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South African Journal of Philosophy 2014, 33(1): 73-83 Printed in South Africa All rights reserved Copyright South African Journal of Philosophy S O...

Have Privilege?

Prepare a posting that describes your understanding of the concept of privilege using the Monahan (2014) reading and Dr. Flora's interview as points of reflection.

  • How can the concept of White Privilege be expanded to include gender privilege, class privilege, or heterosexual privilege?
  • Provide an example from your own experience of how a person may experience privilege based on one aspect of their identity and oppression based on another.
  • After listening to the interview with Dr. Flora, do you think the term privilege also applies to the region where
South African Journal of Philosophy 2014, 33(1): 73–83 Printed in South Africa — All rights reserved Copyright © South African Journal of Philosophy SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY ISSN 0258-0136 EISSN 2073-4867 South African Journal of Philosophy is co-published by Taylor & Francis and NISC (Pty) Ltd The concept of privilege: a critical appraisal 1 Michael J. Monahan Department of Philosophy, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, USA [email protected] In this essay, I examine the use of the concept of privilege within the critical theoretical discourse on oppression and liberation (with a particular focus on white privilege and anti- racism in the USA). In order to fulfill the rhetorical aims of liberation, concepts for privilege must meet what I term the ‘boundary condition’, which demarcates the boundary between a privileged elite and the rest of society, and the ‘ignorance condition’, which establishes that the elite status and the advantages it confers are not publicly recognised or affirmed. I argue that the dominant use of the concept of privilege cannot fulfill these conditions. As a result, while I do not advocate for the complete abandonment of the rhetoric of privilege, I conclude that it obscures as much as it illuminates, and that the critical theoretical discourse on libera- tion and oppression should be suspicious of its use. The critical-theoretical literatures on various forms of oppression (race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) make common appeal to the notion of privilege . There is male privilege, white privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege and ability privilege, all of which are understood in relation to some corresponding form of oppression in the form of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism and so forth. In the broadest terms, the concept of privilege is meant to capture the unearned benefits and advantages that accrue to members of dominant groups as a result of the ongoing exploitation and oppression of members of dominated groups. The development of the concept of privilege has been lauded as a crucial advance in our understanding of oppression, in that it has focused attention upon the systematic aspects of oppression that condition our material and moral development in ways that are often drowned out by the more common focus upon explicitly held beliefs and attitudes. While there have been some important critiques of certain applications or side-effects of the concept of privilege, and the argument I will advance in this essay will build upon that work, even that critical literature has not subjected the concept as such to thoroughgoing scrutiny. 2 Concentrating, for the sake of brevity and focus, on the example of white privilege specifically, this essay will draw together some of the existing critiques of the concept of privilege, and argue ultimately that it obscures our understanding of oppression more than it illuminates. 3 Before undertaking the critical analysis of the current use of the concept of privilege in the context of oppression, I will very briefly explore the development and use of the term generally. The Latin etymology of the term privilege points toward the concept of a ‘private law’ that situates one outside of the laws that bind others (Bailey 1998: p. 111; Gordon 2004: p. 174; Kruks 2005: p. 180). In this original sense, a privilege is a benefit or advantage that accrues to an exclusive (usually hereditary) elite, such that the benefits and advantages are part and parcel of their status as elites . To a Roman patrician, for example, privilege meant to be unfettered from certain restrictions and limitations that bound the plebians, such that these liberties were 1 Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Minnesota State University in Mankato, at the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race, and at the Cave Hill Philosophy Symposium. I am grateful to the organisers of these fora for providing me with the opportunity to receive valuable feedback: Craig Matarrese, Falguni Sheth, Mickaella Perina, Darrell Moore, Frederick Ochieng’-Odhiambo, Ed Bran- don and Roxanne Burton. I also received crucial commentary and feedback from Alison Bailey, Theresa Tobin, Anthony Peressini, Sally Matthews and Ward Jones. 2 Excellent examples of critiques of some of the literature on privilege include Ahmed (2004), Gordon (2004), Kruks (2005, 2012) and Applebaum (2010, especially Ch. 2). 3 It is crucial to note that signi f cant discussions of the phenomenon that the term ‘privilege’ means to capture go back at least to the nine- teenth century among African and African-American thinkers. Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison and Frantz Fanon all devote signi f cant attention to the moral, political and psychological impact oppression has on its bene f ciaries. These thinkers did not employ the term ‘privilege’, however, and since the use of that speci f c terminology is the focus of this paper, I will not be taking up their texts.
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Monahan 74 partly constitutive of what it meant to be patrician. Importantly, this relationship of advantage and exclusivity was explicitly recognised (even if not always affirmed) by elites, by non-elites and by the formal institutions that bound them together (primarily government and religion). In this ‘classical’ sense of privilege we see that it was understood as a legitimate entitlement of the upper caste by virtue of birth (noble blood). Privileges place one outside of the boundaries of the restrictions and limitations on behaviour that bind the majority of the population, but they are legitimate insofar as one’s membership in the appropriate caste (i.e. one’s birth) entitles one to them. With the advent of the European enlightenment, and the articulation and gradual public affirmation of modern political liberalism, it was precisely this hereditary account of the legitimacy of privilege that came under the most intense critique. 4 The problem with classical privilege from the point of view of liberalism was neither its exceptionalism nor its inegalitarianism. Inequality and exclusive or limited rights were perfectly acceptable in principle. Rather, the problem with privilege was that it attached to birth status, rather than to individual merit. Alison Bailey’s treatment of privilege appeals to this point in her reference to privileges as ‘ unearned advantages’ (Bailey 1998: p. 104, emphasis mine). If, through hard work (economic virtue) and social acumen (political/moral virtue) one earned the privileges associated with wealth and political power, that was not merely legitimate, but praiseworthy. Bailey refers to these specifically as ‘earned advantages’ (Bailey 1998: p. 109), and they are the kinds of advantages gestured toward when we refer to the ‘privileges of wealth’, for example. 5 This notion of privilege that results from merit is still very much with us today. When we say, to offer relatively innocent examples, that it is a privilege to be able to address the members of the Racine Moose Lodge, or that it is a privilege to be able to teach at Harvard, we mean to say that it is not a right or a legitimate expectation for any and all, but rather that it is an exceptional opportunity earned (one hopes) through one’s individual merit. The contemporary literature on oppression makes use of this sense of illegitimate or ill-gotten benefits and advantages. In the context of critical-theoretical discourse on oppression, the concept of privilege is meant to pick out precisely the benefits and advantages that accrue to individuals solely by virtue of their member- ship by birth into an elite caste (such as, inter alia , a race or gender). Unlike the original historical definition of privilege, however, the membership in (or even existence of) the elite caste is not necessarily explicitly and publicly recognised and affirmed as legitimating the corresponding benefits and advantages. 6 To use post-civil rights era white privilege in the USA as an example, it is supposed to be by virtue of one’s being born white that one receives the benefits and advantages of white privilege, even though there is (allegedly) no formal and explicit public affirmation of whites’ privileged status, nor even necessarily the first-person awareness of that status on the part of individual white people. 7 The understanding of privilege that is the focus of this essay is thus like the classical definition in that it posits privileges as tied to birth, but appeals to the modern/liberal notion in claiming that such unearned privileges are illegitimate. Within analyses of oppression, the concept of privilege presents itself as a complement or even contrast to overt, deliberate and conscious manifestations of oppression. That is, there is the conscious and explicit racism of the Klan member or the Neo-Nazi on the one hand, and white privilege on the other. Central to this use of the concept of privilege, therefore, is the irrelevance of conscious or explicit hatred, bias or general ill-will toward the oppressed on the part of privileged individuals. According to this view, one may not have a racist or sexist bone in one’s body, but as a white male, for example, one will benefit from both white privilege and male privilege (and likely many other sorts of privilege) in most every possible context regardless of that lack of ill-will. Indeed, Paula Rothenberg refers to white privilege as ‘the other side of racism’ (Rothenberg 2002: p. 1), while Shannon Sullivan makes the same distinction between unconscious, 4 I recognise that I am clearly painting here with a very coarse brush. There was no clear and obvious point at which the old notion of privilege was abandoned for the new. The gradual rise of the bourgeoisie in Europe for a very long time seemed to exhibit both notions of privilege. 5 Of course, the distinction between ‘earned’ and ‘unearned’ can often be dif f cult to discern, and I do not wish to imply that Bailey herself is oversimplifying this distinction. 6 To be sure, in most cases there was a time when elite race, sex or class status (to name just a few examples) was publicly and explicitly recognised in this way and, in most cases, that time was not too far in the past. And, there can certainly be implicit and informal recognition of the elite caste and their privileges even after the end of the formal and explicit acknowledgement (and indeed, pointing this out is the aim of much of the literature on privilege). 7 I will maintain a position of neutrality in this essay as regards the metaphysics of race – the ontology of whiteness has little bearing on the analysis of white privilege being offered here.
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Discussion Post Based on the assigned readings, it is significant to note that the concept of white privilege
does exist....

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