Linguistics and White Privilege

Every once in a while a question will be posted to Quora about White Privilege that questions the validity of the term and concept based on personal experience with hardship.  These stand out to me because the author is usually focused on Class Privilege and the very real advantages provided by financial class, Since I spend most of my time on Quora reading and writing about Poverty, class issues catch my attention.

I think Gina Crosley-Corcoron‘s Huffington Port article Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person does an excellent job of breaking down the concept as it applies to all white people. She also makes some strong points about places where the original 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh (which brought the phrase ‘white privilege’ into the academic mainstream)  drifts away from race and goes knee-deep into financial class. Therefore, I am not going to try to recreate that here.

The objective behind this post is to take a look at the cultural and communication problems inherent in using the word Privileged to target racial problems in the United States.

Connotation vs Denotation

Every time an article or opinion expresses heightened negative emotion or simple disbelief about the concept of ‘White Privilege’ the core arguments come down to two things:

  1. I worked hard for what I have, how can you call me privileged?
  2. My life has been hard for reasons beyond my control, how can you call me privileged?

According to, the word Privilege has many meanings. In the context of White Privilege, definition number four (4) seems most applicable: 

The principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.

When a person takes the time to read and digest the definition of White Privilege, the denotation (dictionary definition) of the word ‘privilege’ is clearly applicable.

The problem that seems to keep resurfacing is not the denotation – it’s the connotation:

Connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning: A possible connotation of“home” is “a place of warmth, comfort, and affection.

Privilege As An Insult

When I was growing up among poverty survivors in an almost-entirely-white community, the word ‘privilege’ was usually considered an insult. It was something that applied to upper class snobs and people who aspired to act like them, despite being just as poor as the rest of us.

By comparison, there is a saying that is common among white communities: 

When you’re poor, you’re crazy; when you’re rich, you’re eccentric.

In essence, this describes two realities in the United States:

  1. Mental Illness: Poor people are locked up in institutions (mental hospitals or prisons) because they are ‘crazy’ while rich people are indulged and provided top-notch care for living with their ‘eccentricities.’ If you are lucky to be among the upper classes, then you have enough money to be ‘eccentric,’ while the rest of us are stuck trying to survive ‘crazy.’
  2. Unusual Hobbies and/or Alternative Lifestyles: Again, poor people are locked up or otherwise strongly discouraged from indulging in anything considered outside the social norm. Rich people are given the freedom and space to indulge themselves while being excused for expressing their ‘eccentricities.’

Privilege has a similar usage among the lower classes. It’s something that applies to the upper class, something those with money and power openly and aggressively toss in the face of those less fortunate. It’s something you do not want to be accused of having when trying to survive poverty because surviving poverty requires connections to, and help from, the community. Being labeled as ‘privileged’ sets a person outside that community in a very negative manner.

When Petra Ecclestone was interviewed about her lavish lifestyle and ‘career’ throwing stunningly expensive parties (on her daddys tab) she responded with “I’m not spoiled, I’m privileged.” and then made some comments about how spending that same amount of  money on housing for poor people wouldn’t ‘change the world’ and (in essence) wasn’t her problem.

Petra’s behavior pretty much sums up the poor-white interpretation of ‘privilege’ – everything is handed to you and community is irrelevant because the money pays for everything.

Synonyms: Lazy, offensive, overindulged, antisocial and living outside the law (read: the laws don’t apply because the money/lawyers take care of everything).

Generations of Knee Jerk Reactions

I clearly remember my parents having a from-the-gut knee-jerk reaction to the word privilege when I was a kid (back in the 1970s-80s). When I was introduced to the term White Privilege my first reaction was the same, emotional, non-rational, gut reaction to the word privilege. This visceral respond to the word itself has been around since the baby boomers were young – probably longer.

Race vs Class

The non-rational and highly emotional response to the term ‘privilege’ is entirely based in financial class. Connecting the term to the word White and using it to describe the reality of race issues here in the United States connects one emotional response to another – race and class.

Is that a good or useful thing?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question.

What I would like to see is more discussion around the linguistics of the terminology and how our reactions to the words strongly (unconsciously?) affect our ability to grasp the concept. How many people are unable to enter into a healthy conversation about the concept (reality) of White Privilege because they cannot get passed the feeling that they have been deeply insulted through the use of the word privilege?

The problem exists. The existence of the problem does not, necessarily, mean the term White Privilege’ needs to change. However, the emotional response must be addressed. Without that step in the process, many people will never be able to move into a discussion about race.

This begs the question “how?”

Again, I don’t know the answer.

Personally, I had to get passed the word and into the concept by my own volition. I made the conscious effort to put aside the emotion, read the literature and find out what the term was being used to convey. In other words, I had the standard bookworm response: I read up on it. Not everyone operates that way.


I would like to suggest this as a topic for discussion among activists and community organizers:

  • How do you get people to move passed the emotional response to sheer linguistics (terminology) and into a productive and positive discussion about race?
  • How to you get around the financial class issues associated with the term ‘privilege’ and focus on the race issues that are identified within the concept of White Privilege?

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