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We Talk About Privilege a Lot, But What Does it Actually Mean?

This summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement reached its climax after the killing of George Floyd, there was a massive rise in social media posts calling for awareness of social issues. Within the Duke community, hundreds – if not thousands – of students called for challenges to systemic racism and for an acknowledgment and strategic use of social privilege of any kind. Lost in this discourse was an appreciation for the privilege that comes simply with being at Duke. There is some cognitive dissonance at play when we discuss the privilege that comes with being white, or male-identifying, or anything else, without copping to our own status at a school where the median starting salary is 1.25 times greater than our host city’s median household income. That statistic alone would be a relatively surface-level analysis of the myriad privileges that come with being at Duke (which I’ll refer to from here as Duke privilege) – but discourse rarely dug deeper than the surface. Discussions of Duke privilege were not the only ones plagued by superficiality. Outside of calls from disadvantaged students at Duke, I rarely saw attempts to apply general discussions of privilege and discrimination in society to the Duke community, demonstrating a somewhat startling lack of self-awareness on behalf of the student body, myself included. In our discussions of privilege and systemic issues, then, it seems to me that there were two, specific, glaring omissions: an exploration and understanding of Duke privilege, and an application of general theories about social privilege to the Duke community that we all inhabit.

I should immediately acknowledge that “privilege” is a heavily loaded word. It means something a little different to most people, and it’s probably a function of its ambiguity that it has received such little care in popular discourse. Privilege manifests itself in a number of ways in our Duke community, and I want to unpack and examine the aforementioned two systems of privilege that I think have been underserved in our latest flurry of social media activism. I’ll start by talking about what it even means to be privileged, and why it’s more than just the buzzword that many make it out to be. Then, given a working definition of privilege, I’ll attempt to establish what it means to be privileged solely by virtue of being a Duke student, both in terms of how we experience that privilege and how we might go about treating it. Moving into the Duke community, I’ll address the following: how do our individual privileges amount to a system of privilege in our small communities? Once we get to Duke, is everyone starting from the same position? Some members of the Duke community were willing to share their views on privilege to help fill in the inevitable gaps in my perspective. Collectively, I hope to develop a coherent, but working, understanding of privilege at Duke.

Starting at the most elementary level: what is “privilege”, of any kind? Let’s say you live in New York; maybe you lucked into some Knicks tickets and are ready to watch them lose by 35 points. You’re walking around past sunset, trying to hail a cab, only to find that several of them have slowed down by you and then moved on with their nights. If you’re in a predominantly non-Black neighborhood, this is probably rare for you – at least relatively rarer than if you’re in a Black neighborhood in a city where taxi drivers routinely under-service Black neighborhoods. For non-Black folks, this is an isolated instance; we often don’t need to think about whether it’s going to be hard to get a cab because of our race or ethnicity. This is privilege in the most mundane, every-day sense: some groups have some sort of advantage, small or large, in society, given a characteristic of theirs, or several. When I only think once about buying an Uber to go to a friend’s place, rather than twice, three times, or never, I’m demonstrating privilege that I have due to my socioeconomic status. When I walk into a party without constantly thinking about the possibility that I might be sexually assaulted, I’m demonstrating privilege that I have given that I identify as male. Wealthier people, in general, have the privilege of having to be less discriminating with finances, just as men, in general, have the privilege of generally controlling power structures at college social events. If privilege is a result of a set of advantages that individuals in a group gain purely from their membership in that group, what does it mean to be privileged as Duke students? What fact-based generalizations can we make about Duke that demonstrate entitlements relative to the society around us?

Admittedly, that question is almost rhetorical; I’m sure that nearly every Duke student is aware of the privilege that’s associated with attending Duke. You’d have to be willfully ignorant to notice the gigantic divide between life at Duke and the area around us. In 2017, The New York Times published an interactive guide to an Opportunity Insights study of tax filings and tuition records at American colleges. The most cursory of glances at the data for Duke tells us all we need to know: median individual income at age 34 for Duke graduates is $87,500, which is among the highest in the state of North Carolina. The share of Duke students that end up in the top 5, 10, and 20% of earners is among the highest in North Carolina, whereas the share of Duke students that end up in the bottom 20% of earners is among the lowest in North Carolina.

It’s not just about individual economic outcomes, though; in 2018 and 2019, 3 crime-related DukeAlerts were released, meaning that there were 3 crimes committed in or in proximity to Duke campus. Durham, on the other hand, experienced over 12,000 crimes in the last year, and is considered “safer” than just 6% of cities in the United States. As Duke students, we have resources that most in this country, especially residents of Durham, are unthinkable. On-demand therapy for mental health issues, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, a diverse, rich set of guaranteed dining options, networks of some of the most successful professionals in the world – you name it, we probably have it. The gulf between our lives at Duke and the communities around us – and the gulf between our likely future endeavors and those of the people outside of our community – is truly gargantuan, by every metric.

There’s an interesting convergence of the two sides of that gulf in the Duke spaces that are inhabited both by Duke students and Durham residents. Every day since the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve ordered the same pizza from Il Forno (fresh mozzarella, jalapeños, bell peppers, and mushrooms), and that pizza is always made to perfection and handed to me by someone who most likely did not attend Duke. Often, it’s Joseph. Joseph is Durham born and raised, and he’s one of the many Il Forno employees that makes my pizza-ordering experience a consistent highlight of my day. As a Black employee of Duke, Joseph is part of a staff that dramatically overrepresents Black and Hispanic people relative to the Duke population. But that doesn’t seem to bother him; much to my shock, little about Duke does.

When I talked to Joseph about his experiences working at Duke, I was expecting him to tell me that Duke students came off as privileged, snobby, and unaware of the world outside of campus. To a very small extent, I was right; prior to his working at Duke, Joseph described common perceptions of Duke as “a white, rich school that people still like.” He told me that he expected to start working at Duke and see a socioeconomically hierarchical school without any Black students. None of those beliefs really panned out when he started working at Duke, and that’s about where his views and my expectations of his views ceased to align.

Joseph, a self-described realist, told me that for him and many of his coworkers, interactions between themselves and Duke students are hugely important. He’s found that Duke students are generally kind, engaging, and willing to take a little bit of time out of their day to inquire about his day. I’ll admit that I was surprised again, not because I think Duke students are rude, but because I didn’t expect Joseph to discuss these actions with such importance. It’s slightly silly on my part – after all, service jobs are better when customers are nicer – but I think my surprise here hints at a larger implication: Duke students can actively work to bridge the gap between our experiences at Duke and the Durham community surrounding us by performing little, daily actions that demonstrate interest and investment in the Durham community. The divide between Duke and Durham is pretty big, but it’s not insurmountable. There are things that Duke students simply cannot do, like invest tremendous amounts of capital in the Durham community – but we should be doing what we can, and it seems like we have a good starting point. We just have to remember that, even though (perhaps in spite of the fact that) we are bestowed with immense privilege simply because we are Duke students, we have the power and the obligation to engage with the community that lets us inhabit this privileged space to begin with.

Within this privileged space, there’s some more discussion of privilege that needs to be had. Just as there’s some distance between the Duke community and Durham, there’s quite some distance between different members of the Duke community. This sort of privilege is more of a hot-button issue, and it’s something we think and talk about much more in a general sense. Given the definition that we established at the outset – that privilege is a set of advantages that individuals in a group gain from their membership in that group – I would argue that Duke students acknowledge and understand the workings of privilege in society. But, as I mentioned, we rarely discuss the workings of privilege in society as they apply to Duke. There’s a lot of nuance left to be desired when we examine privilege within Duke.

To further explore this nuance, I spoke to a non-white student who is a member of a relatively well-known, predominantly white fraternity at Duke; we’ll call him Clarence. Clarence comes from an immigrant family that he described as having stereotypically “immigrant” expectations of him: doctor, engineer, or bust. He’s followed those expectations to the T, having stayed strong in an engineering track that often devastates the best of us. How does the non-white, engineering, frat-member Duke student with high expectations think about privilege? The answer is enlightening: in discussing the various pressures that exist for him at Duke, I was able to better understand the complex systems of privilege that pervade and inform our daily lives at Duke: Clarence immediately acknowledged that he had to sacrifice some of his cultural and ethnic values from home to fit into his primarily white fraternity. There’s privilege point number one, if you will – that his peers didn’t have to part with their cultural and ethnic values to assimilate to a school where certain social spaces are dominated by whiteness.

Clarence also noted, however, that he had gone to a “pretty white” high school, and he’s always been good at socializing and making friends with people of all sorts of backgrounds. There’s privilege point number two – that Clarence was willing and able to part with some parts of his identity in order to gain acceptance in a new group. For some, certain cultural and ethnic values are crucial markers of identity, such that they cannot take secondary importance to other markers of identity that lend themselves more to assimilation in new social groups.

This point transcends race, culture, ethnicity, and other inherent qualities of identity: it’s a well-known fact that elite private colleges often overlook the needs of low-income students by failing to provide them with any sort of framework for transitioning from their home communities to the exceptionally high-income communities that they inhabit in college. So when some low-income students try to enter Duke’s social spaces, they find themselves unable to do so, because the characteristics necessary for any level of assimilation often require physical income or income-related cultural facets that they simply cannot access. This is privilege point three – that privilege at Duke is multi-faceted and liable to emerge at any markers of identity. Assimilation to a social order that does not resemble the one you came from necessitates the renouncement of certain aspects of your previous social order and the acquisition of new elements of the current social order; only some are able to discard pieces of their identity to “fit in,” and only some are able to obtain the elements of identity necessary to “fit in.”

Indeed, the idea of “discarding” pieces of identity – or even making changes to identity – might be inaccessible to some, especially for those people who have immutable markers of identity. I speak to all groups of people here, but I want to take a moment to discuss in particular the privilege that a lot of us have because we are nondisabled, both because it’s often neglected and because it nicely encapsulates much of what I’ve been trying to convey in this essay. Dr. Marion Quirici, a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program and former Professor of mine (among many other things) wrote the following statement to me about the nature of nondisabled privilege at Duke: “…being able to move through the world and function in ways considered ‘normal’ is a form of privilege built into almost every aspect of our environment. Buildings, thoroughfares, forms of transportation, doorways, restrooms, seating areas… and so on are all designed with very particular bodies in mind. We can read the built environment for clues about what is considered ‘normal’ embodiment: mobility, strength, endurance, sight, etc.. The same is true of digital environments and the world of information…”.

These minor privileges map cleanly onto the “advantages given membership in a group” definition of privilege; simply because of our status as nondisabled individuals, many of us can go about our lives without having to think of the implications of our abilities – implications that are often so frighteningly tangible that they manifest in doorways and seating areas. If you’re reading this as a non-disabled person – when was the last time you had to think about whether you could enter a classroom, take a shower in your dorm, or access a lecture?

That privilege informs every second of our existence, especially when we aren’t thinking about it, should alarm us, at least momentarily. The moment I realized that privilege is composed of a nearly infinite set of personal factors, I understood that I’m not privileged just because I can afford to go to Duke; I’m privileged because of a million other factors that I cannot possibly comprehend and continuously evaluate, and I might be disadvantaged due to many other factors that I haven’t even begun to discuss. I take solace in the advantages that I have and I’m grateful that they’ve been granted to me, but I know I can do much more to utilize those advantages for good. It’s not just at Duke, either: most other elite private universities have a strange relationship with a host town that’s worlds apart, and every other elite private university (along with every other space in the world) is home to a staggered, dynamic system of privileges that’s hard to pick apart and understand without significant thought and effort. As we become more comfortable in discussing and acknowledging privilege, I hope that our discourse develops space for nuance and the perspectives of every concerned party. Given the extraordinary benefits that some of us have been semi-randomly endowed with, it seems like the least we can do.





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  6. Neklason, Annika. “Elite-College Admissions Were Built to Protect Privilege.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Mar. 2019,
  7. NYT Editorial. “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2017,
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