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Monday, March 25, 2013

What "privilege" means and why you should be aware of it...

If you're reading this blog, it's my sincere hope that you came across it because you were participating in a discussion on issues related to social inequality, someone tossed out the world "privilege", and you had no idea what it meant.

I also hope you're open-minded and can step back and consider this without getting upset.

"Privilege", of course, means an exclusive right. Actually "right" isn't the most accurate term; let's say "benefit".

The other day, a white friend of mine posted a status about how, on an activities bulletin board in his college, there were several notices for associations or cultural celebrations of any number of minority groups but none for white students, and he expressed disappointment and offense.

At first, I thought it was a joke and then, realized it was not. He was serious. It confused me how someone could rationally have this concern, and it inspired me to write this.

Social privilege is an exclusive benefit granted to persons who are members of a demographic that holds power in society: whites, straights, cisgenders (having the gender at birth with which you also identify), men, having adequate mental health (no mental illness or disability) and being able-bodied (no physical disability) are the most common forms of privilege. If I've missed one (or more), please let me know.

There are also cultural privileges, benefits that aren't biological but often as insidious: financial (middle-class or higher, usually), religious (Christian, especially Protestant), general appearance (hair or eye color, clothing), etc.

In theory, there are probably dozens of social privileges, but I'll cover the most common ones to demonstrate what it means to be "privileged" and why you should be aware of it.

First, I have most of the common social privileges. I'm white, straight, male, able-bodied, cisgender, Christian, and have a rather "non-threatening" and common appearance.

I'm not ashamed of any of these; they're part of who I am.

But I do recognize that I have an easier time in life because of them. For those of you about to foam at the mouth, ask yourselves this question:

How often do you feel legitimately threatened on a daily basis (physically, financially, professionally, etc.) in society because of your membership in one of these groups?

I'll bet it's not often. I'm sure it does happen, of course, but it's nowhere near the frequency of someone who belongs to a different demographic than yours.

White, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian men are the most dominant cluster group, by far, in the United States. We disproportionately have the most power in every sphere of influence by a whole lot.

This doesn't mean I hate myself or anyone else in my cluster demographic, but it does mean that I have a responsibility to recognize my privilege and help those without it achieve equal opportunity.

It means speaking up against oppression of any kind, even if the person doing it is someone I love or respect.

It means pointing out--and acting out--ways in which we can be more inclusive of those who belong to oppressed groups. How inclusive? Enough where it's obvious equality has been achieved. We're not there, yet. Not even close.

It means not taking it personally if someone in an oppressed group talks about how they've been oppressed by someone in your dominant group.

It means not getting angry if someone doesn't compliment you on "being aware" of a problem or working to fix it. That's your obligation as a human being, and you shouldn't demand a reward for it.

It means not trying to one-up someone who talks about their oppression. Can a white person encounter racism, a straight person prejudice, a man sexism, etc.?

I believe they can, but here's an important distinction: these events are isolated. They're not common. They're not on a daily basis. They're not a way of life. And when they do occur, they're almost always due to direct or indirect backlash to the actions of the group that's doing the oppressing.

It doesn't mean they're right, of course, but when you try to "match" someone talking about their experience as the member of an oppressed group, this is what I hear:

"I belong to a dominant group, and it makes me uncomfortable that people in my group have oppressed you and that you're talking about it. I feel ownership of the problem and that makes it personal, but instead of working to correct it, I'll attempt to negate your thousand instances of oppression with my ten, so I'll feel better and not have to do anything to help you."

It's just not a good look. You're entitled to be upset over your own experience, but you're not entitled to negate someone else's experience with your own. It's not okay to dismiss someone else's experience with oppression because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

It also means owning up to when you've done the oppressing. You're going to make mistakes. I know I certainly have. Maybe it was a relatively small, unintentional error or maybe it was a big one, but I'm willing to bet, nine times out of ten, that those who make these mistakes immediately know they're in the wrong.

They're just not willing to admit it, and when they get called out on it, they get defensive and talk about "political correctness" or make a joke about how they're "an equal opportunity hater" or any number of things to make themselves feel better about oppressing other people.

Are language and humor oppressive? Absolutely. Use of epithets (insults based on membership in a group) are not okay. Gender-based insults (pussy, bitch, etc.) are not okay. Stand-up comedy making fun of an oppressed group is not okay.

You're not being subversive or cutting-edge; you're being lazy and taking the easy way out. It's easy to actively categorize people outside of your own category and treat them according to what you perceive of that category. It's easy to ignore their daily hardships (literally daily). It's easy to be an asshole.

And it's easy for all of this behavior to significantly influence more devastating forms of oppression: rape and sexual assault, physical assault, suicide based on discrimination, etc.

"But I haven't done any of these things, and I shouldn't feel bad for it, and I shouldn't be required to help solve a problem I didn't cause."

Oh, but you did help cause it, even if by inaction. A privileged person who doesn't speak out against oppression is like someone who doesn't help put out a room on fire in their own building because it isn't their room.

Eventually, that fire is going to spread if it's not stopped, and guess what? It's coming right for you.

When someone says "check your privilege", it means you should evaluate how having spent your life in a dominant group is obscuring your vision of the situation at hand, particularly one in which members of an oppressed group are actively being oppressed.

For the record, I do think some folks throw that phrase out when people of a dominant group disagree with them on anything, but those folks are far and few in between. The vast majority of the time, their complaints are reasonable and deserve to be addressed.

And once again, for the third time, being a member of a dominant group (or all of the them, as I am) doesn't mean you should feel bad about yourself or hate yourself, but it does mean you should actively work to destroy that oppression and uplift your fellow human beings.

So, stop getting defensive and start helping to destroy privilege. The more we level the playing field for everyone, the less you have to worry about having an unfair advantage. Everyone wins.


  1. Great post! I think unfortunately some people like that "unfair advantage." I was actually reading something that said the U.S. government/Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward calling most forms of affirmative action "unconstitutional." It upset me a bit, being a woman, but at the same time the issues are complex. If a white male is most qualified for a seat in a particular university and they don't get it because affirmative action has filled it with someone else, that does not seem fair. But, on the other hand, that white male has more opportunities elsewhere than someone who needed affirmative action. And it's also safe to say that his being privileged afforded him the opportunity to possess the qualifications in the first place.

    I suppose that all I'm getting at is that the issues are complex, but it does not mean that we can overlook privilege. I am privileged because I am white, and I am well aware of that. And because of that I have actively advocated for minority groups and on several occasions, have given my time, money, sweat, and tears, to assist the underprivileged (in the Lower Ninth Ward of NOLA, for example).

    It is not easy to recognize that some things have been handed to you not because you deserve them, but because your skin is a certain color. And it's certainly not easy to try to rectify that situation or empathize with others who are underprivileged; but it is necessary, I completely agree with you.

    Thank you for this post.

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  2. The concept of privilege is flawed to an extreme. We all face adversity in our lives for a variety of reasons and there is not one unifying principle as feminists claim. There are no doubt disadvantages to being male...divorce court, father's rights, and an increasing body of evidence of a public school system geared against boys.

    To those of you who buy this privilege nonsense you're caught in what Eric S. Raymond calls a kafkatrap -- because you've been immersed in postmodern liberal garbage without the necessary critical analysis thereof, you've been made to feel unspecified, undirected guilt in spite of the fact that you are fully aware that you cannot point to any specific wrong of which you are guilty.

    Understand that this is a dangerous state of mind that leaves you vulnerable to exploitation -- you've basically attached a "guilt leash" to yourself that these social justice warriors can yank at any time to make you reflexively guilty about anything whatsoever.

    The separation of guilt and blame from any notion of identifiable moral wrong is fallacious and dangerous. Don't let yourself feel guilty unless you've actually done something you should be guilty about. And keep your mental guard up at all times, because this sort of stuff is the result of shoddy thinking and you can always spot the logical mistakes that underpin it if you look carefully enough.


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