The Psychological Wages of Privilege

In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his work Black Reconstruction:

Most persons do not realize how far [the view that common oppression would create interracial solidarity] failed to work in the South, and it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers  that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule” (pp.700-701)

In this, we see one of the early expositions on the nature of ‘privilege’, in this case, ‘White Privilege’. In truth, little has changed, whether you look at America, Du Bois’ focus, or at Britain. Whilst legislative changes may have removed some of the structural barriers e.g., the right to vote, desegregated schools, etc, the psychological wages accrued simply from being White remain and, as much as the White, working-class receive a different, ‘unearned’ psychological wage that the White, middle-class, it is a wage they receive that the Working-class of Colour are denied.

This historical articulation by Du Bois of an argument that highlights racial privilege and challenges arguments that privilege is a function of a meritocracy in which it can be accrued through ‘hard work’ is one that is relevant today, not only in relation to racial privilege, but in relation to all forms of privilege.

Privilege is accrued by individuals that society is set up to favour; individuals who belong to certain identity categories e.g., men, people racialised as White, being middle-class, not being disabled by society, etc. Whether these privileged people ‘work hard’, or not, the privilege they hold will determine the opportunities they can access and, yes, the economic and material benefits these opportunities present. However, the people within these groups will also receive an unearned psychological wage as a result of who they are and how they are favoured by society. Privilege not simply about economic and material gain resulting from society favouring a person, or a group. It is about not experiencing the psychological harm that systemic discrimination causes.

These psychological wages of privilege have received much attention, best known in Peggy MacIntosh’s (1989) ‘invisible knapsack of White privileges’, which has been expanded and developed into lists of privileges for the key privileged identity categories in our society (see links at the end for these lists and their authors). I have summarised some of these lists here and posed them as conditional statements in that If they apply to you, then you have and accrue the psychological wages of privilege.

  • If you do not have to worry that, if running for the bus people might think you have just mugged someone
  • If you don’t have to go into a greetings card shop and struggle to find a representation of your child when buying them a birthday card
  • If you know your surname is my true family name and not the name of an owner of enslaved people who forced it on my ancestors to mark them as his possession
  • If you don’t have to experience having laws about what you do with your body being made by people who are not of your gender identity
  • If you can buy clothes that have pockets you can actually use, rather than being designed to accentuate your physical form
  • If you can talk openly about enjoying sex without the people who can hear you assuming that you are giving them an open invitation, and one that can’t be refused
  • If people don’t express surprise when they realise you are intelligent, despite your accent
  • If you can express affection for your partner in public without being critiqued or attacked for it
  • If no one is going to say that your sexuality is just a phase
  • I you can adopt and raise children without people saying that you will molest them or force them into your sexuality
  • If you can go out into society and everywhere is accessible too you
  • If no one acts as if you can’t speak for myself because you are disabled by society

If you….then you are privileged and you do not have to experience the psychological and emotional harm that not being privileged in these ways causes.

Inequality and discrimination, just like privilege, are not simply about economic disadvantage. They are also a put the day-to-day experience if Irving in our society. If we are to bring about a truly inclusive and equitable society, then the emotional and psychological wages of Privilege must also be addressed.

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