Big Question: What is Privilege?

The word privilege is used quite often when discussing issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and other instances in which a majority group is granted societal advantages over minority groups.  The concept of privilege is wonderfully described in this post on the blog of Tressie McMillan Cottom, a PhD student in sociology at Emory University.  In the post, Cottom describes how being raised in a black American family shaped her view on privilege, beginning with the story of how her mother’s ability to act as “a respectable black person” allowed her to assist an elderly neighbor who, lacking both a mastery of the Queen’s English and a fashionable outfit, was being continuously turned away by employees at a social services office.  Cottom remembers that it took her mother only half a day to accomplish what the elderly woman had been working on for over a year.  Cottom goes on to describe her experiences witnessing privilege at play in several other interpersonal interactions throughout her life.  The common thread is that poor people are often judged for “wasting money” on consumer goods that might be considered luxury, but that poor people who don’t display outward appearances of affluence are often ignored in stores, treated poorly by others, and passed over in interviews.  Furthermore, those that do portray a certain level of affluence are given preferential treatment on the job, receive better customer service, and are overall treated better in interpersonal interactions.  What is privilege?  Cottom’s examples illustrate the concept well: getting promoted to manager just because you showed up for an interview in a designer suit, having a school principal defer to your judgement simply because you’re a middle class parent and you know how to navigate the educational administrative system if you need to advocate for your child.  These are just a few (among many) reasons why poor people shouldn’t be judged for ever displaying any upscale or luxury belongings.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People.” Tressiemc. 04 Nov. 2013. Weblog. 06 Nov. 2013.

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