The concept of privilege is a hot button issue both in the country writ large and the personal finance community specifically. Add in an adjective (white privilege, for example) and you’ve got a recipe for a fiery comment section, some Twitter blocking, and a thousand think pieces.
There’s a lot of passion around the idea of privilege and I wanted to cut through all that and try to develop a nuanced understanding and help others do the same.
When the topic first came to mind I instinctively started mentally outlining what I wanted to say. I thought of all the different examples I would use to show that privilege exists and is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Ultimately, I decided that may not necessarily be a helpful approach for understanding, and helping others understand, privilege. Instead, I asked to hear from other people.
I have a good understanding of one side of the debate, but I put out an open call on Twitter for folks who disagree with the idea of privilege or take issue with its usage. I asked for tweets, DMs, and emails explaining why people believe what they do. I promised that I would not argue or try to change anyone’s mind, although I may ask follow-up questions.
I’m glad I took this approach.
The results surprised me. And also showed me that my original idea for a post would not have helped move the conversation forward.
Note: Because of the controversial nature of the topic and the manner in which I asked for feedback, I have not attached names to any of the opinions that I cite in this article. If you’d like your name included, feel free to reach out and I will add attribution.
Before getting into the responses, though, I think its important to define what we mean by privilege.
One of my biggest takeaways from these conversations was that a lot of people had strong feelings about privilege without having a strong understanding of what exactly it entailed. The political and emotional reactions to privilege have outstripped the basic meaning.
So for our purposes, here is how I am defining privilege: An advantage that you have in life that you have not earned through your own hard work.
Privilege, at least in the modern discussion, is generally based around a situation that you are born into. Being white, being male, and being born into a wealthy family are all examples of this, but plenty of others exist as well.
What I found was that when we strip the issue down to this level, most of the people that reached out to me actually agreed with the concept of privilege.
There was a small group of people that still disputed the concept of privilege, a group of people that took issue with the actual word “privilege” as a descriptor of the concept, and a group that took issue with the way the concept of privilege is used in public debate.
Let’s dive into these different objections.
The smallest group were the people that did not agree that some demographics were born with advantages over others.
One flavor of this argument is that everyone has advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has struggles. Health, finances, and relationships are all things that challenge people regardless of their race or gender.
Another was that advantages and disadvantages exist for every race/gender/etc. “Asians on average have higher IQs, blacks seem to dominate athletics, are those privileges?” Under this argument, there are disadvantages faced by each group, but they are balanced by competing advantages specific to that group.
These arguments also cited examples that contradict the narrative. There are areas of extreme poverty in white Appalachian communities. There are people of color that have achieved unthinkable success, like Oprah. There are plenty of straight white males born into wealth that do not make anything of themselves.
This is an area where I think we, as a society, need to do a better job of truly listening to the experiences of others and believing what they say.
Recently on Twitter there was a big discussion about women jogging. Women from all backgrounds were chiming in to discuss their experiences. They talked about not being able to go jogging alone after dark. They talked about the different precautions they needed to take before going out. They talked about telling people the exact route they were going to take beforehand.
I’ve never had to do any of that. When I was in college I would take a break from writing a paper by going for a jog alone through the streets of Washington, D.C. at 1 a.m. I did not tell anyone that I was going for a run, never mind tell anyone my route. I made up my route as I went along to keep things interesting.
This is obviously just one small example, but it is indicative of the fact that there are challenges that I don’t have to face that I don’t even realize I don’t have to face. That’s how privilege works.
The fact that I am a straight white man from a middle-class family does not mean that my life is easy or that I don’t face challenges. It means that there are hoops that other people have to jump through and challenges that they have to face that I don’t even see.
There are plenty of people that achieve great success despite having to jump through those hoops. There are plenty of people that fail to achieve success even though they don’t have to jump through those hoops.
There are plenty of people that have to jump through some hoops and not others. A poor white man and a wealthy black man have different sets of hoops to jump through. The white man’s race does not negate the challenges of poverty. The black man’s wealth does not negate the challenges of race. Neither negates the fact that they both have privilege in one form and disadvantages in another.
The point is not to compete or to see people (or yourself) as victims or to inspire guilt. The point is just to recognize where you have had advantages or where others have faced challenges that you did not need to face.
Is Wealth a Privilege?
In addition to the arguments against the concept of privilege, there was a more nuanced argument against the idea that being born into wealth was a privilege.
The basic idea behind this argument is that it isn’t privilege because someone worked hard to earn it:
“I feel that being born to a family that has a history of service and financial stability isn’t so much of a privilege in the same sense because someone or generations worked to earn the rights to those privileges.”
This argument admits that there are advantages to being born into family wealth, but that those advantages have been earned and should not be lumped in with advantages based on race or gender or other things outside of our control.
The Legacy of Privilege
The best response to this came from someone who separately messaged me about his journey from being on the anti-privilege side of the argument to the pro-privilege side.
This person started from a similar line of thinking. He recognized that he started life with an advantage due to his dad’s hard work and success. His dad, in turn, started with a leg up due to the writer’s grandfather’s hard work and success. They both worked very hard to give their kids a head start, so why should that be considered privilege?
After extensive conversations with people from very different backgrounds, he came to the realization that not everyone’s grandparents had that chance.
“But my grandpa was alive at a time where he (as a white male) could be rewarded for hard work. There was no ceiling placed on him by someone else. So the harder he worked, the more success he experienced, and the more he was able to setup my dad.”
Hard work is to be commended. Setting up your children for success is great. (And if your parents have given you a leg up, go thank them!) Just remember that others may not have had the same opportunities.
A Problem of Linguistics
After drilling down to the definition of privilege, another group agreed that some people had advantages over others by virtue of things beyond their control, but disagreed with the use of the term “privilege.”
These folks felt that speaking in terms of “advantage,” “opportunity,” or “luck” was more appropriate.
One person said, “I’m a healthy white American male, that was born to a very well off family. I don’t feel privileged but I would say others would disagree.” He went on to describe getting older and realizing how “lucky” he was to be born into the situation that he was.
Another response was that, “You could say that being born white in America is luck but not a privilege.”
Another: “I struggle more with the word privileged. Would prefer a word more like Advantaged.”
The general thrust of these arguments is that the word “privilege” suggests an easy life devoid of hard work.
“I feel like the word privileged implies that the individual didn’t earn something or that it detracts from their accomplishments.”
“I picture limos and butlers when I hear the word privilege.”
“I’m a straight, white male. Fully acknowledge that makes plenty of things easier. It neglects to reflect that I had to work hard.”
“I fully acknowledge the advantages my race, sex, etc affords me, but many seem to think that absolves many of the other issues in one’s life.”
Patience and Understanding
I don’t really know how to address this issue.
The short-term solution would just be to use a different word. And maybe that would help a little. Maybe the word “privilege” does have a whiff of limos. But I suspect that similar connotations would attach to any word that was put in its place.
If we start talking about the luck of being born white, wouldn’t people feel that this undermines their hard work? Couldn’t people perceive any discussion of the male advantage as discrediting their achievements?
I think the long-term solution to this disconnect is to work on understanding each other. On one side, people need to learn that a reference to privilege is not an attack on your accomplishments. It is not suggesting that you had an easy life. It is not saying that your contributions to society are not valid or worthy of celebration. It is simply a note to acknowledge that your experience is not the experience of everyone. A reminder that others face a different set of challenges.
On the other side, people need to recognize that some people will get defensive. We need to be careful not to weaponize the idea of privilege and use it to undermine someone else’s achievements. We need to be clear that the goal is for people to recognize the challenges that others face.
My conversations showed that this is not an unbridgeable gap, but when we start from the assumption (as I did originally) that the other side is being unreasonable, we don’t treat our conversations with the patience they often deserve.
Another problem that people had with the word “privilege” is that it has become politicized and polarizing. What I mean by that is that the political parties have taken pretty clear positions on either side of the privilege debate.
This is related to the prior arguments in that it is not an issue with the concept of privilege so much as the connotations of the word. Now, in addition to whatever other connotations the word may have for folks, it also means “agreeing with Democrats” in the eyes of many.
I was told of someone’s Fox News-viewing family member who would agree with the principles behind privilege if not for this aspect of the word.
There was also an argument made that the politicization of the word leads people to believe that “political action is the only or best way to promote better outcomes for those facing disadvantages.”
As far as the word becoming politicized, I think this is difficult to tackle for the same reason that the connotations in the prior arguments were difficult to tackle. Whatever word we use to describe the advantages that some groups have will become politicized.
This becomes even more difficult to overcome once you add the tribalism of party politics into the mix. Many people decry “identity politics,” but often the strongest identity that people have is “Republican” or “Democrat,” making it difficult to bridge the gap on issues once the parties have taken sides.
I can say that people need to keep a more open mind, and I believe that, but I don’t necessarily have a practical approach to achieving this.
As far as political action, I believe it is necessary. The best way for any particular individual to achieve a better outcome is to work hard and do their best to achieve success regardless of their circumstances. That said, the fact that the pursuit of success is harder for certain demographics through no fault of their own is unacceptable and the only real way to address that inequality of opportunity on a societal level is through political action.
Privilege as a Weapon
The last category of objections to privilege had to do with the way the concept is used in discussion and in society writ large.
A common complaint was the feeling that privilege is used as an attack.
“Often when privilege gets used, it is used in a way that is in fact meant to discredit the hard work that someone has put in. I think there are plenty of cases where it is not used that way, but I’ve seen it used in a ‘weaponized’ way quite a bit. No one likes to be discredited, especially if they have worked hard.”
Some people get defensive when they encounter this and attack back, but others feel compelled to apologize for their privilege.
“So I think sometimes people feel like they have to apologize for being privileged. Which is exactly pointless and counterproductive IMHO. And I think sometimes a zestful call to acknowledge is misunderstood as a demand for an apology.”
Keep the End in Mind
I think this is a situation where we need to be aware of our goals when discussing privilege.
We want people to recognize that they are privileged, but we don’t want to make them feel bad or guilty about their own achievements.
If we are actually trying to convince people to recognize and consider their privilege rather than just yell at them, we need to consider how we approach the conversation. Being too forceful can put people on the defensive and turn potential allies into enemies.
Privilege and Prejudice
Another complaint was a perceived link between privilege and prejudice.
“But assuming that someone who is privileged in some way is racist or sexist or some other -ist is wrong.”
When I asked why this person believed that privilege implied prejudice, they responded:
“I think that it does imply racism or sexism-usually because it starts w/ white or male.”
This is one where I’m just going to outright disagree.
Suggesting that men have advantages that women don’t have does not make all men sexist. Arguing that white privilege exists does not mean that all white people are white supremacists.
I can recognize that as a white male I have faced fewer obstacles than a female person of color without there being any racism or sexism involved. I am not saying that white men deserve to face fewer obstacles because they’re better.
Acknowledging a truth does not mean that you support that truth. In fact, ignoring it is a much stronger vote in favor of the status quo.
Privilege and Success
The final objection that I came across was the idea that privilege is necessary to be successful.
“As a white male, I agree that privilege exists and it helps tremendously. However, I don’t like the insinuation that one needs to be privileged in order to achieve amazing goals. Nobody actually says those words, but sometimes, it definitely comes across that way.”
“Just because you come from a non privileged background it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed financially. It is harder for sure but certainly possible.”
Obviously this is not a message that anyone wants to send or is trying to send. The purpose of discussing privilege is to recognize the extra work that certain groups have to put in to achieve the same level of success. Signaling to those groups that they shouldn’t even bother would be extremely counter-productive.
I’d be curious to see which people have taken this message away from the privilege discussion. It could be that this is something that people writing about finances and giving advice on how to achieve success are particularly attuned to. It’s possible that this seems more discouraging to the people in the self-improvement space than it actually is to non-privileged people.
Maybe white people are more likely to think that discussion of white privilege is demoralizing to people of color than the people of color themselves.
This is not something that I can answer from where I sit as a straight white man in the personal finance and self-improvement space, but it is something to keep in mind.
So how do we move forward with all of this?
First and foremost, we need to interact with and listen to people of different backgrounds. We need to be open and we need to seek to understand the experiences of others. And we need to believe them when they share.
It is important to recognize that there are things that we do not know about what other people go through in their lives. There are untold aspects of other people’s lives that we do not know we do not know.
I’ve always been dedicated to addressing issues of inequality, but it wasn’t until I started listening to African-Americans talk about their experiences in reaction to Black Lives Matter that I truly recognized how little I understood of those experiences. I can study all of the statistics and read all of the think pieces, but that won’t teach me anything useful about the lived experience of someone else.
I had read the statistics about unreported sexual assault, but it wasn’t until women started sharing their stories during the Me Too Movement that the near-universality of that experience for women really hit home.
We need to recognize privilege and we need to help others to recognize privilege, but at the heart of everything is that we need to recognize and appreciate each other’s experiences.
Remember the Objective
We need to remember our goals when discussing privilege with people that may be defensive.
It’s important that people recognize that privilege exists. It’s important that everyone recognizes the advantages that they have in life. It’s important that people understand and appreciate the experiences of others.
But we need to make sure that we are actually advancing that cause rather than just pissing people off and making them feel attacked.
There are, and will always be, jerks that engage with you in bad faith. There’s no way around that. Those people are a lost cause and a waste of breath.
But there are so many people out there that are open to the idea of privilege but are uncomfortable with the connotations or are unsure whether we are undermining their achievements. These people can be allies if we are willing to have open, honest, and patient discussions. If we’re willing to take the time to explain things.
The Duty of the Privileged
And, frankly, a lot of this burden should be taken on by those of us with privilege.
It should not be the job of every person of color to educate every white person. It should not be the job of every woman to explain the experience of being a woman to men.
There are some that do. And I have the utmost respect for them.
There are some that are fed up with it. And I respect that.
Those of us with privilege need to amplify the voices of people that are willing to share their experiences. We need to support them vocally.
Men need to be willing to confront other men. White people need to be able to confront other white people. This is important because people are often more likely to believe someone that is like them.
It’s also important because people notice. One example is that if women see men supporting victims of sexual assault, they are more likely to feel comfortable coming forward with their own experience.
Acknowledging privilege is a great first step. Understanding the experiences of others is a great next step. Supporting women and people of color and other non-privileged groups is great, but being a vocal and visible ally is better.
Join the Conversation!
You’ve just read a whole bunch about where I stand, but where do you stand? What do you think of these objections to privilege? How should we address them? How can we be better allies? Let us know in the comments!