The shine has come off

In the NY Times magazine, Parul Sehgal considers the word “privilege.”

In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois had an insight that privilege isn’t only about having money — it’s a state of being. He noted a ‘‘psychological wage’’ of whiteness: Poor whites felt that they outranked poor blacks; they could at least vote and access public schools and parks. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley, expanded on the idea, publishing a list of 46 benefits of being white (for example: ‘‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time’’; ‘‘I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection’’). ‘‘I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage,’’ she wrote, ‘‘but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.’’ For many, this idea of privilege was their introduction to thinking about racism not as ‘‘individual acts of meanness,’’ in McIntosh’s words, but as ‘‘invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance.’’ And for people of color, it was yet another powerful confirmation of their perceptions, their feeling that there were different sets of rules in place. It also made the case that failing to reckon with your privilege meant settling for a partial view of reality — Adichie’s very point.

Invisible systems. It’s a pain trying to talk about them, because they are what it says on the tin – invisible. Once you become aware of them, they make sense of a lot of things, but they’re still not something you can point to the way you can point to the sun.

But the shine has come off this hardy, once-­helpful word. It looks a little worn, a bit blunted, as if it has been taken to too many fights. Instead of clarity, it has sown confusion: ‘‘I’m white, my husband is Latino,’’ one woman commented on a blog post about confronting your privilege. ‘‘We have a Latino last name. Does that mean I lose some of my white privilege?’’ Even those who find it useful in certain contexts say the word swallows too many subtleties and individual variations. ‘‘You need to know that I was privileged,’’ Ta-­Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog for The Atlantic. ‘‘I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss its origins. But you can’t really buy two parents like I had.’’ My own allegiance to the word is atavistic — growing up, it was one of the few words I had to understand the racism I felt so surrounded and mystified by. But now I find myself wielding the word warily, like the devalued currency it has become — dismissed as jargon or used to hector. The only reliable effect it seems to produce is panic.

It’s the Internet. The shine comes off all words these days, because of the internet. The pooling of conversation that is the Internet (especially the social media branch) means that jargon gets thrown at you 40 million times every day, so it can’t help losing its shine.

‘‘Privilege saturates’’ — and privilege stains. Which might explain why this word pricks and ‘‘opportunity’’ and ‘‘advantage’’ don’t. ‘‘I can choose to not act racist, but I can’t choose to not be privileged,’’ a friend once told me with alarm. Most of us already occupy some kind of visible social identity, but for those who have imagined themselves to be free agents, the notion of possessing privilege calls them back to their bodies in a way that feels new and unpleasant. It conflicts with a number of cherished American ideals of self-­invention and self-­reliance, meritocracy and quick fixes…

I think a better word would be “immunity” – which is slightly more clinical than “privilege,” and more specific. Privilege in the DuBois/McIntosh sense is having immunity to kinds of deprivations or insults that other people are subject to, along with being unaware of that very immunity.


  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    You and I have talked a lot about how certain terms—lived experience, intent not being magic—get overused and become a substitute for actually thinking about the situation before one.

    But there really isn’t any word substitution that’s going to fix the alleged problem with “privilege.” The difficulty isn’t the word, and it isn’t overuse. Privilege *is* overused, just as any term of art is overused, but it’s not special in that way. What people are objecting to is what it means. And I’m sorry, but what it means is real. It’s not going to go away. I know lots of feelings get vewwy vewwy bruised when majority people are reminded that they cannot simply choose not to be privileged.

    And so? It is always this way. It is this way when people refuse to say they’re “atheists” because it’s “provocative,” or when they run from being called a feminist because blah blah blah blah blah.

    The hard—very hard, and very real—truth is that folks are privileged. White people really really really super hate being reminded of that. But there is no profit and no progress in catering to that and trying to finesse language. It’s not the language they hate. It’s what the language means. It’s what it says about the system in which all of us are embedded.

  2. says

    Well, yes, but at the same time the word is ambiguous. The social science meaning is different from the colloquial or everyday meaning. That’s the source of at least some of the irritation – people who are very unprivileged (in the everyday sense) by most criteria being told they have privilege (in the social science sense).

    I’m not really arguing for replacing “privilege” though, just idly wondering if “immunity” might have been a better choice.

  3. quixote says

    “Immunity” is an excellent improvement, I think. It captures that unconscious-plus-I-didn’t ask-for-it part of advantage. It captures the point that I sail through places unharmed that sicken or kill others, not necessarily because I’m nasty or even meant to.

    And it has a very useful implication: the best use of immunity is to help those who aren’t. Like the Ebola survivors who became assistants in the wards. (No, I don’t mean turning all Lady Bountiful, but there are lots of ways fellow feeling can help and not hurt.)

  4. John Horstman says

    Well, yes, but at the same time the word is ambiguous. The social science meaning is different from the colloquial or everyday meaning.

    I disagree. I think the problem isn’t that it’s ambiguous, the problem is that a lot of people are essentialists prone to binary categorization who thus have difficulty understanding nuance. They treat “privilege” as an all-or-nothing proposition (I’m privileged or not), not recognizing that different people have different privileges and marginalizations (I’m privileged as a White male, but marginalized as a low-income genderqueer person), and that all of these are relative to people who are otherwise similar. As far as I’m aware, the usage with which most people are familiar is to refer to economic privilege, but the meaning there really isn’t any different, just more specific and unmarked. The social science meaning is in line with the common usage, as both are derived pretty directly from the literal Latin translation of “private law”. The problem is essentialist, binary thinking that doesn’t come close to reflecting reality.

    I don’t like “immunity” becasue it’s not true – “immunity” is explicitly absolute (if I’m immune to something, it can’t effect me at all), while privilege doesn’t mean that you always have an advantage (in fact, people interpreting it thus based on absolute, binary thinking is exactly the problem). Any word we substitute will encounter the same issues becasue many people still have trouble thinking in terms of spectra, gradients, constellations, etc. instead of essential binaries, and so the substituted word will hit the same wall.

  5. laekvk says


  6. carlie says

    The problem with “immunity” is that it relies on avoiding a negative, and therefore can’t discuss the positive aspects that privilege can bring. “I have immunity from not getting my accomplishments downgraded”?

  7. carlie says

    …which should be “I have immunity from getting my accomplishments downgraded”, but my point being it’s hard to construct it that way. How would you phrase the concept that someone named Joe Smith gets rated higher on his resume than someone named Jose Vasquez?

  8. footface says

    Words do lose their shine, though, and not only because of their (over)use on the Internet, and not only when they name difficult or uncomfortable concepts. This could easily happen with immunity, too, no matter how apt it might seem now. Words pick up associations unpredictably. What is merely objective today becomes incendiary tomorrow. What is neutral becomes disparaging. And vice versa.

  9. PatrickG says

    ‘‘I can choose to not act racist, but I can’t choose to not be privileged,’’ a friend basic common sense once told me with alarm with an exasperated sigh at the obviousness of it all.

    Fixed that for the friend.

    More seriously, that “with alarm” thing irked me. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being privileged, in the sense that people with privilege didn’t choose it. Different people come from different backgrounds, and none of us wrote the history we were born into or grew up in. It’s not an accusation, and it’s not a character defect of some kind. It’s an observation that hey, look, reality is, like, real.

    But to further correct the friend, you can’t choose to not be privileged, but one can certainly choose to embrace privilege. For example, by refusing to recognize privilege at all, assuming their position in life comes solely from their own awesomeness, looking down on people who don’t enjoy your privilege, lecturing people without privilege on how they should just be like you, working to ensure that others never will enjoy your privilege, and so forth. When I hear people complain that the concept of privilege alarms them, it makes me suspect they’re doing one of those things and they’re at best embarrassed by it, or at worst really want to keep doing it.

  10. footface says

    In some cases, for “privileged” we can substitute “lucky.” No, that doesn’t convey the gravity of the situation, and it might suggest that nothing can improve. But the privilege I enjoy is just a matter of luck. (That’s the nature of the kind of privilege we’re talking about, after all.) I was born where, when, how, and to whom I was born. My starting position was a roll of the dice. I started out in a lucky place.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I heard someone in one of these forums talking abou programs to “help the unlucky,” rather than using the word poor or underprivileged. That resonated with me. If I’m privileged, I feel like people will think I’m a snob or a jerk. But who would want to argue if they’ve been lucky in some aspects of their birth?

  12. says

    The shine always comes off of the words with negative connotations. The negative feelings are often the whole point so of course people that just don’t want to feel that are going to find all sorts of ways around having to deal with it.

    It can be like a fucked up combination of “king of the hill” and “whack a mole”. The current kings of the hill play whack a mole with the language that necessarily has to be used on them. So over time they try to make it go away. Even if somehow the use of “privilege” was successfully prevented a new word would get chosen to apply the emotions that are necessary to shift someone’s perspective.

  13. brucegorton says

    ‘‘I can choose to not act racist, but I can’t choose to not be privileged,’’ a friend once told me with alarm.

    You know, here is the funny thing about choosing not to be privileged – if that was at all possible then people would also be able to choose to be privileged.

    So the fact that it is not something you can choose not to be is really part of the whole point to the word isn’t it?

    There are whole categories of advantages we can’t choose to have nor not have, the only thing we can do is decide what we are going to do with them.

    We can try and change the system so that everyone gets the same advantages we were fortunate enough to enjoy, which requires listening to those who don’t share those advantages so as to make it possible to know what exactly they are, or we can try and fortify them as some sort of “way things are meant to be”.

    And as much as one can say “I didn’t build the system” – well, I didn’t start the hurricane or the earthquake. Shit happens that we didn’t individually cause the whole damn time, if we want to call ourselves decent human beings we still have to deal with it.

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