Defining Privilege

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “privilege” as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” In other words, it’s some form of advantage given to a particular group of people that is not extended to others. In school, I remember being rewarded for good behavior by being allowed to choose from a series of “privileges,” such as sitting at the teacher’s desk for the day or not having to do a homework assignment. The teacher would always remind us as we redeemed our privilege that our reward was not our right and if we started slacking while enjoying it, it could and would be revoked. This picture helps us to understand privilege at its most basic: it’s something we don’t necessarily deserve but is extended to us as a favor. It’s not a permanent reality, but when it is being enjoyed, it does come with a very real sense of advantage over others who do not enjoy the same benefit.

The definition of social privilege differs slightly. Scholar Justin D. Garcia defines this kind of privilege as “certain social advantages, benefits, or degrees of prestige and respect that an individual has by virtue of belonging to certain social identity groups.” In this sense, one could approximately equate social privilege to being a member of a country club. If you have membership, you get access to the pools, the spa, the fine dining, and the golf green. But if you do not have membership, you will be promptly stopped at the gate and denied entry. Your lack of membership excludes you from this wide array of special amenities (i.e., benefits). The difference on the social side is that most of the time, these “memberships” are granted by nature of birth, are often unconscious to the ones who hold them, and therefore aren’t acknowledged as privileges. They are not easily lost, and they are almost impossible to extend to others who are not born members of this privileged club. 

To carry the metaphor a bit further, if you grow up in the confines of the country club, you may never realize that there is a world outside of the gates that is significantly different from the world you experience. If you are conditioned to believe that you deserve to go to college, to pursue a career of your dreams, to make a living wage, or to have even more rudimentary realities such as the right to vote or the right to live freely, then it is entirely possible that you may never realize that others cannot take these possibilities for granted, let alone have a reasonable hope of actually attaining them. In fact, it is one of the express jobs of those who operate the country club to block out the crasser realities of the world outside its walls specifically so those within the club do not have their conscience disturbed by the great disparities that exist just beyond the walls.

The truth is, if you live in North America, Great Britain, or much of Europe, you live in a society that was created by and intended for white, heterosexual, Christian men, and most of these socities were built with a very conscious belief that such people are superior to other kinds of humans, which allowed the colonizing founders of the modern Western world to marginalize, oppress, enslave, and kill all of the people who didn’t look, love, and believe as they did. In America, for instance, the most revered foundational documents that established the nation codified the superiority of white, hetersexual, Christian men, and the inferiority of nonwhites, women, non-Christinas, and by inference nonhetersexuals. 

From “Filled to Be Emptied: The Path to Liberation for Privileged People” by Brandan Robertson – Westminster John Knox Press