The Problem with Privilege

Academics are quick to accuse each other of failing to recognize their own privilege. The irony, of course, is that academics are among the most privileged people on earth, generally speaking. I must qualify this statement (“generally speaking”) by pointing out, of course, that some academics are more privileged (e.g., tenured professors) than others (adjunct or sessional professors), and herein lies the main problem surrounding the concept of privilege: it is virtually impossible to measure or evaluate with precision.

I should preface this article by stating unequivocally that I recognize and acknowledge that some people enjoy greater privilege than others. This, to me, is obvious. But privilege is such an amorphous concept that it is not, in fact, knowable, largely due to the fact that it is a relative, rather than absolute, state of being.

“Privilege is such an amorphous concept that it is not, in fact, knowable, largely due to the fact that it is a relative, rather than absolute, state of being.”

From a point of view, I am privileged. I grew up in a nuclear family. My father was a doctor and my mother a homemaker. I was educated at Cambridge and I am a Full Professor. I’ve never been subjected to racism, and I’ve never been sexually harassed.

But from another point of view, my privilege is illusory, to some extent. My mother suffered from borderline personality disorder. Her behavior was unpredictable, varying from kind, generous, and loving to unstable, melancholic, and unforgiving. I struggled as a young child through her “episodes,” which eventually culminated in her taking her own life. Over the years, I’ve suffered from my own neuroses, which manifest in the form of a terrifying obsessive-compulsive disorder. To say my life has been a struggle would be an understatement, at least through my own eyes.

This is why, every time I am accused of privilege on the basis of purely surface-level traits, I often think, “If only you know what I’ve been through.”

This is, I think, the crux of the problem of privilege. It’s not that some people don’t enjoy privilege; it’s that privilege exists across an infinite number of dimensions, making it impossible to assess without resorting to stereotypes and the collateral damage that comes along with them.

We can certainly speak in general terms about privilege. Whites obviously have some privileges over blacks. When I enter a store, I am rarely suspected of shoplifting. Men certainly have some privileges over women. When I walk home at night, I am never afraid of being raped. But race and gender are but only two dimensions on which privilege can be loosely measured.

What about the nexus of all other dimensions? More attractive people enjoy huge privileges over less attractive ones. Children with a father at home enjoy huge privileges over children without a father at home. People who have never been sexually or physically abused enjoy huge privileges over people who have suffered that fate. Those who can read enjoy huge privileges over those who can’t. Non-addicts enjoy huge privileges over addicts. People with loving friendships enjoy huge privileges over their lonely counterparts. Those of us with high self-esteem enjoy huge privileges over those of us with low self-esteem. The list goes on and on, literally ad infinitum. As a result, it is impossible to say that one individual is absolutely privileged over another. At best, we can say, “In this particular context, it is possible that this person may have more privilege over another based only on the traits of which I am at this point aware,” but that is hardly proof of privilege.

The next time you want to accuse someone of privilege, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is a myriad of “deep level” traits that can render disadvantage in ways that you can’t see.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

One thought on “The Problem with Privilege

  1. Absolutely reasonable to highlight the infinite potential dimensions for privilege, and the imprecise way the term is often wielded on social media and sometimes in academic discourse. However, the conclusion should be just the privilege has to be assessed on more dimensions and on a relative basis, specific to the given context. You have reached this conclusion but then seem to suggest that makes it impossible to assess, when in fact provisional, context-dependent assessments are what empirical social scientists do every day. This is our bread and butter, not an impossibly ambiguous and indeterminate puzzle. Is it tough and complicated? Yes! Impossible? No.


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