The privilege is the absence of barriers that exist for other people

You may not have noticed this (I kid), but talking about privilege doesn’t always work out. If it did, we wouldn’t be hearing so much about that guy Tal Fortgang, who is so remote from having any privilege that major media are paying close attention to his lack of privilege. Mychal Denzel Smith explains in The Nation why it all goes wrong.

When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.

But they don’t grasp that, because they’re not aware of the barriers that exist for other people, because they’re not other people. That’s the “privilege” they have. It’s so fatally easy to translate lack of awareness of X to what you think is awareness that not-X. I know this; I catch myself doing it all the time. It’s one of the fast thinking mistakes we make. It needn’t be an accusation, it’s just reality.


  1. jenBPhillips says

    And how. I’m attending a vision research conference right now, and have sat through talks and awards ceremonies lauding the preeminent clinicians and scientists in my field, who have all been white men. That is, with the exception of last evening’s symposium entitled “Where are the Women?”, chaired by some pretty heavy hitting, high achieving female ophthalmologists (along with one male). The word ‘privilege’ wasn’t ever mentioned in the lineup of excellent talks about the gender gap at the institutional, organizational and national levels in STEMM* jobs but it screamed out from every statistic that was presented, and from every analysis of the stubborn resistance to making changes at any level that would address the ‘leaky pipeline’ in these fields.

    *The second ‘M’ is for Medicine, by the way. It’s often not included in that acronym, but should be.

  2. Kevin Kehres says

    That’s a perfect definition. The absence of barriers that other people have to clear.

    Never thought of it that way — going right into the “stole that” bank.

  3. says

    I like that definition quite a bit (I’ve long referred to privilege as being able to navigate life with fewer obstacles to success, but the definition in the OP works better).

    Related to the subject of privilege (h/t to my sister on FB):

    Male privilege is “I have a boyfriend” being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.

    This amazingly puts into one sentence what I have been attempting to explain to ex-boyfriends and friends (male and female) for years, mostly unsuccessfully. The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is “taken” or “spoken for” (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman. It completely removes the agency of the woman, her ability to speak for herself and make her own decisions regarding when and where the conversation begins or ends. It is basically a real-life example of feminist theory at work–women (along with women’s choices, desires, etc.) being considered supplemental to or secondary to men, be it the man with whom she is interacting or the man to whom she “belongs” (see the theory of Simone de Beauvoir, the story of Adam and Eve, etc.).

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    Trouble is, the Privilege goalposts can be moved to accommodate anyone.

    Isn’t that what the ‘Dear Muslima’ outrage was about? Dawkins just moved the P Posts over to: ‘you’re just ‘privileged’ not to be shot for trying to go to school.’

    Oppression is not ‘privilege deficiency.’ It represents an active interference with the ‘normal’ state of integrity and freedom that is basic to humanity.

  5. says

    No, that is not what the ‘Dear Muslima’ outrage was about. Not at all; not even close. For that to have been what “Dear Muslima” was about, Dawkins would have had to be replying to something Rebecca had written or said that dismissed or belittled FGM and/or Saudi rules against women driving and traveling without a male guardian and/or adultery for stoning. That’s not what Dawkins was replying to. He was replying to Rebecca’s “guys don’t do that” which happened to have nothing whatever to do with stoning for adultery or FGM.

    No, a parallel for that would be a white person responding to a black person who objected to being followed by security in a department store, by screaming about much worse racism in some distant part of the world.

  6. Decker says

    I think the whole idea if white or male or whatever privilege to be outrageous.

    Jews punch well above their weight in just about all areas of human endevour, be it

    music, the arts or the sciences, and yet, and seeings the incredible discrimination they’ve often faced, who would ever refer to them as privileged?

    Going the extra mile, making an extra effort, and having the discipline and fortitude to follow through and finish something has nothing whatsoever to do with privilege.

  7. says

    Jews in the U.S. nowadays have white privilege. It’s an intersectional thing, to be sure; there’s mainstream Protestant privilege (and many of its constituent privileges), which Hasidim, at least, do not have, but white privilege is a different invisible knapsack, and being Jewish does not preclude that.

    (Though, of course, not all Jews are white.)


  1. […] Benson has a great post that explains this concept succinctly. “The privilege is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.” Ophelia is always a good read. She has great insight and is more patient than I usually […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *