The Unearned Benefits of Privilege

There are many misconceptions that arise when the term ‘privilege’ is mentioned. Some of these misconceptions are intentional and designed to minimise the power and impact of an honest conversation about privilege. Indeed, there is something of a war being waged against notions of privilege as a bad thing, particularly in the context of White privilege.

The fact that Kemi Badenoch, the Women and Equalities Minister, said in October 2020 that teaching White Privilege as uncontested fact is breaking the law is evidence of this. The argument is not quite as stark as this sounds, as the thrust of her position is that a balanced teaching of other views is required to make it lawful. However, that she went on to say that the government does not want White children being taught about “white privilege and their inherited racial guilt” is indicative of the Conservative government’s resistance to effective racial justice work.

This government’s statements on White Privilege and Critical Race Theory over the last year or so echo the views being expressed in America about Critical Race Theory, and are further articulated through the Tory party’s resistance to decolonisation work that is encapsulated in their ‘Retain and Explain’ policy. This policy serves only to preserve the White lens on Britain’s imperial crimes as the accepted version in history and retain the celebratory symbols of this past in the physical materiality of our society. The right-wing, conservative political bloc here and across the pond are seeking ways to minimise the impact of Black Lives Matter and the light this movement has shone on the reality of White Privilege, on the reality that our society places a higher value on White lives than it does on Black lives, and on the truths of Britain’s colonial crimes.

The biggest irony in the government’s critiques that White Privilege and Critical Race Theory are political is that, in claiming that these subjects further divide society and mean that the White working-class are even more marginalised, they are themselves politicising them. There is a need, though, to clearly express what is meant when we talk about privilege. This is not the ‘privilege’ that accrues to anyone who has the money to ‘buy’ that holiday, or that ‘car’, or even that ‘house’. These trappings of materialism are, to varying degrees, available to anyone who plays the game. The privilege we talk about when we refer to White privilege or masculine privilege, or middle-class privilege, or heterosexual privilege is not a privilege that can be acquired by anyone though ‘hard work’, we don’t live in a meritocracy, after all, or even through the exploitation of others for material gain.

The privilege we talk about relates to the ‘unearned’ benefits accrued by certain groups in society. Those who have privilege have done nothing in order to gain it. Society affords it to us simply because we belong to certain groups and not others, groups that society is set up to favour. Peggy McIntosh described these privileges in relation to White people and men some over 30 years ago.  Due to a widening in our understanding of the multiplicity of privileges and oppressions, in Western society today, privileged people are those people who are racialised as White, men, the middle-classes, heterosexuals, those not disabled by society, etc. If a person holds any one of these identity characteristics, they hold privilege in that regard. If they hold all of these identity characteristics, they are, like me, the locus of intersectional privilege.

In the context of systemic or institutionalised privilege, people with privilege are more likely to be in relative positions of power and people with power tend to use it to benefit other people like them, in part due to affinity bias and, in part, due to prejudicial bias. This exercise of privilege power further reinforces and maintains privilege and systemic and institutional discrimination. Whilst we can acknowledge how systemic discrimination is oppressive, it is important to remember that individual privilege is not benign. It is not something that it doesn’t matter that I have – my privilege denies other people access to resources, opportunities and to their own well-being. This denial of access is an act of oppression. It may not be something I actively do with intent, but it remains oppressive. If we are going to create an equitable society, then we have to resist the government’s agenda, find ways to disrupt and undo privilege in all its forms.

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