Let’s start in a coffee shop where a middle aged woman has just been told that there are no more blueberry muffins. She reacts badly. She cajoles, threatens, accuses, storms out. This is a baffling display to the barista behind the counter and to most of the people in line. The reason for both this display and the resulting confusion is this—the woman feels entitled to muffins. The rest of the people in line do not.

Let’s think about entitlement.

If privilege is being granted special treatment, entitlement is the expectation, unconscious or not, that you are owed that special treatment. For privileged people, the world bends in their direction. Entitled people steer into the curve.

In the coffee shop, the woman wasn’t angry because the barista couldn’t conjure her a blueberry muffin out of thin air. She was angry because reality didn’t meet her expectations. This frustration was amplified because her expectations are usually met—and when people usually go out of their way to accommodate you, a lack of special accommodation feels a lot like being wronged.

Let’s clarify. All entitlement is not problematic. We tell people all the time that they are entitled to their own opinion, or to compensation when they are wronged. We praise social movements built by people who felt entitled to something important—due process of law, for example, or the right to vote. When the government builds a school, issues a property title, repaves a road, they are acting from obligation, not as a special favor. In any society, we should feel entitled to certain levels of dignity, respect, and social services.

People who act out of entitlement are responding to an internalized understanding of how the world operates. For some, the world has always been gentle, and—perhaps not maliciously, perhaps unintentionally—they have grown so used to this treatment that they begin to demand it. The problem is not entitlement, then, but misplaced entitlement, instances where privilege and entitlement complement and reinforce each other. In unequal systems, rights are minimized as a privilege for some, while for those in power their feelings of entitlement seem like simply their due.  

Let’s go back to the coffee shop and follow the woman out the door. She may return home to children who love her, or to a job she excels in. If confronted, she may use these facts as a defense—“I am not a bad person,” she may say reflexively, as if that were explanation or absolution.

People in positions of privilege often try to turn broad, systemic issues into questions of individual morals: “Is it my fault I am (rich, white, North American)?”—perhaps not. But this is not the right question. A more relevant question goes unasked: “Is it my responsibility to address the ways my identity shapes both the benefits I receive, the expectations I have to receive those benefits, and my behavior when those expectations are not met?”—yes, most certainly it is.

Entitled behavior is everywhere. A man buys a woman dinner and grows angry when she won’t go home with him. Inconvenient rules are flouted. Starfruits are scanned as bananas at the self-checkout. Political donations are steeped in expectations. People wish to be treated in a way that goes beyond what their behavior merits, and depending on who they are or who they know, they will get what they want.

Let’s examine our sense of entitlement and develop a response. When the world does not treat you as you feel you should be treated, you can change one of two things—your expectations, or your reality. When you are not treated with dignity, respect, or the rights you are owed as a member of a family or community, a citizen, or a human being—by all means, challenge your reality. Do so with the knowledge that you are speaking up for something you are entitled to, that you deserve.

But if what you are demanding is a head start, a cut in line, or a special favor, then work instead to challenge your expectations. Place your outrage and efforts elsewhere, say “thank you,” and pick a different flavor of muffin off the menu.

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