A Point About Privilege [updated]
“Privilege” is one of those words, much like “theory”, that has a very precise technical meaning and a much looser popular one. In everyday parlance, “privilege” means gloating or lording it over someone because one possesses something the others lack. “That’s her privilege” “He thinks he’s a privileged character” “It was my privilege to know them”
In common parlance, “privilege” packs quite a negative emotional punch.
In its precise use in sociology and other sciences, it’s far more morally neutral.
Let’s tell a little story to illustrate the point using Sam and Pat.
Sam is a successful small business owner who uses a wheelchair.
Pat is an unsuccessful working-class level employee who is able-bodied. Both Sam and Pat have to get their driver’s licenses renewed. Pat goes to the DMV, walks right up the steps and through the front door, takes a form off the rack on the wall, gets in line, and eventually receives a new license.
Sam has to locate the wheelchair access ramp, ask someone to hand down a form from the rack, gets in line, and eventually receives a new license.
After getting their respective licenses, Sam and Pat feel hungry.
Sam rolls across the street to a restaurant and orders a satisfying meal. Sam’s business is successful enough to afford spontaneous little things like this without worry.
Pat feels hungry, but hasn’t got enough for both a snack from the DMV coin op machine and bus fare home. The part time job Pat holds requires a valid driver’s license but doesn’t pay enough to afford even a cheap used car. Pat needs to decide whether to eat and walk home, skip lunch and take a bus, or do both because who knows what tomorrow may hold?
Pat enjoys what is referred to as “able-bodied privilege”. Pat never has to think about going up stairs, door access, where things are located, etc. because the world for the most part is set up to accommodate people like Pat who are physically able.
Sam does have to worry about such things, because unless somebody thinks ahead and designs the DMV building in such a way as to make it equally accessible for everyone, Sam personally needs to adjust to a world built for able-bodied folk.
Conversely, because Sam is reasonably successful at business, Sam doesn’t have to evaluate whether to spend money on a meal; Sam just orders it and enjoys. Pat does have to make that judgment.
And that, in a nutshell, precisely defines “privilege” in sociological terms: You can afford not to think about something because it doesn’t bother you directly.
It doesn’t make one a bad person.
It doesn’t mean one gloats or smirks or lords it over others.
It certainly doesn’t mean one doesn’t experience other problems and disappointments in life.
But Pat can ignore inadequate wheelchair access at DMV because it doesn’t affect able-bodied persons.
And Sam can roll over and buy a meal on the spur of the moment because making a choice like that presents no budgeting challenge to a person with cash.
You’ve got it.
No matter who you are, no matter what your background, you enjoy privilege in some shape, form, or fashion.
There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that.
Just make sure when you can, you look around and ask what can be done to make the world a bit easier for those who don’t enjoy what you’re able to enjoy.
You don’t have to give anything up.
It’s not a status symbol.
It’s just treating others the way you want to be treated.
© Buzz Dixon