Privilege is a set of benefits bestowed upon members of a society via the society’s hierarchical structure and subsequent laws and norms. Two things should be noted in this definition: that benefits are bestowed, meaning that they come from a source external to the recipient of said benefits, and that privilege is a direct result of social hierarchy and subsequent norms. These two notions are important in noting who is privileged and how they came to be so.
Established, institutionalized societal hierarchy determines who is privileged in a given society. As with all social constructions, one cannot “earn” privilege nor “deserve” the privilege one has. Similarly, the non-privileged are not so simply because they have not earned it. Aside from the most extreme cases, in which an action has consequences that result in changes on a societal scale, one’s actions are irrelevant to one’s privilege. The very functioning and underlying ideology of a society is what bestows privilege. Privilege, hierarchy, authority, and inequality are all innately linked, none of them can exist without the others.
Hierarchy is a specific structure that denotes inequities. It is, in essence, inequality. For this inequality to have any meaning, there must be tangible real world benefits for those who are in the “above” category of the hierarchy, which those “below” cannot attain, at least not without first rising in the hierarchy. It is these potentially unattainable benefits which make up privilege. Those who have privilege only do so due to the inequalities existing in the society to which they belong as a result of the societal hierarchy.
In the United States, and arguably Western society in general, rich, white, male, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexuals are at the top of the hierarchy. While it takes all of these identities to be at the top of the hierarchy, and subsequently have the most privilege, belonging to any of these groups bestows one with a certain amount of privilege. Simultaneously, all those not part of these groups lack privilege in some form. Again, this placement is largely irrelevant to one’s actions. This is important to remember as this often makes privilege invisible, especially to those who have it.
It is detrimental for the privileged to be unaware of their beneficial status as they can then begin to mistake their benefits as having come from their own actions. In truth it is how they are perceived by society at large and the subsequent actions taken by society that has shaped their lives. This misunderstanding is concentrated in those who have the most privilege and, by definition, the most power. The combination of power and their inability to perceive their elite statuses in society leads to faulty and fallacious uses of said power.
A useful framing scenario is the ongoing legal status of affirmative action. Some opponents claim that affirmative action does not level the playing field, it marginalizes the group that does not benefit from affirmative action. This is not true as affirmative action does not, and cannot, remove the privilege that is bestowed upon the majority group, which necessitated affirmative action in the first place. It merely attempts to reduce the detrimental effects of the lack of privilege upon marginalized groups. Affirmative action cannot change the fact that, in this society, being White carries with it the privilege of having significantly easier access to a primary education that fully prepares one for college, and the money to pay for it if/when one gets accepted. Affirmative action, of any kind, cannot remove the hierarchy and societal norms that make it necessary and as such cannot remove the privilege, or lack there of, which it is mean to counter.
Noted linguistics professor and leftist social thinker Noam Chomsky notes,
“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”
This illustrates the real life practical advantages privilege brings and the freedom that it allows, although it bare scratches the surface of the consequences.