Most of us have heard about privileges. Working towards equality, inclusion and change requires that even more people are aware of their privileges. But what are privileges? How can we better understand our privileges?
What is privilege?
Privilege refers to the advantages, benefits, conveniences, rights and overall favourable treatment someone can enjoy as a result of their belonging to a certain social group.
A social group is a group of people who share at least one common characteristic. Such characteristics can be age, sexual orientation, gender, race, ability, religion, nationality, class and so on.
In order to make the notion of privilege understandable and more accessible people have come up with different metaphors to think of it despite the complexity that usually accompanies discussions around it.
A common way of describing privilege and the lack thereof, therefore, is like the wind that gently carries one forward or pushes others back. Another, as writer and scholar Sara Ahmed has suggested, is to think of privilege as a device that by making things easier for us it helps us save energy -or as she calls it, as an ‘energy saving device’.
These two metaphors make it easier to visualise privilege and to realise that it can play a role in many settings.
What are some implications of privilege?
As a result, privilege can for example make some seem more employable, give others more credibility or enable them to travel (inter)nationally with little to no worries about the infrastructure’s accessibility or their financial resources. Owning this device called privilege makes things easier and saves energy on many different levels.
Concurrently, the absence of privilege can mean for example experiencing all kinds of harassment in the streets, being refused services or employment because of one’s race or origins, having to answer prying and ignorant questions about one’s sexuality and partner(s), being constantly misgendered and more. Having the wind blowing in the opposite direction costs energy.
So is anything that saves us energy and makes our lives easier a privilege?
Yes and no! To understand when something is a privilege and when not, we have to understand the following main aspects of privilege.
Privilege is the result of power dynamics
Privilege is not just anything that makes our lives easier – although almost anything could be related or traced back to privilege. Rather, privilege is the direct result of the power dynamics, the systems of oppression and the norms of the society we live in. Hence, belonging to social groups that are considered the norm, that enjoy more power or are higher in society’s hierarchy also means having more privileges than other groups.
Coming, for example, from a(n upper) middle class family, being a man, being white, being cis, having no disabilities and so on, means having more privileges than others who do not belong in each of these groups.
Privilege results from intersectional power dynamics
This brings us to the next point: privilege is intersectional. Because we belong to many social groups at a time, we also have different kinds of privileges. For example, coming from a(n upper) middle class family and being a migrant or a Black man also involves different privileges than coming from a(n upper) middle class family and being a white woman. These privileges intersect with one another creating new combinations and ways of experiencing and viewing the world.
Privilege is relational
Furthermore, privilege is relational. Privilege exists in the general context of the society we live in and only in relation to other people. So while our privileges intersect with one another based on the social groups we belong to, they also only exist in relation to our and other people’s position in society.
Take for example a working class white migrant man with no disability. In a society that favours men, he is more privileged than women. At the same time, in the same society that favours native citizens he is less privileged because of his migrant status. Despite this, he is more privileged in relation to BIPOC migrants and native citizens, because the society they all live in treats white people like himself favourably or as the norm. Yet his working class background positions him in a less advantageous place than that of a middle class white woman, affecting therefore his education and career goals differently. Similarly, because he has no disabilities this man has access (of all kinds) to places that people with disabilities do not.
It is important to note here, that because privileges are relational this does not mean that they cancel each other out. Just because a working class (white migrant) man is less privileged because of his class than, for example, a middle class (white) woman, it does not mean that he ceases to be privileged because of his gender. And vice versa: just because she is a woman, this does not mean that she ceases to be privileged because of her middle class. In different settings their privileges benefit, support, protect them and save them energy differently.
Privilege makes itself invisible
Because privileges are the result of society’s power relations, they also (tend to) make themselves invisible to those who have them. When we grow accustomed to having the wind gently pushing us forward or the energy saving device helping us do things with less effort, we eventually forget their existence. The favourable way we are treated, the doors that open for us or the opportunities that are given to us because of this wind become the standard way we navigate and perceive society.
White men and underprivileged people
Given the above aspects of privilege, it is not surprising that people often talk about ‘white, cis, middle-class, heterosexual, men’. These men’s belongingness to so many social groups that hold power in society, is what grants them so many privileges that, like a wind, carry them forwards. And the more privileges are accumulated the harder it is to see them and the ways they shape our perspectives and worldviews.
It is when others –usually those less privileged than ourselves– draw our attention to this wind or energy saving device we’re carrying with us everywhere that we become aware of the different ways we are privileged. Because of the relation privileges have to power, it is not surprising that realising, accepting and working against our privileges is very often met with resistance, denial and defensiveness.
‘...are you sure it’s because you’re migrant/woman/Latino/queer/Black/from a working class/etc.? Maybe you did something (wrong)?’
‘...this has never happened to me (so it can’t be true)’
‘...I am a(n) ally/good person/poor/migrant/woman/etc., I’m also discriminated against (and therefore) I’m not privileged!’
Working against our privileges would not only mean to question the structures that are aiding us daily. It would also mean to change how we perceive ourselves in view of inequality and the oppression of others.
Konstantinos has studied Sociology and Gender Studies. They spend a lot of time thinking about (their) migrant life in Germany, queer and feminist politics and the ways feminist knowledge can become more accessible.
Sources & Further reading
Feeling Depleted - Sara Ahmed - https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/11/17/feeling-depleted/ (en, intermediate)
What is Privilege? - University of Central Arkansas - https://uca.edu/training/files/2017/11/Privilege-What-Does-It-Mean-Handout.pdf (en, beginner)
What is Privilege? - United Way - https://unitedwaysem.org/equity_challenge/day-3-what-is-privilege/ (en, beginner)
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack - Peggy McIntosh - https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf (en, with questions on privilege and self-reflection, beginner to intermediate)
Relational Privilege & the value of listening - Anthony James Williams - https://medium.com/@anthoknees/relational-privilege-the-value-of-listening-2c43fc10536e (en, beginner to intermediate)
Privilege exercises - Portal Intersektionalität - http://portal-intersektionalitaet.de/forum-praxis/methodenkonferenzen/intersektionalitaet/2018/3-methodenkonferenz-privilegientest/ (de, with some material in en, intermediate)