A slippery subject: unpacking ‘privilege’ without a zero-sum mentality

It’s becoming all too twee these days to use the word ‘privilege’ as a signifier of ‘woke-ness’ without considering what privilege is, how it is acquired and the slipping of semantics it currently suffers.

Firstly to say that, even if abused as a signalling device to indicate an alleged lack of bias or prejudice, that we are talking about various forms of privilege in the mainstream is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that the conversations currently ongoing about white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, “middle class problems” etc. is a form of progress from denying these things exist.

Rather, I’m concerned at the slippage between the concept of privilege and the concept of luxury. I even caught myself the other day writing “male privilege, a luxury women can’t afford” and then had to erase my words… as if these are the same things: luxuries and privileges. But they are not always.

The importance of the distinction first struck me while conducting fieldwork in a high-performing (by results, at least) high school in Cape Town. On explaining the focus of my study, the staff and students at the school were quick to caveat their place of work and activities with the phrase “yes, we know we are very privileged here.” Besides being a form of exculpation, I was increasingly bemused as I then proceeded to walk about the school. Because very little of what the school offered was particularly luxurious. The buildings were old, but well maintained, but relatively simple. Classrooms looked like my old classroom did back in the 1990s. There weren’t iPads in every hand, smartboards in every room, water coolers in every classroom, digital eyeball recognition locks on student lockers… you get my meaning. The student lockers were old metal jobs. The staffroom decor still quaintly dated. The school was not lavish. It was functional, and well maintained. Yes, the learners had access to good sports coaching and art classes. But these are facilities every child should enjoy. They shouldn’t be synonymous with excess.

This got me to thinking that we need to heed the difference between privilege and luxury. The difference can be prised apart when we consider a more well-trodden framework of equity versus adequacy. Privilege sits in the frame of equity–it points out that there are discrepancies between peoples experiences that shouldn’t be there. Luxury sits in the frame of adequacy i.e. ‘what is enough?’ Luxury is synonymous with excess. To say I have privileges is to admit I sit on the fortunate side of an equity assymmetry. But it does not necessarily mean I live in luxury.

White privilege allows me to walk into a building as a stranger and not be assumed to be a thief or a beggar. It allows me to enquire about hiring a flat without worrying that I’ll be told “sorry it’s taken” sans further explanation when I arrive for a viewing. To not have my lecturer assume my lack of understanding is a language issue, or that my command of English is synonymous with my intelligence. But this is not a luxury: this is something people of all hues should be afforded.

Male privilege means not being catcalled down the street. Not being asked “what were you wearing” when you lay a complaint about antisocial behaviour. Not being tutted at when the cashier notices you’ve grey hair but no wedding ring (yes, this really happens). But I don’t want men to be catcalled, or judged for their marital status. I would like the privileges that men enjoy too please.

You see, I think we’ve allowed ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ to problematically meld. We slip between ‘privileges’ which are human rights, and ‘privileges’ which are luxuries. Privileges are things that all people should enjoy. That is: they should be additive, not subtractive. We call these things ‘privileges’ to acknowledge that while they should be universal, they are not: some have them, and some don’t, and this is a problem.

But when we ask someone to ‘check their privilege’, it is not helpful to tacitly or overtly insinuate that those privileges are necessarily all excessive and should be given up in the name of social justice. Luxuries–those things we don’t need–that’s a different story. It’s a luxury to buy new shoes every month. It’s a luxury to have a heated private swimming pool. Sadly, it is a privilege¬†in South Africa¬† to be safe in your home. It is a privilege to not be harrassed by police. It is a privilege to have safe means to get to work every day.

When we conflate human rights and luxuries by sweepingly referring to them as ‘privileges’, we end up with extremely defensive and angry rhetoric: people feel they are being told to yield things that all human beings, in a good society, would have a right to. A home. Access to job opportunities. Respect and dignity. To not be discriminated against. We need to distinguish what we mean when we say ‘privilege’.

Unfortunately our zero-sum mentality (encouraged by our economic system) has us believing that for someone else to ‘get’, someone must ‘lose’. i.e. for women to receive privileges, men must yield theirs. For black people to receive dignity and respect, white people must lose theirs. In the fallout of the “land appropriation without compensation” debate, the pearl clutching middle classes are receiving their DA smses warning them that “they are coming to take your house!”: a message premised on exactly this zero sum view of the world.

And I’m not for one minute insinuating that the line between ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ is clear. The adequacy debate is far from concluded. Nor am I implying that being aware that I enjoy human rights (like dignity and respect) that others don’t is a bad thing. But I’m convinced that noting this slippage is an important part of beginning positive discussions across social stratification: between haves and have-nots, whether those strata are racial, class, gendered, landed. Coupled with the recognition that someone else’s gain is my gain too, not my loss, distinguishing luxury and privilege, adequacy and inequity, holds a lot of promise for less angry debate.

Author: Sara

I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *