What Is Family Privilege? A Q&A With Professor Bethany Letiecq

Family privilege recognizes that some families are the beneficiaries of unearned advantages in our society simply based on how they are configured.

You’re an associate professor in the Human Development and Family Science program at George Mason University. For those who may not know, can you tell us a little about the field of family science? What kinds of things do people like you study?

Family science is a relatively new discipline within the social sciences—bridging psychology, sociology, public health, economics, and other fields—with aims of understanding diverse family systems and how they function in order to promote relational health and family well-being.

Family scientists study a variety of family or close interpersonal relationships, between romantic partners, people living together in a committed union, parents, parents and children, stepparents, extended kin, aging members, and sibling groups, among others.

We study relationships across the lifespan to examine how families change and adapt, overcome challenges, and interact with other social institutions such as schools or health care to meet family members’ needs. We also recognize that laws and policies (or lack thereof—like universal paid family leave or universal preK) are also important to family functioning.

What got you interested in the field?

Over my career, I have been keenly interested in understanding the ways in which families function at the social, economic, and legal margins of our society. There are many examples of family constellations being excluded or not recognized as legitimate by the mainstream.

For example, for years, I worked with grandparents who were raising their grandchildren without a parent present. Grandparents (or other kin) often step in to care for grandchildren when parents are unable (e.g., military deployment, mental health issue) or unwilling (e.g., parental abandonment) to care for their children. Laws and policies were slow to catch up to and recognize these kinds of families—often called grandfamilies—which created familial hardships.

For instance, many grandparent caregivers who stepped in to care for their grandchildren informally could not easily get their grandchildren immunized and enrolled in school (without parental authorization). In Montana (where I was on faculty at Montana State University), my colleagues and I worked with the state legislature and advocated for the passage of new laws that recognized grandfamily systems as a legal entity and made it possible for them to function when parents were not in the picture.

More recently, I have worked with immigrant and refugee parents to document what life is like as families adjust to a new life in the United States. Many of these families have endured significant trauma exposures pre-migration, during their migration journeys, and post-migration while settling in the U.S. You can imagine, under the current political and legal climate, how challenging it can be to meet the needs of your family members (e.g., accessing culturally- and linguistically-appropriate mental health care) while also navigating the changing legal immigration landscape and pervasive threats of detainment, deportation, and family separation. In the current anti-immigrant climate, many families face what we call “social-made” problems—or those problems that are exacerbated by racism, xenophobia, bigotry, intolerance, and unjust laws, policies, and practices.

Your recent academic journal article, “Surfacing Family Privilege And Supremacy In Family Science: Toward Justice For All,” focuses on the concept of “family privilege” within family science. Can you explain briefly what family privilege is and how family privilege manifests in our everyday lives?

Family privilege is a term that was first coined in 2000. While other kinds of privileges are now talked about frequently, such as White privilege, family privilege has yet to become commonplace in our vernacular.

Family privilege recognizes that some families are the beneficiaries of unearned or unacknowledged advantages in our society simply based on how they are configured. For example, our society values and privileges heterosexual marriages over other relationships, including couples who live together, raise children together, and choose not to marry.

As I point out in the article, married couples receive some 1,138 benefits, rights, and protections that cohabiting couples do not receive even though a cohabiting couple may be functioning in very similar ways to a married couple. For example, when a couple marries, they are instantly treated differently under the law, gaining access to spousal benefits (e.g., social security) or spousal protections (family and medical leave). No matter how long a couple cohabits, they will not be eligible or qualify for many of these benefits or protections.

A common refrain is, “If you want the benefits, just get married.” But why should a couple be forced to marry if that runs counter to their beliefs, values, or desires? By not recognizing and valuing diverse family configurations under the law, some family forms are delegitimized and marginalized—they are disadvantaged—while other family forms—in this case, married couples—are the beneficiaries of privilege and, in my opinion, are unduly and unfairly enriched.

Did your own family story influence your thinking or interest in family privilege in any way?

This is personal to me as I currently live with my partner with no plans or desires to marry. Together, we are raising three children (two from his prior marriage, one from my prior domestic partnership). If we just got married, we would become a legally-blended family and I would gain the title of stepmother, which does not come with any legal rights over my stepchildren but it is a socially-recognized title. My “stepchildren” would know what to call me, and schools and other institutions would recognize my role in their lives.

If I got married, I would have a box to check when filling out forms asking about my relationship status (e.g., Single? Married?). As an individual in a committed union, I prefer the term “partner,” but that is seldom offered as a box to check. As a “quasi-stepparent” I still do not know what to check when filling out forms about parental status regarding my “quasi-stepchildren” (e.g., Parent? Legal Guardian? Stepparent? Other?). I would prefer a box entitled “co-parent” or “co-caregiver” as that signals the role I play to all our children living at least part-time under our roof.

But not being privileged for my family form is more than not having a box to check or a label that befits my role. My family is systematically, legally, and socially disadvantaged. We are delegitimized every time someone questions our commitment to the whole. “Why don’t you just get married?” is a question I am asked at every holiday gathering, by kin and strangers alike. (Because we are just fine as we are, I say.) Or “just get married” and everything will be easier for you. Indeed, if I just got married, my daughter and I would be able to access my partner’s premium health care benefits. I would be entitled to a portion of his wealth (he earns more than I do). But I don’t understand why our society cannot make space for my family as it is configured and value it the same as marrieds? We function the same. Why do I have to enter an institution I do not want to be a part of in order to earn legal and social benefits and protections?

Moreover, the institution of marriage has a troubling history. From coverture (when laws treated women and children as men’s property) to banning interracial couples until the early 1970s to only recently lifting the ban on same-sex couples, the institution of marriage has long been used as a wedge demarcating the privileged halves (men, same-race couples, heterosexuals) from the socially-determined have-nots or those deemed undeserving of equality or some kind of threat to the social order (women, interracial couples, same-sex couples).

Marriage as an institution is patriarchal and hegemonic at its base. In other words, the institution was designed by White, heterosexual men to maintain their power and social-economic dominance and control over “the other.”

Of course, times have changed. Women and children are no longer legally the property of men. More recently, state legislatures have determined that men can no longer legally rape their wives. But for all the efforts to redefine the institution as more palatable—as nicer perhaps in its treatment of women—study after study suggests that married women have not gained equality to men (in the labor market, in childcare or household production, or in lawmaking) while participating dutifully in the institution of marriage.

You reference the “Standard North American Family.” What is that, and how does it align (or not) with what families look like today?

As I write in the article, the Standard North American Family (SNAF) refers to a romantic family ideal “consisting of a White, married, opposite-sex, monogamous couple who embodies traditional gender roles while raising their biological children in the home they own in a middle-class neighborhood.” Proponents of SNAF perpetuate the notion that a White, heteronormative family experience is best for children and society and that everyone should aspire to this romanticized ideal.

Yet, as Family Story points out, SNAF fundamentalism ignores the history, complexity, and diversity of family life. Moreover, SNAF as best ideology ignores the purposeful creation of family laws and policies by powerful and privileged groups to advance their own interests over others, often on the basis of race, class, gender, and/or sexual orientation. 

In our society, our laws, policies, and practices privilege SNAF or marriage fundamentalism to the disadvantage and marginalization of all other types of families.

We’ve already discussed the disadvantaging of cohabiting couples. Take another example: A same-sex couple who commits to life together (say they also own a home, are financially stable, are surrounded by people who support and honor them) may be told they are not eligible to foster or adopt a child because some lawmakers consider them unfit to be parents. Yet, there is no valid evidence to substantiate such a determination of unfitness.

Single parent-headed families are also disadvantaged in a SNAF-centric society. To my knowledge, few American leaders have ever said that single-parent families are in the best interests of society.

More often, these families are pathologized and blamed for all sorts of social ills. Yet nearly 14 million people occupy the role. Imagine if we lived in a society that valued single parents as best and passed laws that privileged them and bestowed unearned advantages, benefits, and protections upon them to the disadvantage and disparagement of two-parent families?

What do you wish that people who work in the field of family science would do differently?

As I write in the article, family scientists must examine family privilege and the assumptions undergirding SNAF as best ideology. Family scientists as well as policymakers and practitioners must consider how our history, our laws, policies, and practices, our patriarchal, heteronormative, and hegemonic systems have baked-in privileges for some while systematically disadvantaging others.

In the same way we are grappling with White privilege or class privilege or heterosexual privilege, we must grapple with a society that has produced massive inequalities vis-à-vis one’s family configuration. If I granted you 1,138 rights, benefits, and protections that others were not eligible for based on a social position they occupied, you SHOULD be doing well for yourself. We must unpack this social-made inequality and reconsider how we think about, talk about, study, and serve diverse families and their diverse configurations. We must uncover all the ways in which laws and policies have marginalized and disadvantaged families that do not conform to the SNAF and work to create new systems that value all families under the law.

Family science has been complicit in privileging some families over others. It is time to come to terms with our prejudices and biases and consider how harmful that has been for so many families. From emphasizing family problems decoupled from social-made inequalities and injustices to pathologizing non-SNAF families as immoral or deviant, we must commit to new imaginations, new understandings, a new science that brings to the surface family privilege and disadvantage.

And let’s stop calling families “broken.” Families are dynamic, resilient, and are working hard to adjust to inequalities and overcome adversities—so many of which are social-made. Indeed, if we look around right now, we can see so many families that have suffered generations of trauma and loss because of gross and unjust laws and policies that tore families apart (e.g., slavery, Indian boarding schools, child welfare, mass incarceration) and ravaged their lives and communities. Laws and policies that denied and continue to deny the right of family formation among LGBTQ people. Laws and policies that continue to make it impossible for single-parent headed families to make it while working full-time for minimum wage with inadequate child care options. Laws and policies that today continue the separation and destruction of immigrant or refugee families who come to our shores seeking a better life.

It’s time for family science and for society at large to unpack our stories of family privilege and begin the hard work of building a more just and equitable system within which ALL families can flourish. If we are not willing to do this, then at least let’s acknowledge our unearned advantages and stop blaming others for their social-made disadvantages. It’s time.

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