| The high school|
yearbook of society
“”Much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given.
Privilege is a key concept within a sociological and social justice context. It describes the benefits and advantages held by one group relative to another, often arising through the oppression or stigmatization of minority groups. These benefits and advantages are not usually codified as legal rights and arise as secondary qualities to suppression. As such, they can be difficult to spot, and remain unseen or unrecognised. This privilege blindness sometimes leads those who ostensibly support equal rights to inadvertently marginalize the concerns of less-privileged groups.
- 1 Worked examples
- 2 Privilege blindness
- 3 Misconceptions
- 4 Problems
- 5 Further examples
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 References
The concept of privilege can be applied to many different social justice areas, including class and wealth distribution, racism or sexism. Privilege is essentially the immunity that some (usually majority, usually in-power) classes have against these forms of discrimination. As well as these "hidden advantages", there is also the case of how society is set up to treat majority vs minority classes in terms of their expectations, preconceptions and stereotyping. It is best illustrated by a few examples of clear cases and subtle cases.
Walking home at night
The majority of rape cases are male-on-female, a statistical asymmetry that is well-quantified. The result is that a fear of rape, or a threat of rape, is a real thing for women far more than for men. Generally speaking, men have fewer reasons (both statistical and tangible) to fear a sexual assault. This is what is being referred to by "privilege" in this sense. Men have a particular privilege not to experience this fear, or in other words women have a particular under-privilege (or lack of privilege) to experience it.
Public displays of affection
Heterosexual imagery is used in the vast majority of advertising and media, reflecting the sexual tendencies of the vast majority of people. Heterosexual behaviour is on constant display, is rarely ever challenged, and is effectively "normalised". So, consider the cases where people say that they're all for LGBT equality (cf. "Not racist, but..."), but disapprove of it being displayed prominently and "rammed down their throats". This is a classic case of privilege and privilege-blindness because ostensibly overt displays of affection from homosexuals are actually no more or less overt than those from heterosexuals. Boy-girl hand-holding is unlikely to even register for most people, while boy-boy or girl-girl combinations in the street — because of their relative rarity — are likely to produce a much stronger signal.
In short, those who ask homosexual couples to be less open and "in your face" about their gayness simply don't realise how open and "in your face" heterosexual couples are.
The Arizona bill "Arizona SB 1070" attracted significant controversy because it encouraged racial profiling of suspected illegal immigrants. This appeared to attract broad support from Americans, with 60% backing the idea of racial profiling. However, the majority of people voting were (and still are, presumably) white and therefore wouldn't have been the victims of racial profiling in the first place. Being victimized for their skin color was never a foreseeable consequence for those people, and so they lacked any personal salience towards the issue.
This lack of salience is exactly what the "privilege" argument addresses. People make the assumption (often without realizing it) that because something is not an issue for them, it should not be an issue for others. This is clearly not going to be the case.
Car repair and other things that are seen as unfeminine
A common demonstration of privilege that most people will see is the occasional demonstration by TV news shows of what happens when women take cars into repair garages. Quite simply, dishonest mechanics are more likely to cheat women on repair costs than men.
People who are native speakers of non-standard dialects such as African American Vernacular English or Cockney may be discriminated against as being somehow "inferior" or stupid because they supposedly speak "wrong" English. Of course, non-standard dialects are not "incorrect" forms of the standard language, but simply different things with different rules (except, of course, those who add "r" to the end of words where it doesn't belong—that's just linguistic mayhem). Native speakers of non-standard dialects are inherently disadvantaged when it comes to learning the rules of the standard variety, but standard language speakers usually do not realize this. In almost all cases the standard is associated with the Metropolitan area dominating the country (e.g. Paris in France, or Buffalo in the US ), the ruling class(es) (e.g. public school educated upper class twits in Britain) or both. Discrimination against non-standard dialects is thus a not-so-subtle form of classism and/or ethnic discrimination.
Non-majority first languages
Most countries have more than one language in them. Be it indigenous to the area (e.g. Navajo to part of the Southwest of the United States) or the result of immigration (e.g. Romani in big parts of Europe). However, most education systems have traditionally only accepted one language. Hence children whose parents only speak the language discriminated against have vastly different (i.e. worse) chances in school. If you are unable to see your native speaker privilege, imagine having to learn Quechua when you are six years old, being criticized for your accent while learning it (see the above point) and being unable to get anything from government and most businesses unless you do it in a language you are not as fully comfortable in as your mother tongue.
What is so difficult about privilege, and is highlighted in the racial profiling case above, is that it is a concept that is very counter-intuitive to privileged groups. Privilege is, by the social justice definition, the advantages people have that they don't often think about because they never have to experience the oppressive side. Understanding it requires an active effort to see things from the perspective of other, underprivileged people. This can lead to problems both small-scale and the large, from a man's chronic inability to get women to talk to him to the imbalance in performance in English, math and science between the sexes and sexism in hiring in the hard sciences, computer sciences and nursing.
The principal misconception of privilege is that it applies exclusively on, or scales evenly and perfectly down to, an individual level, and so that the existence of individuals from a class considered privileged (e.g. white males) within a class considered underprivileged (e.g. working class poor) or the reverse scenario disproves the concept. This isn't the case at all. "Privilege" in the social justice sense applies only to classes of people, as far as it could be quantified it is only a statistical average. On average, those in an ethnic majority experience privilege, and on average those in minority groups experience oppression. For example, the fact that Barack Obama was the President of the United States doesn't outright disprove anything to do with white privilege or racism within the United States. Barack Obama's presidency does not alter the vast and ever-expanding statistical evidence for the existence of white privilege.
The second major misconception is that privilege is a quantifiable set of experiences that add up. It is instead a qualitative thing relating to experiences of a specific kind. For instance, the particular "male privilege" of not feeling sexual discrimination at work, or being pressured into raising children exclusively, isn't offset by economic or wealth class - it might apply with slight qualitative differences across class boundaries, but overall it is not a number that is then mitigated by other factors.
The third major misconception is that privilege is entirely one way. The fact that there are a few "Female Privileges", such as not being forced to register for the draft or not being expected to pay for dates, does not mean that gender privileges don't exist at all. Nor does it mean that they are as valuable as their counterparts.
Furthermore, the misconception that intersectional factors can "cancel out" privilege of one sort or another ("I don't have white privilege because I'm poor" or "I don't have male privilege because I'm not white") disregards that life would probably be different if that privileged intersection were to go away or stop being rewarded by society. Not all privileged groups benefit equally, depending on different social intersections, but benefit still exists in some way over some other demographic that doesn't enjoy the same invisible allowances. Basically, there is no linear scale of privilege you can move up and down on; instead, there are different types of privilege.
The use of 'privilege' in this specialized sociological sense can create misunderstandings. 'Privilege' as an English word antedates this specialized meaning. Its established previous sense described a private perquisite or prerogative, typically unearned, and by implication describes these perks as necessarily exclusive and possibly unfair. This established meaning no doubt influenced the choice of this word for its meaning in sociological jargon. Nevertheless, its use in this context invites misunderstanding. For example, to frame a lesser risk of being subject to police brutality in terms of 'privilege' suggests, at least to an audience unaccustomed to its specialized meaning, that what is being advocated for is the abolition of the unfair 'privilege' by making everyone subject to police brutality. This is probably not what was being suggested.
As noted above, in the sociological sense 'privilege' applies only to people on average, and in the aggregate. It is not an individual or personal thing, nor a matter of keeping score. This means that the word can be counterproductive in debate, when used to focus on the personal characteristics of an opponent. Accusing an opponent of coming from a place of 'privilege' or being subject to 'privilege blindness' is rightly perceived as a personal attack. In this context, it acts as little more than an accusation that your opponent is unaware, clueless, or lacking empathy. Defending these attacks as merely invoking the sociological meaning, which as noted above does not necessarily carry to the individual level, is a form of equivocation. It inherently turns an argument personal, by focusing on the race, gender, background, and other personal characteristics of your opponent. This generally is a recipe for generating more heat than light.
Basic examples of privileges talked about in this sense include:
- The fact that in most cultures sexual promiscuity is acceptable (and in some cases socially desirable) for men, but women doing the same are denigrated.
- The ability of straight people not to worry about being attacked or insulted for their sexual orientation, and their ability to show romantic affection in public without raising many eyebrows.
- The ability of the dominant ethnic group in any given nation to avoid racial profiling and/or to secure more lenient prison sentences.
- The ability of people "looking native" to get better rates and service in the tourist industry - sometimes this is even enforced as a law with different rates for citizens and non-citizens
- The ability to use a gendered bathroom straightforwardly, when compared to the experiences of transgender or otherwise gender-nonconforming people.
- The ability to effectively manage the workload of day-to-day life, when compared to the experience of chronically ill people.
- The ability of the rich and powerful not to worry about the financial implications of an accident or unexpected illness, when compared to the poor - this is drastically exacerbated in jurisdictions with weak or non-existing social safety nets.
- The ability of certain light-skinned people of color, "straight-acting" gay/bisexual people, and the like to pass as part of the privileged classes even though they're not members of it.
- The fact that people will rarely question the illness of a person whose illness is openly visible, like a broken leg or cancer, and are looked down upon for doing so, but people will frequently question those with invisible illnesses, like Fibromyalgia or mental illnesses. This can get to the point where people have been attacked for parking with their handicapped placard or plates that they got because of an invisible illness, and is another form of passing privilege.
- The ability of some transgender persons to be readily identified by others as the gender that they identify as. This is also called "passing privilege."
- The availability and affordability of education, including parental financial support.
- The coinciding of national holidays with Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, reducing the need for make-up exams and time off of work.
- The fact that for a man to be in public without a top is often socially acceptable, while it seldom is for a woman.
- The fact that in many parts of the world Christian schools and churches are hardly if ever attacked; yet in those same places synagogues, Jewish schools, and mosques have to be protected by police almost constantly and receive almost as many (or more) bomb threats and actual attacks as government buildings in most Western countries
- The fact that when Christian churches are attacked, they are typically historically African-American churches.
- The fact that people of color, especially African-Americans, are derided and called terms like "unprofessional" for their natural hair or their cultural garb, but when white people wear them, they are often praised for doing so.
- Prejudice plus power
- Reverse racism
- Affirmative action
- Social justice
- White Privilege Checklist
- Male Privilege Checklist
- Cis Privilege Checklist
- Able-bodied Privilege Checklist
- Christian Privilege Checklist
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, John Scalzi
- White Privilege Glasses - the video is down-voted by the usual suspects while posting fallacious and racist comments
- Arizona SB 1070
- The Buffalo dialect came about due to the Erie Canal; the goods produced in the Midwest went to Chicago, then Detroit, the Buffalo, then Albany, then NYC, then Europe. Likewise, the imports came in the reverse direction. Buffalo being the center became where the Chicago and various NYC dialects mostly merged, and became the "standard" that everyone understood.
- The language of most "gypsy" groups
- Jacob Molyneux (June 16, 2009). "Do Male Nurses Face Reverse Sexism?".
- See, e.g. 'privilege', Macmillan Dictionary
- Or, if we're talking about theocracies in the Middle East, women are typically barred from showing any skin whatsoever.
- and if they are it is almost never more than a bit of paint