by Genesis Rivera
Privilege can be defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. More simply, we can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. These privileges are granted by society through values and norms based on aspects of one’s identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion.
It has been said that privilege is the silent partner of oppression; it is not as easy to identify, and its benefactors cannot separate themselves from it. Another important thing to notice is that everyone has some form of privilege, and privileged groups have power over oppressed groups. Privileged people are more likely to be in positions of power – for example, they’re more likely to dominate politics, be economically sustainable, have influence over the media, and hold executive positions in companies.
It’s also important to remember that we cannot look at privilege individually, but rather 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. A straight white male is given his immense privilege through institutional powers not through his own work ethic or positive attitude. It’s important to bear this in mind because privilege doesn’t go both ways. Female privilege does not exist because women don’t have institutional power. Similarly, black privilege, trans-privilege, and poor privilege doesn't exist because those groups do not have institutional power.
However, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, religious minorities, and poor people can have privilege in other aspects of their identities. Privileges and oppressions affect each other, but they don’t negate each other. For example, while all women experience sexism, the sexism that black women experience is unique in that it is informed by racism. White women can separate sexism from their white identity and make choices that would only serve the identity they value more; i.e. the 54% of white women that voted for a man that boasts about objectifying and groping women. Black males can have the privilege of not having to worry about sexual assault while walking down the streets at night, but still have to suffer the oppression of racism. Even black women and black transwomen, often considered the two most oppressed groups in America, can have the privilege of not having to suffer the effects of ableism; ableism is discrimination in favor of able bodied people.
The most interesting form of privilege for this generation, however, may be white gay male privilege. To borrow a phrase from Michelle Alexander: like racism, heterosexism is highly adaptable. Gay kids continue to be bullied at school and kicked out of their homes. Gay seniors get forced back into the closet at nursing homes. In many places, it is socially acceptable for two white gay males to marry, be approved for a mortgage or loan, stay in hotel rooms together, and express public displays of affection. And if you are wondering why, think of the skills of those who learned to lobby and write op-eds and talk with their friends and neighbors about equality for LGBTQ+ people. Think of the millions of dollars that were raised and poured into winning the freedom to marry. Think of the mayors and governors and elected leaders around the country with whom the LGBTQ+ community has built relationships. And think of all the people who were given a chance to really get to know a gay person before they even came out to them.
What if white gay males took all of that same effort and dedication and threw it at our world’s greatest challenges? Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Black Lives Matter organizers as they collectively demand justice and systemic reform. Lobbying our elected leaders to protect transgender people from discrimination and violence. Marching with the DREAMers as they fight for immigration reform. All while acknowledging their allies and the debt of gratitude they owe to Horace Julian Bond, a leader in the civil rights movement, and Dolores Huerta, a Mexican-American woman who advocated for American laborers.
All aspects of our identities 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.
Because of the way we use “privilege” every day, people often get upset when others point out some of their privileges. Often we think of privilege as “special advantages,” it is the aspect of thinking that has become the quintessential dilemma of this issue. Privileges cannot go on being exclusive. Men do not have to worry about gender-based discrimination. White people do not have to worry about racism. Cisgender heterosexuals do not have to worry about sexuality based discrimination. 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. We don’t use the term “privilege” because we don’t think everyone deserves this treatment. We call privilege “privilege” because we acknowledge that not everyone experiences it.
Lastly, people often get defensive when someone points out that they have privilege. The positive connotation that comes with the word is often detrimental to its meaning. 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, 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. It means that life is more difficult for those who don’t have the systemic privilege you have.
So What Now?
Acknowledging someone’s privilege is in no way intended to make them feel guilty. Nor is it sufficient to acknowledge your privilege, feel guilty, and go on carelessly living a privileged life. 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. 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 work against biased institutions by utilizing your privilege in a way that challenges oppressive systems instead of perpetuating them.
I’d recommend that you read more about the concepts of oppression and privilege in order to expand your understanding. The links at the end of this article are a good place to start. Second, we need to take action. Listen to people who experience oppression. Learn about how you can work in solidarity with oppressed groups. Admission of white privilege could lead to a complacency that leads individuals away from anti-racist activism. Instead, join feminist and activist communities in order to support those you have privilege over. Focus on teaching other privileged people about their privilege, all while admitting that you are no expert and directing them to the proper information.
In order to check your privilege you should start by taking the following quizzes. None are perfect, but they can help you get an idea of what you are starting with.