What is privilege, really?

April 30, 2015

PrivilegeThe question of privilege.

What is privilege and should we apologize for it?

The concept of “privilege”–unearned advantage–has long been a staple of liberal politics. I stand as a proud progressive on virtually all political issues. But when we come to one or two social concepts, things get a little fuzzy. Or maybe they aren’t fuzzy at all.

Recently, I had the “pleasure” of observing a bunch of women implode over the subjects of privilege, diversity and political correctness.  There were all sorts of comments about privilege, white privilege, married privilege, all kinds of privilege (some I’d never before heard of) and the tone of the conversation was that privilege was something we need to apologize for. To atone for. That we should feel guilty.

The concept bothered me and in fact, the entire discussion bothered me. It was self-righteous and sanctimonious. And offensive, especially in the way the women attacked each other. I mean, seriously?

So, I wondered, am I privileged? Some people would say so. I’m white. Married. Financially secure. That’s how some people define privilege. And unearned advantage… what does that mean in my own life?  I decided to break it down.


These people were not privileged.

I am descended from uneducated people–illiterate immigrants who came here at the turn of the century to make a better life.  That’s right. My grandparents had little or no schooling and did not even speak English when they arrived in the U.S. They were discriminated against in every possible way. They couldn’t get jobs. They were laughed at. Made fun of. Insulted.

They were definitely not privileged.

hard-work-dedication-2English was not spoken at home when my parents were growing up. There were no books at home because no one could read. One grandfather was a stonemason and the other a printer who worked on and off. They took care of their families.  My father had four siblings and he was the only one to get past sixth grade. Despite that, every one of them did well and two did EXTREMELY well. Better than my father, and his drive was so great it took him to medical school.  He worked his way through school, taking a year off to work and save money. His work was on scaffolding high up on buildings. Dangerous work. But it paid a decent wage so he could save for college and med school. My mother worked three jobs so she could help support her parents. She said she could not afford college.

Dad was definitely not privileged. Neither was mom.

English was spoken in my home. So was Sicilian dialect. My father made a good living, one that he worked hard to position himself for.  I did well in school and went to college.  I got into college because I did well in school. Jobs came to me because I applied and interviewed. It was the age of affirmative action; I might have benefited. Or not. I would have no way of knowing. All I knew is I worked hard and so did my colleagues, who were every color imaginable. I had a long career and one in which I faced some serious challenges because I was a woman in a male-dominated business world. Others had their challenges and advantages, but I never saw that as having anything to do with me.  I worked hard, progressed and established some financial security.

Does that make me privileged?  No freakin’ way.

Did my darker-skinned friends get into college? Those who worked hard and had good grades got into school, yes. Some had to overcome serious disadvantages to do so, just like my father did. Did they get good jobs? Yes, they got the jobs they prepared themselves for.  How about my darker-skinned colleagues? Well, my consulting partner did really well and he is black. He was well-respected for his work and he was damn good at it. I did, however, know of at least one instance of racially insensitive and inappropriate behavior around him. Of course, that made us almost equals (go ahead attack me on this)  because I can name at least one or more instances of gender-based inappropriate behavior around me.  Both were institutionalized behaviors.  But you see, that is the thing. There is always going to be institutionalized stuff that won’t change. It’s up to us to work around it. Sure, I wish it weren’t there but while I see it and note it, I’m not going to blame it for anything. I left a job after one such incident directed at me, as I didn’t really want to work for a company like that.

Now, about married privilege, a concept that I only learned about from this crazy meltdown these women had.

I lived alone for a long time, making my own way, in and out of relationships in which men were either financial partners or not. I never felt NOT privileged when I was single. No, never. I traveled alone, ate at restaurants alone, went to social events alone–so what? Did I see my married friends as “privileged?” Umm. NO.

In a seriously crazy turn of events, my first husband returned just in time for us both to enjoy the fruits of our labors in retirement. His background was the same as mine–immigrant ancestors, parents who were driven to make a better life and he went to law school. He worked hard and did well. We live well.

Does that make him privileged? Does my marriage to him make me privileged?

UNEARNED? Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Maybe I don’t get it.

But here is what I DO get: I am the daughter and granddaughter of people who lived in poverty and who wanted to make a better life. And did.

I am descended from illiterates, uneducated people who had nothing going for them. At the time, Italians were seriously discriminated against, too, with signs saying “NO ITALIANS NEED APPLY” for jobs.

So, seriously. Should I apologize for this? Should I apologize for being born white? For being married? For living well? No way and here is why.

Own itWe are, each of us, born into our circumstances. Of course, if you read here often, you know I believe that we’re born into our situations for our soul’s growth.

One of my online friends recently commented here about her mentor, who, before she passed on, left this saying to her:

If it is to be, it is up to me.

I love that because it places responsibility for our (changing) circumstances where it belongs: squarely on ourselves.

I don’t doubt that some people come in with more than others. Name it–gender, race, socioeconomics, disability. That’s just the way it is. I don’t doubt that some people have bigger challenges. More to overcome. But my grandparents and parents are living proof that our lot in life depends mostly on what we do about it. Mostly.

My parents earned their way of life and I earned mine. My husband earned his.  My former consulting partner earned his. No one told us the path would be easy, only that it would take hard work.

Let us not take ourselves so seriously that we lose sight of the realities of life.

And I swear that I hear my parents and grandparents in the afterlife, laughing their heads off about the concept of privilege and guilt and asking each other, “are they freakin’ kidding?”


Angel laughing.

33 comments on “What is privilege, really?
  1. ryder ziebarth says:

    This is a great post, Carol. Recently I was the target of a racial slur for being a wealthy, priviledged middle aged white woman attending grad.school because I have nothing better to do with my life. This, posted on Facebook during a gender bias debate. It came from an Asian -a
    American 23 year old poet working her way through the school who assumed I was ” on the wrong-side of the argument” concerning free speech at residency when , last winter, a man read about a woman’s rape. I sided with the man, who happened to be an administrator at the school. It is this generation, more than any other, in my mind, whom I fought for during the 60’s and 70’s for woman’s equality, that are privileged and spoiled. They have no battles-no Vietnam War, no womans right’s movement,- so they make them up to vent their anger.

  2. This is a conversation that you don’t hear much about. In our town it’s all about new money and the privilege people with it think they deserve they have. (Part of why we’re moving – I’m tired of some snobbish attitudes.) It drives me crazy when people don’t think we’re all equal despite our backgrounds, financial situations, awards, degrees, etc.

    A thought-provoking post, Carol.

  3. I have been called privileged because I was a stay-at-home mom. That was a choice we made, and we gave up other “privileges” for it. I worked continuously from the age of 14 through 28, paid my way through college and lived paycheck to paycheck throughout my 20’s. At any moment in time any one of us is privileged for a variety of reasons – when young, due to beauty, when older, due to financial stability, race, gender, etc.

  4. penpen says:

    Your post really made me think–and feel. I, too, am the daughter of immigrants. My mother and father were brought by their parents to these shores. They were unable to speak English. Neither finished high school. Like your family, they worked hard, did well and were able to afford me “privileges:” i.e. They were able to pay for my college education. Does that make me privileged? Like you, I had to apply for jobs, win them, do well at them. Ditto my husband [whose parents were uneducated immigrants as well]. We didn’t inherit anything but our parents’ drive. Eventually, we were able to afford our children “privileges” like their college education. They’ve more than paid us back by their hard work in building careers and making a difference in this world. This whole argument over “privilege” is masking some other deeper dissatisfaction. It’s political correctness gone amuck.

  5. Jeanine says:

    I live in Toronto, Canada. There is a mix of everyone here and let me tell you, I’ve never seen this privilege that’s spoken about. I’m sure it’s an issue else where, I don’t doubt that but I don’t often see it. Just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

  6. Robin Rue (@massholemommy) says:

    I think of a privilege as a right we have – not about whether we are rich, or white or whatever. I think it’s something we get to do.

  7. Quite a topic to write on! I understand your feelings. From a sociological point of view though, white privilege, male privilege, exists and is solidly in our institutions. Women do not get paid as much as men; you don’t see cops shooting down unarmed white guys…ever. Our institutions are biased. I have worked hard, I have suffered. I have also lived in a white “bubble”. I’ve been fired for pointing out pay inequality. We might noy realize it, but being white brings with it a bit of luck, or privilege, or whatever you want to call it. Being born a black male brings danger, regardless of your SES. Black men know that they are in inherent danger, that they must act a certain way, watch their temper, behave perfectly with police…and they know they get targeted for police stops, etc. Our first black president has been treated more disrespectfully than any other president. And just watch…Hilary will be treated disprespectfully during her campaign…put down for her looks, her clothes, her marriage, etc. No one judges men that way. Of course you earned everything you have. So have I. But I also recognize the institutional workings and benefits of being white.

    • My point is that there are always going to be institutional “somethings” pro or con. I think it’s more level than some discussions. I don’t for one minute think my grandparents or parents were privileged to be white. Because being a “Dago” trumped that. It’s always something and we need to get over it and just do our thing.

      • If you weren’t western european (except Irish) you were definitely underprivileged at that time in history. Absolutely. At this time it is okay to be Italian or Romanian because it is considered “white”. It took time, though, for those groups to be assimilated…usually by the third generation the language was lost and most customs had become “american” (most). Being white matters. Look at black males, who have been here far longer than most ethnicities. Poor black males cannot even get jobs…no one wants to hire a young black male. They have the highest unemployment rate and the highest murder rate, not to mention the lowest opportunity rate. These populations cannot get over it and do their thing…they are institutionally, personally, educationally, and socio-economically disadvantaged. The concept of “privilege” is used to determine the amount of social power a particular group has within the society. As far as people sitting around and discussing “privilege”, I think we all need to understand that white people do occupy the majority of dominant social and financial positions in our society. We need to realize it, stop yapping about it, and do what we can to change that sad fact. I have to say that I am amazed that white America is only now realizing how black males are treated in our society. Better late than never, I guess.

  8. Carol, I am coming from teaching Race Matters and Gender and Society, Gender, Race and Crime at the University level. These were my fields of interest in graduate school, so forgive me for being so verbal…but this is a term that is hot button for me as well. And I have never heard of marriage privilege (except in the 1950s). That’s a new one on me.

    • I appreciate that, for sure. At the same time, I really do have a point of view on this that is not very politically correct. I do get that some people come in with more than others, but I also get that it is possible to overcome that. We see it every day, even among young black men. I think we do them a disservice to allow them to think they can not overcome this. I do see racism around me from time to time and it freaks me out. And even so, it is possible to have achievements. The black men I know are smart and able to do anything. Just like the white men I know. I understand that this is not a popular opinion among liberals and I am a liberal. But I also come from a family history where much had to be overcome and I saw first hand how it was overcome. Those avenues are not closed today. They can be accessed. Good discussion point.

    • I should also say that I began but didn’t finish a PhD in social psych so I have that background, as well.

  9. I agree with both you and Cathy. I think if you work hard for what you have then it has nothing to do with being privileged. However you do have those people who like Cathy says does not give credit or respect to others because they think they are above them… and they expect that even when they are not deserving, it should be there’s still.

  10. Carol, I love this post and feel it was written straight from your heart. In fact, I believe everything you write comes straight from your heart. Thank you.
    The idea of privilege is an interesting concept to debate. I have used this word in my posts before and never realized there were so many different ways to “hear” it . I recognize from reading the previous posts that this is an important subject.

    Here is how I view my privileged life;

    Although I am not rich by America’s standards or even secure by Americas standards, I feel privileged in every way.
    I have the privilege of choice. I have chosen a simple life which means fewer things to take care of.There are people around the world who live in extreme poverty and it is not their choice.
    I have the privilege of knowing my purpose. I know exactly why am “here” and wake up with confidence most mornings. It is a gift.
    I have the privilege of going to sleep at night without imminent threat of bombing, or wondering if I will have enough food to sustain my family.
    I have the privilege of choosing organic, locally grown over food that has been trucked from Mexico days ago.
    I have the privilege of clean water and a clean bed and I am privileged to feel love.
    Maybe I confuse the word “privilege” with the idea of being Blessed (unearned advantage)….but I feel both, Privileged and Blessed and I don’t take either lightly.

  11. Kim Tackett says:

    Provocative, as always Carol! I keep going back to something my daughter shares with me, from Chicago. She says white privilege means her fiance, Brendan can wear a hat and a scarf in winter, and cover his face. If he is black, he has to show his face, where ever he is, so he can be recognized by gang members and police alike. Black men can not cover their heads and faces in the cold…somehow this stays with me.

    I am privileged. I am not rich by many standards, but certainly by world standards. Some of this is earned, but most of it is because I drew the lucky card when I was born. I do feel guilty…also blessed, motivated, honored and humbled. And for me, that’s owning it.

    Love to you, and thanks for writing this.

  12. We are not privileged on a financial sense nor my family was when growing up we are just medium class honest hardworking people that have the privilege of living in peace and with lots of dreams to conquer.

  13. Diane says:

    I am descended from immigrant grandparents who came with nothing and created a family dynasty. I’m proud of their hard work and determination. The only thing my mom could say in English her first day of school was, “My nom Enes. I’m half-past six.” But that didn’t stop her from rising to the top of her class right through high school. Her father, old country to his toes, wouldn’t allow her to go on afterwards, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to be educated. Hard work and determination. I don’t care what you’re born to, if you want to succeed on a personal level, you still need both.
    Loved this, Carol!

  14. Heather says:

    Thank you for writing this! I also come from a family where no one has an education past hOh school, I used to see that assomething that would work to my own demise, until I realized I didn’t have to follow in the same footsteps. I am the onlyone in my family to have a college degree and I had to run away from home at the age of 16 to obtain it. I was laughed at when I considered college by my own family. I knew it was something I had to do to better my life and don’t regret it one bit, and I’m white. I’m not privileged, I worked hard.

  15. Britney says:

    This is interesting, thanks for sharing!

  16. Good points here, Carol. I feel privileged to have had the opportunities I’ve had but I have taken the initiative to accept them and worked my ass off to earn everything that came from them.

  17. Fascinating dialogue. There’s been no privilege in my family for generations. And I certainly have no friends I’d considered privileged… at least in terms of money. Yet I do feel privileged (blessed, more accurately) in so many ways. I hope my kids do, too, despite having grown up pretty darn poor. THEY are paving the way for more financial privilege for generations to come. But it’s a privilege accompanied by appreciation, gratitude, and hard work.

  18. I think I will say that certain people do have advantages. Doesn’t mean they don’t work hard but they do have advantages.

  19. M from The Stay-at-Home Life says:

    Working hard for where you are isn’t something you should have to apologize for at all.

  20. Great job Carol! We each get a life to do what we can with it. Those that do a better job of it shouldn’t be raked over the coals for it. It is earned and it is inspiring.

  21. Fascinating post Carol. I feel lucky that I was born healthy, in a free country with educational opportunites. While it is true some people are born with more opportunities than others, however, we are fond of telling our kids that life is what you make it. Life is all about choices. A wealthy person can easily squander a fortune.

  22. I always thought about privilege in terms of an honor or an honored thing, as in “I feel so privileged to have met you” . Maybe because I too am white, married, well-off etc., I never even think about the concept, but as you…my family came from NOTHING and through diligence and brutally hard work, we all are where we are today. We all earned it IMO. Yet, I do not argue for one minute that there are not those who are “under-privileged”.

    Once again, you have me thinking, girlfriend.

  23. Nina Gaby says:

    yes. yes. yes. Carol and I grew up in the same neighborhood. The same ancestral struggles. Viewed the same meltdown. I am still unable to talk about it with anything that resembles intelligent neutrality. But baby steps. I read this. Thanks.

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