The minefield of unearned privilege: tread carefully!

It was not surprising when in a discussion of privilege in class the other day, we spent more time talking about affirmative action in higher education than we did about, say, white or male privilege.

When I paused the conversation to point this out, some students suggested it might be due to their firsthand knowledge of the inequities of the affirmative action system.  Many in the room had conflicted feelings and ideas about the question of merit vs. need-based scholarships.  Why should a student who can afford to pay for college, they asked, be granted a scholarship on the basis of merit, thus denying a place and funds to a student who may be less well-prepared, but is far more needy?

One can argue these issues for a long time without coming anywhere near the deeper issues that lie buried under the surface, like mines just waiting to go off.

Why are white students more likely to be both better-prepared and less needy than students of color?

WHITE PRIVILEGE.  It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to deal with, because it doesn’t feel good to admit that if your skin is pinkish beige in color, it’s given you systematic unearned advantages your whole life long.

There are also students—generally white male–who will complain that women now get unfair preferential treatment in higher education admissions.  This may have been true a decade ago, but in fact what’s happened of late is that affirmative action for women has been so successful that now it is men, especially men of color but white men too, who are sought after by college recruiters.

Does this mean that MALE PRVILEGE is all over and done with?  Hell no.  Men still earn at least 20% more than women doing the same job, whether blue collar, white collar or CEO.  Women still have a tougher time rising to leadership positions, and are judged much more harshly if and when they do succeed.  Women still have disproportionate responsibility for keeping the home fires burning and the children taken care of, even when they’re happily married and earning the same as or more than their husbands.

Male privilege is alive and well—but no one really wants to talk about it, not even women.

At least at the college level, students seem more comfortable talking about HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE than about race/class/gender privilege.  It seems trendy to be aware of how queer folk are bullied and discriminated against, and to be sympathetic about it.  But there’s a lot less sympathy when it comes to women who point to male privilege, or people of color pointing to white privilege, or poor folks pointing to elite privilege.

Why is that?

For one thing, if the complaint comes from someone who belongs to the subordinate group, there is an immediate perception that they are speaking in self-interest, and overt action on behalf of one’s self-interest is never well-received by dominant groups when it comes from subordinates, particularly from women.  It’s labeled as “strident” or “whining.”

All the while, dominant groups–say, men, or white people–may be acting in their own self-interest, but it’s just accepted as normal striving, part of the great American way.

For people in subordinate groups and their allies, it can be a difficult challenge to raise the issue of dominant groups’ unearned privilege without setting off all kinds of defensive reactions or tricky deflections, as when a whole class is spent talking about affirmative action instead of about unearned privilege.

If I knew the answer to this conundrum, I would be a much better teacher than I am.  All I can do is keep trying to pull students’ attention back to that minefield of privilege and oppression, and tread carefully–but without turning back.

Leave a comment


  1. Good luck with that!

    The very definition of privilege — as you know so well — is assuming your worldview is “normal” since likely all your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues share the same lifestyle, aspirations and assumptions about what is fair and to be expected. American kids, (I grew up in urban Canada), often have no firsthand experience or knowledge of a life filled with struggle, and American political dogma insists that whatever befalls you is your own fault, not that of greedy corporate masters or the politicians they’ve bought….Once you are aware that you are a cog in the larger machinery, you can make decisions accordingly.

    My new memoir of working retail for 27 months has been compared to “Nickeled and Dimed” and was chosen as the freshman read by the NYIT. It might make an interesting discussion for some of your students as in it I also grasp the third rail of American discourse — class. Forget race! Class is the dirty word none of us are meant to acknowledge and talk about it in plain language. Those who do are often pilloried for their efforts.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  October 22, 2011

      I totally agree with you, Caitlin! Your book sounds fascinating. Would you be interested in coming to speak about it as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers next March? We cannot do more than cover your travel expenses and put you up here in the Berkshires, but you can certainly sell some books!

  2. Alfred L.

     /  October 29, 2011

    The paradox of privilege is that making the world a better place for your children may only make it harder for them when they become adults. Our loving parents may support us, but usually there comes a time when that support runs out and we have to start supporting ourselves. In this, the American rite of passage into adulthood bears a striking allegorical similarity to the biblical expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I think this general dissatisfaction with the world inherited among our young adult population is part of what drives the Occupy protests. You’d think after 2000+ years we would have figured out ways to ease the transition from child to independent adult.

    “Why should a student who can afford to pay for college, they asked, be granted a scholarship on the basis of merit, thus denying a place and funds to a student who may be less well-prepared, but is far more needy?” Semantics, I think, are important here. Very few students (less than 1%, I’d wager) can afford to pay for college by themselves. In fact, most students go to college in order to get a degree, to enable them to find a well-paying job, so that they can pay off their education and live sustainably into the future. If people were already making the kind of money to afford college tuition, most of them probably wouldn’t have the need or desire to pursue “higher” education. Money is usually seen as the result of getting college education, not as the impetus. From that perspective, all college entrants are “needy.”

    Sure, parents may be able to afford college tuition for their child, but that is an altogether different situation, one that calls to mind more issues pertaining to the question of privilege. I am twenty-two and attend a small community college. According to FAFSA, I am ineligible for any need-based scholarships because of my parents’ earnings, but from their point of view, I am legally an adult and should be covering my own expenses. Should I be passed over by more prestigious universities because of my privileged middle-class upbringing, or can I earn a place by working hard, or can I get a handout because of my non-white status? Should my need be predicated on my parent’s need? Do I already have enough education to get by in the world?

    My collegiate quest for monetary security raises a lot of questions with this, perhaps, being the largest of them: do the white collar jobs of the post-degree world really contribute as much to society as the hard labor of the lower classes, or is it all conveniently placed bureaucratic red-tape for keeping the rich rich and the poor poor? Is my goal to live comfortably or to live responsibly? Can I do both?

    All I know is that without an education, I wouldn’t be able to ask these questions much less find answers for them. My thanks to you for being the blog that gives me space to ask these questions and think these thoughts. I hope your college students know how lucky they are to be in your class!


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