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.