Economy of Privilege

Privilege: a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.
~Merriam-Webster dictionary

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about being White and the unearned privileges associated with this social racial classification. In looking at the often-taken-for-granted privileges of being White in North America, I asked the question: “Why do we talk about privilege in terms of economy, as if there is a shortage on privilege?” I think this might be an odd question, since by definition the concept of privilege involves those who “have” and those who “have not.” But why do we (humans) grant privileges to some and not others? And, why do we make arbitrary social standards about who will be granted privilege and who not? Can’t we give the rights and advantages of privilege to all–rich and poor, majority and minority, white and coloured? Why does our society, and societies all over the globe have a system of privileging some over others?

Peggy McIntosh talks about privilege in her article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

She creates a list of unearned privileges which accompany being part of a dominant group:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

Many of these privileges have to do with power, and access to resources such as jobs, decision-making authority, food, money, and status. Why don’t we tend to want to share and extend power to all people in a society? Why don’t we allow open access to resources?

In a sense, I think it comes down to the value of taking care of your own. I think of a scene in Linda Crew’s Children of the River, in which a Cambodian mom, fleeing from Cambodia for her life along with many others, sits on board a ship, nursing her infant, and refusing to share her milk with another infant whose mother is sick; her milk has dried up. The infant, whose mother is sick, dies. The other lives. Why this privileging of one infant over another? Their race and class are the same. But one belongs to the mother, and the other does not. Had the mother agreed to feed the other infant, would both infants have died, since she did not have enough water to keep up her own supply of milk? Resources are limited and allowing open access to resources would mean that everyone would have less. But why use race as a marker for privileging some and not others? I guess the answer lies in who has access to the resources, and those who have access, wanting to take care of their own. I’m not saying this is right, or good. I’m just exploring the question: “Why do we talk about privilege in terms of economy?”

Written September 28, 2006

————————————— Added November 2016 (10 years later)

Economy: careful management of available resources

I now think the problem lies in how White European settlers view the land as something to be owned. Our’s–this land, these resources belong to us, and with this thought, we can justify taking land, resources, from others whom we deem unworthy–those who are not ours, who differ from us in some way we deem important.

Those who have access to the resources wanting to take care of their own, in turn owning the resources. Many Indigenous groups rightfully criticize White European settlers for their concept of ownership of land. For them, the land and all resources in the world are not owned by anyone. The earth (the land, its resources) is to be respected for its ability to care for us–as a mother who cares for her children. In this sense, the world owns us, cares for us, and we all belong to the earth. In this worldview, there would be no way of privileging one over another due to ownership. And from a Christian worldview, the earth, which cares for us as a mother cares for her children, is a gift from the Creator. (It is easy to see how we have been misled by our worldview and thinking the earth itself is ours.) Our care is a gift…and Christians are called to be good stewards of her care–to, also, treat the earth with respect and consideration. If there is to be an economy under this concept of earth, then what is required is careful management of the earth’s resources, ensuring that all of the earth’s children of every race, ethnicity, religion, language, sex, gender, age, and so on, have access to what they need to survive–to the earth’s care.  


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