Social Privilege: The Flipside of Oppression

In Straight White Men, two of the brothers play a board game their now-deceased mother created from a “Monopoly” set. Called “Privilege,” the game offers domestic labor bonuses for using the thimble or iron playing piece, and penalizes players with “Excuses” and “Denial” cards. It’s met with amused annoyance from the brothers, one of whom pulls a Denial card that reads, “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.”

Privilege is commonly defined as the set of unearned benefits given to people who fit within a specific social group; the opposite of oppression, it is largely created and perpetuated by structural and cultural inequalities. It was first theorized by black sociologist and historian W. E. B. DuBois in his 1935 study Black Reconstruction in America, where he described a “psychological wage” that white laborers receive and black laborers do not. “While they received a low wage,” writes DuBois of white laborers, “they were given titles of courtesy because they were white. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.” Building on DeBois’ work, white writer and activist Theodore Allen wrote specifically about “white skin privilege” in his 1965 essay “White Blindspot,” and analysis of privilege was subsequently integrated into the platforms of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

“In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is. The game can still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.”

— John Scalzi, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”

But the term ‘privilege’ came to the fore in academic circles—and then popular culture—after white scholar Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences.” In the article, McIntosh, then the head of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, describes her frustration with white male counterparts who acknowledge the difficulties that women face in the workplace and as scholars, but don’t demonstrate any urgency to change their workplaces or syllabi. McIntosh knew these men: They were friends, they risked ridicule for attending seminars in feminist thought. They were good people. But they hadn’t committed to change. McIntosh’s frustration with what she termed ‘male privilege’ led her to reflect on her own privilege as a white person relative to the lives of her African-American female colleagues at the Center for Research. She began to keep a list of her “unearned skin privilege,” ways that she has been “over-rewarded and yet paradoxically damaged” by conditions of her daily experience that she took for granted until she began to notice and name them.

She began her list with “I can, if I wish, arrange to be around people of my own race.” It stretched to 46: McIntosh can expect broad representation of people of her race in the news, popular culture, and her children’s curriculum; she can talk with her mouth full, swear, or show up late to a meeting without her choices reflecting on her race; if she is stopped by a police officer or audited by the IRS she can assume her skin color wasn’t a factor; if she has a bad week she doesn’t need to ask whether each negative episode has racial overtones. In trying to wrap her mind around what she called the “invisible knapsack” of unearned assets that her culture confers upon her, she found it trickier, more elusive than she expected. “I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down,” she reflected. “As a white person I had been taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”  Much as the men in her seminars, the very invisibility of these systems kept her from sharing her colleague’s urgency to disrupt them, to counter the unfair disadvantages that others encountered as a consequence of their skin color.

In laying out the ways that she personally benefited from institutionalized inequalities, McIntosh makes clear that she is writing about one of her many overlapping identities (hence her comparison to other women at her specific job). It can be difficult to isolate unearned advantage from race as opposed to class, gender, or citizenship status. Black feminist thought had long identified the particularity of overlapping oppressions—that black women experience sexism as well as racism, and in ways that differ from white women or black men (as a central anthology of Black feminist thought is titled: All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave). In 1989, black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw used the metaphor of a traffic intersection and coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the way multiple oppressions are experienced, analyzing the ways that some of the discrimination that black women face doesn’t fit within the legal protections designated for “sexism” or “racism.”

Straight White Men’s “Privilege” game introduces the family of the play and their particular version of macho and loving masculinity (the brothers variously spit, sneeze, and vomit the dice from their bodies while playing). A swift and comic primer in 1980s identity politics, the game is also the most tangible residue of the family’s mother, a reminder of the lessons she hand-crafted to both educate and drive home real-world consequences. “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist,” the card reads. It goes on to say:  “Get stopped by the police for no reason and go to jail.”