What does it mean to have privilege?
Privilege refers to the idea that in human society, some groups benefit from unearned, largely-unacknowledged advantages that increase their power relative to that of others, thereby perpetuating social inequality. Privilege is generally invisible to those who have it, and a person’s level of privilege is influenced by multiple factors including race,gender, age, sexual orientation, and social class, and changes over time. Privilege has many benefits, including ones that are financial or material such as access to housing, education, and jobs, as well as others that are emotional or psychological, such as a sense of personal self-confidence and comfortableness, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society. It began as an academic concept, but has since become popular outside of academia.
What are the types of privilege? There are many. I’m going to highlight a few: white, straight, and Christian privilege.
Peggy McIntosh explains White Privilege:
Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that 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.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women’s studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
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 color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are just 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.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: 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 that will allow “them” to be more like “us.”
I want to highlight one thing in particular: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”
This is something that many people-especially white people-seem to misunderstand (or not understand at all). Racism isn’t just calling a black person a nigger, calling a Jewish person a kike, or calling someone from South Korea a gook. It’s more than just white people denying People of Color the right to use certain water fountains or forcing them to sit at the back of the bus. It’s about a system in place that grants rights, benefits, and advantages to one ethnic group or race. This group has the social, political, economic, and religious power. In the United States, the racial group with all that power are white people. Combined with prejudice against people of other races or ethnicities, this is racism. Some examples of White Privilege are:
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. 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.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
These are just a few examples. Many more exist. A lot of people have a hard time understanding privilege, because th
ey think of it in terms of something granted; as if they woke up one day and won a prize. “I bequeath you White Privilege! Stand now and get thee gone to make use of your privilege as you may!” Nuh uh. It doesn’t work that way. Privilege is automatically conferred as a result of being part of a particular social group. Another problem had by some is the idea that one should feel guilty for having a particular kind of privilege. Nuh uh part 2. When someone is told to “check their privilege”, they’re being asked (or told) bluntly to take a step back and recognize the ways in which they benefit from a particular situation that others, who do not share in that particular privilege, do not benefit from. No one is being asked to feel guilty (and that’s not the point of being asked to ‘check your privilege’). It’s intended to be a way for the privileged to try and understand what it means to lack privilege along some axis. One should not be faulted for being privileged in some way, but they can be asked to recognize that they do have that privilege and keep it in mind when they interact with others (I view recognizing privilege as an aid in empathizing with people from other social groupings). Sometimes it can be easier to comprehend privilege if the concept is looked at from a different social perspective, which is easy, as there are several other types of privilege. As a gay man, I’m well aware of Straight Privilege (though I prefer Heterosexual, as ‘straight’ has connotations of being “right”, which then means being gay carries a connotation of being “wrong”; think of the phrase “on the straight and narrow“).
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.
Like White Privilege, Straight Privilege confers unearned benefits and advantages that allow people with that privilege to move through life with few annoyances and obstacles. For example, I went to a meeting at my new job today, and while sitting among nearly 40 other people of varying ages and races (and, likely, sexualities and genders and on and on), I wondered how accepting *this* group of people would be to a gay person. For a heterosexual person they never need to consider this. They don’t have to think before they talk about their loved ones. They never have to think twice before telling their coworkers what bar they went to last night. No, this isn’t the end of the world, but privilege isn’t all about the ways in which the privileged possess so much more power than the non-privileged (though that can be the case). Remember, it’s about advantages and disadvantages. In my above scenario, despite the fact that this is 2014, I *still* wonder how people are going to react to finding out I’m gay (I live in the Southeastern US, which is the heart of the Bible Belt, and a lot of people remain openly homophobic-though this isn’t limited to the South). So I don’t reveal that aspect of myself, unless directly asked, or if I find that a particular setting is open to homosexuals (like my last job was). This is stuff heterosexuals don’t have to think about. They’re privileged that way. I hope one day that heterosexual privilege (as well as all other forms) diminishes or disappears altogether. No one should be conferred unearned privileges (if you do earn them, great, but they shouldn’t be granted solely based on one’s membership in a particular social group).
Another form of privilege is Religious Privilege. In the United States, the dominant religion by far, is Christianity (not that this is one monolithic religious system; there are a great many strains of Christianity). What does it mean to have Christian Privilege (if you live in a country where the dominant religion is another belief system, you can substitute that religion in place of Christianity; c.f. living in a country dominated by Islam or Buddhism)?
You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.
Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.
It is easy to find stores that carry items that enable you to practice your faith and celebrate religious holidays.
You aren’t pressured to celebrate holidays from another faith that may conflict with your religious values.
Holidays celebrating your faith are so widely supported you can often forget they are limited to your faith (e.g. wish someone a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter” without considering their faith).
You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats.
A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.
You can practice your religious customs without being questioned, mocked, or inhibited.
If you are being tried in court, you can assume that the jury of “your peers” will share your faith and not hold that against you in weighing decisions.
When swearing an oath, you will place your hand on a rel
igious scripture pertaining to your faith.
Positive references to your faith are seen dozens of times a day by everyone, regardless of their faith.
Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.
Politicians can make decisions citing your faith without being labeled as heretics or extremists.
It is easy for you to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books, and other media.
You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.
An article from USA Today highlights one example of Christian Privilege:
An atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied re-enlistment last month forrefusing to take an oath containing “so help me God,” the American Humanist Association said Thursday.
And in a Sept. 2 letter to the inspectors general for the Air Force and Creech, Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center, said the airman should be allowed to re-enlist without having to swear to a deity, and instead given a secular oath. Miller said the AHA is prepared to sue if the airman is not allowed to re-enlist.
According to the AHA, the unnamed airman was told Aug. 25 that the Air Force would not accept his contract because he had crossed out the phrase “so help me God.” The airman was told his only options were to sign the religious oath section of the contract without adjustment and recite an oath concluding with “so help me God,” or leave the Air Force, the AHA said.
That is unconstitutional and unacceptable, the AHA said.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller said. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or re-enlistment contracts.”
As stated, that is unconstitutional. The government cannot compel anyone to take any oath of affirmation about any deity (nor could the government compel anyone to reject belief in a deity). The words “so help me God” are so ubiquitous in society that people don’t think anything of them. But the phrase is clearly a reference to a deity, and as atheists do not believe in a deity (nor should anyone as there’s no reason to believe any deity exists-whether its Loki, Dionysus, Isis, or Jehovah). For religious people, especially Christians, the phrase might mean something to them (or it might not), but there’s no conflict for them to address when saying it. That’s not the case of a non believer. I wouldn’t want to say “so help me God” either, bc it’s an expression of religious belief that I don’t share, and I do not believe I should be forced to adhere to any system of religion. In principle, citizens of the United States are supposed to have freedom of religion (in practice, this isn’t often the case).