It is easy for people to bash on privilege. As a general rule, we are intensely sensitive to the privilege that other people get that we do not. As a high school student whose family was of modest enough means for me to get reduced lunch prices (which at $.40 a day allowed me to save approximately $3.00 a week for purchases of books and music), I noticed that almost all of the scholarships in my school district that were set aside for low income students also specified that such students needed to be some sort of racial minority as well. This sort of reverse racial discrimination is a privilege. To someone on the other side of the picture, who fusses over the inequalities in the justice system and past wrongs like slavery and segregation, such privilege has a way of looking like justice. This is not an isolated situation. Indeed, it may be readily seen that any attempt to right past wrongs creates new privileges (and new people who may very well be resentful of and hostile to such privileges). Any attempt to level the slanted playing field of life creates new privileges based on identity and makes it a minimax solution for people to seek to paint themselves as disabled in some fashion so that they may receive this privilege and profit from it, which will in turn redirect resources away from others who are worthy at least of being treated equally.
It is impossible to escape privilege. By law, according to wikipedia, “a privilege is a certain entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis.” Do you have title to property? Do you have a driver’s license or passport? Do you receive some sort of deduction on your taxes due to student loan interests, mortgage interest, charitable donations, or any other reason? Do you receive a reduction in lunch prices? Do you receive some sort of subsidies or grants? If you answered yes to any of these questions, by definition of the law you are privileged. There are two aspects to privilege that make it inescapable and also problematic. For one, such privileges are based on identity in a group that is defined by certain qualities. For another, such privileges are conditional and can be revoked by authorities. The first quality makes it of vital importance for privileged groups to be vigilant about gatekeeping their identities to preserve it from dilution. The second quality makes it of vital importance for privileged groups to ensure some sort of political power that allows them to defend their privilege from those who would revoke it. Such conditions almost guarantee that identity politics will be a struggle and that political rivalry will include the possibility of intense struggle over rival views of privilege.
All of this is made worse by the fact that we are often invisible to our own privilege. Our own privileged existence, such as it is, is something that we do not tend to notice. We do notice when other people have it undeservedly easy or receive something that we are denied, but we are not very quick to notice when we are advantaged in a given situation. On a regular basis I tend to take my own privilege for granted. For example, I go to the library and request tons of books (almost literally so) and I can go about getting them and returning them without anyone hassling me. Never has anyone thought that I did not belong in the library or in most any other place were I would choose to go. I can rely on the fact that in a conversation with authority figures like police officers and others that I will be treated with respect just by looking respectable. I know I can go into a restaurant or store and that others will feel obligated to treat my whims seriously so that they may improve their own living, even when these whims include sitting at tables, drinking inordinate amounts of water or sweet tea, and reading books for hours. Not everyone is so privileged. And yet I tend to notice with a great deal of hostility those aspects of privilege that I am denied, because it is easy for me to compare how I am treated with how others are treated in a given situation.
Given what I see and read of others, I am not alone in this asymmetrical response to my own privilege and those privileges others receive that I do not. Like many people, I tend to assume that I deserve those privileges I receive. I think to myself, even when I do not say it out loud, that the generally favorable attitude I receive from authorities is due to being a generally law abiding person who does not make trouble. Yet others are as law abiding as I am but are judged as looking like trouble even when they do not want to make it. When we receive privilege as a way of righting past wrongs or rewarding us for the reputation we get from our surface appearance or identity, we view such things as merited and deserved, and view the removal of privilege as an act of injustice. And when others receive privileges we are denied, we view such things as an intolerable injustice. In such circumstances–and they exist everywhere–not only is privilege impossible to escape but also conflicts over privilege. For to the extent that everyone is privileged, no one is privileged, and the desire to gain and maintain one’s sense of privilege is one of the main reasons why people seek after political power in the first place. And so long as we view our own privilege as just desserts, we will be blind to our own sense of entitlement even as we remain intensely critical about others. All too often, such hypocrisy is the native state of humanity.