Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Why I Am Giving Up the Word “Privilege”

I’m going through a sea-change in my thinking about the concept of “privilege.” I find the word so thoroughly problematic that I don’t think I can be effective in my work and continue to use it.

My friend Kiera Scriven has written that the word “privilege” is a misnomer. When we talk about “privilege,” we’re really talking about rights:

A “privilege” in this case is something unearned, correct? “Unearned privileges” is how we tend to conceptualise it. But let’s think about some of these “privileges”: 1) Not being automatically perceived as criminal 2) Being given the benefit of the doubt in these and all kinds of situations 3) Fairer housing practices (see: Wells Fargo settlement in Baltimore) 4) Seeing positive and powerful representations of yourself everywhere 5) Being deemed as “normal” 6) etc…

Are these things we want people to have to /earn/?…I think these are aspects of basic humanity that should be bestowed upon everyone simply for existing.

So feel free to call it whatever you want, but I caution you when your concern is the fact that majority groups have these things — these things they haven’t “earned” — as opposed to the fact that minority groups don’t have them.

Starting with Kiera’s formulation, let’s get clear about what people mean when they talk about “privilege.” To ground the conversation, I’ll get as specific as I can: What does it mean when people say that I have white and middle-class privilege?

It means that I live inside a political, economic, social, and cultural system that gives me power on the basis of my skin color and class — both accidents of birth. I get a whole lot out of that power: money, education, housing, food, clothing, medical care, medical insurance, and cultural authority. The police don’t look at me in the street as though I’m a criminal. I’m not stopped for driving while white. I don’t run much of a risk of being shot for knocking on someone’s door for help. I live in an apartment in a secure building and do not have to worry about a rental application being discarded on the basis of my skin color or income. I have clothing for all kinds of weather and medicine when I need it. When I economize at the grocery store, it’s by choosing between one thing I want to eat and another — not by going without nutritious food.

Are any of these things privileges? No. It’s not a privilege to have an apartment. It’s not a privilege to have clothes. It’s not a privilege to knock on a door and not get shot. It’s not a privilege to be treated with dignity. None of these are privileges. They are basic human rights to which every person on the planet is entitled, and they are basic human rights denied to vast numbers of people on the basis of not only race and class, but also disability, gender identity, sexuality, size, ethnicity, and religion.

When we talk about “privilege,” we talk about “giving up privilege,” and that’s when people with the “privilege” start getting defensive. When people go to that defensive place, I feel the exhaustion coming on, because if I have to keep beating against people’s defenses, I’m not going to be able to sustain the work. Beating against defenses doesn’t serve. The defenses just go up higher. Does it really help to keep using the same strategy?

If what we call “privilege” is really a set of basic human rights and the power to protect them, then no one with any sense or self-respect is going to give them up. And they shouldn’t. The point isn’t to give them up. The point is to make sure that other people get them. What if we started talking about the rank injustice of some people having more rights than others? What if I said that my race and my class enable me to fulfill the promise of my human rights, and that I have to use my resources, my time, my energy, and my life force to fight in solidarity with people whose rights are unprotected? At that point, the question of my losing anything goes right off the table, because the aim  isn’t for me to lose my rights, but to use them to make sure that other people get what they deserve to have.

There is something deeply disturbing about a social justice framework that sees human rights as privileges and that sees the solution to inequity as one set of people giving up their human rights so that another set of people gets them. That’s basically the system we’re already in. It’s a system of a scarcity. It’s the same system of scarcity that makes people compete with each other at Wal-Mart for TV sets at Christmas. It’s the thinking perpetuated by our media- and commerce-soaked culture, in which there is never, ever enough for everyone.

That’s no way for human beings to think about human rights.

Much of the problem with a lot of privilege conversations is that they ultimately become shaming, because it is all about what we have and who we are by an accident of birth, and not about what we do.  There are lots of dents that can be made in my social power– my disabilities make very big dents in it — but I still have power that I cannot lose. When people start talking about the “privilege” inhering in people by virtue of birth or social position — rather than talking about what people are doing with their birth and social position — shame enters the picture, and that shame is often immobilizing.

In social justice spaces, I have seen a kind of obsession with “privilege” among white and other social justice activists — a kind of distracting guilt about it that creates a lot of distortions. In fact, much of what I see in discussions about ”privilege” is deeply informed by a Christian paradigm in which proper belief is the most important thing, sin must be expiated, and we’re saved by virtue of the words coming out of our mouths, the thoughts happening in our brains, and the feelings going on in our hearts. As Andrea Smith notes in “The Problem with Privilege,” there is a confessional quality to many conversations about privilege, with the listener expected to grant some form of absolution. As a non-Christian, I watch that paradigm in play and simply can’t participate, because it is almost entirely foreign to me. My culture is all about praxis. Belief can inform praxis, but it means nothing without it. I don’t come from a culture that believes in sin, or that believes that we’re fallen, or that believes that we need to feel shame for the world we’re born into, or that believes that confession and proper belief will save us.

It’s immobilizing and useless to feel shame for the system we’re born into. There is no shame in being born into a human body and a world we did not create, and we should feel no shame for that. But we should feel shame for sitting on our hands in such a system and doing nothing. We need to be listening to people tell us what we can actively do and we need to join up with them to do it.

The point is not to grok “privilege.” The point is to not to wrest human rights from each other as though that will create justice. The point is to do justice. I’d like to hear a whole lot more talk about how to do justice in a system overwhelming in its violence, its distortions, its lies, and its cruelty than I want to hear about “privilege.”

I just can’t go there anymore.


Facebook. “On ‘Privilege.’”  https://www.facebook.com/notes/kiera-scriven/on-privilege/448172575236421. January 7, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.

Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with ‘Privilege.’” Andrea366. August 14, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013. http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

    14 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 12/6/2013 | 1:48 am Permalink

    I think, for the types of behaviours you’ve listed in your examples, you’re right – these things are just the baseline rights and are what all people should receive.

    But I also think it’s important to remember that there are things grouped under privilege that DO need to be ‘given up’. To use one of your examples: not having a rental application immediately discarded based on skin colour/income/etc is a right that all people should have. But in that same situation, you’ll also get the case that a person of colour/poor person/etc doesn’t have their application discarded right away, but a person who is not similarly marginalised gets their application treated in preference to the other one. That preference is a privilege that needs to be given up, and it means that it may be harder to find accommodation, and it’s a hard thing to give up.

    For people who are commonly termed privileged, the eradication of the advantages they get in company with the disadvantages experiences by others will make many things more difficult.

    I think often the issue with the idea of ‘privilege’ comes with the mingling of these two different genres of thing, and the fact that the world and human behaviour is complex and it’s hard to encapsulate something like this in just one word.

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    • 12/6/2013 | 11:19 am Permalink

      T — I see the preference given to the white middle-class person in your example as a rights violation as well, and it falls under the heading of what I meant by having your application discarded. If the person who gets the apartment is always a white middle-class person, then everyone else’s application has effectively been discarded.

      You are right that certain things need to be given up, and these generally come under the heading of privileges. For example, it’s a right to own a decent car in a place with no public transit, but it’s a privilege to own a Mercedes. People have to be willing to give up those kinds of luxuries so that others can have what they need. But in social justice discussions, “privilege” generally isn’t about luxuries; it’s generally about rights. It’s generally about not being profiled, not being shot, not being treated like a criminal, not being thrown in jail for no reason, etc. I don’t consider not being treated like a criminal a privilege. I consider it a right that I enjoy that others do not.

      It’s undeniable that we need to work on how to put all of this into play on the ground, but I think that those discussions can only happen if we shift the focus from what people have (ie “privilege”) to what people don’t have (ie their human rights). If it’s always about privilege, then the focus is always on people who have what they need and how to wrest it from them, which only continues the inequities of the current framework, because the players may change, but the inequities remain. The point isn’t for some people to have their rights and not others; the point is for everyone to have them.

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  2. 12/6/2013 | 5:27 am Permalink

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. In particular, this – “In fact, much of what I see in discussions about ”privilege” is deeply informed by a Christian paradigm in which proper belief is the most important thing, sin must be expiated, and we’re saved by virtue of the words coming out of our mouths, the thoughts happening in our brains, and the feelings going on in our hearts.” I couldn’t help but think of Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do”…yet surely these work together in actual practice. It’s important, surely, to name what we do, not to confess and receive absolution, much less to say “I am this and therefore not that” but to acknowledge the limitations of what we can know, the inadequacies of what we have done.

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  3. 12/6/2013 | 2:58 pm Permalink

    WOW. Thank you Rachel. This is so important, and I can feel how it unblocks my thinking to move forward…

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  4. 12/6/2013 | 3:52 pm Permalink

    I love this, and you, very very much <3

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  5. 12/7/2013 | 1:42 pm Permalink

    I am so glad to have read this. Since I began blogging, and reading other disability blogs, I have noticed how “privileged” has become less of a term of awareness, and more of a linguistic cudgel. The problem is when people are unaware of the “privileges” or “rights” they possess and that others don’t … unaware of the position from which they speak. But whether or not they are aware doesn’t necessarily validate or invalidate their ideas.

    From an entirely different angle, I think that “privileged” has become a sort of a buzzword which is foreign to readers outside the academic and social justice fields. That’s another reason to reconsider the word if we care about communicating to a wider audience.

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  6. 12/7/2013 | 9:44 pm Permalink

    This is an interesting and thoughtful post. And it is an important discussion to have. I would like to comment on twin issues that, I fear, derail the analysis from the start by arguing against a position on privilege that no one need actually hold. Rather than the implausible equation of unearned privilege with a set of human rights, the standard treatment analyzes it as unearned advantage, which is not vulnerable to the arguments made here. Despite contending that the analysis of privilege here incorrect, I will also point to where we may be in agreement; where talk of privilege is confused and potentially damaging.

    One of the two issues involves what I take to be a basic misunderstanding of what privilege consists of in the relevant contexts. The other (secondary) issue concerns the use of a philosophically simplistic conception of rights and whether it can do the work you require of it. (I may not get to this second issue today.)

    The primary difficulties in this post originate from an undue severing of the concept of privilege from its necessary complement, oppression. A full understanding of one requires recognition of the unbreakable links to the other. Members of oppressed social groups experience harms as the result of a system of forces and barriers in our institutional practices and social norms. These harms include diminished social benefits of power, prestige, and authority, which lead to all manner of disparities. Other individuals suffer similar harms of those sorts, but not all people harmed thus are oppressed. A white person may feel it unfair—may be harmed—by being ineligible for a loan program set up for racial minorities, but she is oppressed only under a condition where her options for securing a loan are thereby substantially constricted, or, more precisely, such that there is a system of barriers to her securing a loan that _favors members of another social group_, say, men (this example comes from Bailey, 1998). In such a case, she is oppressed as a woman, not as a white person.

    So an additional condition for the oppression of a social group is that there must be second social group whose members systematically benefit from the harmful practices and norms suffered by the first (Cudd, 2006; Frye, 1983). Those who are systematically conferred these unearned benefits and advantages are said to be privileged with regard to the oppressed social group. This privilege arises simply from not having to bear the same disadvantageous system of barriers, from not having to compete on a level playing field with members of oppressed social groups (Hay, 2013).

    We should digress here for a moment to be clear from the onset that oppression (and its concomitant privilege) can and does primarily occur without individual ‘oppressors’ from the privileged social group aiming to acquire unearned advantages or having a conscious intent to harm. Oppression is “fundamentally a social phenomenon,” as Hay (2013) put it: “[m]ost oppressive harms tend not to be the result of the intentional actions of an individual person, but are more often the unintentional result of an interrelated system of social norms and institutions” (p. 8).

    We can see now that because they are generated by unjust social practices and norms, privileges are not things we want people to earn, nor, properly conceived, are these things that we want everyone or anyone to have as fundamental rights. Privilege of this kind cannot be earned; it is _always_ an unearned advantage. For privileges are social awards, benefits and advantages, that come at the expense of others. They are always unearned in that they are not acquired through any justified or meritorious means by individuals, but are the unfair consequences of systemic discrimination and inequality of which most members of privileged social groups remain significantly unaware. (To be sure, there are earned advantages. Your learning a second language or having acquired the latest IT Certification from Microsoft can give you an earned advantage in given job markets, [Bailey, 1998], but the advantage associated with privilege as we are discussing is not of this kind.)

    Hence any framework that views as a set of human rights what in social justice is called ‘privilege’ is a non-starter. A white male has greater employment opportunities (unearned benefits and advantages) not because he has a right to work that others lack, but which everyone else ought also to have. Rather, his increased opportunities are part and parcel _of_, are _constitutive_ of, the systemic discrimination against and oppression of ethnic and racial minorities and women that has largely limited their employment opportunities to low-paying, low-status jobs. That he has benefitted from the advantages he has in a job market that excludes this competition is part of his privilege. Saying that these privileges are merely rights everyone ought to have results in the untenable notion that everyone ought to have unearned advantages brought about through the unjust systemic and institutional subjugation of others.

    There are issues surrounding the uses of concepts of privilege where we might find agreement. Like you, I believe that we can better advance social justice by less aggressive (and I think conceptually clearer) means that reduce the feelings of people in privileged social groups that they are the targets of personal attacks. Making clear that oppression is primarily a social phenomenon that requires no overt or direct oppressors (though such oppressors do exist) and that privilege is _unearned advantage_ generated through social practices and norms about which most people remain unaware (and haven’t actively pursued) could lessen the defensiveness we experience when the topic comes up.

    Indeed, I think we would do well to be careful counseling others on ‘giving up privilege.’ Because of its systemic nature, it is usually not possible through one’s power of will (good-will) to dispense with privilege. As Cudd (2006) notes, we are generally powerless to renounce membership in social groups and the many visible and invisible benefits (or harms) they bring: “When John Stuart Mill married Harriet Taylor… he asserted that he renounced his privileges as husband, but in fact he could not do so legally. Were their marriage to have broken down, his legal rights including those he had attempted to renounce would have been upheld by the society” (p. 25).

    Likewise, making a fetish of ‘check your privilege’ can, as well, be used as a way to silence the legitimate concerns and opinions of others, stifle dialogue, and lose potential allies. The phrase is frequently employed to assert a moral superiority that is in obvious tension with constructive dialogue. But these abuses, misuses, and misunderstandings are not sufficient reasons to throw out the well-developed conceptual baby with them.

    Bailey, Alison (1998). Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s ‘Oppression’. Journal of Social Philosophy.

    Cudd, Ann E. (2006). Analyzing Oppression, Oxford University Press.

    Frye, Marilyn. (1983). “Oppression” in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. The Crossing Press.

    Hay, Carol. (2013). Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression. Palgrave Macmillan.

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  7. 12/9/2013 | 4:58 pm Permalink

    @eSEB, you make a very important point that privilege by it’s very nature is something that gives one group an unfair advantage over another. You make the fair assertion that a person’s (skin color, class, gender, etc.) oughtn’t give then an unfair advantage and that that unfair advantage is what needs to be given up. You seem to be missing however, the point of the original post. Not being profiled as a criminal is not a scarce commodity that we need to compete over. I don’t think you will find anyone arguing that getting arrested for a crime you committed even though there was an innocent person of a more stereotypically criminal race nearby is a human right. The point of the original post is not that everyone has a right to an advantage. That would be an obvious contradiction. The point is that the conversation needs to be reframed away from bantering about who got the shorter end of the stick and towards how we can help. Just because your intellectual baby is well developed doesn’t mean it’s helpful.

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  8. 12/9/2013 | 9:45 pm Permalink

    Antha Auciello,

    I appreciate your response. I’ll make only a few comments on what you offered to clarify misconstrued parts of my previous post.

    No reasons were given to support the assertion that the massive scholarship on this topic is unhelpful. The mere insinuation that it might consist of “bantering about who got the shorter end of the stick” is both inaccurate and insufficient. Moving toward ways we can help requires a clear understanding of the problem, which is what this 30 years of work has accomplished. Ignoring the work on oppression—accounts of who gets the “shorter end of the stick,” and why and how—and privilege—accounts of who benefits from oppression—instead relying on faulty analyses that send us in the wrong direction, is unlikely to be particularly helpful.

    That the point was about reframing the conversation is a given. But any reframing ought to have at least two features. First, it should be logically coherent and pragmatically consistent. Next, the motivation for reframing should, at minimum, be based on legitimate problems in the contested concept itself—not misuses of it, nor the hurt feelings or recalcitrance of members of certain social groups. Now, in order to fulfill this second aspect, there is the additional initial task, indeed, an intellectual imperative, to accurately represent the contested concept in its strongest form—not an easy-to-attack caricature or mere semantic argument based on everyday misunderstandings of words having specialized meanings in particular contexts. My comments intended to show critical flaws in the reframing suggested.

    You said: “Not being profiled as a criminal is not a scarce commodity that we need to compete over.”

    I agree. Nothing I said relies on this premise. Privileges in the sense of unearned advantages conferred as a consequence of systemic discrimination and inequality allow reference to a wide range of social benefits, as I mentioned. It is not simply a competition for scarce commodities.

    You also said: “The point of the original post is not that everyone has a right to an advantage. That would be an obvious contradiction.”

    It is without doubt not the point of the original post that everyone has a right to an advantage. It would indeed be an obvious and serious problem—if not a literal contradiction. Saying that I missed the point of the original post because of this implication misses the point. Namely, that given the analysis of privilege as unearned advantage (evidently conceded), i.e., under the strongest, most useful meaning of the concept, the original post, by saying that privileges are human rights everyone should enjoy, _implies_ that everyone ought to have unearned advantage through the subjugation of others. It was not an interpretation of her intended meaning, it was a (strictly unnecessary) reductio ad absurdum appended at the end of a long argument giving good reasons to give up the idea that privileges are human rights rather than giving up the concept of privilege itself.

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  9. 12/9/2013 | 10:34 pm Permalink

    I appreciate the discussion taking place here, and I want to add a few things:

    1) The concept of “privilege” was developed by “privileged” people. It’s not a term that I have ever heard used by any of the people I know who are living in poverty and laboring under severe violations of their human rights. One of the tests of my own effectiveness is how well the concepts I’m using line up with the lived experience of the people I serve. I do not see that much is lining up at all when it comes to “privilege.” People on the street do not talk to me about my “privilege” or their lack of “privilege,” but about the ways in which their *rights* being violated. Which brings me to my second point…

    2) The whole concept of “privilege” keeps the focus squarely on the people with “privilege,” not the people without it. From my perspective, we more “privileged” folks have a major spotlight shining on us all time, so I don’t really see a continued spotlight being particularly helpful here. I think that this is what Kiera was getting at when she talked about people remembering to look at what they *don’t* have rather than what others *do* have.

    3) I think that there are certain advantages that can very rightly be called privileges. Here is the distinction I would draw: It is a right to own a decent car if you need a car to get your basic needs met. It is a privilege to own a Mercedes. When people discuss privilege in social justice and academic discussions, they are rarely talking at that kind of privilege. They are usually talking about large systemic problems, like who is automatically considered a criminal, who is refused work, who is refused housing, who is thrown into prison and disappeared from view. I think it’s important to be clear that none of these things is about a violation of privilege, but a violation of rights. I’m concerned about any of these things being seen as privileges because it plays into the whole idea that basic human needs should be at the whim of the marketplace, with some people being “privileged” enough to get them. I consider this anathema. I can’t exaggerate how much if offends my sense of justice.

    4) My only real concern here is the question of effectiveness. I see the ways in which the concept of “privilege” seems to halt discussion rather than move it forward, and I see the ways in which it is pretty much useless in my interactions with people whose rights are being violated. I’m a pragmatist. I’ll use theory if it moves things forward on the ground, but if it seems to be working at cross-purposes with moving things forward, then I have to question what’s going on.

    Of course, anyone else’s mileage may vary. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m writing about moving away from this term in my own work. When you’re talking about people at an extremity like homelessness, a lot of these categories start to collapse. Among people on the street, privilege means very little. No one on the street is living in the land of privilege. It’s more a question of who is getting screwed over atrociously and who is getting screwed over more atrociously. I’m in no way saying that other people have to drop the term, though if they’re finding it to be less than effective, then my writing can help them articulate why.

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  10. 12/10/2013 | 8:26 am Permalink

    Naturally anyone is free to stop using the word ‘privilege’ should they find it ineffectual. My concern was with the analysis of the concept that was used to form the reasons for doing so.

    Now it is the nature of oppression and its twin privilege that one can suffer great harms of oppression and yet have unearned advantages (privilege) elsewhere at the same time. The people who worked on these concepts largely had unearned advantage by being mostly white and mostly middle-class. They were also almost exclusively women and some are sexual minorities and people with disabilities, which means that they are also members of oppressed social classes. Saying that they were ‘privileged,’ full-stop, is, I think, misleading.

    Myself, I hear people ‘on the streets’ talk about privilege and oppression all the time (and when living in Harlem, I was living near people in some of the worst conditions in this country). But dueling anecdotal evidence will move us in neither direction. In your 3) above, I see that same equivocation on the word ‘privilege’ with which we started; that is, a use of the term in a colloquial sense, not the relevant sense used in discussions of oppression. No one believes (I hope) that having one’s basic needs met is a privilege in your sense. I don’t, I think that they are human rights. It isn’t a privilege to have food and safe, affordable housing. It is a privilege in the relevant sense (of _unearned advantage_) when the ease with which you can attain these necessities (and therefore many things that may not be necessities) is greatly enhanced _because_ of the oppression of others, _because_ of the _barriers_ put up in THEIR way to having these basic needs satisfied. And this is the danger of severing the harms and violations of oppression from the systemic unearned advantages (privilege) that maintain oppression.

    But I am treading ground already covered and you are unmoved. I have also already noted the misuses of the concept of ‘privilege’ that are discussion-stoppers; we agree there. I’ve offered ways that I think would allow us to retain an important concept while lessening the defensiveness of members of privileged social groups when this vital topic is broached. So I think that I can leave this discussion now.

    I wish not to leave, however, with any sense of animosity—I know there is no reason to think this from the exchange itself, but this is the internet, which feeds on anger and resentment. I liked your page on Facebook and I read your blog because I appreciate and admire what you’re doing. While we disagree on the concept of privilege, its meaning and import, if you find effective ways to do what you’re doing, I’m completely behind your efforts.

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    • 12/10/2013 | 9:47 am Permalink

      I appreciate your words, eSEB. And no animosity here either. I think that the fact that we find people on the street who view these things differently is an indicator that, once again, no group is a monolith, so it’s imperative to use the right tools in the right place and time. As I said, I’m not arguing that everyone should drop the concept; I’m arguing that for me, it does not feel like an effective concept. I’m not sure it needs to be an either/or here as much as a both/and. When the term is effective in your place and time, use it. When it’s not, don’t use it. This will vary by situation and by person. I see no real reason for uniformity here, and I tend to resist uniformity in any case.

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  11. 12/10/2013 | 9:50 am Permalink

    Where your examples are concerned, I agree with you. One can explain that the term privilege does not mean rights like these should be removed from those who have them, but having to redefine a word every time you use it does suggest another word might be a better fit.

    However, there is one aspect of “privilege” where the negative connotations of the word – something one does not deserve – do apply, and it also was the aspect I found most enlightening when I was first exposed to the concept. This is the idea that some have the privilege of ignoring the experiences of others – to ignore the problems others face because they don’t pertain to us. The privilege to be blissfully ignorant. White people who claim to be colorblind, for instance, or men who say sexism no longer exists, come to these beliefs because of privilege. They are never asked to listen to the voices of POC or women, so they don’t, and don’t even realize that they are missing anything.

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    • 12/10/2013 | 11:51 am Permalink

      Evie, that is an excellent point. Privilege is a perfectly good word to describe certain aspects of what it means to have your rights respected, and they all come down to having choices: the choice to ignore suffering, the choice to own an expensive car, etc. However, I would call ignoring other people’s suffering not so much an aspect of privilege so much as a moral failing. It seems to be based on the assumption that we’re not connected to each other across all of these lines. Perhaps having one’s rights respected makes it much easier to exercise that kind of moral ignorance? I think so. It makes it easy to believe that all people have what you have. But I’m still really concerned about “privilege” being used to cover things it really shouldn’t.

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