Notes on the concept of (white, male…) privilege


By Erin Flynn

A few years ago faculty at Ohio Wesleyan held a meeting on dealing with disruptive students in the classroom. I was surprised. In my experience, OWU students were overwhelmingly respectful, even nice. I certainly didn’t have a problem with disruptive students, so I didn’t attend the meeting. Then I heard that of those who did attend, only two were white men, and those two were required to attend (because they were serving as deans). Evidently our students did not afford the same degree of respect and courtesy to my colleagues who were not white men. I was indignant, outraged that my colleagues should endure such disrespect, especially for those reasons, and even if from a decided minority of students. But I was also upset for another reason. I would have thought that the respect shown to me by my students had primarily to do with my own conduct—with the way I treated them. But now I had to confront the possibility that to some extent their respect was due to nothing more than my whiteness and maleness. (One should also add to this list my tallness, and other characteristics over which I have little if any control.) What credit at all did I deserve if my students’ respect was rooted in their (probably unconscious) deference to tall white men?

The above is a good, if relatively modest, example of what has come to be called white male privilege. The idea behind such forms of privilege is simple enough: some of us enjoy certain advantages (including the advantage of not having to deal with certain forms of bullshit) simply in virtue of belonging to particular social types, sometimes defined as “dominant” or simply the “norm.” Such types include: white, male, straight, and able-bodied. Those enjoying these advantages are often blind to them, since they don’t experience the world as someone who is not white, male, etc. Hence they tend to attribute the various benefits they enjoy entirely to what they do, to their own conduct, much as I attributed my students’ respect to my own respectful and respectable conduct. This concept of privilege is a valuable one. It promotes greater awareness of the struggles of those unlike ourselves, and so a clearer understanding of what particular things would have to change for ours to be a more just and fair society. It also affords a clearer picture of just what is to our credit and what is not. On the whole, the emergence of this particular tool for understanding and describing social reality is, I think, a good thing. Nevertheless, in what follows I would like to offer a brief critique of the concept, highlighting three shortcomings of our typical use of it.

First, there is a tendency in our use of the concept to presuppose a uniform experience of whiteness, maleness, etc. But the white male, like the average taxpayer, is an abstraction. No one is the white male. (Likewise, no one is the woman of color.) We are each of us particular, assemblies of various traits, histories, and social identities. These intersect in remarkably complex ways, making difficult the identification of the privilege enjoyed by actual individuals. This is not to say that there is no such privilege, only that there is never uniform experience or enjoyment of it. Likewise, one never finds oneself in the society. One finds oneself in particular social contexts, in which relations of power and privilege will be peculiar to that context, and which will therefore dramatically influence our social experience, depending on the traits, histories, and social identities that make us up.

No one would claim that the unemployed white man enjoys the same privilege as the gainfully employed white man. But I am further suggesting that the unemployed white man does not even have the same experience of white privilege or male privilege as that other man, though in an abstract sense both are white men. The social relationships of power and privilege are complex. Sometimes race transcends class, as when a wealthy African-American is profiled by police officers or when a poor white person receives more deference or respect in a commercial or professional setting. Very often, however, class transcends race, as when a poor white person has less access to quality education than a wealthy African-American person, or when a wealthy woman endures much less risk of violence than a poor man. Even the deployment of the critique of privilege may reproduce a pattern of injustice, as when a well-off person can cite as a disability what a poor working person must endure as a matter of course.

None of this should induce paralysis. We are attempting to do justice to our experience of the world, to shed light on patterns of unearned benefits and undeserved harms in our effort to advance the cause of a more just society, a society in which our freedom is increasingly real and increasingly shared. But to help in that attempt, the concept of privilege must be as true as possible to the richness, variety, and complexity of social life; otherwise it may narrow our vision, obscuring certain forms of injustice in deference to others and making mutual recognition less and not more likely. If our aim is to acknowledge and give voice to the experience of others, then we must not obscure this complexity, seeing them only as instances of social types. To do so would be to fail to see other individuals as real, which as Iris Murdoch suggests is perhaps the fundamental task of the ethical life.

Second, the concept is sometimes used in contexts in which “privilege” seems seriously inaccurate. When African-Americans endure brutal violations of their rights, for instance, we sometimes hear it cited as yet another example of white privilege. White people, after all, do not have to endure the same threat of violation. That is generally true, but think for a moment about what it means to label this white “privilege.” Do we really want to encourage ourselves and others to think of not having our basic rights violated as a privilege? I understand what people are driving at. It is the fact that I have a greater expectation that my rights will be respected that is the privilege. Perhaps so, but the true moral problem is not that privilege. It is rather the violation of the right. In this context, the notion of privilege seems to get things exactly the wrong way around. It identifies as a privilege what we should rather regard as a right. This curious fixation of the concept not on the deprivation or injustice, but rather on the “privilege” or advantage of the individual not enduring the injustice should give us pause. What would incline our attention in that direction?

This leads to my third and perhaps most important critique of the concept of privilege. There is a serious danger of the concept of privilege being or becoming what I would call, following Nietzsche, a ressentiment concept. The emotion of ressentiment is a curious, potentially toxic mix of resentment and envy, a desire to belittle what one regards as greater or more successful or powerful than oneself, often coupled with a desire to see that other harmed. A ressentiment concept expresses the frustrated and impotent anger of an oppressed class toward their oppressors. Often such a concept is used as a tool to scold or belittle a privileged or relatively more powerful group. When internalized by a member of the “privileged” group, it can express a kind of self-loathing, a curious desire to belittle oneself. To the extent that the concept of privilege functions this way, it is hardly laudable, having abandoned the commitment to principle that gives the concept its moral authority in the first place. It becomes just a way of lashing out and ridiculing, of feeling a sense of superiority which one does not experience as socially real, by demeaning or lowering the status of another. To the extent that the concept attempts to raise the status of some by belittling others, for instance by re-describing their successes as a product not of their own virtues but of structural, ill-begotten privileges, then we should be wary of using the concept and skeptical of its value.

None of this is to deny that there are historical patterns of unearned benefits and undeserved harms, nor that the suffering and frustration of living those patterns is real, worthy of expression and restitution. As I said above, the value of the concept of (white, male, etc.) privilege is that it may promote greater understanding of the struggles of those unlike ourselves. My criticisms are intended to point out ways in which that virtue may be betrayed by certain tendencies in our use of the concept, and so in which it may be ill-suited to the true mutual recognition, and so also a potentially poor basis of political response to those painful and all too familiar patterns of injustice.

Erin Flynn is an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan. He specializes in post-Kantian German philosophy and teaches courses in 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, philosophy of law, philosophy of science, critical thinking and international business ethics.

Headdresses in the wrong places

Photo from J. Stephen Conn on Flickr
Photo from J. Stephen Conn on Flickr

By Karen Poremski

Halloween is a special time. I celebrate it through some of the older practices of the holiday—for me, it’s less about candy, and more about remembering my beloved dead, those relatives and friends who have passed. It’s a chance for me to thank them and tell stories about them and laugh and cry a little because I miss them. It’s a time to remember that love crosses the boundary between life and death.

But, of course, most people associate the holiday with trick-or-treating, parties, costumes. I love this aspect, too, and have fond memories of celebrating in the Castro district in San Francisco, and of taking my son out for trick-or-treating when he was younger.

I also become anxious, this time of year, about people dressing up as American Indians. This year it seems especially problematic as more people realize that sports teams should not be using Native mascots.


I feel less and less tolerant, these days, of seeing people wearing fake headdresses. A couple years ago in November, I caught something in the news that rendered me speechless. Actually, truthfully speaking, it made me sick to my stomach. The incident? A Victoria’s Secret fashion show (which apparently was also a television special). At the end of the show, a model dressed in bra and panties meant to simulate turquoise-studded animal skins walked down the runway in fringed buckskin high heels, behind her a slide proclaiming something along the lines of “Happy Thanksgiving.” She was also wearing an enormous headdress, so long it dragged on the ground.

There were many things wrong with this picture—the mixed-up use of visual signifiers of tribes from different regions who are very different from each other; the fact that the model looked like she was starving; the fact that the image sexualized Native women when Native women are the victims of sexual violence, usually perpetrated by non-Native men; the fact that Thanksgiving was being used to market faux Indian underwear costumes. But the thing that upset me the most was that headdress. Because I know what it’s supposed to mean when someone wears a headdress.

Thanks to OWU’s support, I have done research on the Rosebud Reservation, home of the Sicangu Lakota nation, and I’ve accompanied many spring break mission week teams to the reservation. In those experiences, I have met men who earned the right to wear a headdress.

Every feather in a war bonnet is there for a reason; it has nothing to do with decoration. A man has to have a history, a lifetime, of doing important and brave things for his people in order to put on that piece of regalia. And it’s not just about battle, about taking up arms against an enemy. It’s also about standing up for what’s right, about sacrificing for the good of the community, about being generous. When a man wears a headdress, it signals that he is a great leader, but also serves as a reminder to the wearer that he is responsible for taking care of his community.

I associate the Lakota headdress in particular with Albert White Hat, Sr., who was a great chief of the Sicangu Lakota, and who met many times with OWU students serving on service trips to South Dakota. He was one of a handful of people who established Sinte Gleska University, a tribal college, back in the 1970s. He worked very hard to bring back his Lakota language, which he had been beaten and ridiculed for speaking at school. He and a handful of others were responsible for bringing back Lakota ceremonies after they were no longer illegal, starting in 1978. (That’s not a typo; American Indian ceremonies were illegal until 1978.)

Chief White Hat did all of this at great personal risk, and with great personal sacrifice. He worked, his entire lifetime, to bring his people back to pursuing a way of life informed by Lakota philosophy and values, among them: personal responsibility, service to the community, and respect for self and others. He made life better for people on the Rosebud Reservation, and he shared his work with my students and me when we came to South Dakota.

This year at Halloween I will be remembering Albert. He died in June of 2013; it seems more recent than that. I still have trouble believing he’s gone. When I speak to my beloved dead, I will thank him, and maybe share a joke with him. (He loved telling jokes.)

If, as the mascot proponents claim, we wish to honor Native Americans, I propose some alternative ideas to dressing up in costumes. It comes down to thinking about our relationships, to asking questions like these: What is my relationship to Native people—or, better yet, to a particular Native person or group? How do I see them and think about them? What are my responsibilities to Native communities?

A better way to honor Native people, especially at an institution of higher learning, would be to read works written by Native people about their lives and concerns, their joys and gifts. (I have a list of favorite authors as long as my arm, but some of them include Susan Power, Winona LaDuke, LeAnne Howe, Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, Taiaiake Alfred, Louise Erdrich, Heid Erdrich, Linda Hogan, Phil Deloria, Joy Harjo, James Welch, Gordon Henry, Eric Gansworth, Jodi Byrd, Penelope Kelsey…) Great work is being done on the Native Appropriations blog, and the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Look for videos by the 1491s, if you’re in the mood for comedy. And if you like hip-hop, look for Frank Waln’s work on SoundCloud or YouTube.

There’s a whole world of enlightening and enjoyable work being done by Native people. There’s honor in engaging with that work and learning from it, opening up to what it’s teaching. There’s no honor in donning a fake headdress.

Karen Poremski is an associate professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan teaching Native American literature, women’s literature, early American literature and composition.

Get on your Soapbox


The soapbox is the proverbial platform for speaking one’s mind unashamedly, contributing to public discourse without reservation or hesitation. These days, the soapbox is a sort of relic of the past. A person who is said to be standing on a soapbox is cast as a ranter, someone who makes a lot of noise without a lot of substance.

We’re asking why that has to be. My fellow editors and I highly value those in our campus community who are unafraid and unashamed to say what’s on their mind. As journalists, we believe if no one says anything when there is a problem, or when something crucial is going unsaid, nothing will change. That’s why we love receiving letters to the editor. They give us a different perspective and raise points we would not have otherwise thought of.

We found the letters we get, though, are longer than those typically published in newspapers. People who feel moved to respond to something in The Transcript’s pages have more to say than a couple hundred words can contain. Those who write to us, faculty and students alike, aren’t afraid to stand on the proverbial soapbox.

Now we’re bringing you a Soapbox of our own, and claiming it as a great place to be.

Soapbox takes the Opinion page and letters to the editor up a notch. Here you’ll find longer, essay-type op-ed pieces by Ohio Wesleyan’s most passionate people. They issues about which they write touch our campus, our city, our state, our nation, our world. The authors and their writing take big issues head on, putting their thoughts and feelings into the context of our community. And our Soabox’s digital platform brings that relic of the past into the 21st century, allowing everyone to engage with the pieces on social media and on our website.

The Soapbox is here, and it’s ready for anyone to stand on it. If you want to contribute to Soapbox, simply email an article on a topic of your choice between 600 and 900 words to and one of our editors will respond.

Welcome to Soapbox. We hope you’re as excited as we are.

This article was updated Nov. 5, 2014, 11:29 a.m.