Explaining privilege – without getting a latte to the face.

Sitting in an undergraduate class a few years back I remember the lecturer, a white woman, asking each of the straight white men (SWM) to explain what they thought of SWM privilege. I yawned, and most guys in the room slumped in their seats. We were either unamused at the prospect of being labelled ‘privileged’ or unimpressed by a woman suggesting it, or both. She was one of those rusted on liberals that would use each of her lectures to make what I felt were crude and not so coded political arguments (and other ‘trendy shit’). As had become a pattern during the semester, I had already registered my ambivalence by consuming a substantial quantity of whisky the night before. Some of the SWM disagreed entirely with the notion of privilege and used the pulpit to exhibit their confidence as an SWM confronting a female lecturer.   

I never saw myself in a position of privilege to start with. As such, it was pointless giving the notion any further thought. I’m privileged? Lol, wot? What about height privilege! I am 5 ft 7 (does she not know how much harder it is to ‘pick up’, than say 5 ft 11?), my hair was falling out too and I had a 60k student loan and a train wreck of false career starts.

At that time I felt there was really only one sensible response to a woman suggesting to me that I was privileged: Fuck you.

The Eureka moment arrived only a few months later; through a friend I met two young and economically disadvantaged women of colour. Their grades prior to leaving high school had been pretty good, and thus I suggested they attend a foundation studies course at the local University. As I was providing the link between the University, their home and social services I figured they would do alright.  

In the week preceding their studies I took one of the young women to a social services office so she could switch her income support to a tertiary funding arrangement. Her case manager offered these words in support: ‘You do realise there’s a stand down period if you need to reapply for dole, don’t you.  What are you going to do when you drop out?’ My mouth opened and closed like a goldfish.  

Despite their initial enthusiasm, both started missing classes after the first 2 weeks and within the space of 8 weeks both had left, even though one of them was still comfortably passing. I asked what happened, and they both said the same things, ‘they didn’t feel like it was a place for them’ and that ‘none of their other friends went to uni’. The whole experience led to some fairly painful introspection; I had blindly assumed that by bringing these young women to a new environment, a place with ‘limitless opportunities’, I had magically altered the trajectory of their lives for the better.  

Privilege can loosely be categorised as one of three things: acquiring an otherwise hidden knowledge of how to go about something, having an assumed competence or proficiency in something or having a more illuminated pathway toward something that is less accessible by others.  I had all of these things on my first day at University: family members that had attended University, some even at the same institution; strong references from high school teachers; and an abundance of people wandering around campus who looked like me and talked like me.  As McIntosh points out, privilege is an invisible system conferring dominance to a particular group in society. It is a virtue of certain individual characteristics not of your own making (such as your sexuality, skin colour or gender).  

So where do SWM fit into this discussion? Well, let us transpose for a moment two persons with the same basket of circumstances. They are both 5 ft 7 and are ageing faster than they would like, they are both deep in student debt and have gone in circles trying to establish a career only to return to University years later. Now assume that you could choose to be one of these people + a SWM or a Gay Brown Female (GBF), and that your goal in life is upward mobility.  Who stands a better shot at making it through University, applying for a job, being promoted and secure a housing lease in a ‘desirable’ area? Considering all the structural disadvantages at play for females, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, you would surely respond with SWM. And that is what SWM privilege is, a relative term. Your life could still be pretty shit, even as an SWM. It could even be more shit than every GBF you know (but chances are you wouldn’t know many GBFs anyway).  

So is there someone else to blame for not explaining that SWM privilege is a relative thing or have SWM, like myself, never really been interested in hearing about it in the first place? I don’t know the answer to that question. But the implications are important for election campaigns taking place in liberal democracies all over the world.

Just ask Jeremy Corbyn, whose own UK Labour Party is desperately trying to win back the support of working class voters who are now more likely to vote for the Conservative Party. Wait, what? So working class people are now more likely to vote for tax cuts and a reduction in the outlay of social services?  How the fuck did that happen? 

Is it because they fled Labour after being confronted with their privilege, or am I now the one making crude and not so coded political arguments?  

TL;DR?  SWM privilege is a thing, in relative terms.  I started wearing hats in 2010.

2 thoughts on “Explaining privilege – without getting a latte to the face.”

  1. Is it actually true that women are at a structural disadvantage in graduating from university, as you say?

    I have two problems with privilege. First, implies transitivity – people have different amounts of privilege, because different characteristics have some consistently good or bad effect, so you can have “more” or “less” privilege. But in the example above, and plenty of other cases besides, women are at a serious advantage compared to men. If you take out transitivity, we don’t have privilege, and instead have “different groups have different situations in complicated ways” which is much less aggressive and, indeed, insulting to poor men from the north of England who are a tiny bit sick of being lectured on how they’re privileged by your hypothetical GBW, who quite plausibly has an infinitely higher chance of going to university than they ever did.

    Second, privilege doesn’t have nice neat logical bounds. It’s not clear why people *don’t* have height privilege – certainly that matters in life, and certainly people make judgements based on it. The traditional dodge is to say that it’s only privilege if it’s structural, but that often leads to almost Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zionesque conspiracy theories about how the straight people are conspiring against the gays – conspiring so well, in fact, that non-straight people have massively higher average incomes and educations than the average straight person.

    I don’t think the concept is intellectually useful.

    1. In of itself, I doubt women are at a structural disadvantage in graduating from University. However, what I stated in the article was that they were at a structural disadvantage of accomplishing upward mobility – making their way through University is only the beginning to establishing a career, buying a home etc.

      As for the working class of Northern England I think you’ve illuminated in a few sentences the issue I am tried to resolve in 1300 words. Privilege is relative, your life could be totally shit compared to some GBFs. But invariably, if all other factors were the same (they also lived in a housing estate in Newcastle), then their SWM counterparts would have a relative form of privilege compared to their GBFS neighbors.

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