Privilege, Privileged, Privileging

Once again this year at the North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (this years theme The Human Response to God) I have found my thoughts turning to privilege.  Some of the presenters have directly or indirectly addressed the problems of privileging certain aspects of the human over others which then  can undermine our seeing an other human as fully human.   White and male privilege haven’t been addressed directly  which was the subject of this post of mine around the symposium last year.

I want to sit with these words: privilege, privileged, and privileging.

As I grew up my parents would give my sister and I privileges.  These “privileges” were at times things we could earn, say by doing our household chores without grumbling and without being reminded by Mom or Dad that we should do them.  Also, what we termed “privileges” in my family had to do with allowing us age appropriate freedom that  also challenged our ability for self-regulation: meaning that if we abused the said privilege we could lose it.

My having a certain set of privileges didn’t affect my sister having the same or other  privileges.  So, If I had privilege X it didn’t mean of necessity that my sister didn’t have said privilege.  Also, as far as I recall, our privileges (nor our responsibilities at home) weren’t doled out based on gender (though, I suppose to be sure of that you’d need to corroborate that with my sister.  As evidence though I submit this short list some of my responsibilities growing up: cooking supper, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn.)  My point is that privilege in my family was a bonus that was something good for you but receiving the privilege didn’t negatively affect others in the system.

In this system it also meant the opposite of a right: a privilege was something granted, by my parents, that could be revoked. For instance use of the family car once I had my drivers license was a privilege.  As a privilege I couldn’t assume I’d have access to the one or two family cars we had at the time (there was a period in high school when we as a family only had one car for three potential drivers).  Failure to come home with the car when I did or taking the car without permission would have meant losing the privilege of using the family car. Privilege, in my family’s usage, was context dependent and something I couldn’t demand or assume.

I might also say something like “I’m privileged to know you.” or “It is a privilege to know you”.  If I say this it means that I have something others (those who don’t know you don’t have) but having the privilege of knowing you isn’t bound up in others lack but in the quality of your friendship.  For the phrase to make sense to be privileged is to have something others do not have and in a different context I might not have and which I find valuable.  However, there is also an element of gift in this phrase, the acquaintance isn’t something I can take credit for and depends on the addressee having given the gift of their presence to me.  Others lack is implicit here however again the privilege is granted and the phrase expresses that the privilege that has been granted can’t be assumed or taken for granted.

At the symposium last week the first two presenters talked about privileging qualities and privileging certain persons when examining the nature of what it means to be human (remember we were talking about the Human response to God, to some extent one’s definition of humanity might decide your sense of a human response to God.)  The presenters sense of privilege in this context does entail exclusion. To privilege something or someone in this context is to exclude other things or certain people.  To privilege say reason as the quality par excellence of what it means to be human is then to exclude and ignore other qualities.  In this sense privileging means something or someone looses out. It though also means an assumption of superiority of a particular quality, say reason.  That is qualities that aren’t reason thus aren’t considered when defining human being.  Thus, the problem of “privileging” in this sense of the term means that other qualities that might be attached to human being aren’t considered as expression of the human and thus those qualities and certain set of humans lose out.  Privileging then as used above entails assumptions of superiority without regard to context and in the act of privileging others lose out automatically.  Privileging is preferential and as such entails that the other can’t have the privilege that the act of privilege bestows upon the object of the privileging.

I contend that in this brief  examination “privileging” comes closest to what we mean when we are speaking of White and male privilege.  White privilege is an act of privileging.   By definition to have white privilege is to have something that those who are not in the constructed set “White” do not have.  In addition these assumptions are assumed and in the system that constructs race. As an assumption the privilege isn’t seen as gift that could be given to any in the system but a right that is intrinsic to the set “White”.  Similarly this is what is at work in male privilege.

privilege, privileging, and privileged in usage has a range of meaning may cause some confusion when thinking and reflecting on how to address White and male privilege.  For instance if we assume White and male privilege are like the privilege of using the family care when I was in high school, we may say that White privilege should and could be used for good and the betterment of others.  By way of example, I could have in high school used my privilege for merely selfish and self-centered activities (which I think I mostly did) taking myself and my friends to the movies or party and such.  However, I could have used that privilege (which I think I did on occasion) to drive someone to a doctors appointment who didn’t have a car, or offer a ride to a friend or acquaintance for an errand that I wouldn’t benefit from in anyway.  Or even more pertinent voluntarily taking my sister and her friends to the mall or a movie when I had no intention to shop or see a movie myself. I contend this doesn’t work for White privilege because the logic of the privileged use of the family car didn’t obtain automatically to me because of who I was in the system (ie. oldest male son, once my sister had her license she had the same privilege as I).   The privileges we are referring to when we speak of White privilege are intrinsic to being “White” and depend upon that those  privileges don’t and aren’t granted to those who aren’t classed as “White”.

When I wrote and spoke about renunciation of White privilege it was an attempt to address and confront the intrinsic nature of the privileges of being White.  To use white privilege to reform or change the system is to re-inscribe white privilege in the new situation created by those reforms.  The use of white privilege for the betterment of others who aren’t white has already been part of the racial system we inhabit, it is known as “the White man’s burden.”   If I use my White privilege to reform and change the racist system and that use of white privilege is seen as necessary for the system to be reformed then certain dominance and privileges will continue to pertain to the class of “White” qua “White” if nothing else as the proper subject of the system.   One thing I’m saying is the conditions  for justice to prevail and oppression to end do not depend upon I as “White” (and male) to act.  Rather I’m suggesting that it is when I as White renounce that any intrinsic privilege attends to me qua “White” (though not denying that the system grants both my class and attendant privilege) and as White refuse the burden that will  re-inscribe the privilege that is the source of the injustice and oppression we seek to end.

All this of course is a denial of the claim that the racist system wishes to keep in place namely that the classifications of the system are ontological and biologically grounded, and not a social construction of biology and ontology.

P.S. I haven’t addressed male privilege, though I think one can argue that in the current racist system it is and has been also a sexist system, such that any privileges granted to the White female are derivative from being White and male.



  • Br. Abraham

    This topic has been a big part of my personal prayer lately: “everything is a gift – nothing is a right” (your will be done, not mine). This might not be a fruitful way of prayer for people who are struggling for rights in our society, but for a whitish straightish maleish middle classish person in 21st century America, it has been helpful.

    Br. Abraham, St. Gregory’s Abbey