Monday, June 16, 2008

On Privilege #1: A History Lesson

Social privilege is a real sticky subject to write about, because people would like to feel that inequality is all about prejudice. Yet prejudice is harmless in the absence of power and power can render harmful even the slightest prejudice.

But privilege tends to be extremely subtle and complex, so let's first of all travel back in time for a simple but illustrative example. Climb into my Glasgow Police Box, queue malfunctioning vacuum-cleaner noise and come with me back to 1957.

Now, we accept that 1957 was a far less equitable time and lots of things went on then which wouldn't go on today. But by this time, we had achieved universal suffrage. Everyone had access to free education and women had been getting proper degrees at university for a couple of decades (as opposed to titular degrees, so named presumably because having tits meant your work didn't count). We had our first Asian MP in back in 1892, and our first woman MP (an American!) in 1919*. Theoretically, there was nothing stopping any individual from joining political parties, running for parliament and being elected.

And yet it came to pass that when Harold MacMillan became Prime Minister, he was related by blood or marriage to thirty-five members of his government. These days, some folks complain that the Scots are running the place**, what if several Cabinet ministers were kin?

Now I don't know much about the MacMillan government, that's one of those bits of trivia that stick in my mind, and I have no reason to suspect anything sinister. In fact, it all seems unremarkable once you consider that in those days, at the very least, a political career was a path rarely traveled unless you were male, white, upper-class, non-disabled, Protestant, English, public school and Oxbridge educated. I miss out straight because male homosexuality was illegal (MacMillan himself is alleged to have been expelled from Eton for just that).

Since it was a very small minority of the population who met all or even most of these criteria, particularly in regards to class and education, it is little wonder that several MPs belonged to the same family. But what does this information tell us about the sort of people who did get into government at the time? Were they all bigots? Were they appalling statesmen who only got their jobs through no merit of their own? Well it's possible, but there's no evidence for any of that. Both the current Conservative leader and the Mayor of London appear to tick every one of those boxes and only one of them appears to be adversely effected by his privilege. Plus these days, it is remarked upon that they are about as socially privileged as it is possible to be.

Here we begin to see the problem with privilege. Privilege doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean that you weren't the best candidate for your job, or that your path through life has been made easy. It doesn't even mean that you haven't yourself experienced some form of discrimination at some point. But it does mean that as a statistical unit, your chances of success in education, employment, socio-economic mobility and political power are significantly greater than for certain other statistical units. And in order for that to be the case, someone else is losing out.

Unfortunately, society tends to be in denial about this – chiefly because those in charge are denial about any unfair advantage that might have put them there. Whilst there's little argument about how fair things were fifty years ago, people tend to insist that things are fair now.

So for example, about national politics, it is often said that women just aren't terribly interested. This is said to explain the fact that less than 20% of our representatives in parliament are women; after a handful of measures to give women a leg-up, this must represent the natural balance of things.

Only, several other European countries have a balance of more or less equal - including 40% and 50% women members in the Scottish and Welsh regional assemblies respectively. So there must be something about British society or British national politics which is causing this inequality. And there must be reasons why some minority groups remain fantastically underrepresented; we've never had an Asian woman Member of Parliament and there's only ever been three black women. One in twenty people in the UK are women of colour; something is amiss.

But whilst significant, the make-up of our six hundred and forty-six MPs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effects of privilege on our lives.

* The first female MP to be elected was elected the previous year, but that lady was Sinn Féin, so didn't take her seat in the British Parliament.

** In fairness, the sort of people who say that the Scots are running the place tend to extend the criteria of being Scottish to include having a Scottish-sounding name, possessing a raincoat with a tartan lining or having eaten porridge for breakfast at some point in their life.


Anonymous said...

I thought it sounded better under Kinnock when people were worried about a 'Welsh Mafia' and called it the 'Taffia'. Stereotyping and puns, all in the one package!

As regards priviledge, I'm quite well of. I'm white, male, semi-middle class (grandparents were poor but parents both professionals - teacher/pharmacist), and well educated and without disability (although I do have a dodgy knee which plays up from time to time, if that's any help).

This gives me considerable advantages over many. Yet I wouldn't argue that in a run-off between two candidates for a job, the one from the poorer background should get more 'points': it should go to the best man* for the job irrespective of race, colour, gender, sexuality etc etc.

But what we should be doing is trying to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity (and incentive) to get an education, to learn skills and so on that will stnad them in good stead.

For example, we need better childcare provision; we need better maternity AND paternity schemes so that mothers can return to work quicker (if they want) and fathers can take more time off with their little 'uns...

*obviously :-)

Diane J Standiford said...

Great post and history lesson for a Yank.

Lady Bracknell said...

Best tit joke ever.

Oh, and, what Jack said, obviously.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks folks :-)

Yes Jack, I'm totally against positive discrimination. There are lots of ways of supporting disadvantaged groups without actually disadvantaging others - even if it is just the matter of one job, inequality is inequality. And frankly, the backlash is not worth the trouble; we've had very little of this kind of thing in the UK, and yet there is this perception that it happens all the time.

Trouble is, it is proposed on a regular basis as a response to different issues - the last one was the number of black and Asian people in the police. I mean, if someone was wondering why there aren't a great number of black and Asian people in the police, I don't think the recruitment process is the most obvious problem...

Anonymous said...

Some people may deny having privilege because they may fear admitting privilege means having to give it up. True enough.

But I think there is also partly a purely *conceptual* difficulty at issue, in that some people have a lot of difficulty wrapping their brains around the idea of statistical aggregates and broader historical trends.

Many people find it easier to understand *individual cases* than they do group tendencies, even when there is no privilege that seems to be under threat. For instance they might say, "It can't possibly be true that the people in Town X are more likely to enjoy eating marmite than the people in Town Y because I know this person from Town X who just loathes marmite and this other person from Town Y who loves it." People who think like this have difficulty grasping that statements about overall trends are not MEANT to describe each and every single individual case within the sample group. Kind of like missing the forest because they're too focused on the individual details and nuances present in each and every single tree.

It's not so much of an extension to go from that kind of thinking to, "It can't possibly be true that white people have an inherent economic advantage in society because I know family Z who are all white and all dirt poor. I don't think it's accurate to say that any one group has an advantage over the other, it's all down to individual people and individual luck."

So to some extent, I think there are cognitive issues at work that need to be addressed at a sheerly cognitive level. No, this won't take care of the OTHER aspects of the problem (including the impulse to protect one's perceived self interests; or a deeply buried sub-conscious belief that maybe people in certain population groups *deserve* to have less privilege than others; or a knee-jerk assumption that merely *having* privilege makes you a bad person because you can't have privilege if you didn't want it and claim it and good people don't do that; or whatever).

But I do think that the purely cognitive aspect is a critical barrier to a wider understanding of what "privilege" really means that often get overlooked in more theoretical discussions. In short: it's not all about psychology.

Naomi Mimi said...

great jumping point for discussion. i like how you wrote clearly and didn't "bash" for the privilege being there. it just means things are easier. this is a refreshing blog post. i'm looking forward to reading more!

Anonymous said...


The problems we have had with Affirmative Action in the US (positive discrimination) is primarily a cognitive one. As Anonymous stated, people have trouble conceptualizing aggregates-- they see the individual and personalize it.

In addition, this paradigm pits two parties fighting for the same piece of pie, as we say in the US. The parties both do not realize there is more pie in the refrigerator, and why is it that only one piece was presented for consumption? There are people and businesses that benefit from privilege. Everyone in a government job, union shop or university post is not necessarily the best person for the job, but the one (many times) who looks the most like the hiring manager or knows their sister's, next door neighborhood, college roommate's cousin (by marriage).

The new trend in the States however, is interesting-- organizations are hiring people of color in direct response to the bottom line. People of color are being identified as a market segment with cash value. Several TV stations catering to Spanish language and Black programming have made millions. Companies that advertise and promote in multiple languages, with people of color in advertisement make money.

Organizations are also sensitive about the accusation of racism, and strive to find qualified people of color to join their organizations.