A few years ago, a friend reported that her children’s progressive summer camp had introduced a new activity. The campers were accustomed to lining up every night for a tick check; now they were also lining up for a nightly privilege check.
Another friend thought it sounded like a good idea—and was disappointed when he realized she was joking.
Those of us who are on the left love to talk about privilege. We check it, examine it, admit it, and apologize for it. Yet, even though we talk about it all the time, it’s not clear that we agree on what it means.
The idea of privilege received its most influential contemporary expression in a 1989 essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by the professor and activist Peggy McIntosh. Describing privilege as a “knapsack” of advantages that white people carry around, even if they’re unaware of it, McIntosh offered a list you could consult to figure out if you benefited from white privilege:
If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
Her list had twenty-six items. In other essays, she expanded it to forty-six items, and then to fifty, including some puzzling ones—“I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color”—but the spirit of the list remained the same.
McIntosh’s ideas were among the inspirations for the “privilege walk” workshops now popular in schools and nonprofit organizations across the country, in which participants are asked to line up side by side and given instructions like these:
If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
If either of your parents graduated from college, take one step forward.
If you are a white male, take one step forward.
If you have ever felt passed over for an employment position based on your gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, take one step backward.
At the end of the exercise, participants are asked to look around the room and take note of the unequal degrees of privilege they possess.
McIntosh’s essay was a call for compassion and fellow-feeling. She was trying to remind white readers that other people tend to have it harder than they do, that situations and spaces that seem comfortable and welcoming to white people do not always feel that way to others, and that many social goods white people take for granted can’t be taken for granted by anyone else. Chekhov has a story in which he says that outside the house of every happy man there should be someone with a hammer, tapping on his wall to remind him of all the unhappy people in the world. McIntosh was trying to be the person with a hammer.
As this notion of privilege caught on, however, it began to take on more explanatory weight than it could handle, and eventually we reached a point where the term came to obscure more than it clarified.
The word “privilege” derives from the words for “private” and “law,” and it was originally understood to refer to benefits enjoyed by the few, whether the few belonged to a guild or a geographical region or an aristocracy. The most notable early critiques of privilege appeared during the French Revolutionary period, especially in the work of Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, who focused on the privileges of the nobility, which included immunity from taxation and freedom to appoint judges and other officials:
Is it not obvious that the nobility possesses privileges and exemptions which it brazenly calls its rights and which stand distinct from the rights of the great body of citizens? Because of these special rights, the nobility does not belong to the common order, nor is it subjected to the common laws. Thus its private rights make it a people apart in the great nation. . . . How easy it would be to do without the privileged! How difficult it would be to induce them to become citizens!
Sieyès supplied the outline of what became the traditional left understanding of privilege: it was a set of benefits enjoyed by a small, parasitic segment of the social world; it exempted its bearers from the normal rules of society; and it needed to be abolished in order to bring about a society in which everyone had equal standing. A hundred and fifty years later, for example, in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” his anatomy of the condition of England in the early days of the Second World War, George Orwell was using the word in the same way. He writes that “the ruling class are fighting for their own privileges, which cannot possibly be reconciled with the public interest,” and speaks of “American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs.” The essay is filled with references to privilege and the importance of abolishing it, and it’s clear that he’s referring to the advantages held by a very small class.
All this has changed. Contemporary critics of privilege have a different understanding of the term. They don’t view privilege as the property of a small minority. White privilege, after all, is said to be enjoyed by about 60 percent of the U.S. population, male privilege by almost half. And they don’t view it as something that needs to be stripped away so that no one enjoys its unfair benefits. When McIntosh wrote that she could “go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” she was calling for a society in which everyone can enjoy this freedom, not a society in which no one can.
Every word takes on new meanings over time; this in itself is unremarkable. But when a new meaning is given to a term of political analysis, things can get tricky, because the associations that cling to the term don’t just disappear. If we take a word that’s been used in a particular way for centuries and use it in a new way to describe a contemporary social question, its traditional implications may shape the way we think about the question.
In an essay titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” McIntosh acknowledges this problem, regretting the confusion brought about by her use of the term. She writes that “the word ‘privilege’ now seems to me misleading,” because it lumps together “positive advantages that we can work to spread, to the point where they are not advantages at all but simply part of the normal civic and social fabric, and negative types of advantage that unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.”
As she came to recognize, her version of the idea was ambiguous from the beginning—one might even say incoherent. Privilege is a good thing that needs to be extended to everyone, except when it’s a bad thing that needs to be abolished.
It’s chiefly the “negative types of advantage” that people seem to think about when they think about privilege. Watching a group of men walk up to the head of a line at the airport, rather than taking their place at the back of it, poet and essayist Claudia Rankine sees “a spontaneous play about white male privilege.” Meditating on the events of January 6, 2021, historian Ibram X. Kendi comments that the spectacle of rioters laying siege to the Capitol and leaving without being arrested was “white privilege on display.” Philosopher Kate Manne’s recent book Entitled bears the subtitle How Male Privilege Hurts Women. A publication from the National Association of School Psychologists explains that “privilege oppresses certain groups,” and a list of resources from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology describes one book as “a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand how privilege . . . results in prejudice and discrimination.”
Because negative connotations continue to adhere to it so tightly, a strange blurring of political vision affects us when we use the word, so that many people talk about their possession of the good kind of privilege—the “positive advantages that we can work to spread, to the point where they are . . . simply part of the normal civic and social fabric”—not as something they should work to extend to others but as something they’re ashamed of. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy puts it in The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, “It can seem as if the desired goal is for everyone to be oppressed, rather than for all to be free from oppression.”
The contemporary idea of privilege does little to help us understand the social and economic landscape of the United States.
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor,” McIntosh writes in “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” The logic that underlies her description of herself—if you’re white, you’re therefore privileged, and if you’re privileged, you’re therefore an oppressor—is taken for granted in most precincts of the contemporary left. But it’s bad logic. It’s a poor political analysis that leads to poor political strategies.
Inequality has been deepening in the United States for the past half-century, and the overwhelming majority of the country has been on the losing side of this development, no matter the color of their skin. According to a 2020 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent rose from 30 percent in 1989 to 39 percent in 2016, while the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent.” A 2020 study by the Pew Research Organization tells the same story:
The wealth gap between upper-income and lower- and middle-income families has grown wider this century. . . . From 1983 to 2016, the share of aggregate wealth . . . held by middle-income families has been cut nearly in half, falling from 32 percent to 17 percent. Lower-income families had only 4 percent of aggregate wealth in 2016, down from 7 percent in 1983.
Black people are overrepresented among the poor. According to a 2020 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, whites made up almost 60 percent of the total population in 2019 but only 41 percent of the population in poverty. Blacks made up about 13 percent of the population but almost 23 percent of those in poverty. Sixteen million white Americans were impoverished, compared to eight and half million Black Americans.
This, clearly, is a portrait of disparity. But it’s hard to see how anyone could look at these figures and conclude that the word “privilege” has any place in the conversation about working people and poor people in the United States today.
As the historians Barbara J. Fields and Adam Rothman wrote in Dissent in 2020, white working people “are not privileged. In fact, they are struggling and suffering in the maw of a callous trickle-up society” marked by “obscene levels” of inequality. “The rhetoric of white privilege mocks the problem, while alienating people who might be persuaded.”
Left politics should be about trying to bring together the vast majority of the population to press for changes that would benefit us all and would benefit the poor—who, as we’ve seen, are disproportionately nonwhite—most of all. Such changes include a living wage, labor protections, the removal of barriers to labor organizing, generous welfare programs and unemployment insurance, tax-funded healthcare and child care, decriminalization of drugs, police reform, and responsible stewardship of the environment. But today’s privilege-walk politics is preoccupied, instead, with calculating the relative degrees of social advantage among people who share the same broad goals and sorting those people into the categories of the innocent and the guilty.
This brand of politics is a gift to those who want to see our inequalities persist. If it were not progressive activists but billionaires insisting on the privilege storyline—if the Koch family or the Walton family were selling the idea that the most important social cleavage today is the one between whites and Blacks, or between men and women, or between those who have a little and those who have even less—progressives would unite in telling them to go to hell. We’d see it as an insultingly obvious attempt to divert our attention from the real problems of wealth and inequality in the United States. And yet somehow it’s a story we tell ourselves.
It’s the wrong story. When we’re thinking about privilege, we’re not thinking seriously about power. And if we’re not thinking about power, we’re not thinking seriously about social change.
Defenders of the privilege framework sometimes trace the idea back to W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), wrote about the “psychological wage” offered to poor white workers in the post–Civil War South:
The white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.
When these thinkers draw a line from Du Bois to themselves, they typically fail to acknowledge Du Bois’s point: that the advantages enjoyed by white people were the result of a “carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and Black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.” He was describing a strategy employed by the ruling interests of the time to prevent both groups of workers from seeing how much they had in common. It’s ironic that these thinkers cite Du Bois, for they’re promoting a way of looking at racial differences that Du Bois sought to expose as a “carefully planned” distraction.
Writing in the 1980s, when the contemporary idea of privilege was just beginning to take shape, the feminist critic Ellen Willis provided the best meditation on these subjects that I know of. She wrote that
in demonstrable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the measuring. . . . Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than someone else’s. . . . But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical movements are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.
Sometimes I daydream about a different kind of privilege walk, one in which participants would respond to prompts like these:
If you’ve never felt exploited at your job, take a step forward.
If you’ve never worried about how you’d make ends meet if you lost your job, take a step forward.
If you’ve never worried about paying medical bills, take a step forward.
If you’ve never worried about how you’d provide for yourself if you had a disabling accident or illness, take a step forward.
If you’ve never worried about how you’re going to take care of your parents when they’re old, take a step forward.
The way the daydream ends, everyone in the room looks around and sees that no one has moved. They realize that they have more in common than that which divides them, and together they decide to get to work.
Brian Morton is an editorial board member of Dissent. His most recent book is Tasha: A Son’s Memoir.