Privilege is a counter-productive word.

by Dr Kerri O’Donnell

Today I stumbled upon a short illustrated story about privilege, On a Plate, by Toby Morris.  The story was touted by its host website as “The Simplest and Most Perfect Explanation of Privilege I’ve Ever Seen”.

Well, I certainly appreciated it.  It is a good start.  But it is not the whole story, because the term is bandied all over social media in quite a different light.  Consequently, a more common view of ‘privilege’ is currently more about resentment than serving a useful purpose.

The main reason that privilege-related resentment persists, and that resentment dominates discussion of privilege issues, is that the term is so messy.  It is poorly understood because it is too often used in a general sense – which leads to unwanted reactions when it is used in a specific sense.

Basically, the word undermines every problem that the words on either side of it are trying to highlight, because it is a power-trigger (yes, I used the T word) for resentment.  Those who are aware enough to identify themselves as privileged, or who recognise themselves in the category of people described as privileged, are immediately distracted from the initial problem; confused by sudden guilt, yet not knowing what bad thing(s) they did to deserve the guilt, or how they caused the problem.  Focus goes straight to the inherent accusation, and whether that is rightly so or not, that shift does not progress a solution to the initial problem.

But privilege is not a bad thing.

After all, who is better positioned to help others who are under-privileged than those who already have the relevant advantage and/or the power to create change and/or the influence to draw the attention of others who do have the power to create change?  All those things are relevant privileges that can, and should, be leveraged to advocate for others.  And we must be free to do it without being accused of wanting a cookie, because that defeats the purpose.

If we can stop using and seeing the term privilege as an accusation, we might not be so distracted by irrelevant guilt or by how hard the fight was to achieve our own particular versions of privilege.  Instead, we can just get on with the business of using that privilege for something good.  And yes, it should make us feel good to do good.  To try, and hopefully to make a positive difference.  Because if people are made to feel bad about trying, they are likely to give up on their ‘hopeless’ cause, and resent the cookie-accusers to boot.  That just perpetuates division, and probably the original problem too.

Sometimes, advocacy misses the mark.  It can be poorly informed, clumsy and/or culturally insensitive.  In many such cases, criticism of those acts misses the mark also; deriding privilege in general, instead of critiquing the way that the intended advocacy is executed.  For better outcomes, “ask us” and “tell us” have to work together.

Perhaps the most media-covered activist of the moment is Michelle Obama, who many would consider privileged.  She is a woman, yes.  And black, yes.  But put stereotypes away once and for all because she is also extremely empowered.  She no doubt has had her own struggles, as everyone does.  But what we know is that she is educated, articulate, respected and motivated to use the power of her achievements to advocate for women and education and more.   She not only gets on with her advocacy, but she inspires others to get on board too, so her work is bigger than what she can do alone.  That is effective use of power.  I aspire to be more like her, because she seems to really have her shit together.

Many more privileged people could be very powerful allies and activists.  But if the term Privilege is to be used with any success regarding advocacy issues, then use of the term must clearly communicate that such privilege is both relative and contextual.

For example: I am, by all common measures, very privileged.  White, educated, and employed in an elite field.  Yet Paula’s start in life might be considered privileged compared with mine – she had two parents, lived at home beyond her 13th birthday, and was not excluded from the possibility of college while still young and childless.  Relative privileges arise from situations we find ourselves in, and they can be subject to huge changes; some over time, and some that blindside us.  Others in our world have no privileges at all – no parents, no education, no home, not even medical care, food or safe water… and some live with fear and violence every day.

Other privileges are contextual. For example, in some contexts we are (dis)advantaged by the color of our skin.  In other contexts, it is all about our wits or talents, skills or connections.  I think that privileged people (in whatever context) won’t understand, and be supportive of, the struggles of less privileged people/groups unless either everyone becomes more informed about its meaning in context, or we find some other way of communicating about those struggles.  A way that highlights the fight that needs to be fought without pointing the finger at privilege, putting those who are in a position to help on the defensive, more concerned about asserting that they did not cause the problem than about the problem itself.  A way that also does not disempower those who are not privileged, by sending the message that they are excluded from opportunity or hope because of their relative/contextual privilege category.

I do not know how to achieve social cohesion, but I’m certain that society’s habit of dividing people into categories, including those of either privileged or not-privileged, is not working for us.

Further Reading

On a Plate by Toby Morris:

Why it’s important to think about privilege – and why it’s hard by Kathleen Ebbitt,

Featured Image Source
Global Citizen,




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