A brief discussion of privilege

Disclaimer: This page, as all other on this blog, is a work in progress. If you feel I am lacking a discussion of any privileges, please be aware that I’m not trying to exclude. I will continue to add summaries as I have more time. In addition, my research on these subjects is continuous and subject to reinvention – I may choose not to elaborate on a subject if I feel I cannot do it justice at the moment.

On Privilege

Privilege is the “special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people”. Privilege is constructed and normalized by the established frameworks of society – narratives that have been developed based on the power struggles of history. This means that people are classified by those who encounter them, and since these viewers are so influenced by the constructed norm, the classification may be an unconscious act. In other words, even once you are aware of privilege, it is extremely difficult to eliminate it. Of course, many people are not aware of why they treat certain people certain ways, or may choose to ignore the realities of privilege.

Furthermore, for those receiving the privilege, it is difficult to be aware of this special treatment since in most cases they have been receiving privilege throughout their lives.  For those outside the privileged group(s), the distinction may be more obvious. Or, it may not be noticeable until the facts are presented, since many people don’t stop to analyze and question their treatment. Once you are aware of privilege, however, it is important to learn more, question, seek to erase it, and above all to not use privilege to your advantage. You might start doing this by asking, “are the ways in which I am being treated different from the ways other groups are treated”? Recognizing the ways in which one is privileged gives one the responsibility to lessen the effects of that privilege. You can find more information about ways to do this here. However, it is not enough for one individual to recognize this – systemic change is required in order to dismantle the established norms of oppression that define our lives from birth.

Some types of privilege include, but are not limited to, male privilege, white privilege, racial privilege in general, privilege based on attractiveness, privilege pertaining to physical abilities, privilege relating to mental health, privilege based on sexual orientation,  privilege based on gender, and privilege based on class and/or social status. Almost all people benefit from a privilege of some kind. Privilege is a crucial phenomenon in society, because privileged groups hold power and thus can create society’s framework of laws, values and institutions. These constructions will continue to benefit the group in power, with the needs of other, non-privileged (oppressed) groups seen as secondary. In order to gain rights, power and resources, those who do not identify with privileged groups must adhere to the framework created by the privileged. Some privileges, like knowing that your identity will not count against you in court, should extend to all people. However, some privileges, like the ability to ignore certain people based on their identity, “distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups” (Peggy McIntosh). Therefore we must differentiate between the privileges that we should work to universalize, and those which we must eliminate from the actions of all in order to dismantle privilege.

White Privilege

I am the bearer of white privilege. I know this, and I do my best to look out for, and avoid, the ways in which it helps me get ahead in life. It’s not easy, because education is what has helped me to come to recognize this privilege, and therefore my understanding hasn’t been with me for my whole life. But I do understand that in order to truly be an activist for equity, I have got to do my part in dismantling the systems that privilege certain people for no better reason than their membership in a social group. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, keep reading (especially the list below).

In her essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh gives some interesting examples of the treatment that people with white skin can expect and take for granted, due to the privilege that they are granted by those that identify them as white. She states, ‘As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage… After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of colour that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence… I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will… whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us”.’

McIntosh goes on to compile the following list of some of the daily effects of white privilege in her life:

  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization”, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the worlds’ majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  21. I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
  22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.
  25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color that more or less matches my skin.
The first time I read this list, I found myself saying, “Oh yeah! That does happen” to every point. These are things which I, as a white person, take for granted — and I am definitely not alone on that.
McIntosh remarks that, white privilege is “an elusive and fugitive subject… some of these [points] are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive… some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over-empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex”. She also points out that “being of the main culture, I [can] also criticize it fairly freely”. The Angry Black Woman gives an amazing summary of white privilege, and of some of the most spot-on blog posts about the subject here.

Male Privilege

One reason for male privilege is that the prevailing force in most, if not all societies, is patriarchy, which gives the male figure power over women and children and positions males as the centre of social organization. This is a highly established system that has manifested throughout history. It’s seen in everything from royal succession, to voting rights, to religious and political power, and the list goes on and on.  Due to this patriarchial force, non-male groups are subject to a different set of experiences, although they often may not realize this. Women throughout the world must fight for rights that males receive automatically. These rights vary, from the right to drive to the right to equal pay to the right to walk down the street without being catcalled. The automatic privilege received by males, many of whom are not aware of the treatment they receive, can be known as male privilege. Male privilege also means that males have most of the control over female reproductive rights, whether enforcing this through religion, government policies, or lack of funding.

Here’s a post on male privilege from the Angry Black Woman’s blog. Read read read!

Heterosexuality Privilege

From the constant fight for gay marriage, to violence, and murder, of people based on their homosexuality, to Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford’s refusal to attend any Pride events, to the derogatory language tossed around on a daily basis by otherwise well-educated people, lesbians, bisexuals and gays must constantly face the consequences imposed by a society that privileges heterosexuality. Here’s another great checklist similar to Peggy McIntosh’s from Queers United (which is a really blog as well!)…

On a daily basis as a straight person…

  •  I can be pretty sure that my roomate, hallmates and classmates will be comfortable with my sexual orientation.
  •  If I pick up a magazine, watch TV, or play music, I can be certain my sexual orientation will be represented.
  •  When I talk about my heterosexuality (such as in a joke or talking about my relationships), I will not be accused of pushing my sexual orientation onto others.
  •  I do not have to fear that if my family or friends find out about my sexual orientation there will be economic, emotional, physical or psychological consequences.
  •  I did not grow up with games that attack my sexual orientation (IE fag tag or smear the queer).
  •  I am not accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation.
  •   I can go home from most meetings, classes, and conversations without feeling excluded, fearful, attacked, isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, stereotyped or feared because of my sexual orientation.
  •   I am never asked to speak for everyone who is heterosexual.
  •   I can be sure that my classes will require curricular materials that testify to the existence of people with my sexual orientation.
  •   People don’t ask why I made my choice of sexual orientation.
  •   People don’t ask why I made my choice to be public about my sexual orientation.
  •   I do not have to fear revealing my sexual orientation to friends or family. It’s assumed.
  •  My sexual orientation was never associated with a closet.
  •  People of my gender do not try to convince me to change my sexual orientation.
  •  I don’t have to defend my heterosexuality.
  •  I can easily find a religious community that will not exclude me for being heterosexual.
  •  I can count on finding a therapist or doctor willing and able to talk about my sexuality.
  •  I am guaranteed to find sex education literature for couples with my sexual orientation.
  •  Because of my sexual orientation, I do not need to worry that people will harass me.
  •  I have no need to qualify my straight identity.
  •  My masculinity/femininity is not challenged because of my sexual orientation.
  •  I am not identified by my sexual orientation.
  •  I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my sexual orientation will not work against me.
  •  If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has sexual orientation overtones.
  • Whether I rent or I go to a theater, Blockbuster, an EFS or TOFS movie, I can be sure I will not have trouble finding my sexual orientation represented.
  • I am guaranteed to find people of my sexual orientation represented in my workplace.
  • I can walk in public with my significant other and not have people double-take or stare.
  • I can choose to not think politically about my sexual orientation.
  • I do not have to worry about telling my roommate about my sexuality. It is assumed I am a heterosexual.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and culture of LGBTQ folk without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can go for months without being called straight.
  • I’m not grouped because of my sexual orientation.
  • My individual behavior does not reflect on people who identity as heterosexual.
  • In everyday conversation, the language my friends and I use generally assumes my sexual orientation. For example, sex inappropriately referring to only heterosexual sex or family meaning heterosexual relationships with kids.
  • People do not assume I am experienced in sex (or that I even have it!) merely because of my sexual orientation.
  •  I can kiss a person of the opposite gender on the heart or in the cafeteria without being watched and stared at.
  • Nobody calls me straight with maliciousness.
  • People can use terms that describe my sexual orientation and mean positive things (IE “straight as an arrow”, “standing up straight” or “straightened out” ) instead of demeaning terms (IE “ewww, that’s gay” or being “queer” ) .
  • I am not asked to think about why I am straight.
  • I can be open about my sexual orientation without worrying about my job.

Heteronormativity is the social phenomenon that privileges heterosexuality as normal and natural, thus leading to a society in which LGBTQ communities are seen as deviant and discriminated against through various means, such as marriage, taxes and employment. This discrimination is based on the way people who identify as LGBTQ do not fall into the “normal” systems of heterosexuality and gender binary.

Ableist Privilege

Ableism theory purports that society associates normality with the ability to walk easily from point a to b, to see with 20/20 vision, to hear and speak and touch and generally appear as fulfilling certain requirements. Those who hold these traits have been given the power to make decisions about the life of society for centuries, and this has been reinforced by many horrific laws throughout history which called for people with disabilities to be euthanized or locked up for their own good and that of others. As a result of this power division, society has been physically created as accessible for those with “normal” bodies – those who are privileged by the systems that the able-bodied create.

Disability may be seen as encompassing three different models: medical, structural, and minority.

  • Medical model: sees disability as equivalent to a functional impairment which must be fixed in order to work in the “normal” way
  • Minority model: sees a lack of equal rights as a primary impediment to equality between able and disabled populations
  • Structural model: posits environmental factors as the cause of disability. As a result of the power historically held by able-bodied people, society has been physically created as accessible for those with “normal” bodies. Currently, renovating an older building to make it accessible is often a project that lacks funding, interest and support. Case in point here.

The social model of disability is a reaction to the medical model. The social model of disability identifies society, with its systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion(purposely or inadvertently) as the main contributory factor in disabling people. This means that although physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may lead to individual function limitations, they do not have to cause disability. Rather, it is society’s failure to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences that disables.

This social model has been criticized as out of date; critics claim that it does not take into account individual experiences of disability. It is increasing recognized that the effects of impairment form a central part of many disabled people’s experience, and that these effects must be included for the social model to still be a valid reflection of that experience.

Here’s a blog post on the subtle ways in which ableist privilege manifests.


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