March 11, 2018
Privilege has been just as defining in the United States as the Constitution or the American Flag has. It has been written and rewritten in the legislation guiding Americans, and it has established the ways in which they interact.
Just like the nation itself, the word has a long history. According to Merriam-Webster, the word has existed, in some form or another, since Roman times, as it is derived from the Latin privilegium. But the true notion of privilege, at least in the context of diversity, is a little more recent.
In the 1930s, writer, activist, and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois stated that, through some sort of “psychological wage,” white individuals have been allowed to feel superior to people of color, no matter the situation. According to Du Bois, newspapers would flatter “the poor whites and almost utterly ignore the Negro, except in crime and ridicule.”
In the following years, the terms “white skin privilege” and “white race privilege” first started to appear. In 1965, Theodore W. Allen urged white Americans to “repudiate their white skin privileges.” In 1977, Bernardine Dohrn wrote that “by assuming that I was beyond white privilege… I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles.” And in the late 1980s, feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh, published “White Privilege and Male Privilege.”
While the contributions of Du Bois, of Allen, and of Dohrn built the idea of privilege as it is seen today, the work of McIntosh was probably most influential. In her 1988 essay, she provided a concrete description of the privileges from which she benefitted. In fact, she provided 46 concrete descriptions, which ranged from “No. 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” to “No. 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.”
But despite the rich history of privilege and the abundance of meaning which resides behind the it, it seems that the phrase has lost some of its potency. It has been reduced to something of a slur, or a nagging reminder from someone who spews rhetoric without practicing what he or she preaches. While it has become easy to hear the term with a growing frequency, nothing has resulted from it.
The conditions behind privilege haven’t changed. White men and women still experience unwarranted and undeserved benefits, simply as a result of their race, and there’s nothing that can be said to negate that fact. But just because the term has lost is clarity and its power in recent years, does not mean that it cannot be returned. And just because racism and inequality run rampant now, does not mean that they always will.
In modern America, it is crucial for all individuals, regardless of their identities, to understand the history of their privilege, or their lack thereof. And while it is the responsibility of all Americans to publicize and understand the conditions, the history, and the events which have developed their nation, it is especially crucial for white individuals.
It is the responsibility for any person with privilege to understand the institutional experiences from which they benefit. It is the responsibility for any person with privilege to support others both publicly and privately. And it is the responsibility for any person with privilege to reject any racism, no matter where they see it. Otherwise, the next step in the history of privilege will be stagnation.