February 9, 2012 by Katie.
“I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power. Conferred privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate…Some [privileges], like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.” -Peggy McIntosh
Following closely (…or not that closely) on the heels of our last post on Narratives, we’re moving on to a discussion about Privilege.
First, a reminder on our definition of “privilege”: Refers generally to the – sometimes “invisible’ – special rights or status granted to specific groups in a society, mostly via social structures, on the basis of their sex or gender, race, class, sexuality, etc.
A further definition from brown betty: “Privilege is about how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.”
A few additional key distinctions about privilege:
First, in society, it is existing cultural and social hierarchies that, by definition, provide privilege to one group over another. No one goes around giving it out. Moreover, as brown betty points out: “Privilege is not : About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you’ve done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it’s not those things, and it’s not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier.”
Second, the people who receive privilege do nothing to be granted such distinction. It is always conferred randomly, through luck or circumstance (e.g. being born white) – not because anyone earned it.
Third, there are many types of privilege, not just those involving race or gender. Privileges can also stem from age, ethnicity, physicality (e.g. physical handicaps or abilities, physical appearance), nationality, religion, sexuality, etc. As such, everyone experiences some form of privilege. Furthermore, privilege can be interconnected, and can behave in a variety of ways. It can vary for specific people in different situations – you can benefit from one type of privilege in one situation, and be marginalized by discrimination in another. All of this, of course, make understanding and discussing it all a lot more complex – but that complexity should be stated upfront.
Now. Privilege may seem like a very tangible thing, an obvious advantage you can see and feel. This isn’t always the case. Like Narratives, Privilege conceals itself – and is meant to conceal itself – from those who have it (Peggy McIntosh makes this point & Hugo Schwyzer makes it here). Privileges we possess via the cultures we live in are not easily seen by us; they are the by-products of narratives. The fact that, as we’ve discussed, narratives masquerade as cultural truth when they are really nonfiction is one reason why corresponding privilege can be invisible to those who have it. Another reason is those who have privilege experience it is as part of their normal lives, it is not something that stands out as a benefit. It’s also not having to deal with discrimination or judgement from others.
To try and make all this more clear, some examples of how Nikki & I experience privilege: As white women from middle class families, we don’t generally have to worry about people being fearful of us, hateful towards us, thinking that we’re lazy, dirty, illiterate, incapable of taking care of ourselves, or undeserving of our education or even US citizenship. One day, should we so choose, we may be assumed to be better parents than our partners – but, of course, only if we choose to marry men. We do nothing to be granted these presumptions, but our skin color, class, age, lack of physical handicaps, and [assumed] sexuality mean we are not included in narratives that would say otherwise about someone with a different skin color, class, age, physicality or sexuality.
These presumptions allow us to operate more freely in situations and aspects of our lives. Some of this we may be aware of, especially if it is contrasted to how someone treats another person, and some of it may be subtle or things we simply don’t experience.
How do our privileges operate and yet conceal themselves? Well, three points. One, we are often taught that ‘isms are very clear, very hateful, very visual things. They’re the KKK, blatant misogyny, and Mathew Shepard. It’s easy to believe this when you don’t experience them, and it’s equally easy to say you don’t participate in the ‘ism if you don’t do these big, bad, visual things. However. Privilege is often far more subtle than that, but can be just as oppressive. It specializes in microaggressions – or as Chester M. Pierce, who coined the phrase, defines it: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.” These statements and comments only seem innocuous if you don’t experience them but they are constantly upholding narratives about which race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, etc etc etc is ”the norm” – or is better – and which is the Other and outside the norm. If we have the privilege, we may actually make such statements without realizing their detriment, and we don’t have to deal with them on a regular basis.
Two, aspects that are part of the dominant, or “normal”, identity (for Nikki and I – our race, class, physical attributes), reside within narratives that tell us they’re normal and good – even though we may not realize it. See, we don’t typically acknowledge the dominant identity as an identity; we don’t talk around with “whiteness”, just as we may not need to explain “straightness” or “maleness”. Contrary to some opinion, this is not, actually, a sign that you’re marginalized or less understood within a culture. If privileged, your group doesn’t need to be specifically acknowledged or re-defined because it is the dominant identity. These traits are never seen of as an “other” thus don’t require specific acknowledgement and definition. For example, “flesh colored” is always really “Caucasian flesh colored”, and white kids always have a white role model. We don’t need a White History Month, because our history is already white (and if you think that is because, well, white male Europeans were the dominant history makers in the US, then yes. Exactly. That’s the privilege, and not reality, talking).
Three, privilege and dominant identity traits also mean race/class/sex/gender/sexuality/physical abilities/religion/etc are not constantly a part of who you are and your life. If we screw up, we’re not told it’s because we’re a certain race/class/sex/gender/sexuality. Moreover, if we do well, we’re not discussed as a credit to a said group. Our lives, our accomplishments, or our shortcomings are about who we are as individuals, instead of our merits and/or our downfalls commenting on or being in contradiction of something about the larger group.
In contrast, a person from a non-dominant identity may be expected not do well because they are X. If they do well, it’s because they’re an exception to society’s expectations for group X.
Ever heard “you speak English well [for a latina]”? Or “you’re so articulate [for a black man]”? Or, the infamous “Gawd you’re being bitchy – must be that time of the month, or do you just need to get laid?” Yeah – Nikki and I only ever hear the last one. (#microaggressions)
We know this is getting a bit abstract for some readers. The interesting thing, of course, is that we’re pretty sure those in group X have no problem understanding, and those in “the norm” or with the privilege are the ones to grapple a bit more. It seems abstract if you’ve never experienced it – and if you’ve never experienced it? Well, dear reader, therein lies your privilege.
To conclude on a positive note, we want to make clear that, as Peggy McIntosh points out in the quote that began this post, privilege isn’t all “bad”. Some privilege, like your neighbors not being fearful of you or expecting to get a job based on your personal merits, shouldn’t be privilege, but uniform to how all people – regardless of race, religion, class, gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc – are treated! It’s providing only some people with this treatment – due to privilege – that makes it a raw deal.
So, what to do? Come back next week and we’ll start there: discussing how we can talk about and understand privilege better, and what we can each do to make a difference. Acknowledging the existence of privilege and comprehending how it operates is only the first step.
xo Simone & Nikki
Recommended Reading/Related posts
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” – Peggy McIntosh
Feminist 101 – What is Male Privilege?
brown betty on Live Journal: A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn’t.
Clutch Magazine: Not Everyone’s Laughting at Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls