A Primer on Privilege
Women's Initiative

Women's Initiative

A Primer on Privilege

“White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” – Peggy McIntosh

Privilege can often feel like a threatening concept. But it doesn’t need to be. Guest blogger Hannah Tighe breaks down the concept of privilege, how we can learn to recognize it in our own lives, and how we can dismantle systems that perpetuate inequalities.

What is privilege?

Privilege is an advantage that people receive because one or more aspects of their identity is highly valued by society. There are many different types of privilege: male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, ability privilege, and religious privilege, to name a few. Think of privilege as a set of tools that some people are born with, or that they are given purely out of luck. Other people, for a variety of reasons, are not given this set of tools – perhaps they are given different tools, or fewer tools – but they are expected to accomplish the same things as a person who received the preferred tool set.

“Privilege simply means that under the exact same set of circumstances you’re in, life would be harder without your privilege” – Phoenix Calida

How do people benefit from privilege?

One of the biggest challenges with privilege is that is often invisible to people who have it – meaning, you often don’t notice it, unless it’s missing. So it can sometimes be hard to recognize privilege when you’re used to it being there.

Privilege also comes with advantages that, to those who are privileged, may seem trivial. Being able to go to the store and purchase a doll or a toy that features people of your race is an example of privilege. The ability to go to the grocery store and find many foods that fit with your cultural tradition is privilege.

Privilege also comes with advantages that can have huge impacts on day-to-day life, but if someone has never lived without privilege, they may not even realize it. Assuming that the legal system will always treat you fairly is privilege. Having your marriage legally recognized by the state is privilege. Not having to think twice about which bathroom you are going to use and what the consequences might be if you choose “incorrectly” is privilege. The ability to speak freely about your religion without fear of persecution is privilege.

People can have multiple identity factors that privilege them, multiple factors that don’t, or a combination of the two, creating a hierarchy of privilege that depends on how many valued or devalued, intersecting identity factors an individual has. It is possible for people to be both privileged in one area and oppressed in another at the same time; one does not negate the other. For example, a man has privilege because of his sex. But a man in a wheelchair may experience ableism, and an Indigenous man may experience racism. A straight, white woman, for example, may experience sexism, but she also experiences privilege for her race and her sexual orientation. That doesn’t mean that her experience of sexism isn’t valid, or that an Indigenous man’s experience of racism isn’t a problem – privilege in one area doesn’t cancel out oppression in another.

How can we become aware of privilege?

Because those who have privilege didn’t ask for it, they may feel defensive if someone points out to them that their privilege is preventing them from seeing the world through a lens different from their own. It is natural that people who are benefiting from privilege may not want to acknowledge it; they may see it as an attack on them or their rights.

If you have been given something your entire life without reflecting critically on why you have that thing, you may assume that it is a right that you are entitled to; if it feels like someone is trying to take that thing away from you, you may feel like they are taking your rights away.

For example, if someone has spent their life celebrating Christmas and seeing that Christmas is being celebrated everywhere they go, that will seem natural to them. If, after many years of becoming accustomed to this, suddenly Christmas celebrations must share space with other holidays, this person may feel like something has been taken from them.

However, we’d suggest a reframe: rather than feeling like they are losing something, it’s important to recognize that what is important to them (ie. the celebration of Christmas) has been maintained, all the while creating space for what is important to others.

People who benefit from privilege may also think that when others point out their privilege, they are saying they didn’t earn their job, their social position, or any other number of things they have. But when someone points out privilege, it does not mean that are accusing others of being meritless, blaming others for having privilege, or trying to take the rights of others away. By pointing out privilege, they are simply trying to create a more equitable situation for everyone. It’s true that people don’t choose to have privilege, but that doesn’t mean that they should ignore it.

To become aware of privilege, it is important to take the time to view the world through lenses that are different from your own. You will likely never be forced to think about problems that have never and will never affect you, but this is exactly what needs to be done in order to become aware of privilege. Take the time to listen to what others have to say about their experiences and to see the world through their eyes. The best way to understand what other people are facing is to let them tell you.

How can privilege be rejected and dismantled?

It is often much easier for people to admit that certain groups are disadvantaged than it is for them to admit that they, themselves, are privileged. But the privilege of one group is intricately connected to the disadvantages of another; if we acknowledge only one side of the whole, we are ignoring half the problem, and we can’t expect to fix a problem if we see only half of it.

It is also important to consider that not all privileges are inherently bad, and that the goal is not to take them all away. Some privileges, such as the privilege to be treated fairly under the law, is a privilege that should be granted to everyone and not one that we wish to take away from anyone. Therefore, this should not be seen as a privilege, but rather as something that everyone is entitled to. Other privileges, like the privilege of not feeling the need to listen to or take seriously people whose identity factors make them less powerful than you, is actually a form of dominance. This type of privilege has no place in an equitable society and should be rejected.

To reject and dismantle privilege, then, we need to first recognize that privilege exists, and second determine which privileges are actually just rights that everyone is entitled to and which privileges are actually just an act of dominance that should be left by the wayside. We need to look at our own lives to identify how privilege is impacting us, a task that is much harder if we lead privileged lives.

We also need to build coalitions if we want to dismantle privilege. Those who hold power do not give it up willingly; the structure of privilege is deeply embedded in our society and a strong coalition will be required to overcome it. If we are going to dismantle the types of privilege that are rooted in unjust power relations, people with all different types of privilege need to come together and share their advantages.

“Even in the face of powerful structures of domination, it remains possible for each of us, especially those of us who are members of oppressed and/or exploited groups as well as those radical visionaries who may have race, class, and sex privilege, to define and determine alternative standards, to decide on the nature and extent of compromise.” – bell hooks

For a lighthearted example of navigating privilege, check out the video below

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