Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Two Faces of Privilege

with 3 comments

It seems to me that the concept of privilege as it is commonly understood, is used to include two very different things. That is, when someone talks about someone having privilege, they can be speaking of one of two types of things, which are themselves very different.

The first face of privilege includes things that I would argue all people should have by virtue of being a human being. (Sometimes this is not clear, so let me be clear. All people means all people. It is not limited to citizens or residents of the United States, etc.) This would include food, housing, clean water and air, the ability to move about the world freely, and health care. It would also include things we would want to be free of—freedom from being raped, freedom from being assaulted or harassed by cops and so on.

The second face includes things that I would argue no one should ever have—the ability to rape, to sexually harass, or to shoot ‘suspicious’ people of color; the ability to dominate conversations, to pressure subordinates, or to demean or demand favors from employees, tenants, or students. Other examples would include the ability to hold oneself out as an expert on things you don’t know in relation to experts, to be immune to accountability for harming others, to take credit for others’ work, or to have others do the shit work (without credit) that supports your work.

The selective distribution of things within both faces is a product of existing inequities and reproduces them as well.  This needs to be challenged in both cases. It’s worth noting that generally the things that I have included in the second face have a mirror image in the first face–the ability to do a thing and the freedom from having that thing done to you. But not everything in the first face works that way.

Often, the concept of privilege is understood as centrally about things that are “unearned.” And this is true of both faces, but in different ways. For the first face, they are unearned because they belong to us by virtue of being a human being. They therefore could not be earned. For the second face, there is no amount of deservingness that could allow one to earn them. (For example, think of the ridiculous notion that the alleged artistic or political contributions of certain men mean we ought to look the other way regarding their predation upon women.) Put another way, I argue both are unearned (in different ways), but while the second face is surely “undeserved” the first is very much deserved.

As a result, the solutions are different.  For the first face, they need to be extended to all. The problem here is not that the thing itself is bad, but that it is too narrowly drawn. Those who lack health care need it provided to them, those who live where the air is dirty need it cleaned, those who cannot access buildings or sidewalks could have this resolved by changing the way these are built. These are things that everyone could have, and if that was the case, there would be no inequality in them. It’s worth noting here that just because people have health care, for example, doesn’t mean it is equal. There can be differentials in care, or in treatment. The care could be the same while the outcomes were different for other reasons—for example, unequal housing and jobs contribute to producing unequal health even when care is the same. I am talking about truly addressing all of these inequalities, not only at a surface level. This does not mean that reforms that are not universal are necessarily a problem either. But there is a difference between a reform that seeks to deliver benefits only to the “most deserving,” which implies benefits should not be further extended, and one that is a partial step towards a larger goal. This is a question both of policy design and of how reform is sought, i.e. what is demanded and how it is demanded and pursued.

To take a current example, in health care I believe we should push for Medicare for All, but we can simultaneously press for funding for CHIP and for Medicaid Expansion while opposing Medicaid cuts. These are not separate campaigns, but rather aspects of one campaign. We can also support the efforts of disabled activists and organizations, both in the organizing and the policy demands, not as an add on, but from the beginning. To take one more, National Black Mamas Bail Out Day targeted Black women, who experience jail and prison at disproportionately high rates. There was no suggestion here that only Black women deserved support, only that they were in particular need and often forgotten (or worse). Also much of the effort was within the larger push for ending money bail, mass incarceration, and for prison abolition.

For some people, challenging privilege means noting that these first face things are not currently distributed according to deservingness, with the implication (sometimes spoken, sometimes not) that the sole solution is to better distribute them by who has earned them. This position either argues or more likely assumes that there is a limited amount of the thing in question. I would argue this implies a scarcity that does not exist, and that this sort of talk simply reinforces the legitimations that support existing inequality. Rather than offer a different answer to the existing question, we should ask a different question–what should everyone have as a matter of right?

For the second face, these are things that need to be abolished for any. They could never be extended to all, because they are things where one person holds power over another. But more importantly, we shouldn’t entertain the idea that some people deserve to have these things. We need to do our best to prevent those who have these powers from exercising them, and work to divest them (or sometimes us!) of such power. The debate over whether one can and should “give up” one’s privilege is relevant here. Surely exercising one’s arbitrary power over others, as in the second face, is indefensible. Or, to take it from another vantage point, allowing someone to exercise this power unchallenged is indefensible. But short of dismantling structures, there are severe limits to how much one can give up power as capacity to do such things. (It’s also not clear to me how helpful the notion of giving up privilege is when it comes to something in the first face, like health care.)

Privilege discourse focuses attention to who has certain things, which is important. Many critics of the concept of privilege often want to avoid having that conversation. They wish to focus on what I have labeled the first face, and downplay or ignore existing differences in distributions of these things. But this conversation about existing distributions is essential. It is essential both for analysis but also for politics. If you attempt to build solidarity on the basis of refusing to acknowledge these existing inequalities, you run the risk of alienating those who relatively disadvantaged in relation to the first face. You also make it easier for your opponents to scare off those who are more advantaged by bringing this up. For example, just because you don’t mention racism to white people while making appeals on other bases doesn’t mean that your opponents won’t engage in race baiting. And if your politics depends on people not thinking about something that your opponent actually is itching to bring up, that’s a serious vulnerability. Those who think we can avoid this question are mistaken. I also think doing so makes impossible a very important political appeal—that denying things to those less advantaged than you puts them at risk for you, even if you are (relatively) more advantaged. The same political forces that are pushing building a border wall and instituting a Muslim ban are also dumping people off of Medicaid, refusing to fund CHIP, and talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare. This is no coincidence. It is all part of the same political project. How could we fight this while ignoring this connection?

As to the second face, failing to address inequalities here ensures that unequal dynamics within society with play out within movement spaces. Aside from being wrong, this weakens our potential power.

Some people treat whether we address what I have termed the first face or the second as a choice. You see this among those who claim talking about the second face hurts efforts to pursue change in the first, and among those who claim talk of the first face is a distraction from addressing problems in the second face. Both sometimes accuse others of doing this intentionally. And no doubt, sometimes this happens. Some people attack efforts to provide universal benefits as a distraction from fighting inequality. Others justify bad behavior based in their expressed commitments to universalism. But I am unconvinced that—done properly—addressing the first and second faces is in tension. This is a false choice, and we should do both. But this requires greater clarity in what we are talking about that is commonly the case.

I also think it is essential to be clear where you stand on what people deserve, which things belong to all and which belong only to some. No doubt many people would agree with me about those things that are owed to all (even if they might disagree about particular things I’ve placed in this category of how I have framed them.) Others would insist that it is either good or unavoidable that people should be forced to earn some or all of those things. These people would prefer a fairer distribution of these things that remain limited.

But regardless of how one seeks to solve this problem, I believe failing to clearly distinguish the two faces is a barrier to progress.



Written by David Kaib

January 18, 2018 at 1:15 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for highlighting these two dimensions of privilege. In my mind, both come down to the exercise of power. In the case of the first, power is often institutionalized to give such “privileges” to some and not others. to those who enjoy such privilege often they are invisible until one has cause to look at the directive role institutions play in all of our lives. In the second dimension or face, as you call it, it is an abusive exercise of power. Often institutions legitimate that power or certain individuals are given a “pass” because of the power they exercise in an institution. However, in both the first and second faces power is the deciding factor as to who enjoys privilege and those who do not. I do think breaking out these two faces of privilege helps us recognize both the passive and aggressive elements of power.


    January 23, 2018 at 9:44 am

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