A Problem with Privilege

Attorneys regularly counsel against asking witnesses questions on the stand when they don’t know how they’ll answer. Thank goodness I’ve never had to run a classroom that way.

When I asked my 9:00 UE I section if they perceived any breaches in the logic or ethics of Thoreau’s argument in Walden–that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately–the answer I had in mind was that his approach could seem selfish. What I got from one brave student was quite unexpected. “I admire his writing,” she said (and I’m paraphrasing here). “But sometimes it seems to me that he’s just another privileged white guy taking a gap year to find himself.”

I respectfully disagree with her regarding Thoreau. However, her comment sparked at least a couple of classes’ worth of debate about the meaning of privilege in contemporary culture. The word has evolved to mean “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” It sometimes seems to be a dog whistle from the political left, a rhetorical means of shifting a discussion towards ad hominem and away from the issue at hand. “Socialist” and “elitist” seem to serve a similar function for the right.

My somewhat naive solution involves assessing people based on what they do and say rather than on their apparent demographic. Regardless, thank you, Gracie, for initiating the first solid debate of the year. I hope it continues below. Points to Gryffindor–or Goen, whichever you prefer.

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15 Responses to A Problem with Privilege

  1. Skylar Nichols says:

    When I hear the word privilege, I always think about the phrase “this a privilege, not a right” that so many adults have used. Teachers would often use it when someone wanted to go to the bathroom or when we had break outside. I could go on about the limited bathroom breaks, but that is a rant for another day.

    With the comparison that so many of my teachers have made, you could say that a privilege is something granted to you that you do not need and is not a right, but you might have earned. I prefer this definition to the one it has evolved to mean. However, “privilege”is common. It happens every day. People are treated differently for reasons they cannot control. The word privilege, my definition or the dictionary’s, does not fit this mistreatment. I feel it could be better described with”unfair”, “biased”, or “preferential”. There are many other words and synonyms to add to the list. Unlike “privilege”, their definitions all fit what is trying to be said about this unjust (see there’s another word) treatment.

    On Thoreau being privileged, I would say he was. Privilege is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just often used in a negative context. Thoreau worked and got to live the way he wanted in return, and he did not need to live that way.

  2. Trey says:

    To be honest, I thought that comment by Gracie was unexpected and hilarious. But I disagree with it. According to the definition above, I do not think Thoreau was privileged. Simply put, I don’t think he had any benefits because of the social group he was in. He just had an opportunity to stand back and think about himself. Perhaps his income from his first wife’s family could be considered a privilege, but his time to write and think was not.

  3. Trey says:

    Quick correction of myself, Thoreau was not the one who received income from his wife’s family, it was Emerson.

  4. Niyah Lockett says:

    Privilege is a prevalent problem in society. Whether it is recognized or not, it is there. Being that I am a black female, I am definitely not as privileged as most of my counterparts. When I say I am not privileged, I do not mean that I grew up in a bad neighborhood. I do not mean that I did not know where my next meal was coming from. I do not mean that I grew up in a single-parent home. What I do mean is that as a black female, I am already at a disadvantage. There is a saying within the black community. It goes, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” This is true in so many different walks of life. Whether it is being picked for an internship or being chosen for an award, white people have always been at an advantage. This is because of the oppression endured by blacks since the beginning of American history. With that being said, please do not read this and interpret it as me saying that white people do not have struggles. It would be naive of me to believe that every white person is living a luxurious life. In actuality, my main point is that white people should stop ignoring the privilege that they have, and use it to bring awareness to the injustices seen by minorities on a day-to-day basis.
    On Thoreau, his ability to take time off to “live deliberately” is a perfect example of privilege. A black man in these times could hardly dream of this type of freedom. This being said, Thoreau is also a perfect example of how to utilize privilege. Thoreau’s work as an abolitionist helped lead slaves to freedom. He knew how to use his power to help those in need.
    So no, privilege is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that should be recognized. I am not saying that I need hand-outs, and I am not saying that minorities as a whole should be dependent on the help of others. I am simply saying that those who have a lead in life should be considerate of those who started the race two miles behind.

  5. Tejus Kotikalapudi says:

    I, for one, am a firm believer that America should be a land of individuals, not a land ruled by identity politics so whenever I hear the word privilege used as a way to take down the success of a person who might not have been entirely destitute or have a darker skin color, I feel like it is a takedown of one of America’s core values. While saying this, however, I am not forgetting the fact that privilege does give some advantage in the number of opportunities available. A person living in Compton will definitely not have the same opportunities as a person living in Los Angeles, but opportunity does not equate to anything if the person trying to take advantage of it isn’t proactive. Instead of thinking of people with success, like Henry David Thoreau, as people who won a game of chance, we should admire them for the work that they did to get to their position.

  6. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    The word privilege at this point in time has little to no meaning to me. The word has been shoved down my throat so many times I’ve become desensitized to any meaning it once held. I’m not in any minority group, which makes me an easy target for the overuse of this word. So I respond by asking if it is a privilege that men are nine times more likely to die in the work place? (https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/equal-pay-day-this-year-was-april-10-the-next-equal-occupational-fatality-day-will-be-on-may-3-2029/) Or is it a privilege that white men make up almost 70% of suicides in the US?(https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/) This almost always gets a response that refers back to their buzzer word, privilege. I’m not saying privilege doesn’t exist, I think being at MSMS is a great privilege. It is an overused word whose meaning has been almost lost in the conversations it’s used in.

    • Auriel Q says:

      I understand how tiresome it may be to be one of the main targets of privilege talk and I am not pointing out that you have any privilege (because I would rather base information off more than just race) I would like to comment that your evidence (your links) are a little subpar when considering the overall topic of what people may consider privilege.

      I see how unfortunate these articles are because, yeah, however people I think now consider privilege in a social setting. Out in the world where opportunities may not be given to others based on a socioeconomic ranking. The points that you present in my opinion would go more with maybe “men” and “white men” in general but I don’t think these necessary facts count with “privilege”…I hope that makes sense?

      Men die mostly in the work place probably more due to the fact that they have more opportunities to riskier fields or maybe because socially women are kind of told to stray away from riskier fields because “they may want a family”. I am not trying to say screw men they chose this because I mean we all want a well paying job but I am trying to say that we are in a changing period where women and men are doing things from each side of the pond. Also, the United States is made up most of white is 61.3% according to Google (this is not intended to be terribly accurate but rather just an idea that yes the United States are made up of more white people) so your information is not wrong but I think it is important that yes there would be a likelihood of suicide rates being higher for white people if the majority of this country is made up of said race.

      Now I know you must be saying “it’s white MEN” and yeah I see that but mental health is a tricky situation with men and it is built off of years of the ideals of masculinity. Unfortunate in my opinion and I think that is what leads to a majority of these men not being able to get help.

      So at the end of all of this I believe that of course white men go through hard times, I mean everyone does no matter their class but your evidence of “privilege” is not really meshing with what other people may seem as privilege. The information provided (or facts) just seems more as if to show that there are white people too who also have it hard or men in general but overall privilege is based on opportunity based on class.

  7. Alexis Richardson says:

    I believe that privilege is real, but it is something that has always been around. Someone will always have a better chance than you to receive opportunities. However, I believe we should not minimize someone else’s success just because they had an easier path. Everyone goes through their own hardships, and I believe we should not try to make decisions on how “easy” someone has had it until we know exactly what those hardships are.
    In the case of Thoreau, I believe he did have some advantages, but that does not mean that he did not work for the things that he owned. For example, him building his own house.

  8. Courtenay Sebastian says:

    I remember talking about this in class. Knowing further context makes a ton more sense. Concerning the issue at hand, I believe that privilege is more about opportunities than others make it seem. Many of us that are replying to this blog post have or have had the PRIVILEGE of attending MSMS, whether that be now or previously. We had the OPPORTUNITY to apply and we took it. In sum, if there were no opportunity for us to apply, then we wouldn’t have such privileges. Now, this goes on more to things such as jobs, houses, and just about anything you can think of. Some might refute my statement in regards to slavery black/white privilege. I, personally don’t think these exist. I believe they were made by people of the other race who thought that they deserved something they didn’t have the OPPORTUNITY to get or try. This is one of my biggest problems with the modern-day. My generation, as well as the Millenials, don’t want to work for the opportunities, they only want the privilege, but that’s not how to world works. Even though times are changing opportunities will always prove to be the door to privilege, no matter the circumstance.

  9. Abby Strain says:

    The debate surrounding the existence of privilege is astonishing to me. I have never encountered someone who believed privilege didn’t exist. I completely agree with the definition given above. People from different social groups do receive different advantages and disadvantages based solely off of the fact they exist in that social group. For example, I was raised in a very poor neighborhood, and despite that disadvantage I was still met with more opportunities than my best-friend (who was in the same socioeconomic bracket as I was, but was black while I’m white). When I made this point in class, it was met with the response that this was the result of racism–which is true, but the existence of racism does not deny the existence of privilege. I live a privileged life because I am white, and that grants me certain advantages that my black peers don’t have–this much has always seemed obvious to me. I can’t comprehend how this isn’t obvious to everyone.

    On the topic of Thoreau’s quest to live deliberately being a result of his privilege: of course it is. As Niyah said in her comment, a black man in these times couldn’t dream of that type of freedom. Because Thoreau was a white man, he could take the time to live his life deliberately. With that being said, don’t think I am implying Thoreau’s privilege should be entirely credited for all of his work. I’m just saying that it played an obvious role, and recognizing that is important.

  10. Josh Bates says:

    America is the worlds poster boy for the land of equal opportunity. Millions of immigrants every years spend everything that they have chasing this dream, and while historically, we have not been able to live up to this standard, we are still viewed in this way. The sad truth, though, is that America, has never and will never be this. As hard as we try, the idea of universal equal opportunity is a Utopian dream that exist only in a world where people are forced to all operate on the same mind. This is not to say that a world were everyone is treated equally and given equal opportunity is not desired, and if it were possible, then America would be the place where that was achieved. What the optimistic minds of modern-day college campus philosophers tend to forget, is that everything good comes at a price, and this price is at the expense of others. Someone had to lose the race so someone else could win and someone had to lose money so you could make it. America is the worlds most successful country, yet we did not just make this great country upon nothing. It is built upon foundation of Native American lands, The Slave Trade, millions slaughtered in wars, and many other tragedies. Theses things directly contributed to the success of our country, but I am not writing in support of the idea of Social Darwinism. I am not claiming that Native Americans and African Americans deserved to be treated in the way they were, but it is undeniable that America would be different today without these things happening. The point that I am trying to reach is that ideas like world peace and universal equality are amazing, yet they are goals that are unrealistic. I am not trying to claim that we should not work toward these goal because the more we try, the more things improve, but the problem occurs when we begin to expect these dreams to be reached and are disappointed and upset when they inevitably are not. That is when we begin to blame each other for our “failure” in reaching these goals, therefore, creating the idea of privilege as a weapon. Yes, privilege exist, but that does not necessarily the fault of the privileged that others are not. It is undeniable that I am privileged because I am white, and it is undeniable that my privilege comes from the historical mistreatment of minorities, but that does not make me, personally, at fault for lack of privilege and claiming so is counterproductive. Equality should be a goal that we strive for, but when we begin to expect to reach this goal, people point fingers, we tear each other apart, and we end up worse than how we started.

  11. Alden Wiygul says:

    In our society, the instant you are born you are born with certain privileges. You are privileged based on your money, class, ethnicity, and gender. Thoreau may not be abusing his privilege in life, but there is no doubt that he has it. He is privileged to be white and male, especially in the time he was born into. Privilege also asserts itself in different forms. While he may not be lording his rights over the heads of the unfortunate and while he still works for many things, he is able to work for those things because of his privilege. Like Niyah said, he would not have had the opportunity to live by himself in the woods if he was black and he would not have been able to do it if he was a woman. By being born a white male in that time he had the privilege of freedom. In this case it does not matter if he was wealthy enough to never work again and build a complete mansion in the woods. The fact that he was able to go off on his own in the first place during this time period shows that he had privileges.

  12. Ethan Hill says:

    Privilege might exist but not to the extent that those believe. In almost every way on group has a privilege over another there is something making up for it for the other group. Colleges give out money to those without it, have special scholarships for minorities, and consider test scores differently based on ethnicity. I am not very informed for this topic yet believe my view is still the right one. I am open to change so bring some topics up as I dont know necessarily what to discuss.

  13. Bryant Perkins says:

    Naive is definitely the word to describe the solution of simply accessing people solely on their actionstoYes there are times when acknoledgement of hard work is simply substituted for a dry explanation of privilege. Still someone of a high social status by birth with little to no financial struggles has undeniable privilege. The only problem with privilege is that when it comes to emotional and social status as opposed to statistical struggle such us finacial struggles, the lines get hazy. The phrase “white privilege” gets thrown around so much and loses its meaning. Yes, in some circumstances minorities have a harder time making it through life due to predestined payhways laid out by racism of the past. The lasting effects of prejudice actions by people of power in the past have been subliminally submerged in the American mentality in the form of stereotypes. This affects your chances of graduating due to educational neglect from teacher based on expectations formed from stereotypes (a big chunk of my school career). That affects getting the job you want, which affects your financial situation, and so on and so on. The point is, judging solely on what someone does assumes that everyone has the same opportunities along the journey. All factors should be considered to determine the validity of a situation in the eyes of reason.

  14. Andrew says:

    All of these points are great, but I really feel what Josh Bates means in his quote stating, “What the optimistic minds of modern-day college campus philosophers tend to forget, is that everything good comes at a price, and this price is at the expense of others. Someone had to lose the race so someone else could win and someone had to lose money so you could make it. America is the worlds most successful country, yet we did not just make this great country upon nothing. It is built upon foundation of Native American lands, The Slave Trade, millions slaughtered in wars, and many other tragedies. Theses things directly contributed to the success of our country, but I am not writing in support of the idea of Social Darwinism. I am not claiming that Native Americans and African Americans deserved to be treated in the way they were, but it is undeniable that America would be different today without these things happening.” I whole-heartedly agree that America is a land of free individuals

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