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Privilege is quite a buzzword in academia today. If you dare to critique it, you might find yourself up against the wall (metaphorically speaking) and placed into a neo-Marxist passé box for shit-talking anti-oppressive language.

I believe, however, that “privilege” is a problematic concept, one that needs to be meaningfully criticized. And discussions around it would most likely help our understandings on the privileged or non-privileged matters we often approach. I cannot see a better way of advancing critical thought (and thoughts and ideas are translated into practice) than trying to push further the boundaries of what we know and the language that constructs how we know what we know.  

Prior to problematizing our notion, let us first define it. The Oxford Dictionary defines  “privilege” as “a special advantage, granted or available only to a particular person or group, a special honour, a liability or obligation exempt.” Since it originated via Old French, from the Latin “privilegium,” I also consulted the Larousse definition. Larousse defines  “privilege” as a particular advantage, possessed by an individual or a group, which confers a subsequent right to an individual or a group.”

We can easily imply from both descriptions that “privilege” is something that gives one the right to say or not say, do or not do something — although it could be far stretched to assume that everything one says or does is a direct reflection of one’s privilege (or lack thereof). I believe both of these definitions create the semantic framework for conceptualizing “privilege” as a thing, as a commodity, as something finite and determinate that one may or may not objectively possess or not possess (i.e. as an owned advantage, “privilege” can only be the result of a determinable owning process, therefore it can only be determinate and not determinable).

Here is then what I see as the conceptual and applicable limitations of this notion:

1. Its static and essentialized nature. Personal experience fuels privilege. Our advantages and disadvantages are features of us, of our subjectivity, of our being-in-the-world, of our personhood or, said differently, they are directly connected to our identitary features. Yet, our personhood (which is the one determining our advantages and disadvantages) is neither static nor essentialized.

What best constitutes an advantage in one context can be a disadvantage in another. My Romanian nationality gives me a clear advantage in the North American socio-political context for example. It places me into the white box categorical identity — primarily because of the naiveté of North American scholarship in conceptualizing the notion of Europeaness along homogenous and essentialized lines, while ignoring that post-socialist geopolitical spaces had their own forms of colonialism.

I am not denying that I am experiencing this repositioning as a “privilege” in itself (in the way that we are used to objectively define privilege). Yet my Romanian nationality does not give me the same advantages in the U.K. context for example, where the hate speech against Romanian migrants (the so-called “Romanian crime wave/epidemic”) is what propped the UK Independence Party’ s (UKIP) four million votes in the recent May 2015 elections.

As an attribute or feature of our subjectivity, privilege is also differentially distributed across our intersecting identitary axes. Being privileged for my whiteness (as in skin colour), unprivileged on gender (being a woman), privileged on cultural capital and looks (post Soviet bloc reminiscences), unprivileged as a migrant (vis-à-vis Canadianess) would not erase that I am simultaneously implicated in systems of “privilege” and oppression. Each society has its overarching systems of distributing advantages and disadvantages. We, as people, are constructed within them and shaped by them. We embody them, yet, it is my thinking that privilege or non-privilege on one axis does not translate into de facto privileges or non-privileges across all axes.

2. “Privilege” stresses differences in the consequences and effects of power relations, without dismantling the differential logic that created (and continues to sustain) such unequal power relations.

This is sort of like saying that the poor are poor (or having the disadvantage of being poor) and the rich are rich (or having the advantage of being rich) without exploring nor subverting what made and continues to make the poor, poor and what made and continues to make the rich, rich. Within a context where privilege becomes the definitive feature of the oppressor and non-privilege the definitive characteristic of the oppressed, the logic sustaining the relation of privilege-oppression will consequentially be stuck in a loophole of continually inverting the oppressor-oppressed contents (as measured by objective distributed features of advantage and disadvantage) from the perspective of an unequally distributive system which merely inverses the poles of the weighing scale.

Philosopher Ernesto Laclau argued that such logic leaves the form of oppression unchanged, as the operation of inversion takes place within a deep-rooted formal system of already pre-constitutive and unchangeable power. We do not have to look far back in history to see many of such oppressor-oppressed examples conceptualized into this zero-sum binary.

It is what prompts us to pin down the bad guy as the ultimate carrier of guilt — sort of like us being fine with NATO bombing Serbia for 3 months in 1999 because of what the Bosniac Serbs did in Srebenica in 1995. I believe this is a dangerous logic. If we are enraged at one we should also be enraged at the other. We should fully condemn the Srebenica genocide the same way that we should condemn the three-month NATO bombing attack on Serbia. We should slam anti-Semitism concomitantly with being enraged about what Israel is doing in Gaza. Yet it is the inverse logic of oppressions that limits us in seeing the two as mutually exclusive.

3. The performativity of the concept. The performativity of acknowledging “privilege,” of acknowledging a feature of distributive power (like maleness) while secretly remaining dependent on its practice (like habitually abiding by male-centric wants and needs, condescending actions and gendered language that mirror self-perceived male superiority); acknowledging the concept of ‘privilege’ like some sublime thing to carry oneself in the world, while acting like the ultimate carrier of the recently denounced privileged system.

This performativity also confers a greater sense of self-worth to the one acknowledging it. One can now position himself not only as the privileged subject, but also personified as the privilege-aware (privileged) subject, a self-perceived ethical position yet a selfish socio-political one, since it does nothing to disrupt per se the continual reproduction of privileged-unprivileged power systems. This only benefits the sovereign. It is the dominant that has the absolute freedom and agency of acknowledging something at their wish. Only the sovereign has the ‘privilege’ to acknowledge his privilege and to practice the gesture of acknowledging it.

I am not saying the concept is unworkable. I believe that a high degree of awareness of how systems of oppression are enacted and embodied at the individual level is needed. Yet it is the individualized nature of “privilege” that irritates me. It takes the onus from the system and places it upon the individual. I do not see how identifying male privilege at the individual level will stop the systemic issue of domestic violence against women, for example. And it could be that I am conceptually limited in seeing this. Understanding how power operates at an individual level is important, I believe; however, I cannot see how this will consequentially translate into subverting this very same power from operating. And acknowledging privilege does not get rid of the unequal pre-constitutive power distribution that created the privilege to begin with. 


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Raluca Bejan

Raluca Bejan is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has a PhD and a MSW from the University of Toronto, and a BA in political sciences from Lucian Blaga...