On Privilege

Number 2 in my “On” series. The first was On Capitalism.

Privilege is usually invisible. Wellesley scholar Peggy McIntosh took an inventory of all the things she, as a white American woman, could take for granted. The list was quite long, and she was a woman! It included things that many minorities cannot take for granted on a regular basis. Imagine a white man’s list – it’s no wonder the article “White guys happiest, study finds” has become of mainstay of ethnic and social studies. Add to this the fact that the poor in the US are positively middle class by global standards (although methods of calculating this vary), and the idea of “privilege” becomes a relative concept.

There’s a campaign, or a trend, in the Ivy Leagues in which people of color remind ethnic majorities to “check your priv.” It is worth remembering that there are more poor whites (by sheer numbers) than any other group. By percentage Native Americans are the poorest. A white person at Harvard is most likely extremely privileged, but one cannot assume this by their mere presence there. Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a man with one of the highest IQs ever measured (he was 30% smarter than Einstein), whose upbringing in extreme poverty seemed to stunt his ability even to finish a college degree. Most people are not at this extreme end of the bell curve (or curves) of poverty and intelligence simultaneously. Occupying such a position is probably fairly rare, as recent research suggests that the surface area of the brains of children of parents who make $25,000 is 6% less than that of children whose parents make $150,000. Privilege is mainly about environment, and contrary to the claims of conservatives (who say it’s all about “choices” – it is about choices, but only partly), environment matters. Studies show (also from Gladwell) that you’re better off in a bad (dysfunctional) family in a good neighborhood than you are in a good family in a bad neighborhood.

An issue that underlies many of these debates is the notion of meritocracy. The idea that people should be socially sorted based on merit – intelligence, perseverance, strength, etc. – is one that, perhaps unknowingly, always functions in the back of the minds of social reformers. As Alain de Botton notes in his excellent School of Life series of videos, a true meritocracy is impossible, as there are just too many random and capricious factors affecting performance in the marketplace of status.

Personally, I am a relatively privileged person – not financially, but academically – I have ridiculously over-educated parents, and some of my grandparents were very highly educated for their time. People like myself need to keep in mind the environments that others come from and how these environments tend to lead to certain outcomes – economic, political attitudes, etc. Rather than making one smug, this practice can allow one to appreciate others’ achievements and realize that one’s own achievements represent not so much merit (or at least not always), but merely a playing out of personal and family scripts.

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One response to “On Privilege

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. I do think a sense privilege may be an adopted belief. I donʻt know any research on an inflated sense of privilege, but I know a few people who consider themselves privileged and have a very high self esteem that seems to be connected their own self-image, dreams or optimism.

    I concur that families ( you call it scripting, I call it mentoring) may breed success. A good example is the classic research by Blanchflower and Oswald on entrepreneurship, showing that the single most important determining trait for people who start their own business, is having parents who had their own business. More than intelligence, wealth, and social status, a positive attitude toward managing risk predicts successful entry into business ownership. This one tidbit seems to explain the dynasties of enterprise in capitalist nations, and even political dynasties in other societies. Politics is not a business, but it is a very risky endeavor.

    Thank you for stimulating a tired brain today!


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