The Relativity of Privilege

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about privilege, especially after I received some great feedback from one of my posts on White Privilege.  Based on the suggestion of a friend, I was going to write this week on the concept of Straight Privilege, but after reflecting on some of the regular conversations I have with folks in the work that I do, I thought it might be better to start in a more general place.

In my post on my own religious bigotry, my friend Julia commented, mentioning the importance of having “an accurate spectrum to contextualize [one’s] suffering in comparison with others.”  Right there, and in a much more profound and concise way that I ever could, Julia got right to the heart of social justice work.  So often in working with young people around the country, I bring up the concept of privilege (perhaps white, wealth, male, straight, Christian, or abled privilege), and I immediately hear the chorus: “But I’m not privileged!  I grew up [insert tough circumstance].”  And in a lot of cases, they’re right . . . they do lack privilege in the particular area that they are describing!

To understand the concept of privilege, though, is to understand the relativity of privilege.  Now, if anyone knows privilege, it’s me.  I’m a straight, white, able-bodied male from a wealthy, Christian, American family.  To quote Louis CK, “How many advantages can one person have?  You can’t even hurt my feelings!”  Hell, I’m even tall and relatively good looking, if I do say so myself (thanks mom and dad for those good-looking genes as if it wasn’t enough for you two wealthy, white people to produce kids!).  There aren’t many ways in which I can complain of being shortchanged, let alone oppressed.

That’s not the case for most folks, though.  In fact, the majority of people in the world lack privilege in important areas of their lives.  Understanding issues of social justice, then, means understanding the ways in which our privilege is relative to those around us.

For instance, white folks, particularly middle-to-low income white folks, often bristle when the subject of white privilege is brought up, saying, “I’m not privileged.  I’ve had to work for everything in my life.”  True . . . in our class-based system, those toward the bottom of our economic ladder definitely lack the privilege of the wealthier classes and often have to work a hell of a lot harder to simply get by, and there is commonality in that class struggle.  As Hip Hop artist Immortal Technique puts it in his interlude The Poverty of Philosophy, “I have more in common with most working and middle-class white people than I do with most rich black and Latino people. As much as racism bleeds America, we need to understand that classism is the real issue.”

At the same time, though, race profoundly affects the class realities around us.  Because identity is complex and our identities intersect with social realities, a white person could be from an impoverished family and still have a tremendous amount of privilege compared to a person of color from a similar circumstance.  After all, white folks are 50% more likely to get a call back in a job application simply because their name sounds white, and once you get a job, if you’re a person of color, you’re likely to make far less than your white counterparts.  Hence, we white folks have at least some relative privilege over people of color (if not a tremendous amount).

(For example: white women earned 73.4% of what white men earned in 2001; in the same year, black women earned 84.8% of what black men earned).  Taken from Hillary M. Lips’ amazing article in Women’s Media.

Then you insert gender, and the relativity gap can widen.  After all, even though women are making incredible gains in the working world, they still can expect to only make $.80 for every dollar a man earns out of college, and by the time they’ve been out of college for ten years, they can expect to earn $.69 for each dollar a man earns.  Once gender and race intersect, the portrait gets even more grim.  This also speaks nothing of the privilege we as men enjoy as we, statistically, don’t need to fear the realities of sexual violence on a daily basis, and we don’t need to carry the burden of knowing that we are far more likely to be physically assaulted or killed by an intimate partner (though this is not to say that these things do not happen to men).  We, as men, are pretty privileged in our society!

Aside from race, class, and gender, identities can only get more complex.  People can struggle with different levels of physical or mental disability, particularly as our society is built (both physically and mentally) for the traditionally-able.  People can be forced to hide their sexual orientation for fear of being fired or becoming the victim of a hate crime.  Folks can benefit from being of the dominant Christian majority or suffer as members of religious groups targeted by regular hate speech.

Arguably the most important first step in working toward justice, then, is for us to consider our own privilege, recognizing the ways that we may be marginalized or oppressed within our identity but also recognizing the ways in which we benefit from privilege.  All men, even if oppressed as a member of a group of color, must look to recognize the ways in which we are privileged over women and must act accordingly by, say, speaking out against sexual violence and building more positive sexual relationships with our partners.  All white folks, even if a member of the middle-to-lower class in the United States, must recognize the ways in which we are privileged over people of color and act accordingly, say, by supporting accountable affirmative action initiatives, by speaking out against racism in our workplace, or by simply recognizing our privilege and listening accountably to the lived experience of people of color.  All able bodied people must recognize the ways that we are privileged to live in an able-centric society and speak out against workplace or housing ableism and discrimination.  All straight folks, regardless of our views on the morality of homosexuality, must recognize our privilege and speak out for equal protection in the workplace or speak out against gay-abusive language in our schools.

Each and every one of us has a role to play in building a just society, and our role starts with understanding our privilege.

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17 thoughts on “The Relativity of Privilege

  1. […] much on my mind, and I have been thinking over a few of my past posts about white privilege and privilege in general.  If you haven’t yet checked them out, I would love to hear your […]

  2. […] a checklist for white people to compare themselves against misses the point.  The reality is that privilege is relative, and identities are complex!  Each person struggles with ways in which they have unearned […]

  3. […] makes me, I need to listen.  No matter how much I would like to retort with a story about how I’m not as privileged as the other is assuming, I need to […]

  4. […] makes me, I need to listen.  No matter how much I would like to retort with a story about how I’m not as privileged as the other is assuming, I need to […]

  5. […] makes me, I need to listen.  No matter how much I would like to retort with a story about how I’m not as privileged as the other is assuming, I need to […]

  6. […] Privilege manifests itself in many forms.  One very simple way to see privilege, though, is to look at the ways that White parents are […]

  7. […] the concept is one of the most important ones in my life.  An ally is a person of identity privilege who works against the system that affords them privilege at the expense of others.  In doing so, […]

  8. […] her in the context of her own community and the people she worked with at the time.  As such, privilege is relative, and we need to talk about it that […]

  9. […] her in the context of her own community and the people she worked with at the time.  As such, privilege is relative, and we need to talk about it that […]

  10. […] such, privilege is relative, and we need to talk about it that […]

  11. […] doing so, we must keep in mind that our identities are complex, and while we may be denied voice in one arena of our life, in others, we may have incredible […]

  12. […] doing so, we must keep in mind that our identities are complex, and while we may be denied voice in one arena of our life, in others, we may have incredible […]

  13. This was a difficult topic for me for a long time. I’m white and have been badly beaten because of the color of my skin. I also lack privilege in a number of other areas, which has caused social, monetary ,and serious physical damage. While homeless, I was also denied access to many services (including food programs which had supplies that were being thrown away) solely because of my race. Consequently, I was very angry in school when forced to listen to black students talk about being discriminated against, while simultaneously being told it was impossible for me to be discriminated against.
    It wasn’t until reading an article online (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/) that I really understood what people were trying to communicate. It wasn’t that I could never be discriminated against- it was that, situation for situation, being white likely ensured I got somewhat better treatment than I would have if I’d been black. It made me question why those programs had hit the maximum number of white people they were allowed to serve while not even hitting their required minimum number of people of color, despite only 20% of the homeless population in the area being white.
    While I don’t think I benefited from my whiteness for the majority of my life, I also now realize I am an exception. I’ve had what my white friends consider unique, challenging, or horrible experiences… experiences which my friends of color consider fairly normal. For me,that difference in perception says volumes about the realities of white privilege in our society.

  14. […] And therein lies my point.  As people of privilege, it is our responsibility to listen and reflect when we are called out for the ways that our privilege impacts oppressed and marginalized people, even if we are oppressed and marginalized in other aspects of our identity. […]

  15. […] all, our identities are complex, and privilege is not a monolith.  In the case of Fortgang, his family did not come to this country with wealth privilege, but they […]

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