What a difference 25 years makes. Back then, if you were a person concerned about multiculturalism, social justice, and the recently maligned, “diversity.” your focus was on equal rights and oppression. All of the academic textbooks had titles like “The Oppression of Racism” or “How Race, Class, and Gender are Tools of Oppression.” No one talked about privilege.
Most people know that Peggy McIntosh got the whole conversation about privilege going with her list of those that white people have and then men. However, what people today may not realize is that this was filling a vacuum that people from oppressed groups were screaming to have filled in the early 1990s.
From all corners, people said, “We don’t want any more discussion of oppression. Hearing about our disadvantages is not news to us. We want our oppressors to understand what their advantages are. We want them to understand some of the things they are going to have to give up.”
Privilege is not all about rights, unfortunately. Privilege is also about norming the culture. It is about creating a default superior person to whom all others must comply. This is a somewhat frivilous example, but this is a society that privileges right-handed people. They don’t have special rights, but they are less likely to cut themselves with knives which are designed for right-handed people. Society is built around them and left handed people must adapt.
The discussion of privilege started out intent on pointing out to white people how much society is constructed around them. It isn’t just about getting to travel mostly free of hassle from police — a right. It’s also about getting to see yourself reflected in media in a positive light — a privilege. The most important point of all is that these are unearned privileges.
I don’t know how it has become perverted over time. I suspect conservatives have gotten their hands on it, warped it, and used their own brands of isms to taint discussions of privilege that were once seen as a breakthrough from a time of focusing only on oppression’s deprivations (e.g. unemployment, discrimination, voting intimidation, etc.).
Needless to say, there was no bitter person behind privilege. There were thoughtful, pro-equality, social justice activists. It was never designed as a name-calling mechanism. The fact that people hear it that way is actually more indicative of the entrenched nature of how they cling to their advantages than anything about the intent of the concept.