilege and oppression] are structural concepts. You can’t pit different identities against each other and treat them as if they are personal attributes when in fact the identities are fluid and they’re relational and they’re part of a larger social construct and a larger social context and they have to be understood in that way. And I think by reducing it in the way that the Gawker piece does, to just personal attributes that can be pitted against each other, it’s just not useful."

Andrea Smith, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside and author of "The Problem With Privilege"

"The whole discussion about privilege is problematic because it’s about putting that privileged person at the center of the conversation. It makes people who are not privileged an occasion for their reflection. But I think it’s really about keeping the dominant subject of whoever is privileged at the center still.

I think we need to focus on the structures that created privilege and what are the political projects for dismantling those structures. The discussion is much more effective when, instead of focusing on each individual, you look at how we’re collectively consciously supporting these structures or undermining them. And if you’re supporting them, then how can you undermine them."

Sarah Milstein, writer and social media personality

"The idea of recognizing and examining privilege isn’t to remove the privilege that some people have, but to give other people access to it. It’s a net gain for society. Setting up a tournament that makes fun of the fact that people do not have the same access and enjoy the same privileges is a way of saying it’s not legit for other people to have those things.

In a democracy and a civil society, part of the responsibility of people with privilege is to help other people gain it. That’s one of the fundamental ideas of our culture. Resisting it is also one of the fundamental ideas of our culture, but responsible and thoughtful people have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncomfortable and to live in the discomfort of recognizing that you may have access to some things that other people don’t have that you didn’t earn, but still benefit from."