Privilege: Analogies and Outcomes

I find analogies helpful in understanding complex concepts, and I have sought one that fits for the idea of privilege. No analogy is perfect, and all have their limits. Analogies always break down. But, they have the power to help explain concepts so we can more easily analyze and discuss them.

Privilege is a straightforward idea, but like so many things, it has become a charged term that some people argue does not even exist. I believe it does and that it confers advantages on those who have it. In the future, I plan to write more about it concerning my city and what privilege means locally. So this is just a start.

Given the contested nature of the term, I think an analogy can help create a basis for dialogue. First, a definition and description:

Privilege is a set of given or acquired characteristics an individual possesses that confers ongoing benefits to them. While the characteristics are identifiable, people can go through their entire lives without connecting them to the benefits they have obtained. In this sense, privilege is like culture–it is often “invisible” to us. Recently we have come to understand privilege as others have helped us see what it means to move through the world without it.  

The best analogy I can provide for privilege is that it is like a rock formation composed of level upon level of strata that are laid down and form the base of everything that comes after. Like a many-strata formation, privilege lifts people above the surrounding plain and how high it lifts them depends on the cumulative set of characteristics they have. And like rock, privilege is virtually immutable. It exists, and once acquired, sticks around.

Privilege is not a neutral set of traits. Instead, building on a concept that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen articulated, privilege confers entitlements on individuals who have it. Sen defines the entitlement of a person as 

“The set of alternative commodity bundles that can be acquired through the use of the various legal channels of acquirement open to that person.”

(see: Sen, Amartya (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Oxford University Press)).

The idea of “commodity bundles” may seem odd, but what I like about this definition is that it allows us to see privilege as enabling people to use legal means to obtain advantages that others may not have. These legal means include many things we never think about–not necessarily something we use an actual legal process to get. It merely means we do not have to seize them by force.

The outcome of privilege is entitlements. In Sen’s writing, about famine, entitlements allow for survival. Without access to entitlements, people will die. Outside famine, entitlements act like any commodity–they are stocks people can use to purchase goods and services, or perhaps higher quality goods and services. 

Arguably, these goods and services could add layers to the “privilege rock formation” a person has.

These are some initial thoughts on privilege and its outcomes. Of course, the real challenge comes in defining the layers themselves. I will keep that analysis for a later time.

Some future discussion points:

  1. What are some of the layers that make up privilege (cumulatively)?
  2. Beyond entitlements generally, what does privilege mean to those who have it and those who do not?
  3. Is privilege self-reinforcing (self-building), and, if so, how do people use “legal means” to accumulate more?
  4. What does it mean to move in the world without privilege (or with minimal privilege–few strata)?
  5. Is privilege a net negative, or can it be used for good?

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