Unpacking “Privilege”: On the Semantics of Power

In recent years, the term “privilege” has gained currency amongst activist circles, yet often the term in question is not often accompanied by an elaboration of what exactly “privilege” means. It has been valued for its description of what those who are in or have power can be said to ‘possess’ at the cost of “the have-nots,” to use Marx’s term for the “privileged.” But what is to have a “privilege” or, essentially speaking, to be “privileged?” We speak of “white privilege,” “male privilege,” “class privilege,” “cis privilege,” “able-bodied privilege,” “citizenship privilege,” and so on and so forth, yet what exactly do all of these “privileges” have in common? More specifically, what exactly does a term like “privilege” in its usage even mean for the semantics of power?

For one, the amount of privileges we may be said to possess eases our capability to navigate —depending on the privilege in question —certain spaces within this world, whether it enhances or curbs our economic, interpersonal, legal, educational, architectural agency or capacity to be autonomous, independent, self-sustaining members of our communities and countries.

Contextual, tenuous, interpersonal, sometimes legal or institutional–the term, “privilege”, fails to grasp the instability of its power dynamic. To be female-bodied and exclude trans women from feminist circles is only one of many pertinent points of this “privilege” yet we do not view female-bodiedness to be a privileged position.

Within sociology, arguments have arisen about the interplay between structure and agency in determinations of identity and ability, inadvertently trying to assume the primacy of one over the other, akin to the overly black-and-white nature v. nurture debate. In reality, privilege is one’s access-ability within a myriad of intersecting structures. Can one afford or access food or shelter? Walk down the streets without threats of violence or prejudicial treatment by police or citizens? Pass as white or straight or cis in public spaces? Vote? Afford education? These and many other concerns form the checklist of privilege.

Privilege has many synonyms: ability, access, capability, capacity, facility. The closest corollary, but perhaps not synonym, of privilege is power. The more privileges one may be said to “have”—if we speak in essentialist terms—the more likely they will have access to power. The recurrence and variability of one’s access to power demarcates one’s position within various sets of hierarchies. In “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory” of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks aptly pinpoints the cause of oppression in relation to access-ability: “Being oppressed means the absence of choices.”

Part of unpacking privilege requires rethinking the language we use when we speak about it. Thereafter, we can begin to revise the semantics of power.

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