What is privilege?

I came across a post by Barbara W. Klaser on her website barbrawklaser.mysterynovelist.com. I will copy/paste the entire post and the link because I think it’s very good. I wanted to write my own post about it, but this post basically had everything I wanted to say already. Anyway, here it is:

“The subject of privilege came up on a forum where I sometimes participate, and it seems a relevant topic for Independence Day, since we tend to think of the US as a relatively privileged nation. The discussion grew out of one person claiming to be oppressed (my word choice, used to boil the idea down), and another saying he was equally oppressed, with a resulting one-upmanship of who was worse off or better off, at one point involving the term privileged. Out of that grew a separate discussion on what it means to be privileged in this world. Here’s what I shared on the subject, with some edits:


To me being privileged means having more than one’s basic needs met, and there are degrees of privilege, and it is relative, and basically meaningless. I’m more privileged than some people I know, and less privileged than some I know. But all I can really say about that is what I see on the surface.

It’s tragic that so few people in the world have adequate food, water, sanitation, shelter, clothing, necessary transportation, education, rest, safety, security, and health care, even some people in the US. Those should be basic, subsistence level expectations, especially considering how far we’ve come technologically in this world. Unfortunately those advances seem to be reserved for the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries, for those living under certain forms of government and economics. Basic civil and human rights should also be considered subsistence level—everyone should have them. Not everyone does, even in the most economically “privileged” countries. We can’t even agree on what civil and human rights people should have.

But I also think many people in the world have a skewed notion of what it is to live under what they consider privilege (i.e. better apparent economic or social conditions than theirs). It looks easier. In many ways it is. It’s no guarantee one will be happy.

Comfort exists on many levels. People in wealthier conditions still get sick (health care doesn’t guarantee health), suffer, die, lose loved ones, fall in and out of love, get abused, depressed, lonely, fearful, deal with pain (much of it hidden and not obvious to anyone else—some physical, some psychological or emotional). They experience disability, addiction, disasters, worries, or slip through the cracks of their society. Many so-called privileged people live very unhappy lives, or don’t only because they overcome adversity no one else would guess at. Just because some people have their basic subsistence levels met in ways that too many in the world don’t, doesn’t guarantee they won’t still lead difficult or even miserable lives. Conversely, among those who don’t even have what we consider the basics, you’ll find some fairly happy people.

A lot of this may have to do with choice, though much of it doesn’t, but let’s face it, being privileged doesn’t guarantee you’ll make the right choices—or that your family members will. Some of this also has to do with individual thresholds. Some of us handle certain types of stress more easily, some have chronic health issues, and some have an inability to think we have choices, even when we do.

So the idea of “privilege” doesn’t really tell you how much one will suffer or how happy one will be.

No one can know another’s pain. We can try, we can develop our empathy and compassion to a deeper level and care about others, try to walk in another’s shoes. But we don’t live the other’s life. To judge what another considers his or her suffering, abuse, or pain, is simply judgmental and likely unjust. Privilege is relative, and can exist right alongside extreme suffering.

So in many ways privilege as we think of it is pretty much meaningless. It seems to me that instead of nurturing a notion of being privileged or not (as if one should feel guilty for being what others consider privileged), it’s more important to nurture compassion, unconditional love, mutual concern. This isn’t to say there isn’t a grossly unbalanced distribution of wealth and power in this world. Obviously there is. It’s also clear that a wealthy person in a position of power is more likely to help his wealthy peers than those he doesn’t consider his equals. But we have to be careful of what we allow to separate us, of allowing ourselves an “us and them” mindset.

The idea of measuring privilege separates us.

The idea of all people belonging to the same human family with equal rights to the basics, and with equal capacity for suffering and happiness, connects us.”



~ by theuncynic on July 24, 2012.

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