On Unearned Privilege

Something seems wrong to me about the expression “unearned privilege”, and I’ve been trying to think about what it is. I think it comes down to the following things:

Some of the privileges attached to social attributes such as maleness or whiteness are not the kind of thing anyone could earn, in principle. Nobody can deserve those privileges, no matter what they do, because they are intrinsically unjust: they only exist, and can only exist, by virtue of racial and gendered oppression. Let’s call these “zero-sum” privileges. They’re based on the redistribution of a good that exists in some fixed, limited amount away from an egalitarian norm, or one based on “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability”, and towards a biased distribution where some people have to be unfairly dispossessed in order that others might unfairly prosper.

Other such privileges are better thought of as rights that everyone should have, but that some people are unjustly denied. In principle everybody could have these rights without anybody having to be oppressed in order to secure them – they are “non-zero-sum privileges”. (I don’t like referring to them as privileges at all, but let’s leave that for now). Again, the point isn’t that some people have them without having earned them, but that everyone should have them without having to earn them.

Furthermore, there is a weak sense in which some privileges are in fact “earned”: there are things you have to do in order to obtain access to them, and it is possible to fail at doing those things. These are “non-automatic” privileges. They may still be distributed unfairly, or unfairly withheld from people who should be able to access them, but you don’t get them just by being something (e.g. white or male). A case in point: the head boy in my year at school failed to gain entrance to Oxford; I did gain entrance, through the same process. In all the ways that matter in that situation, he was more privileged than I was (he was very highly confident of success, and I’m ashamed to admit that I rather enjoyed his failure). But I “did better” (and/or “was luckier” – there is a strong random element in this) in the entrance examination and interview. While in every respect my having been in a position to take and do well in the Oxford entrance exam, to be taken seriously in an interview and offered a place, were functions of significant privilege and gave me access to greater privilege still, I could nevertheless have “failed to earn” it. In at least that sense, I did “earn” it – or at least, I did something that I could have failed to do (and others more privileged did fail to do), that because of my existing privileges was able to count as “earning it”.

Many very privileged people are in positions where being willing to work diligently and develop their talents will pay off significantly better than just coasting along: there is a positive correlation between effort and reward. The non-automatic character of such rewards is an important factor in the ideology of merit to which many of them subscribe. It’s often asserted that those who have particular privileges have them because they deserve them, because they have earned them through their own efforts or because they merit them through simply being better sorts of people. Referring to “unearned” privilege is a way of refusing this justification – of saying that superior effort or merit is not the reason why a particular group of people, such as white men, has the privileges that it does. But this refusal loses a lot of its bite when dealing with with non-automatic privileges, where unjustly-apportioned rewards are made conditional – for those who are given access to them – on demonstrations of something that counts as merit.

This is particularly true in the software industry, where I work. It would be absurd to suppose that the predominance of middle class white heterosexual men in this industry was due to that category of person’s just being innately better at making software. But it’s also true that for the middle class white heterosexual men who enjoy such an unjustly dominant position in the industry, the rewards they are privileged to be able to access are non-automatic, significantly conditional on their diligence and skill. Software developers (like, I would imagine, City traders) do a lot of “earning it”, and are likely to be very psychologically resistant to being told that they have not earned it. But the real issue, once again, is that when it comes to unjust privileges, whether zero-sum or non-zero-sum, automatic or non-automatic, whether they are “earned” or “unearned” is strictly besides the point: they are unjust.

If we want people to relinquish their attachment to the ideology of merit, we should seek to convince them that unjust privileges cannot be earned (and that rights should not have to be earned), rather than that they specifically have not “really” earned them. That is, rather than chivvying people to participate in a performative false modesty about their accomplishments (“ah, well, I suppose I’ve just been lucky really…”) – a favoured activity amongst frankly already rather privileged leftists, and incidentally quite toxic to the self-esteem of people from less privileged backgrounds who have worked extremely hard in order to get somewhere – we should focus on the injustice of the social hierarchies that mean that their diligence and skill are nurtured and rewarded, while those of others are not.