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Privilege 101: 5+ Links to Explain Privilege

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

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Privilege 101: 5 Links to Explain Privilege | Faith Permeating Life

Occasionally I write on here about privilege, which is one of those concepts that 1) people tend to react badly to and 2) is difficult to provide a precise definition for.

Thus, some people have come up with really excellent analogies, examples, and other ways to explain privilege.

As with my Resource Guide to Christianity and Homosexuality, I know that this is a giant topic and there are many people out there who have spent far more time than I have studying and thinking about it. Thus, rather than trying to summarize others' points on this, it seems more expedient to direct you to their original thoughts.

These are by no means the best things ever written on privilege, but they're a handful of things I've read that have stuck with me and helped me understand privilege and explain it to others. I suggest taking the time to read through and reflect on each of them.

What's Privilege? by Emily Sullivan Sanford

Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege by Sindelókë

Privilege: Invisible Advantages by Dianna E. Anderson (Part 2) (Part 3)

Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi (Part 2) (Part 3)

Oblivious to Privilege by Haley at Permission to Live (Part 2)

The Distress of the Privileged by Doug Muder

What does it mean to be privileged? by Jamelle Bouie

Privilege Says... by Christena Cleveland

Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People's Grammar on the Internet by Painting the Grey Area (Part 2) (Part 3)

Derailing for Dummies (If the site's down, check here.)

Grace for the privileged too? by Rachel Held Evans (Be sure to check out the comments as well)

The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck by Melissa McEwan

Nine things I wish economically privileged people in my life knew by M at Class Rage Speaks

30+ Examples of Christian Privilege by Sam Killermann at It's Pronounced Metrosexual

For more, I invite you to follow my Pinterest board of Great Posts on Privilege & Social Justice and read the follow-up post, Why Should We Care About Privilege?

Please share links and other explanations in comments. What have you read that has helped you get, or better explain, the concept of privilege?

UPDATE: Since posting this, several people have shared other great posts about privilege with me, so I've added those to the list above and will continue to do so.


  1. People do react badly to discussions of privilege, but there is often a reason for that.

    I have seen too many discussions of privilege devolve into "reverse" racial, gender, and religious stereotyping. It's too easy to go from saying that straight white male is the "lowest difficulty setting" to thinking that all straight white males have an easy life.

    Put another way, when an affluent white woman (or affluent black man) tells a not-so-affluent white man that he is privileged and they are not, well, let's just say it tends to make him want to listen to right wing talk radio.

    The other problem I have seen is that discussions of privilege often turn into complaint sessions from the relatively privileged about how they aren't the most privileged instead of turning into action that helps the truly underprivileged.

    For example, I once did the JustFaith program in my parish.

    The program claims: "Through workshops and programs, JustFaith Ministries helps participants to expand their commitment to social ministry within their faith communities."

    The reality was that most of the program was privileged people spending an hour a week complaining about Church and governmental politics. The time and the discussion could have been far better spent.

    The whole experience left me a bit cynical about discussions of privilege.

    1. This!!! Plus, people forget that there are a lot identity intersections that affect the levels of privilege (race, 'class', gender, religious, social location, family structure, immigrant status, nationality, etc). The concept is called kriarchy(sp?) (http://www.deeplyproblematic.com/2010/08/why-i-use-that-word-that-i-use.html). I think thinking privilege in terms of kriarchy would more productive. I mean, most of world's social systems are based on the empire, hen pecking order mentality. We are not immune to internalize it.

    2. Yes, the point of discussing privilege is not to rank ourselves ("I'm less privileged than you") but more to be aware of what systems are in place that we don't notice when they're working to our advantage.

  2. My problem with discussions on privilege is that too many people spend a lot of time trying to define and identify instances of privilege but don't actually do much to try to ELIMINATE that privilege. Someone I know said that in college, she wore a button that said "I try to stay aware of my privilege," and I thought that was the most obnoxious thing I'd ever heard. Too often, discussions of privilege sound like people congratulating themselves on being "aware."

    1. Sad, but true. "Awareness" of privilege doesn't help anyone. Nor does the groupthink that frequently goes along with it.

      I think the proper response to having privilege is not "awareness" and smug self-satisfaction, but gratitude. To be thankful for what we DO have, whatever that may be.

      Therefore, I see the solution not as ELIMINATING privilege (because I don't see the CONCEPT of privilege ever going away, even if the holders and forms of privilege change), but in using the advantages and privileges we have to help and to improve the situation of those who do not have them. True gratitude is giving back.

    2. This goes back to something I wrote about previously, that awareness is meaningless without action. Being aware of privilege is important because of how it causes us to act differently. Stay tuned for more about this in Friday's post.

    3. Okay, here's what I see happening a lot with the concept of "privilege":

      The Awareness Stage: You realize you have privilege, which you didn't ask for, and by virtue of which you may have been hurting people for your entire life without knowing it.

      This is quickly followed by the Guilt Stage: You realize you're feeling really bad, and you don't want to feel bad. Also, since you will always have some amount of privilege and there's really not anything you can do about that, you begin to feel powerless to change anything.

      In many people, it ends in the Denial Stage: Since recognizing your privilege makes you feel bad, and there's nothing you can do about it, you decide to not think about it, to conclude that the entire concept is unfair, or to decide that it doesn't exist.

      As a Christian, I would like to respond more like this:

      The Awareness Stage: As above.

      The Repentance Stage: Realizing that you can't do anything about your privilege, you can nonetheless realize that your ignorance about it may have caused others hurt and harm. You realize that no matter how bad you feel because of your privilege, others also feel bad because of their lack thereof, and they very often do not have the luxury of ignoring their feelings. You resolve to make amends for any hurts you have caused in the past if possible, try to do better in the future, and accept any feelings of sadness that arise from this as part of life on Earth.

      The Search for Understanding Stage: Since your level of knowledge or ignorance about oppression and privilege is the only thing you really have control over, you resolve to seek understanding of how others are impacted by their lack of privilege. You try to be as sensitive as you can to how others may be feeling and ask lots of questions of individuals in order to avoid stereotyping.

      The Solidarity Stage: You realize that oppression that stems from privilege harms people on both sides and therefore, you resolve to keep working on increasing your understanding (i.e. listening to those closest to the problem), making amends, and supporting those with less privilege in sensitive and appropriate ways.

      Can you tell I've thought about this a lot? ;) Thanks for your post, Jessica. I think the more discussion about this the better.

    4. Beautifully said. I can indeed tell you've given a lot of thought to this! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and giving people a better way to process learning about privilege.

    5. A lot of good points. Frankly, though, I'd like it if we could find another word for it other than "privilege." Too many people stop listening as soon as that word is used, and I admit that sometimes I'm among them.

    6. There are other words one can use in talking about the concepts surrounding privilege, which I've used many times before on here -- advantages, challenges, bias, diversity, assumptions. However, while I'm all for talking about things in a way that gets people to actually listen, I also want to be cautious not to "soften" privilege so much that people are comfortable enough hearing about it to be unaffected by what they hear. Especially in America, we have this cultural mythology that anyone can do anything if they just try hard enough, and that the people who succeed are by definition the ones who worked the hardest. Having that mythology disrupted is uncomfortable -- but necessary if we want to move toward a society in which that actually is closer to the truth.

    7. Rachel (glimpseintheglass), I am in love with your blog. Do you have an e-mail address or other way I could contact you? I would love to discuss some things with you.

    8. I'm so glad you like my blog, Jessica! It's very new, so I'm flattered to have a compliment from an experienced blogger like you. I've been reading all the archives of Faith Permeating Life as well and enjoying it very much.

      Please do email me at glimpseintheglass at gmail.com. We have a lot in common. Twentysomething radical Catholic women unite...

  3. Interesting articles. I do think the word "privilege" comes across as inherently loaded although I can't think of a reasonable substitute. I agree, though, that privilege is not going away--the world will always be an unequal place, and achieving exact equality would not be a worthy goal anyway. Being aware and considerate is a worthy goal, eliminating *unnatural* rewards of privilege is good, but some things can't be done away with.

    Also it's important to keep it personal. Quickly labeling people into "privileged" or "not privileged" based on assumptions about race, gender, orientation, whatever, is going to miss a lot of reality. My husband is a straight white male, but he is definitely not playing life on the easiest setting, having had a crippling disease since childhood (which, until he finally started using a wheelchair this past week, has been mostly non-obvious and therefore very hard and awkward to explain). The ability to know you are going to be able to get out of bed and walk to your car in the morning is a privilege, even though it is a widespread one--and I hope it remains so.

    On the other hand, through accidents of personal background, community, etc., a person might well not feel all the disadvantages usually associated with being in a particular category. For instance, due to where I've lived and who I've been around, I don't have the background to feel the anxiety about personal safety or unwanted sexual advances (or maybe I'm just clueless, that's another possibility) that is usually cited as a disadvantage of being a woman. (And I bet my former roommate, who in addition to a similar background is six feet tall and always packs heat, has even less such anxiety. ;-) ) Also in many career fields, being a woman is now a downright advantage (as my sister is finding in engineering).

    So . . . I guess all that is to say that the concept of privilege can be a good thing if it helps us examine our own assumptions, be thankful for our own blessings, be kind and compassionate to others. It can be a bad thing if it's used to treat people as group members instead of individuals, make assumptions about others, impute guilt on others.

    1. To your first point, there's a difference between wanting to eliminate differences and wanting to eliminate the disadvantages that people face because of differences. Emily Sullivan Sanford, who wrote the first post I linked there and who has a form of dwarfism, has explained why she had a limb-lengthening procedure -- not because she had a problem with the way she was born, but because the world was not set up to accommodate a person of her size.

      I think John Scalzi does a nice job in his follow-up posts (linked at the bottom of the Straight White Male post) of explaining how individual people's situations don't invalidate larger truths about the way systems work as a whole. So while a straight white male can still be disadvantaged in some ways, that doesn't change the fact that our society as a whole tends to work in favor of straight white males. Such a man might be in a wheelchair and thus have struggles that a more able-bodied person doesn't have, but he will still tend to face fewer challenges than a Hispanic woman who's also in a wheelchair simple because of his race and gender.

      You make a good point that we shouldn't assume that what's true in general for a group is true for any one individual. At the same time, the reverse is true, that we shouldn't explain away larger trends on the basis of individual experiences. In other words, if most women feel anxious about being out alone at night, and few men do, then even if not all women do, that still says something about our larger culture and not that each of these women have independently developed a feeling of anxiety. A man who feels no such anxiety and tells a woman she is overreacting is ignoring the fact that he is systemically privileged; he is far less likely to be followed, attacked, or raped. That doesn't mean he should feel anxiety, but he shouldn't dismiss someone else's experience just because he has no idea what it's like.

  4. We had this discussion on twitter about the difference between what is "privilege" and what is simply "life isn't fair".

    The difference, as I see it, is that unfairness is self-correcting, while privilege is self-perpetuating.

    For example, some people are born into wealthy families and some are born into poor ones. That isn't fair, but that's life. But in a world without privilege, the rich kids who squanders his wealth and talent will end up poor, while the poor kid who uses his talents and money wisely will end up wealthy.

    Privilege comes into play when society works to perpetuate the unfairness. For example, when the rich kid goes to an elite college as a "legacy admission" despite mediocre grades, while the poor kid who has studied hard must choose between an inferior education and crushing debt.

    The way I see it, unfairness is being dealt a bad hand, privilege is playing by different rules. But even in this analogy, it is not always easy to determine which is which.

    For example, gender issues are especially tricky. What is "male privilege" and what are the natural consequences of the biological differences between the sexes? Scientists and sociologists are constantly debating these things.

    I have found that being thankful for what I have leads to generosity, and a generous attitude makes you want to make a better world for others. Therefore, I would say that the key to privilege is ingratitude (not being thankful for what we have) and key to ingratitude is not being aware of the advantages we have.

    1. The wealth/school example is a good illustration of the difference between unfairness and privilege. And the reason I think more people need to understand the concept of privilege and its effects is because too many people think that we live in that "world without privilege" you described and thus attribute things like poverty to individual choices like being careless, lazy, unwilling to work, etc. More about this in Friday's post.

      I'm not sure I agree that gratitude necessarily leads to generosity. I think of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who says, "God, I thank You that I am not like other people." Nor does working to make change require first feeling gratitude and generosity. In some cases, becoming aware of privilege means becoming willing to give up some of those advantages. If a man becomes aware that certain systems are in place that, all else being equal, give men certain advantages over women, he can work to try to level the playing field ("make a better world") without first thinking, "I am so thankful I wasn't born a woman, who lacks my advantages" or "I must be generous to these poor women," both of which would be pretty terrible and patronizing attitudes to take.

    2. Yes, I agree with you, Jessica. Gratitude can lead us to help others in appropriate ways, but by itself it doesn't do much. Plus, it can lead to the idea that privilege can be good - and as I stated above, I don't think inequality due to privilege is good either for those who supposedly benefit from it or those who suffer because of it.

      I remember a discussion of privilege I was attending with some high school students and I mentioned that I could see one of the downsides of having privilege as having to live with the fear of losing it, and one very popular, pretty young woman looked at me and said, "Well, of course I feel that way. Why would I want to lose it?"

      Well, sometimes losing privilege is inevitable. For instance, we're all getting older all the time, and elderly people are a less privileged group in our society, which is obsessed with youth. People, especially women, have great fear (which is all too often sadly appropriate) that they will be less respected in many ways as they grow older. If privilege because of age did not exist, not only would the elderly be happier, but the young would also be happier because they would not live in fear of what will happen as they grow older.

      This is a fairly innocuous example, but you can easily see how similar situations affect how we feel about advantages we have due to race, class, etc. Feeling gratitude for how you have benefited from a system of inequality may, and often does, lead to fear that the system will fall and you will suddenly be on the other side of privilege.

    3. I think the point of the story of the Pharisee is to show that his "gratitude" wasn't gratitude at all.

      Gratitude, at least how I was thinking about it, leads to humility, which the Pharisee clearly didn't have. Perhaps this is the wrong word, but I am thinking of something that would inspire you to recognize the advantages you have (whatever they may be) and to use these advantages to give back, so to speak.

      I certainly don't think guilt or shame is the response. Or smug "awareness". That doesn't help anyone.


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