I'm tired of hearing how "privileged" I am - Macleans.ca

I’m tired of hearing how “privileged” I am

Prof. Pettigrew reacts to study on white male academics


Simone Lovati/Flickr

When I was an undergraduate, I was, as we all were back in arts programs in those days, told repeatedly about the notion of “privilege.”

It was explained to me that as a man, and a white man at that, I carried with me an “invisible backpack” filled with resources others did not have. It wasn’t that others had it bad—I had it too good.

It would be nice if this term had faded, as such faddish academic terms often do. These days, sad to say, this troubling notion of privilege is even more entrenched than ever.

The problem I have long had with the notion of “privilege” in this sense is that it suggests that those who are treated justly should feel bad for their lack of abuse or oppression. But this is backwards. The problem with oppression is that the oppressed are being treated unfairly, not that others are being treated decently.

The word privilege implies a special favour or status that one does not necessarily deserve. But the right to compete for a job without being judged by one’s race, the right not to be spurned by one’s neighbours because of one’s race—these things are not privileges – they are rights deserved by all.

At this point, many will want to get into the fine details of the precise meanings of the words in question, but there is no room for that here. Instead, let me move to the bigger problem: the notion of privilege provides a much too convenient way to silence or disregard those whose views one doesn’t want to deal with or recognize.

I was reminded of this problem—and that it’s not just mine—when I read about a recent study conducted by Sandra Miles. Miles noted that some white, male academics found that they were belittled for their achievements (everything’s easy for you because you’re white) or shut out of discussions (you’re a man, so you don’t get it). Said one grad student quoted in the report:

I couldn’t even begin to have that conversation because it was automatically assumed I didn’t understand… To go through that experience in a higher education class—which is supposed to be the safest place to talk about that—was just terrifying.

I frequently encounter the same kinds of attitudes. If I raise questions about abortion, I’m told to shut up since I don’t have a uterus. When I recently wrote about female academics and children, plenty of people got mad—which was fine—but many of them simply dismissed my view as coming from a “privileged” male academic.

But that’s not how thoughtful discussion should work. Among any community of intelligent minds, it is not enough to say, “well, you are x and x’s are privileged so your position is not one worth attending to.” If my supposed privilege has led me to an unreasonable conclusion—and maybe it has—you still need to show me why that conclusion is unreasonable.

Let me be perfectly clear: I neither condone nor deny the existence of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and subjugation. I simply deny the corollary position that says all those not systematically mistreated are necessarily privileged.

And, no, I don’t think that white men are oppressed or kept down by a politically correct conspiracy. But “privilege” has ceased to be a way to make us think about social power and has become a facile excuse for those unwilling to engage with contrary views.

We all deserve to be treated with a reasonable amount of dignity and to be treated fairly and equitably. And we have to talk about how to make that happen. But let’s agree that we all have something to contribute to the conversation.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.


I’m tired of hearing how “privileged” I am

  1. i dont understand how this person is a professor given a total lack of hegemony, systemic privelage, or oppression. oh wait, thats because the academy is designed for white, cis, middle class, men. oh, but thats not “privelage” thats just how history has panned out. no.

  2. You poor guy. Even worse than all of this, you’re actually not the first person to suggest that the solution to social inequality is for everybody to be more like you. It’s pretty common.
    Just so’s you know, that feeling you get when people don’t want to listen to you because you’re a straight white able cis man? It’s the same feeling everyone else gets a hundred times more often for not being one. The problem is not that other people don’t get all the cool perks you and I get, and the solution is not giving those perks to everyone, for two reasons.

    1. The problem is that those perks are only ‘perks’ relative to the people who don’t have them. Quibbling over where the baseline is that everyone should be at doesn’t really get us to a fair system to begin with, and the fact that you want the baseline to be where you are just reinforces the straight white cis man as the normal person and everyone else as some deficient other. There is no baseline, no “correct” place in society. Sorry. There’s just people. If there was a baseline, it would be based a larger group of people than straight, white, able cis men.
    2. It doesn’t happen. I’m happy to assume that you try not to be a bigot, Todd, but not everyone tries, and not everyone who tries does so very hard. Civil rights history show us that people on the top don’t change their ways and let terrible institutions die until the people under them make them very uncomfortable. We’re all going to have to suffer a few indignities in order to draw out the bigger bigots and to incentivise us examine our own conduct and thinking. It’s everyone’s responsibility, all of the time.

    There’s absolutely people out there who abuse the language and ideas of oppression and privilege to be jerks and even to protect their own privilege and maintain oppression that benefits them (I’ve been to meetings of the Canadian Federation of Students, after all) but the solution in those cases is to be less wrong than them. If people are dismissing your ideas because you’re a man, make doubly sure that your ideas aren’t coloured by your life in our society as a man (like they are here) and then go back and defend your ideas again, as ideas. Not by whining that you aren’t getting a fair shake. The fact is that you get a lot more fair shakes than everyone else, and no one is obliged to care about that unless you convince them. The world of pleasant, collegial, respectful debate of pure ideas where your identity doesn’t matter only exists for straight, white, able cis men. It’s nice in a way that you want to wish it in to existence for everyone, but that’s not actually helping.

    Anyways, I have to disagree with you that the idea of privilege isn’t making you think about inequality, it clearly is. Keep it up, and good luck.

  3. Perhaps you need to acknowledge that such reactions steam from them having had their fair share of discrimination and have applied on you their discontent for the privileges accorded to white male. It is like a straw man. And you should just swallow it for the moment because their fight is far more important than yours. Seriously, too many people have to lead unsuccessful lives because of their races, etc. So let’s continue to focus on bettering their lives instead of focusing on the complain of a white male that is annoyed by “little comments he sometimes receive.” I’m not sure you’re contributing anything to the conversation here by simply saying that you sometimes get called on what is obvious, your white male privileges. Just swallow it and accept that some people have far worst problems to deal with than you.

  4. it’s not that privileged people should “feel bad”, it’s that they shouldn’t be the ones making all of the decisions for everyone else.

    For example, if you look at women’s rights from your own personal experiences as a male, you’re going to get a lot of things wrong, hence the backlash.

    They’re not using privilege as an excuse to devalue you, they’re trying to explain that you can only see the world from your own eyes and so you cannot possibly understand what those less “privileged” are going through, and so should not be speaking for them.

    • But why can’t he speak for himself? I think the point of the article is that you can’t just dismiss his viewpoint without even considering it.

    • Blacks and women cannot possibly understand the white male perspective then.

  5. So the gist of all the replies is essentially this: “shut the fuck up, white guy.”

  6. I tire of a lot of the discourse surrounding “privilege” as well. Part of the problem is that we’ve established certain “categories” and have drawn lines which ignore the myriad factors that play into whether someone succeeds in society. A white male is assumed to have “privilege” but what he has can be negated if he is poor, physically unattractive, overweight, inarticulate, and/or unintelligent–all of which are traits that lead to assumptions, stereotypes and discrimination.

    And the commanding heights arguments are frustrating as well. So politicians and corporate leaders are disproportionately white male? How does that benefit the average white male who is NOT a politician or a corporate leader?

    The whole area of study is sloppy, simplistic, counterproductive and offensive to those “white males” who deal with challenges like poverty and other personal traits that are not favoured in society.

  7. Privilege theory is simply psychological warfare against white males. Accusations of privilege are used to silence any dissent against the rank hypocrisy of social justice warriors. Europeans are the only group in history to voluntarily free their slaves and attempt to make them equal.

    What minorities and women need to understand and accept is that they were GIVEN their rights and status by white males out of a sense of moral duty.

    • oh my goodness please tell me you are trolling with that comment

  8. I guess the main problem is that the preponderance of white males in true positions of power is, …. well… preponderant. Until such time as boards of governance are a really good mix of races, sexes, and classes people will just not believe your little rant. Take the time to really watch the news and who is represented and you’ll see. Oh yes, and try to be really look and be objective.

  9. I would extend that part of the issue is an assumption by some prone to resort to dogmatic views that others cannot possibly learn enough and have an “out of the box” outlook, or even one comparable to “the oppressed” experience. I may be a white male, educated and intelligent, but it does not lead that the resources attributed to privilege were available to myself or most I know. My experience is much more defined by mild autism and coming from an extended family of restrained resources. If others assume on first glance that I am privileged, that is their mistake and their prejudices at play; if this is the reason to then disenfranchise me, they apply their own oppression, although I have been told that this is merely levelling. Sounds as much of an excuse as those in the days before 19th century electoral reform who dismissed extending the vote to non-property owners as what could they understand about the questions at hand?

  10. In this world, you can be:

    A) A woman
    B) A homosexual
    C) A minority group
    D) A heterosexual white male and that makes you a fascist, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe and an islamophobe. And if you aren’t Jewish, probably an antisemite too.

  11. The Ironic part is that the first commenters all proved exactly what this professor was saying. They attempt to tell him his arguments are wrong by doing exactly what they are deriding him for pointing out.

  12. >>the academy is designed for white, cis, middle class,<<

    It would be helpful if someone who has used the term "cis" explained what it meant. It's not a recognizable English word; I assume is an initialism.

    I rather doubt it's this one:

    «The abbreviation, CIS, stands for the term "commonwealth of independent states" which refers to an alliance between the Soviet Socialist Republic and the Soviet Union.»

    • Cis means “cisgendered” and is the PC term for “not-transgendered” aka normal.
      The general rule is that you can ignore someone who is using the term cis”gendered” in combination with white since they’re bigoted, chauvinist ideologues who think reverse racism and sexism is totally awesome.

      If you’re actually dealing with transsexuals using this term might be nicer since it doesn’t make them feel so much like freaks.

  13. Unfortunately, Prof. Pettigrew misconstrues the majority of social justice scholars, and then victimizes himself on what he perceives as ‘marginalization’ of white men. What these scholars meant was that we are to be aware of our privileges — each and every one of us — and to be aware of our social location. Something that this writer has completely missed.

  14. I find it interesting that the response to Todd’s article makes Todd’s point as much as his article.

  15. @GBryce: “cis” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as.” It’s primarily used in the sciences, but in this context is serves as an abbreviation for “cisgendered,” which is oppositional to “transgendered.”

    It’s a good example of how some of us don’t recognize their privilege (or whatever word you prefer), since most cisgendered individuals spend most of their time oblivious to the fact that some people *don’t* have genders and physical sexual characteristics that match at birth.


  16. Although I never hear how privileged I am. It is evident that in the theoretical dreamland of academia the “white man” is the enemy. I could sit here and spout off pedantic statements, citing wikipedia or listing historical facts but to be honest, I would rather just understand that the author of this article has obviously experienced what he has perceived to be discriminatory and bias based on sex and race, coincidentally the very thing which is being contended by others. Unfortunately we can’t deny whether he feels this way or not.He is just for having such beliefs in an age where social progression is moving forward and undoing the systemic discrimination created by those who came before, yet baring the consequences of ‘restorative justice’ by those in the present. I know nobody who would be enthusiastic about paying the consequences for someone else’s wrongs based on their gender or race, once again the very thing that is being contended by others. Anyone who is discriminated against due to things beyond their control should not be put down with scathing remarks; what purpose does this serve?

  17. “It’s a good example of how some of us don’t recognize their privilege (or whatever word you prefer), since most cisgendered individuals spend most of their time oblivious to the fact that some people *don’t* have genders and physical sexual characteristics that match at birth.”

    It’s also a good example of assuming that a particular bit of jargon is widely understood when it might not be. In my area of expertise, the term cis has an entirely different meaning, and it’s not clear to me that either meaning is any more valid than the other.

  18. I just read back though these blog posts. Seems like a whole lot of whining, Prof. Pettigrew… We are waiting for the empathy, insight, and inspiration that can surely be expected from someone in your position.

  19. Oh man, this oppression of white-cis-male-academics sounds pretty rough. What you say? They shut you out of a conversation? Jesus christ, will it ever end?

  20. Thank you for posting this. I run into this problem all the time. Minorities and women seem to get major satisfaction of throwing white privilege in my face. I find it racist and dishonest.

    I hope white people wake up and start fighting this trend before they become the enemy in their own countries.

  21. This article, and the response to it, are precisely why “social justice” is becoming increasingly a matter of ridicule rather than of legitimate popular concern outside the ivory tower and so called “progressive” blogs. So called activists, falling back on these closed ideological systems that categorize people as “privileged” or “marginalized” based on arbitrary characteristics that most certainly boil down to which departments have more pull in the social science departments, feel justified in acting obnoxious and self righteous towards those who either don’t believe the ideology or have fewer badges of “marginalization” than themselves. This has everything to do with vanity and ego and nothing, nothing whatsoever, with social justice, inclusiveness or equality.