When I was a boy in Manchester, NH in the 1960’s there was an annoying tactic used when two boys would “buck up” to decide an order of game play. One boy would call odd or even and then say “Once, Twice, Three, Shoot!” and on the Shoot! both boys would put out some fingers, the combined fingers then counted to see if it were odd or even. One or two fingers was usual, as zero fingers or 3-5 provided no added variation. There was sometimes one clown who would hold out all five fingers and wiggle them, laughing and saying “Butterfingers always win!” as if he has discovered some superior strategy that he had surprised us with. This was never from your neighborhood nor your own school class, because boys simply shun jerks who do stuff like that.
The term privilege has become like that butterfingers rule. Discussing the various types of privilege is entirely legitimate. I define privilege as an unfair status advantage, not an ability disadvantage. Being able to sing better is not being privileged, it is being more talented. Those who have beauty have privilege in some situations but not others. Those who have wealth can sometimes tilt the rules in their favor. Whiteness and maleness can be an advantage in some situations, not in themselves, but in that being nonwhite or female might be a disadvantage. Age or in-group status, such as a coreligionist or student at the same school can be big. Being a local girl can count for a lot, as can mere association with a powerful or famous character. There isn’t anything that’s always a disadvantage or always an advantage. However, some spread farther across the horizon than others. Race is the most common privilege or unprivilege that is discussed, so let’s let that stand in for all the others, just temporarily. There are more white people than black ones in America, and a few of those white people are very prejudiced against black ones. Wouldn’t hire them unless forced to, might try to undermine them or increase their anxiety. There is a belief that a great many other white people are at least a bit prejudiced, further eroding the prospects of black people. In the presence of not only affirmative action, but the unannounced affirmative action of some individuals overcompensating for possible prejudice, this gets more elusive, but I have no objection to granting there’s something to it. Let's buck up, count fingers, and see if it's odd or even.
Let’s hold there and run some other horses on this track. Beauty is privileging across many contexts, and the young who are quickest to decry privilege do not see how much their youth buys them on that score alone. Though being black is some disadvantage in many situations, Barry Soetoro is not getting elected senator in Illinois. Whatever age you are, someone feels contempt for it. Teddy Roosevelt was very in favor of lifting up wonderful black people, but was vile in his prejudice against Native Americans and the Chinese. Woodrow Wilson was the opposite. Any connection of familiarity is also going to be powerful. I went to high school with your father… Oh, you live in Green Bay?... Let me guarantee from personal experience that the smokers who have to go outside in the bad weather and cluster together, needing a light or just someone to chat with, will look kindly on each other for the rest of the conference. Privilege may be very real, but it is often easily overruled. Let's buck up and count fingers again.
There is a next step, which is more elusive, but theoretically reasonable as well. Advancing the idea that because most people are straight, the culture is heteronormative and people who fall outside that norm are at a disadvantage seems plausible. Or, the institutions of our society were created by Europeans/men/the wealthy and therefore favor those people right to the root. It could be an interesting discussion. Yet it never seems to be a discussion, it seems to immediately be a lecture. We have moved into the territory where butterfingers always win. African-Americans do worse on tests – Is it the schools? The gap persists even among those who have gone to the same schools for the last twelve years, in similar neighborhoods, with similar incomes. Well it must be the schools! Or something like that. Women don’t go into STEM, it must be because they don’t feel welcome. But those countries with the least gender discrimination, in Europe, show a strong gender split in what women and men choose to do. Also, our schools very much encourage girls to go into STEM now, and schools encourage girls far more than boys. The suicide rate is higher among gays; it must be because society is still not accepting of them. Which states or regions would you call more accepting of gays? What are the suicide rates there?
I grant that people might feel worse being in a minority or feeling one-down. Yet I don't see feeling bad as a huge obstacle. People feel bad about being blind, but it's not the feeling bad that's the obstacle, it's the blindness. We have some ability to control how we feel about things.
The game of bucking up is entirely fair, and I have no objection to it. But if you pull that “Butterfingers always win!” nonsense with me I just won’t play with you again.