Privilege is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is about how society accommodates you. It is the advantages you have simply because of your perceived race, class, gender, and/or social status. It is the benefits you reap from being part of the group deemed “normal” and “superior” by society as a whole. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals. And whether you see it or not and whether you like it or not, if you are part of the privileged group, you have privilege.
Now for some examples of privilege…
MALE PRIVILEGE: a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. Every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy (i.e. a black man may experience privileges very differently from a white man). BUT at the same time, every man, by virtue of being read as male in our society, benefits from male privilege. Here is an excerpt from the Male Privilege Checklist:
- My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
- I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true. (More).
- I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are. (More).
- If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
- On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.
- If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
- If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent. (More).
- My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.
- I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented [and usually in ways that are not sexually explicit or degrading].
- Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.” (More).
- Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment. (More.)
- If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover. (More).
- Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
- Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.
- My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
- I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he, etc.
- I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.
- I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.
WHITE PRIVILEGE: “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” (Peggy McIntosh) Like male privilege, not everyone who is read as white will experience white privilege in the same way, but it nevertheless exists and matters. Here is an excerpt from the White Privilege Checklist:
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented [and in ways that are not stereotypical or offensive].
- When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence [and importance] of their race.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the food I grew up with, and into a hairdressers shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
- I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and childrens magazines featuring people of my race.
- I can enroll in a class at college and be sure that the majority of my professors will be of my race.
- I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
- I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
- I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
- I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
- I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
WHY DOES PRIVILEGE MATTER?
Privilege is about a set of invisible systems that confer dominance upon one group and inferiority or subservience upon another. Privilege impacts every aspect of our lives, whether we recognize it or not. And it impacts those around us too, often in detrimental ways. You can see the impacts of privilege by looking at the racial and gender breakdown of the top business and political leaders in this country. The vast majority are white cis-males (and most are also perceived as straight). By contrast, when you look at our prison system, the vast majority of inmates are lower income and/or minority males, many of which have experience racial profiling, systematic violence, and severely limited access to competent legal advisors.
When you look at access to higher education, most college students in top universities are white. Most professors are white males. Even though women now make up a larger percentage of the total number of students enrolled in higher education, women still have a harder time earning equal pay for equal work. This is even more relevant for women of color, who earn even less for equal work compared to their white male counterparts. In order to earn the same wages and be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, women often have to seek even more advanced degrees (doctorates, professional degrees, etc.), which frequently requires taking out student loans and taking on debt.
These are not abstract, distant issues. There are cold hard facts to back up the existence and effects of privilege in our society. You can witness it in every day life if you just open your eyes for one second. Saying that it doesn’t exist simply because you don’t want to educate yourself on it won’t actually make it go away. Sorry.
Readings For Social Justice & Diversity: intense but comprehensive book covering every major aspect of social justice; it incorporates a broad range of theories and perspectives, and every section includes a “Personal Voices” section that is consistently fantastic.
Rules for Radicals: the original guide to radical social justice activism that teaches “the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one.”
Disposable People: Kevin Bales is an incredible voice for freedom, and this book is one of the best introductions I know of to the major issues in human trafficking and modern day slavery. He offers an excellent overview of the issue using detailed, thoroughly researched case studies. This book is an intense read and it took me a long time to get through it, but I highly recommend it to anyone interesting in learning more about human trafficking and the realities of what the global economy looks like for those at the bottom rung of the ladder. Caution is recommended for survivors of sexual violence, as some of the content (primarily the chapter on Thailand) could be triggering.
The Slave Next Door: again, Kevin Bales is great. This book offers a solid breakdown of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the U.S. It is an eye-opener for any reader. Caution is recommended for survivors of sexual violence, as some of the content could be triggering.
The Road of Lost Innocence: This was the first book I read on human trafficking cover to cover. It is the gut wrenching memoir of Cambodian trafficking survivor-turned-activist, Somaly Mam. Highly, highly recommended—but please read with caution if you are a survivor of sexual violence. Make sure you are in a safe space before picking it up.
The Girls Who Went Away: This book rocked my world. It completely disillusioned me when it comes to the system of adoption in the U.S. I cried every single time I picked up this book. It is brilliantly researched and all of the stories are moving and presented in a respectful and sensitive manner. This book changed everything for me—it helped shape my identity as a feminist and solidified my desire to work for women’s health and women’s rights.
Nickel & Dimed: I am still reading this one, but I absolutely love it. Barbara Ehrenreich aims to help readers understand the structural violence committed against low-income working women (and men) and the realities of working in labor intensive, low-income jobs in this country. She is very open about challenging and owning up to her privilege and acknowledges that her experiences working these jobs for a few months cannot truly compare to the men and women who are trapped in the cycle of trying to live pay-check to pay-check and barely making it by (if at all) their whole lives.
The Heart & The Fist: This book made my soul sing, I swear. I read it while I was in Cambodia this summer, and it really helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I absolutely love the structure of this book—the way the author constructs the story he is trying to tell is beautiful and wonderful in every way. I was SO inspired by this book, and I have recommended it to everyone I know.
War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning: Chris Hedges is great in so many ways. This book is a pretty quick read, but it makes a solid argument for how war functions in our society, the implications it has on morality, and it incorporates a nuanced gender perspective that I really appreciate.
For Lauren, whose suicide is still inconceivable to me.
I didn’t know Lauren, but I was familiar with her work at Rutgers.
I’m sad to hear about her passing—it’s always terrible to lose such great activists and allies. Especially to suicide. It makes my heart hurt. I hope you’ve found peace, Lauren.
I am just at a total loss…what an awful tragedy and an enormous loss to the social justice movement/community. My thoughts and prayers are with Lauren’s friends, colleagues, and loved ones. And to echo the above comment, Lauren I truly hope you have found peace. <3