Privilege 101 ish

(I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to talk about this, but I’ll give it a go.)

Privilege doesn’t often come up around people who have it, and when it does it’s generally knocked down with privilege denying and people not bothering to find out what the terms mean before getting offended by it. If you start looking into people who talk about privilege, then you’ll probably see words like “supremacist” and “oppressed” that push quite a few buttons and make people want to deny. But most of the words aren’t quite as harsh as the kyriarchy wants you to believe. So, what is privilege?

First, you have to know that there are groups who are privileged by society and groups who are marginalized by it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there are laws in place that support or even allow this to happen, but the way society is set up it does anyways. One example is that heterosexual people are privileged over people with any other sexual orientation. Even if all the laws were made so that you can’t fire or otherwise discriminate against someone for not being straight; if most relationships in the media are straight couples/only portray other sexualities as tokens and not people in their own right, straight people would still have privilege because their sexuality would still be treated as more normal and natural and acceptable. No one has to say anything against other sexualities, but subtle othering still makes it clear which one society feels is right. People who are privileged by society have privilege.

There is nothing wrong with having privilege. Almost everyone has a few. White, male, cis, binary gender, straight, sexual, vanilla, monogamous, temporarily able bodied, neurotypical, singlet, native english speaker, non-intersex, middle+ class, access to education, thin, “attractive”, etc. I’m sure that I’m missing some. If any of those describe you, you have privilege. A few of those describe me, I have privilege, I may even have privileges over you and you may even have privileges over me.

Not having one privilege does not negate having a different privilege. A person who’s bisexual may still have cis privilege and can still be anti-trans, even though they don’t have straight privilege. Also, not having several privileges results in intersections that can be harder than any privilege alone. For example, women lack male privilege and can face misogyny because of it. People of color lack white privilege and can face racism because of it. Women of color can face misogyny and racism at the same time (and separately), often with the racism amplifying the misogyny but each can amplify the other, they also have a harder time finding safe spaces because they can face sexism from men of color and racism from white women.

Another important point is that not all lacks of privilege are visible. Not all people with disabilit(y/ies) are in wheelchairs or have assistive devices that are obvious, some don’t even use them and overall appear to be a temporarily able bodied person. Not being visibly disabled can limit some day-to-day oppression and result in being treated better by strangers, but this does not erase the oppression completely. It can even be more problematic in cases, people will question or even try to remove the person’s right to use resources designed to help people with disabilit(y/ies) because of it.

Checking your privilege is hard, but do it anyways. Checking your privilege involves becoming aware of your privilege and how it benefits you over other people, trying not to do anything to actively further or abuse your privilege (such as using language that isn’t othering), and listening when people you have privilege over tell you that you’re doing something offensive or hurtful to them. Checking your privilege is a lifelong journey that’s never really over, and can be difficult. Most human beings don’t like hurting other people, and it’s very uncomfortable to find out that you’ve inadvertently been benefitting from the hurt of other people who’ve done nothing to you. It’s natural to feel guilt, but don’t let the guilt cause you to only focus on how your privilege effects you or try to make people you’re privileged over ease your guilt. That’s going in the wrong direction. It’s okay to think about how your privilege effects you, but the focus should be on how it effects the people who don’t have it, not on the people who do.

You do not deserve praise for checking your privilege. You might get it, but you are not owed it. The people you’re privileged over are not obligated to tell you how you’re doing such a great job checking your privilege or to put aside what they’re doing to help you or anything else. Again, you might find people who will tell you how you’re doing a great job and people who are happy to help you do it. But don’t expect anyone to do so. Never demand that someone educate you or help you check your privilege. Again, this is just completely working in the wrong direction.

Also, a note about “ally”. Other people may consider you to be an ally, but avoid identifying as one. Identifying as an ally means that you are creating an identity based on the oppression of other people. This is not a good thing to do. It can also be very easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking that now they’re an ally, they’ve finished checking their privilege and can’t be offensive or bigoted. This is not true- the best ally in the world can slip up and say something completely horrible and thinking otherwise will make you more likely to abuse your privilege and ignore people who tell you that you have.  It’s fine if everyone you meet considers you an ally. Don’t consider yourself one.

Now, about the language. Some things you’re liable to see are things like racist and sexist and supremacist describing people like you, maybe you’ll be called that. Now, these are pretty loaded words. It’s really bad to be a racist or a sexist or a supremacist! Well, it certainly is not good, but the words don’t mean exactly what they mean when most privileged people think of them. Supremacism, for example, just means that you think one group is superior and entitled to dominate or control them. Essentially, supremacism means feeling privilege is justified and the status quo is fine. It does not mean that you want to physically or even directly emotionally hurt anyone, it does not mean that you support genocide or feel that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. You don’t have to BE a supremacist to say or do supremacist things and even people who work to further the rights of marginalized groups can say and do supremacist things.

Being supremacist just means doing things to reinforce privilege. This can be very minor things that you wouldn’t think twice about, things like laughing at jokes about how women aren’t actually capable of things even if you don’t believe it. This reinforces privilege because it gives the message that it’s okay to say these things. Not everyone who makes or hears those jokes believe that women are equal to men, and your laughter can make them think that you also feel they aren’t, it gives them the okay to feel that way. The same with saying “lame” or “retarded” or “gay” to mean bad or useless, all of these give the idea that people with disabilit(y/ies) and non-heterosexual people are bad or useless. And while you may know that they aren’t, the people who you use this language around may not, and will take your usage like that to mean that you agree that they’re useless and bad, that it’s okay to think that people are useless and bad. This is why you MUST be careful with language and language is NOT harmless.

Because the words used when talking about privilege often have different connotations than the same word used in other contexts, make sure you know what a word means before you react. Some people use words differently than others, so even if someone is using a word that you’re familiar with, just in a way you aren’t used to, ask to make sure you’re using it in the same way. There’s nothing more aggravating than having an argument with someone only to find out you agree completely, you just understand the words differently.

If someone accuses you of bigotry or supremacism, be open to the idea that you’re guilty. It isn’t good to be bigoted or supremacist, but it’s far better to be bigoted and supremacist but willing to work to change, than to refuse to change. Which would you rather do? Work to make sure you actually aren’t bigoted or supremacist, or remain so while pretending you aren’t? Don’t just demand that the people around you tell you that you aren’t bigoted and, even if they freely tell you you aren’t, really think about the possibility. Not all people you have privilege over think the same, what one considers offensive another considers acceptable. So you need to listen to as many people as possible. Even if you don’t think you were, it’s very possible that someone was hurt by what you did and it’s worth the time to think about if there’s anything you can do to avoid doing it again.There’s a lot of language or actions that you may not find offensive, but is offensive to people you have privilege over, so it’s good to make sure that you really consider it whenever anyone calls you out for being offensive in some way. This can be one of the most difficult things to do when trying to check your privilege, but it’s one of the most important.

There’s also something that may be awkward to handle, but is the result of the way a person without a privilege can (and often does) have another and can even have privilege over you. It is very possible you will meet people you have privilege over who are privileged over you who will do and say bigoted and supremacist things against you and who have not checked their privilege. One example of this dynamic is trans people and intersex people. Trans people have privilege over intersex people by not being intersex, intersex people have privilege over trans people by not being trans. As a result it’s not uncommon to find ignorance and anti-trans bigotry in the intersex community OR to find ignorance and anti-intersex bigotry in the trans community. This can be very painful for both trans people who try to check the privilege they have over intersex people and intersex people who try to check the privilege they have over trans people. (it also puts people who are both intersex and trans in a very bad position of not being safe in either community) This can make checking your privilege difficult, but should NOT be used to justify prejudice against people you have privilege over. Just like you, they are people and are just as fallible and have been just as taught by society that they deserve the privilege they have over you. If they started checking their privilege over you, you wouldn’t want them to stop and decide that they’re right to be prejudiced just because people with privilege over them abuse that privilege. You shouldn’t do this, either. But, you should look out for yourself and make sure you’re emotionally able to handle the prejudice before you seek out resources. It’s okay to do that, it’s better than burning out trying to force yourself to handle things you can’t.

This is not a be-all end-all resource, but I hope that it’ll help you with the difficult but worthwhile journey of being aware of, checking, and hopefully even working to limit the amount of privilege you have over other people.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Privilege 101 ish

  1. Great information!! I definitely learned about some ideas I wasn’t already aware of in regard to Privilege.

  2. Nice writeup. The Ally note is one I haven’t considered in the past, I guess nobody has called me out on it before.

    Privelege is a great concept because its a far more nuance scalpel to dissect cultural relations than simply “racism”, which gets badly misinterpreted to simply mean “racist acts”. Most white folk however with enough explaination will be able to grasp that they have had advantages in life at the expense of people of color, and thus whilst they might not consider themselves a racist person (and in fact might not be racist at all) they still benefit from the rewards of a white supremacist society.

    So in my usual line of activism, anti-racism stuff whilst I’m always dealing with white folks being utterly confused at the idea that racism is more than just yelling the N word at black folks, or refusing to hire blak folks, the privelege concept is one thats easier to grasp, and in turn THEN one can start explaining the idea that racism isnt just an event but a set of social relations.

  3. So well written. Thank you.

  4. David U.

    Thank you for this!

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  6. Sarah

    This article is great! I always try to explain to my students how using words to explain negative things can have such a negative impact on how we view certain groups of people. They always respond that they are “joking” and know the difference (although it seems they do not most of the time…) Any suggestions for several alternative words I can offer (middle school) students to describe their emotions without using terms correlating to derogatory remarks about groups of people?

    • I don’t have a lot of experience with middle schoolers or teaching in general. Good job trying to help your students understand such things, though!

      Generally, adviae them to think about what they usually mean by it and use that instead. Like when they say “that’s so gay”, they don’t mean “that’s so attracted to the same sex”, they usually mean stupid/pathetic/bad/painful/etc. Most of the time people say things like that, they don’t intend to be hurtful or bigoted (unless they are bigoted, I mean), it’s just something their friends do, but those words are hurtful and upsetting, so reminding them that saying things like that hurts people might help. Also remind them that even if they’re joking, not everyone who says it that way is joking- so when they say those things, some people will think that they’re not joking and think that they’re against gay/black/female/whatever people.

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