The Workings of ‘Privilege’

Privilege is a term that is increasingly heard in the narratives of the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion world, whether these be narratives that seek to ‘undo’ some form of privilege or discourses that seek to undermine the reality of its existence. However, there is little discussion about how ‘privilege’ as a phenomenon works. To me, this is a significant absence for if we are to ‘undo’ privilege, then surely, we must understand how it works?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘privilege’ as ‘a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.’ Academic research into the phenomenon provides a deeper definition of privilege through an understanding that its benefits are ‘unearned’ (McIntosh, 1988). In this, it is society that ‘gives’ certain rights and benefits to some people based on who they are and not by what they do, or their abilities. This points to a relationship between the social construction of identities, power, and cultural practices, which challenges arguments that privilege is accrued through ‘hard work’ as a function of a meritocracy. The truth is that we do not live in a meritocracy. How, though, does this relationship between identity, power, and culture work to create privilege?

Throughout our society the dominant discourses on identity mark individuals and groups with identities, such as those of race, gender, and class. These discourses also carry the rules of cultural intelligibility that communicate how individuals should perform these identities (Butler, 1990) – they tell us how to perform Whiteness, or masculinity, or middle-classness, etc, to be recognised as such. However, the dominant discourses that also carry ideological value judgements on the cultural practices associated with these identities. These discourses seek to condition who is seen as socially superior and who is seen as socially inferior through constructing different cultural practices as holding varying degrees of social value, acceptability, and respectability.

The markers of identity, people’s compliance with the associated rules, and the ideological judgements on cultural practices intersect to differentially locate people in society; locations that disadvantage or privilege them based on the intersectional make-up of their identities. This intersectional nature of identity results in identities that are oppressed in all their aspects e.g., Black, working-class, women, those that are simultaneously oppressed and privileged across different aspects e.g., White women, and those who are the locus of intersectional privilege e.g., White, middle-class men.
The dominant discourses of identity also work to communicate what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal’. In our society, discourses such as those of Whiteness, masculinity, middle-classness, heterosexuality, ableist constructs of physical and mental operations, etc have assumed this dominant position and, as such, being White, being a man, being middle-class, etc, are all constructed as normal and superior to other possible intersections of race, gender, class, etc.

This ‘normativity’ of certain identity characteristics creates Gramscian social conditions of hegemony; ‘hegemony’ being the process through which the social and cultural leadership of dominant identities, in this case, White, middle-class men, and the ideologies they espouse are normalised as the ‘accepted order of things.’ How has the ‘normativity’ of White, middle-class men been constructed, communicated, and maintained? Well, historically, White, middle-class men have controlled the spread of ideological and cultural norms through their dominance of politics, science, the media, and business. Today, little has changed – 44% of newspaper columnists, influential editors and broadcasters attended an independent school, over seven times the national benchmark, with 33% coming through the independent school to Oxbridge ‘pipeline’ alone; 29% of MPs still come from a private school background, four times higher than the electorate they represent; and in business 57% of the Rich List and 48% of FTSE 350 CEOs are privately educated. Significantly, the vast majority of these influential people are also White and men (Montacute, 2019). It is White, middle-class men who control the mechanisms that convey what is and what isn’t ‘normal’.

Through the power White, middle-class men hold to construct their ‘leadership’ as the normal and ‘accepted order of things’, people are ‘coerced’ into consenting to their dominance in meaning making and power relations and, by these means, they maintain a power that is legitimised through popular consent, rather than imposed by force (Hartley, 1994). Given the numerical minority status of White, middle-class men in Britain this, in effect, means that rather than a meritocracy, we live in an oligarchical society.

Importantly, through being normative, the discourses of Whiteness, masculinity, and middle-classness have worked to create a situation in which the positions of power and privilege afforded to White, middle-class men are ‘taken for granted’ and have, for many years, been unremarked upon. Any dissent that has arisen to this position of hegemony has been resisted by ‘othering’ it, casting it as ‘abnormal’ and, often, as antithetical to the well-being of society as a whole.

This unmarked status for White, middle-class men speaks to a theoretical underpinning across the academic scholarship on privilege. This is that not only is privilege, in being unmarked and normative, invisible to those who hold it, but that this invisibility is central to constructing the social conditions in which privilege can be maintained. The scholarship asserts that the dominant, identities that accrue privilege can resist challenges because because privilege’s invisible nature reinforces the normalcy of their dominance and, critically, the abnormality of those who offer dissention and resistance to this state of affairs (Bailey, 1998; Johnson, 2001; Pease, 2010; Connell, 2005; Dyer 1997; Frankenberg; 1994).

Thus, for many years, for decades, for centuries it has been the invisible-to-self and normative nature of Whiteness, masculinity, and middle-classness and the control White, middle-class men have held over the media, politics, business, etc, that have maintained the dominance and privilege of White, middle-class men in our society. However, with the advent of social media counterhegemonic discourses, such as those of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, have shone a critical light on the behaviours of White people and men such that this invisibility is being eroded and White, middle-class men are having to respond. Understanding how they are responding and undertaking work to ensure that these responses are transformative, rather than ones of resistance, denial, and rejection of this critical visibility is central to sustained and systemic change and the creation of a truly equitable society.

Bailey, A. (1998) ‘Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Fry’s Oppression’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 29(3), pp.104–19.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Routledge London

Connell, R.W. (2005) Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity ,2nd ed

Dyer, R. (1998). White. NY: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hartley, J. (1994) “Hegemony,” in O’Sullivan, T., Hartley, J., Saunders, D., Montgomery, M. and Fiske, J. (eds) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, London and New York: Routledge.

Johnson, A. (2001). Privilege, Power and Difference, Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, CA.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Working Paper No. 189. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women

Montacute, R. (2019). Elitist Britain, The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission

Pease, B. (2010). Undoing Privilege : Unearned Advantage in a Divided World. London :  Zed Books.

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