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General concepts

Privilege is the benefits and advantages held by a group in power, or in a majority, that arise because of the oppression and suppression of minority groups. Often these benefits and advantages are not codified as legal rights and arise as secondary qualities to suppression (see the examples below). This causes them to become difficult to spot, and remain unseen or unrecognised. This aspect in particular is known as privilege blindness.

Because of privilege and the related blindness to it, people who ostensibly support equal rights for people can still inadvertently marginalize them by being distanced from their concerns.

Privilege is a key concept within a sociological and social justice context. The term derives from the basic definition of "privilege" (that one has special rights over another), but is expanded upon as a specific term of art amongst social justice activists — and as a result can lead to it being misunderstood and dismissed immediately (see the misconceptions section below).

Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it's not a problem to you personally.[1]


[edit] Worked examples

The concept of privilege can be applied to many different social justice areas, including class and wealth distribution, racism or sexism/misogyny. 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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] Public displays of affection

Heterosexual imagery is used in the vast majority of advertising and media, despite the fact that as much as 10% of the population may be gay, or some degree of bisexual or queer. In short, 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.

[edit] Racial profiling

The Arizona bill "Arizona SB 1070"[2] 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 would never have been the victims of any racial profiling. 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 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.

[edit] Car repair and other things that are seen as unfeminine

The most common demonstrations 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.

Similarly, websites like Not Always Right[3] show stories of women being taken less seriously than men by customers in places like video game shops.

[edit] Non-standard dialects

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. 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.

[edit] Privilege blindness

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.[4][5][6][7]

[edit] Misconceptions

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) 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 is the President of the United States doesn't prove nor disprove anything to do with white privilege or racism within the United States.

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.

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.

[edit] Further examples

Basic examples of privileges talked about in this sense include:

  • The ability of men to walk alone at night without the fear of sexual assault that is often experienced by women.
  • The fact that for a man to be in public without a top is socially acceptable, while it seldom is for a woman.[8]
  • The fact that sexual promiscuity is a socially desirable trait in men, but is often denigrated in women.
  • The ability of whites to avoid racial profiling or to avoid greater prison sentences.
  • 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.
  • The ability of certain light-skinned people of colour, "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 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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