What’s all this about “privilege”?
‘Privilege’, as referenced in some of our conversations, indicates how certain factors in someone’s life (that are not chosen by them and not their fault) determine their experience in the world and how they are treated. The idea of privilege is often jarring and confusing, and many point out that we do not choose: who our parents are, what race we are born into, what country we are born into, what financial status we have or what financial benefits we do or do not reap growing up, our gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.—to name some of the types of privilege that exist.
Privilege is something we have that gives us built-in advantages in life over others. Privilege being ‘built-in’ is precisely why we do not see it or how it operates unless it is pointed out to us or we are forced to encounter it somehow. The nature of privilege is that it is an inherent part of someone’s existence, so there’s not an obvious way to recognize, understand, and discuss privilege with others unless this you actively seek this out.
Privilege means that those with privilege have more power and opportunity to do more, have access to more and may be in an easier position to get more in the world. ‘More’ can also mean ‘better’ and can be more: status, wealth, education, employment, housing, healthcare, attention, recognition, respect and safety – to name a few determinants of privilege. Privilege also means thinking that what we have is what’s ‘normal’ and that when other people don’t mirror these qualities or achievements, they are outside of what’s “normal” and often thought of as “different” — implicitly making these people “othered”.
For instance, if you’ve always been an able-bodied individual, how could you know what it is like to live with a disability? Unless you were to learn about the life experiences of those with disabilities, become close to someone with a disability, become disabled yourself, or become involved in a community of people where able-bodied privilege was explicitly discussed and addressed, how would you know what it really felt like?
One major difficulty in understanding privilege is that the same aspects of privilege that make it difficult to recognize (that it is the built-in, inherent and therefore a wholly unseen part of someone’s life) also set up barriers that continue and perpetuate prejudice, oppression and inequality.
With privilege on one hand, oppression is on the other; but it’s not as simple as one uniform type of privilege and one uniform type of oppression.
Part of this discussion comes with understanding that although there are many types of privilege and oppression that may be intertwined and overlapping, each type of privilege is not a substitute for another, and each type of privilege has its own history and existing dynamic.
Sexism is not racism.
Poverty is not homophobia.
Though it is important to recognize the specificity of different types of privilege, someone may face sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia at the same time. In fact, often the aspects of privilege that make it difficult to recognize and understand in our own lives actually continue to serve the systems of oppression in the world that treat certain people as more ‘natural’ and justified, and ‘other’ people as the ones who are different and somehow ‘less than’. This is why it’s important to take steps to learn about your privilege and to understand how it operates in your own life and the world around you.
Some things to keep in mind while you start to read and learn about privilege:
• Learning about your privilege can be difficult, exhausting and frustrating – it’s important to be patient with yourself.
• It’s even more important to be compassionate towards people who are willing to help you on your learning curve and have conversations with you about privilege because…
• It is primarily YOUR responsibility to learn about the privilege(s) you have. We all need helpful and supportive conversations and a place to ask questions, but nobody has any obligation to educate you.
• Keep in mind that you don’t know what you don’t know, and learning about privilege can very much feel like wandering lost until some of the pieces of information and understanding begin to click.
• Remember that you’re not going to learn everything overnight or in short order, and privilege will not be undone this way either. Systems of oppression and privilege have been at work for centuries – this is precisely why it’s vital that we work towards actively undoing them.
This might hurt a bit, but don’t hold still – learning about privilege can take some of the sting and power out of systems of oppression.
It’s common for people to feel guilty when their privilege is pointed out to them because it can feel like you’ve done something wrong or there’s something bad about you that you had no control over, but this should not be about guilt. You didn’t sit down and decide to create oppression so you don’t need to be apologize for oppression and your privilege. Instead, this needs to be about acknowledging the ‘un-chosen’ ways that some people (including us and including you) have more advantages in life and the ways other people are more disadvantaged and can be marginalized.
Even if someone doesn’t have one kind of privilege and faces the oppression opposing it, they likely still have another form of privilege. Someone may face homophobia, but may still be cisgendered and have male privilege. Most people in the world have some kind of privilege. This is about responsibility for what we have and who we are, so that we can understand where we are coming from when we take on anti-oppressive work, or simply take on the responsibility to be anti-oppressive and challenge oppression in our daily lives. If you’re not taking steps to be actively anti-oppressive, you are continuing to exist in a system that allows oppression to happen.
By acknowledging privilege we can acknowledge the barriers that others may face and the things we may have and that we take for granted as accessible to everyone. On a broader scale, modes of thinking and larger social/political/institutional systems at work that are driven by privilege operating unchallenged justify popular beliefs, modes of speech, cultural depictions and expressions of language that perpetuate treating marginalized groups oppressively. This can mean treating and misunderstanding these groups as though they are somehow behind or lacking as a population, with the accompanying assumption that “those people” are less deserving of the ‘haves’ or the ‘more’ that are taken for granted as accessible within groups of privilege. This is only one way that privilege enforces systems of oppression – by reinforcing beliefs that marginalized communities are somehow flawed and deserving of maltreatment or just deserving of less – when in fact it is the system and the status quo that is flawed.
Privilege is crucial to acknowledge and understand if we intend to work against the status quo and systems of oppression that marginalize and ‘other’ many groups of people. This work can be long and hard, but we’re all on learning curves – and will probably always be on learning curves. The bottom line is that we’re all better off if we can understand how privilege operates, how we may or may not have it, and what to do with all of this information. Beginning to read about privilege, learn about privilege, and have conversations about privilege is a fundamental starting point.
What kinds of privilege are there?
Privilege can be in anyone depending on their gender, sex, orientation, race, ethnicity, ability or disability, class or income level, profession and more.
• Being male is a privilege. Why? Because women as a population, do not have the gender privilege that comes from being male. Women face more barriers that result in them being treated unequally, and overall have less power and access than men in the world.
• Being white is a privilege. People of colour, as a group, do not have the same racial privilege as white people because they face more barriers in the world and oppression that results in them having less power, equality and access to the same things and in the same ways that white people do.
White people have ‘white privilege’ because there are systematic ways that white people have more historical, built-in and ongoing advantages than people of colour. Though you may not have personally participated in slavery, colonialism, human trafficking, or whatever particular history of racial oppression your geographic and/or cultural home precipitated, there are still ongoing systems that perpetuate racism, many of which are rooted in these particular histories — though you will often hear this denied in the general public. Another aspect to racial privilege that is less often discussed is that some people may not be white but may still have what can be referred to as light-skinned privilege in communities of colour, where ‘lighter skinned’ people of colour may operate with similar tenets of white privilege.
In Canada, we may hear people say that they were not the ones who initially occupied indigenous land so white privilege is not their responsibility or dominion. However, everyone who lives in Canada still benefits from living on stolen land, and indigenous people in Canada are still hugely over-represented as victims in just about every social system in the country, and are at higher risk for violence, suicide and addictions throughout Canada.
• Having citizenship and status in your country is a privilege. People without citizenship and legal status have less access to employment, less likelihood of working in a safe environment when they are able to find work, less access to social security and safety nets, and less access to physical and mental healthcare resources, to name only a few of the barriers faced by individuals living without citizenship status.
• Having no disability (and therefore being what is referred to as able-bodied) is a privilege. When someone is able-bodied they will not face the barriers of not being able to access certain public spaces, including transportation and washrooms, and they will not face the scrutiny of being the person who is seen as “special” or “the other” because people who are able-bodied are viewed as “normal” in the world.
Disability itself is not as simple as many people think it is. It’s not just about having a physical disability, but it’s about speech, hearing, seeing, having a strong reaction or sensitivity to smells or chemicals that may not allow some people to be in public spaces, and can also refer to mental illness and other invisible disabilities. Disability is about the challenges one faces when they may be HIV+ or living their life with another illness. Unlike race, bodies can change over time and someone who may have once been able-bodied could later be someone with a disability.
• Being heterosexual is a privilege. In many parts of the world (including so-called ‘developed’ countries), being LGBTQ and everyone that isn’t simply “heterosexual” is still wrongfully used as justification for violence. Even in Canada, though gay marriage is legal, many social benefits (pertaining to custody, benefits, wills, power of attorney) that are automatically awarded to heterosexual marital partnerships are still denied to same-sex partners.
• Being comfortable in your born-into sex and associated gender and therefore being cisgendered is a privilege. Transgendered individuals (and two-spirited, intersex, gender-ambiguous individuals) live in a society that is gender-dichotomized where many public spaces only cater to ‘male’ or ‘female’, and even those who identify as fully ‘male’ or ‘female’ are often made to feel less-so because they were not biologically sexually gendered how they identify. Transphobia remains a huge social problem and source of violence.
• Having more money and status is a privilege. Class privilege is having more income and socio-economic status, which in turn offers more advantages to employment, education and access to resources and services. Being able to choose what kind of work you do and where to make enough money to live is part of this privilege – which includes people who engage in illegal forms of work and sex work. Does someone choose what kind of wealth or poverty they grow up around? No, but it shapes people’s lives from the very beginning, just like every other form of privilege.
Think about the fact that you’re likely reading this on a computer screen on the internet. What kind of privileges come along with that?
Privilege is not about what you choose because just as no one chooses to be indigenous or queer or disabled or poor, no one chooses to be white or heterosexual or able-bodied or born into an industrialized economically-rich country. None of these things are choices but all of them come with a kind of privilege or an oppression and set of barriers to face.
When systems are constructed to be incredibly unequal it takes a long time to undo this damage. If we look at gender privilege and oppression, girls and women have been fighting sexism and gender inequality for a very long time, and this system of oppression, though it has changed over time, is still very much intact. Just as it is important to recognize privilege, it is crucial to come to a place of understanding that it is not solely up to those who are denied privilege to fight it, or seek access to it. It must also, and even more so, be the responsibility of people of privilege to be allies and activists in efforts to undo systems of privilege and therefore oppression.
We must all fight sexism, just as we must join together across races to fight racism and violence. Fighting for a racially equal world is and should never be the sole responsibility of people of colour. White people need to fight racism as well. This goes beyond not saying racist slurs or excluding people of colour from certain spaces, but is about recognizing racial privilege, supporting people of colour, listening to people of colour, and participating in actions that include more people of colour on their own terms.
With all of these systems and constructs supporting privilege that have pre-dated and are greater than me alone, what can I do about my privilege?
Privilege is not a simple yes or no check-box and calling it a day. Recognizing it is only the first step. Privilege is complex and interwoven into the differences of who people are. Someone may have gender privilege – whether as a man or being cisgendered – and still face the barriers that come with having a disability or ableist oppression. Someone may have able-bodied privilege and still face class oppression in living without access to much income or a secure job and dealing with the barriers of poverty. Someone may have racial privilege in being white but may be a sex worker who faces stigma and scrutiny about what they do.
Understanding privilege is about recognizing inequality and learning how to support people. It’s about acknowledging the upper hand we may have and how to not keep using that in ways that keeps other people down. To do that, we have to understand the different experiences people have, the different oppressions people face, how they connect and influence one another, and how we are all individually situated in this world in mixtures and intersections of oppression and privilege.
We have to work to understand the privilege we never knew we had. After that we need to use this understanding to stop making all those built-in advantages what remains “normal” and “right” in the world around us. Then, when we can more deeply understand privilege, we can understand that when it goes unacknowledged, it can mean we’re continuing to hurt people even when we never mean to.
* These conversations can be hard to access and understand, loaded with specific jargon and hard to follow sometimes. We’ve been there ourselves. Everyone is on a learning curve. There are many other incredible people who are and have been discussing all kinds of privileges and oppressions and we’re linked to many different articles and reference points throughout this piece. Please click on the words that are linked to other sites in the above post for greater explanations and understanding.