Privilege 101

What is Privilege?

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We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion, to name a few.

Privilege is the other side of oppression.

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It’s often easier to notice oppression than privilege. It’s easier to notice the oppression you personally experience than the privileges you experience. Being mistreated is likely to affect you more than being treated fairly. So consider the ways in which you are oppressed: How are you disadvantaged because of the way society treats aspects of your identity? Are you a woman? Are you disabled? Are you poor? Do you have a mental illness or a learning disability? Are you a person of color? Are you gender non-conforming? All of these things could make life difficult because society disenfranchises people who fit into those social groups. We call this oppression. But what about the people society doesn’t disenfranchise? What about the people society empowers at our expense? We call that privilege. Privilege is simply the opposite of oppression.

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Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.

Privilege describes what everyone should experience.

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When we use the word “privilege” in the context of social justice, it means something slightly different to the way it’s used by most people in their everyday environment. Often we think of privilege as “special advantages.” Because of the way we use “privilege” in our day-to-day lives, people often get upset when others point out some of their privileges. A male acquaintance of mine initially struggled to understand the concept of privilege. He once said to me, “Men don’t often experience gender-based street harassment, but that’s not a privilege. It’s something everyone should expect.” Correct. Everyone should expect to be treated that way. Everyone has a right to be treated that way. The problem is that certain people aren’t treated that way.

“I’m not privileged. I worked hard for what I have.”

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Privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard. Many people think that having privilege means you have had an easy life. As such, they feel personally attacked when people point out their privilege. To them, it feels as if someone is saying that they haven’t worked hard or endured any difficulties. But this is not what privilege means. You can be privileged and still have a difficult life. Privilege doesn’t mean that your life is easy, but rather that it’s easier than others. Privilege doesn’t mean your life is easy or that you didn’t work hard. It simply means that you don’t have to face the obstacles others have to endure. It means that life is more difficult for those who don’t have the systemic privilege you have.

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Privilege simply means that under the exact same set of circumstances you’re in, life would be harder without your privilege. As Phoenix Calida wrote, “Being poor is hard. Being poor and disabled is harder. Being a woman is hard. Being a trans woman is harder. Being a white woman is hard. Being a woman of color is harder. Being a black man is hard. Being a gay black man is harder.”

Privileges & oppressions affect, but don’t negate, each other.

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All aspects of our identities – whether those aspects are oppressed or privileged by society – interact with one another. We experience the aspects of our identities collectively and simultaneously, not individually. The interaction between different aspects of our identities is often referred to as an intersection. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used it to describe the experiences of black women – who experience both sexism and racism. While all women experience sexism, the sexism that black women experience is unique in that it is informed by racism.

“How can I have white privilege if I’m white and poor?”

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Being poor does not negate the fact that you, as a white person, are less likely to become the victim of police brutality in most countries around the world, for example. Being poor is an oppression, yes, but this doesn’t cancel out the fact that you can still benefit from white privilege. Being white means that you have access to resources which could help you survive. You’re more likely to have a support network of relatively well-off people. You can use these networks to look for a job. If you go to a job interview, you are more likely to be interviewed by a white person, as white people are more likely to be in executive positions. People in positions of power are usually the same race as you, so if they are racially prejudiced, it’s likely that they would be prejudiced in your favor. A poor black person, on the other hand, will not have access to those resources, is unlikely to be of the same race as people in power, and is more likely to be harmed by racial prejudice. So once again: Being white and poor is hard, but being black and poor is harder.

Privilege exists in the context of power systems.

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Society is affected by a number of different power systems: patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism, and classism — to name a few. These systems interact together in one giant system called the kyriarchy. In a patriarchal society, women do not have institutional power (at least, not based on their gender). In a white supremacist society, people of color don’t have race-based institutional power. And so on. It’s also important to remember because people often look at privilege individually rather than systemically. While individual experiences are important, we have to try to understand privilege in terms of systems and social patterns. We’re looking at the rule, not the exception to the rule.

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When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

“Are you just trying to make me feel guilty?”

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Often, people think that feminists and social justice activists point out people’s privilege to make them feel guilty. This isn’t the case at all! We don’t want you to feel guilty. We want you to join us in challenging the systems that privilege some people and oppress others. Guilt is an unhelpful feeling: It makes us feel ashamed, which prevents us from speaking out and bringing about change. As Jamie Utt notes, “If privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression.” You don’t need to feel guilty for having privilege because having privilege is not your fault: It’s not something you chose. But what you can choose is to push back against your privilege and to use it in a way that challenges oppressive systems instead of perpetuating them.

What can I do with my privilege?

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Understanding privilege is a start, so you’ve already made the first move! There’s a great deal of information out there on the Internet, so I’d firstly recommend that you read more about the concepts of oppression and privilege in order to expand your understanding. But merely understanding privilege is not enough. We need to take action. Listen to people who experience oppression. Learn about how you can work in solidarity with oppressed groups. Join feminist and activist communities in order to support those you have privilege over. Focus on teaching other privileged people about their privilege. Above all else, bear in mind that your privilege exists.

Further Reading

Original Article (by Sian Ferguson via Everyday Feminism)
4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege
Privilege Analogy: Riding A Bike
“Explaining White Privilege To A Broke White Person”
Black Feminism & Intersectionality