I have not written much about individuals’ sense of entitlement, though I have written quite a bit about privilege. In my everyday observations, I constantly note that some individuals, typically of privileged backgrounds (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class people), operate in the world in a way that seems to suggest their sense of entitlement. When something is denied to them or offered below their expectations, they are quick to complain and demand that the situation be rectified.
Here is an example. While on a Caribbean cruise with my parents, we had to tough out a heavy storm for a day. Due to the strong winds, the top two outdoor decks of the ship were closed to guests for safety reasons. You could see deck chairs being lifted off of the ground somewhat, with staff who were frantically working to tie them down being pushed in the wind. In my curiosity, I watched from a safe place behind sliding doors. A woman with a child walked up to the chained off staircase leading to the closed-off top floor. Looking at the chain and the “closed for safety reasons” sign, she shouted to a crew member “Why is this closed off? We want to go up here.”
Maybe this is an extreme example, but I could offer many that are more mundane, yet that still suggest this difference: those who are privileged may have a strong sense of entitlement as a result of their privileged status; those who are marginalized, due to histories of oppression, discrimination, and violence, may not, and may actually accept denial and mediocre treatment for fear of retaliation if they question things. What is worse than this latter point is due to the regularity of differential treatment, members of marginalized groups (e.g., people of color, women, LGBT individuals, working-class people) may not even be aware of additional opportunities or better treatment.
An Example From The Media
A Coke Zero commercial that has been airing over the last few months, in my mind, is a great demonstration of this sense of entitlement. From a young age, the young white male who is the focus of the commercial asks “and…?” after he has received service or a gift. At the start, his mother orders a plain vanilla ice cream cone for him. Upon receipt, rather than saying, “thank you,” he asks, “and…?” beginning a life where he expects something more. And, in each of such encounters, the service person obliges with something more. A clothing store clerk even obliges with, “and I get off at four,” implying her interest to have sex with him after she is finished with her. Apparently, the only thing that satisfies his infinite sense of entitlement is a tasty, yet zero-calorie soda. See the commercial below:
Hmm, how do you prove that privileged individuals feel a sense of entitlement by virtue of their privileged status? That, because they expect high quality service and full access to opportunities, they are more likely to complain or demand change if they do not get their way? And, alternatively, that marginalized individuals do not share this strong sense of entitlement and, consequently, select out of demanding more?
Let us think about the consequences of marginalized individuals behaving in entitled ways. Let’s say a woman points out that her coworkers are not cooperating and making her work more difficult, or that her food at a restaurant is cooler than it should be. She may find her complaints dismissed. Further, she might be called a “bitch,” “dyke,” or some other term that is used to criticize a woman for stepping outside of the bounds of traditional femininity. That is, she would be sanctioned for behaving in ways deemed appropriate for men and inappropriate for women. Think the scene from Waiting, in which the entire server staff takes the time to do disgusting things to a customer’s food upon her demand for better quality food (be warned, it’s gross!):
Other marginalized individuals, including people of color, run the risk of being called “uppity” for stepping beyond the boundaries considered appropriate for people of color. We could even look broader at the increasing sentiment that discrimination is a thing of the past, and that minorities are pushing too far for “special rights” — a sentiment included in what scholars have defined as modern racism, modern sexism, and modern homophobia. That is, at the group level, privileged groups (i.e., whites, men, and heterosexuals) believe that marginalized groups, including people of color, women, and LGBT individuals, are demanding too much.
Some among the most conservative privileged individuals believe that legal initiatives to level the playing field, namely Affirmative Action, actually discriminate against them (i.e., white men). However, as some scholars have pointed out, what these policies do is minimize the privileges unfairly afford to whites and men because of their race and gender; so, those who are accustomed to a history of privilege likely feel harmed by these policies because their unfair advantage is now limited.
Should we make changes to this difference? And, if so, how? To be clear, I would argue that making marginalized groups feel more comfortable to challenge unfair or unequal treatment would likely only make a tiny change in the larger disparities we see. Thus, our attention must attend to the very systems that create this sense of entitlement or lack thereof in the first place. For, these same systems create the barriers to fighting against inequality and discrimination in the first place: being dismissed, told one is being too sensitive or “playing the race/gender/sexuality card,” retaliation for reporting discrimination or inferior service, etc. Yet, even the most liberal minded privileged individuals struggle to make changes as well because, in large part, their privileges are invisible to themselves. Peggy McIntosh‘s writings about privilege as an “invisible knapsack” does a great job of highlighting this problem:
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.