Privilege, in terms of social equality, describes the state of a person or group of people being granted automatic benefits simply due to status as a member of a certain group. Peggy McIntosh, anti-racism activist and feminist, said, “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do.”
Examples of Privilege
Privilege can be seen in a number of ways. Some well-known types of privilege include white privilege, heterosexual privilege, and male privilege. Although most people have heard of privilege in some form, the concept can be difficult to explain. Privilege is most often granted to majority populations, or the groups that hold the most power. Some react to classifications of their own privilege with sensitivity, denial, and even anger.oppression a person may experience. A white man who grew up in poverty may experience privilege due to the color of his skin but might, at the same time, experience oppression due to the level of his socioeconomic class.
It can be difficult for some to identify privilege when they are born into it because it may be all they know. Likely because of this, McIntosh’s 1988 publication, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” had a significant impact on many, as the accessible examples of white privilege in her paper clarified the concept of privilege in new ways.
Some examples McIntosh offers of white privilege:
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
McIntosh’s publication promoted awareness about white privilege, but white privilege is not the only form of privilege present in today’s society. For example, privilege can exist in the following forms:
- Gender/Gender identity/Gender expression: People who identify as male and express traits considered to be traditionally masculine appear to experience more privilege than do people of any other gender. Additionally, those whose gender identity and gender expression conform to societal gender norms have a level of privilege as well. Individuals who are cisgender–whose gender identity matches gender assigned at birth–may experience more privilege than those who are transgender. For example, people who are cisgender can typically expect to be referred to by the correct pronouns and not be subject to intrusive questions about genitalia, surgery, or medical treatments. Those who are transgender may also be subject to discrimination in the workplace and other environments and fear disclosing their gender as a result, even when constant misgendering causes dysphoria and other mental distress.
- Sexual orientation: While people who identify as heterosexual may make up the majority of the population, the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm is a problematic one. Even individuals who are accepting and inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations may, without meaning to, default to heteronormative assumptions. These assumptions can be seen, for example, when one expresses surprise upon seeing a female coworker with her girlfriend or when one assumes that a man who is about to be married will be marrying a woman.
- Class: Those who have higher socioeconomic status or belong to a more powerful social class often benefit from class privilege. A man attempting to start his own business who is both white and wealthy may have easy access to multiple investors, for example, while a woman who is black and not wealthy who desires to do the same may face a number of challenges when seeking startup money.
The Role Privilege Plays in Oppression
Privilege and oppression have a strong association with each other. A person who belongs to a privileged group may benefit from oppressive systems enacted by that privileged group, whether they intend to or not. Those who are aware of privilege, however, may work to address the way it appears in their lives. Simply being aware of one’s privilege can help prevent instances of harm or oppression. Members of an oppressed group may at times oppress others within the group. This may be done subconsciously or in a conscious effort to reduce instances of outside oppression.
Individuals belonging to a group that experiences privilege may still experience oppression. In the United States, those who are white often experience greater privilege than those who belong to other ethnicity groups. White males are typically considered to be the most privileged group, but a member of this group who somehow deviates from societal expectations or norms or is somehow deemed lesser by other members of the group may still experience some form of oppression. For example, a white man may experience oppression from other white men when he displays certain emotions, if he has a disability, or if he is not heterosexual.
Privilege and Mental Health
Some people who have come to understand their position of privilege may struggle with feelings of shame and guilt, but no one chooses a privileged existence any more than they choose one of oppression. Conversations about privilege are considered to be important and necessary for greater awareness, and those who are aware of privilege and oppression may often choose to use their privilege in order to benefit those who are oppressed and work to reduce further oppression.
Discrimination and oppression can take a toll on a person’s mental health. People who have experienced systematic and psychological oppression are often at greater risk for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and posttraumatic stress. In some cases, pursuing specialized mental health treatment may be helpful. Some may find feminist therapy, a strength-focused approach that places an emphasis on social justice, cultural context, empowerment, and social transformation, to be beneficial. No matter the type of oppression experienced or the group that one belongs to, therapy can be a safe and positive place to discuss experiences and explore methods to achieve empowerment and growth in spite of oppression.
Those belonging to groups that experience significant oppression might experience feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. These feelings, too, can be addressed in therapy or in groups that facilitate open-minded dialogue between those who often experience privilege and those who may more often experience oppression. Addressing topics of privilege and oppression in positive ways, in groups where all members have equal standing, may help further equality and growth.
- David, EJ. R. (2009, January). Internalized oppression, psychopathology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy among historically oppressed groups. Journal of Psychological Practice, 15, 71-103.
- Forms of Privilege. (n.d.). In Media Smarts. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/diversity-media/privilege-media/forms-privilege
- Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, Power, and Difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill. Retrieved from http://facweb.northseattle.edu/jbautsch/Search%20Advocacy%20Materials/Privilege,%20Oppression,%20and%20Difference.pdf
- Rothman, J. (2014, May 12). The Origins of Privilege. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege
- Vidal, A. (2014, January 15). ‘Intersectional feminism’. What the hell is it? (And why you should care). The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10572435/Intersectional-feminism.-What-the-hell-is-it-And-why-you-should-care.html
- What is White Privilege?. (n.d.). In White Privilege Conference. Retrieved from http://www.whiteprivilegeconference.com/white_privilege.html
Williams, S. (2014, February 10). Got Privilege: What is Cisgender Privilege and Why Does it Matter? Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/causes/got-privilege-what-is-cisgender-privilege-and-why-does-it-matter.html
- Williams, S. (2014, August 21). What is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important? In Care2. Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/causes/what-is-intersectionality-and-why-is-it-important.html
Last Updated: 12-8-2015
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