What is privilege? According to Webster’s dictionary, privilege is: “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.”
Privilege in social justice circles is seen as any unearned benefit or advantage received in society due to one’s identity. This includes race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class/wealth, ability, or citizenship status to name a few. Basically, privilege means fitting in with what society has deemed and treats as normal and positive, allowing one benefits. Oppression is due to having traits that society views and treats as negative or outside of the norm, creating discrimination.
Privilege isn’t inherent, it’s a social construct to give certain people power over another people. For example, the construct of white privilege in America allowed wealthy European immigrants to gather their wealth by creating discrimination toward, and between poor Europeans, Africans and Native Americans.
Privilege is something that’s hard for our society to talk about, mostly because on a person to person daily experience, it can be hard to see these seemingly invisible “privileges.” With the rise of white populism in America and Europe, we’ve seen countries become increasingly exclusionary toward immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the list goes on. This is not a random discrimination, this discrimination is based on the fact that many people who are viewed as white in these countries believe that they have something being taken away from them. That something is privilege
It can be hard to see institutionalized racism, xenophobia and islamophobia when the white man himself as an individual feels that he is being discriminated against, by not having his opinion valued as much as these marginalized groups. We are in a time now of cultural diversity where the white man feels that he himself is becoming a minority. This is what the Trump movement stems out of, and the mentality the rhetoric is shaped by. It’s not just Trump supporters though. We all live in a racist society, and therefore we are all complicit in this system of oppression. See below video, We All Have Racial Bias, where Mamoudou N’Diaye explains that “racism is a spectrum, not a binary where you can either be a racist or an angel.”
I think it is important to listen to individuals opinions about privilege, and I know that I myself have not been the best listener during these tense conversations. Privileged peoples’ feelings are valid just as any other human beings feelings are valid, but it’s a time for communication with those feelings, not a time for silence. I hope to get better at speaking about this topic, sharing that privilege and oppression exist in our society. The blame for privilege and oppression does not go toward any certain individual, but toward our culture itself. Privilege itself is not a sin, it’s more or less out of our control. What we do with our privilege, however, is key.
It’s also important to acknowledge that privilege is relative. Just because a person benefits from one form of privilege, doesn’t mean they benefit from all forms of privilege. For example, a white man in America might be working a minimum wage job and trying to support his family while struggling with a learning disability. This man has white privilege in America, which means people will treat him differently than his black friend. But just because his black friend is a lawyer who is successful and making ten times what he makes, this doesn’t negate the white man’s white privilege. The black man will still struggle with racial discrimination and oppression for his skin color in a racist America, and the white man will still receive the benefits of white privilege.
However, the important thing to realize with these specific examples is intersectionality. The white man has racial privilege, but he does not have class/wealth privilege or ability privilege like his black friend does. This is why the black friend is seemingly more successful in our society. However, just because the white man also has elements to his identity that do not afford him privilege (i.e. ability and class), this still does not negate his white privilege.
Similarly, just because we benefit from one privilege does not mean we have all privileges. And these different privileges carry different weight for different situations and contexts. Privilege is relative and intersectional, but that does not mean it does not exist.
A system of privilege and oppression hurts everyone in the society. To use gender as an example: when we expect men to have certain characteristics and women to certain other characteristics, this places expectations and burdens on everyone. In our American system men are privileged while women are oppressed, but this system hurts men just as much as it hurts women. In our society we ask men not to show emotions and expect women to be too full of emotion. Because of this, we have men acting out in violent ways to express themselves since they are unable to do it emotionally, and we do not trust women in positions of power because we think they will be too “soft.” This is uncomfortable for everyone, as no one fits this gender stereotype perfectly, and it is a constant battle to either accept the stereotype or reject it.
One of the biggest reason people have a hard time admitting they have privilege in a society is because of guilt. Admitting privilege doesn’t have to mean you’re ashamed of who you are, it just means acknowledging there is a system outside of our control that treats you a certain way because of your identity. Once you admit this, I believe you have a certain responsibility to fight this system of privilege and oppression. But the first step, admitting it, can be the hardest step.
All change starts with acknowledging something within ourselves. It’s when we choose not to acknowledge it or critically examine it that it can begin to cause problems. I decided to try a quick privilege assessment, based a couple basic components of my identity in America.
I am considered “white,” which is privileged in American society. Whiteness a social construct and not a scientific fact, but generally in America it means you came from European ancestors. It’s taken me a few years of thinking about it to become more comfortable with what being white in America means to me. I have felt super guilty about race relations for a lot of my life. I wanted to do something to help with racial justice, but then sometimes felt that I as a white person was a part of the problem, and couldn’t be a part of the solution. I realize this was completely wrong now, and that white people must be a part of the solution, if there is to be change. Just as men must be a part of gender equality, and the very rich must be a part of eliminating poverty.
I have always tried to treat everyone with respect, though I now realize that discrimination and prejudice slipped into my actions throughout my life in different forms without me realizing it. And it probably still does. But that’s why I am writing this article, and that’s why I am reading different authors and talking to different people. Because I know that I don’t understand completely how to be a white person in America. So I am attempting to listen and learn from people of color, but I have also realized that it is my responsibility to call out other white people when they are being racist in my presence because white silence is violence.
I come from a family that was stable and not needing for anything. Though we were not super wealthy, I still was able to easily attend college, and for that I am eternally thankful to my family. Now that I am supporting myself, I live pretty simply, and do not have a family of my own to support. I can survive on pretty little right now, and I have the privilege of not having to take the first job I can find. I have the privilege of having free time to write about inequality as opposed to constantly battling it in my own life daily.
The freedom to pick and choose my jobs and have the freedom to write does make me feel guilty when I think about it, because I know so many people don’t have that privilege. I also know that it wouldn’t be changing anything to work myself to the ground with a job I don’t care about. I feel like I can contribute more to the world by using this privilege of a college education, minimalist attitude and traveler’s spirit to write and listen to the people of the world. It’s a fine line to walk, and I don’t want to overstep. But I know that I have to walk it: writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.
I am a female and I am not privileged in America because of this. In America and a lot of the world the hierarchy has men on top, and women, transgender and agender people as second tier citizens. Gender oppression in the US manifests itself in domestic abuse and sexual violence, professional obstacles, objectification and lack control over ones own body to name a few.
In general, I believe I am a pretty privileged person living in the US. My gender as a woman is probably my biggest barrier, and the form of oppression I can most easily identify with. I believe this experience with discrimination, paternalism and violence as a woman in America might make it easier for me to identify with all the other forms oppression takes in America. Had I been a rich white male in America and thus only had very positive experiences with law enforcement, it might be hard for me to understand how the police would treat people of color different than me. But I am a woman, and I know people treat me differently because I am a woman, and so I can easily see how the color of your skin could change how people treat you as well.
On the flip side, I also know white men who have never really faced oppression before, but are trying to understand their privilege. And I also know white women who face discrimination daily for the fact that they are a woman, but do not acknowledge that this discrimination also translates to skin color and that their black and brown female friends experience twice as much oppression as them.
Sitting back and not trying to discuss these issues is not a privilege I want to be a part of, but I acknowledge that communicating these sensitive issues to people who do not share my beliefs is hard for me. I apologize to everyone I have offended when I have tried to discuss these issues, and I hope to continue to get better at it.
Framework for discussing privilege can be found here.
Photo Credit: http://media.salon.com/2013/08/privilege_ladders.jpg