2.14.2017

The "P" Word: Privilege


Do your eyes glaze over when you hear the word privilege? What about white privilege? What kinds of feelings does that phrase stir in your heart? Do you feel defensive? Do you stop listening? Well.. I hope today you'll push back whatever your gut response is to the "P" word and stick around a bit to learn about my own journey with privilege.

Something I commonly hear my clients, friends, and family say is "I'm not privileged because..." this usually ends in something like: I grew up poor, I had to work for what I have, nothing was handed to me, and so on and so forth. And those arguments are valid, however, they don't diminish your privilege. Let me explain. 

Peggy MacIntosh describes privilege well:
“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. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.”

See, privilege isn't just about advantage, it's about power. Those with privileged identities experience advantages individually, institutionally, culturally, and so on due to their identity. Those with oppressed identities may have certain advantages, but they lack the power of the privileged group. Privilege is inherently tied to power. One of my favorite shorthands is: "If you don't have to think about it, it's a privilege." Now, this is a VERY simple explanation, so keep that in mind.

We all have many different identities such as age, race, ability status, citizenship, and so on. So, while you may be privileged in some identities, you may also be oppressed in others. Below are some examples from my own life. 

Race: White (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: I am never asked to be the spokesperson for other white people. When I open history books, I can find people that look like me. I can be certain that flesh colored band-aids will be similar to my skin tone. 

Ability Status: Able-bodied (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: I never have to worry about whether a building will have accessible doorways and restrooms. I don't have to be concerned about whether or not a television program or movie will have closed captioning.
*side note, here's a great podcast episode about ableism I loved.

Language: English (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: I won't have to worry about whether restaurant menus will be in my preferred language. I can expect that important documents like tax forms and legal information will be in my dominant language. 

Religion: Christian (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: All of my religious holidays are also federal holidays. I can worship freely without threats of violence.

Size: Small/Thin (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: I can be certain that I will fit in most chairs and seats. I can purchase clothes in my size in most stores. I can find people that share my body size in the media and advertisements. 

Sex: Female (oppressed)
Disadvantages: Chances are high that I will be paid less than my male counterparts in the workforce. When sharing about my experiences with sexually harassing comments made by men, I might be told I am "in the wrong crowd."

Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual (privileged)
Privileges/advantages I experience: I can get legally married in any state and rest assured that I can find someone to marry me. I can talk openly about my relationship and partner. 

This is only a small snapshot of my various identities and the advantages/disadvantages I experience as a result. As you can see, I experience an incredible amount of privilege. So, it's not that I haven't have a hard life and it's not that I didn't have to fight for where I am in life, but instead it's about the fact that society is structured to serve many of my identities. I experience particular advantages because of my identities.

It's important for us to be aware of the various privileges we experience and to be allies for those who do not share the same privileges. Just as I want those who are privileged to stand up for me in the areas where I experience oppression, I want to be able to recognize my own privilege so I can stand up for those who are oppressed. Doesn't this feel extra timely in the current climate of our society?

So tell me, what are your thoughts on privilege? Which identities do you identify with that are privileged and which are oppressed? If you haven't thought about this before, I encourage you to take this opportunity to do so! I want this to be a safe space where you can process these things without fear of being attacked. 

Want to learn more? Here are some of my favorite reads on the topic:

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