Privilege, a word frequently used in social awareness circles. It’s a word that perfectly exemplifies innate biases and prejudices, and yet far too few people understand what it actually means and treat the concept with scorn or disdain.
A Brief History
The concept of privilege has a long history, and is entirely owed to African Americans. It dates back to 1920 when William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote about how rare awareness of a person’s whiteness was, and in 1935 went on to describe how personal whiteness sought to divide the working class against itself. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr mentioned the concept in a letter he wrote from jail in 1963:
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
Many of the aspects of white privilege were developed in the 1960s within black liberation movements, and the term was quite accurately used to describe the legal methods that were used to keep black communities segregated, even after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws (see also: Redlining). Journalist McCandlish Phillips used the term in an article for The New York Times in 1965 where he described the ways that the white political powers of upstate New York were blocking attempts to allow people of color to move into their area by actively preventing the introduction of affordable housing.
In 1969 a black resident of Chicago named Roy L. Brown wrote to the Chicago Defender in response to an essay published by a Berkeley professor, labeling the essay as a “racist defense of white privilege.” Brown argued that whites would always make a major pretense of having minority interests at heart, when really they would do their best to handicap and perpetuate white privilege. Brown then went on to write another scathing letter to the Chicago Daily Defender in 1971 titled “Racism: The Worst Tool of Cruelty”. It was such a long essay that they split it into five parts to be published across two months (sadly, I cannot find online copies of either letter).
In the 1970s, feminist zine Lesbian Tide published several articles mentioning both white privilege and male privilege. Radical Feminist Bernadine Dohrn wrote about how she had been complicit in supremacist politics “by standing on my anti-imperialist record in a self-satisfied way and self-justifying way, by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it.” Dohrn has a very intense history as a radical revolutionary, leading the Weather Underground (not to be confused with the meteorological website) that conducted violent protests against imperialist actions within the US government. Dohrn wrote that she felt guilty for her white privilege in the way she ignored the demands and desires of people of color within the organization. (Note: I’ve not been able to find any confirmation on Dohrn’s views on transgender rights, but she has been actively fighting the Trump administration).
The largest contribution to public awareness of privilege is credited to Peggy McIntosh, an educator at the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. In the late 80s she published an essay (originally lecture) titled “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. The essay sought to enumerate all the ways that Peggy enjoyed unconscious advantages over persons of color, and identified white privilege as an unconscious reality of the advantages that whites received unknowingly in their daily lives.
The essay also had some potent things to say about men:
I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s.
Peggy had a particularly scathing commentary about the male privilege she observed in this New Yorker interview (She even talks about “nice guys” in here).
Peggy’s essay kicked off a thrust of discourse surrounding the concept of all kinds of privilege present in society. No doubt, she herself is well aware of the irony that she, a white woman, made white privilege better understood by white progressives.
So What Is Privilege?
Privilege falls into two categories:
- Being Privileged
- Having Privilege
Being privileged, in which the term is used as an adjective, is a mental state where a person demonstrates a lack of humility and awareness to the socioeconomic statuses granting them easier accessibility within life in comparison to a person of lesser status. A privileged person does not acknowledge the privilege that they have and dismisses the problems of those with less privilege. Because of their lack of awareness, they see any attempts to level these advantages as attacks on their own rights, and will fight tooth and nail to preserve them.
Having privilege, as a noun, is being of a socioeconomic group that allows you easier access to something than a person of lesser privilege. For example, a white cis man has much easier access to job opportunities. This does not mean that he doesn’t have to work hard to get his jobs, or that jobs are being handed to him, it just means that they are more available to him than, for example, a woman of color.
Privilege does not mean that your life is easy. It does not mean that you did not experience hardship. It does not mean that you did not take abuse for being of that group. If a white man walks into a racially charged neighborhood where he is clearly not wanted, any abuse he receives for being white does not negate the fact that he still has white male privilege, because the instant he leaves that neighborhood he returns to his previous status.
Privilege takes many forms, including but not limited to:
- Race (white or white passing)
- Sexuality (straight)
- Gender (male)
- Gender Presentation (gender binary conformance and gender normative dress)
- Class Origin / Financial Access (born into a wealthier/prestigious family, or simply not born into poverty)
- Social Access (friends and family in positions of power)
- Physical fitness (thin/athletic)
- Ableness (lack of mental illness or physical disability)
- Allistic (lack of autistic traits)
There are also minor privileges which have nothing to do with oppression and are simply advantages due to circumstance. In 2016 I had the exceptional privilege of working for a corporation that could pay for me to attend FluentConf in San Francisco (which was no cheap convention to attend). This put me front row to watch Kyle Simpson’s magnificent keynote, where he spoke about the privileges he was extended not only as a white male but also as a conference speaker. Many of his expenses were paid, he was granted special access to parts of the conference, and afforded many opportunities to spend exclusive time talking to other speakers. It’s a brilliant keynote, even if you aren’t tech minded, and I recommend watching it. I cried through his conclusion (and this was pre-estrogen).
Differing privileges overlap, but a lack of privilege does not negate the presence of another privilege. For example, my status as a lesbian trans woman does not negate the privilege I receive for being white, cis passing, and conventionally feminine.
Receiving privilege does not make you a bad person, nor does it necessarily mean that the person granting that privilege has ill intent. While some forms of oppression are very deliberate as a result of conscious discrimination (overt racism and misogyny, for example), many others are the result of completely unconscious biases, as well as systemic biases that have been in place for decades. Humans tend to favor those who are like themselves, and whenever a particular trait gains a majority, this produces bias against those not in said majority.
Due to a long history of men being the dominant members of the workforce, there are more men in the workforce, and thus people seeking employment are more likely to be interviewed by men. The banking industry in America has been dominated by white skinned ethnicities for longer than the country has existed, which means that those likely to be processing loan applications are more likely to be white and male. A bank is also highly motivated to deny loans to people who are at risk to default. Thus, a poor black woman with no credit history is going to have a far more difficult time obtaining a loan than an upper middle class white man with a high credit score.
There are some things, however, which are not privilege. Some misogynists will attempt to make a claim for “female privilege” because of various patriarchal standards and requirements in male and female relationships, such as the expectation that a man should ask a woman out, pay for meals when dating, and provide gifts. They’ll cite expectations in decorum (holding doors for women), attitudes towards men in women’s spaces, and even the allowed existence of women’s only spaces when man only spaces are deemed discriminatory. These are not examples of “female privilege”, but in fact are examples of the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity oppresses men equally to women, and the mere fact that these men blame women for these problems is itself a demonstration of male privilege. Some of the grossest examples of male privilege are men filing lawsuits over women’s only events, because they just cannot handle the idea of a space that doesn’t center men. Of course, stick these guys in a birthing ward and they’ll quickly take their leave.
Affirmative Action is not a form of privilege, but in fact a mechanism to counter privilege by actively inserting gates against systemic biases. Its entire purpose is to protect socioeconomic minorities from exclusion in programs that can help them the most.
Handicap protections and provisions are not a form of privilege, as they exist to help make the lives of handicapped people just a bit less hard.
Any system whose entire purpose is to improve the lives of those less fortunate is inherently not a privilege.
My Own History of Privilege
Growing up as a closeted trans woman left me feeling an awful lot like that person walking somewhere they didn’t belong. Unbeknownst to those around me, I was constantly being abused for my status as an AMAB Woman, but it would be ludicrous for me to suggest that I did not have male privilege while presenting male. I absolutely did, I knew I did, I owe my entire career to it, I owe my financial status to it, and I owe my family to it. I undoubtedly would not have met my wife if I were presenting female 13 years ago.
For large chunks of my life I was also privileged in the adjective sense as well, because I was not at all aware of the ease of which I moved through life relative to others who were not white, not male presenting, or any number of other privileges that were extended to me. I did not come to understand privilege until my early thirties, well after I had already started my career and family. Once I did become aware of it and I saw it all around me, I could not unsee it.
We bought a minivan in the fall of 2017, well after I had come out to Kat but before I had come out publicly, and half a year before I had changed my name, so I went to the dealership presenting as male. The salesman centered me during the entire exchange, even tho Kat was sitting right there with me and we were buying the car together. I was silently steaming through every single interaction, knowing full well how my outward perception was altering the interactions. If we hadn’t been buying the car at a previously established price, I probably would have gotten a better price than a black couple would have for the exact same vehicle. If I had been visibly trans, the sales person likely would not have been as warm and enthusiastic to work with me. Yet, in spite of me knowing what was happening, it still happened all the same because my actions and my lived experience do not affect how other people interrelate to me based on my appearance.
That is what having privilege is about, how other people interact with you based on their perceptions of you. Privilege is extended to you, not something you possess. You can attempt to shirk it, you can use your privilege to raise others of lesser privilege, but you will still have it regardless simply because of the happenstance of the life which you were born into.
Some forms of privilege can be lost, for example I have absolutely lost my cis male privilege. I will never again be seen as a man, and that means that if and when I have to go job hunting again, I will no longer have the advantages that I had before. I am actually rather terrified of the prospect of ever having to get a new job as a woman, because I know just how much harder that is.
I have also lost my cisgender privilege, but this gets more complicated because as someone who appears to be AFAB in most settings, my cisgender privilege has been replaced with passing privilege. That passing privilege is immediately lost whenever someone googles my name, because my online identity is quite unequivocally transgender. It’s right there on the first page of google results. That status as a trans woman significantly lowers my position and prestige in cisgender society, and any time I have to make that status known I risk a lot.
And yet, among trans people I am exceptionally privileged. I had minimal gatekeeping in my transition, access to healthcare, ability to afford the medications and procedures that made my transition so smooth. I have a home that I am in no risk of losing, I kept my job after coming out, I lost very few friends and family members.
Checking Your Privilege
A few days ago there was a post making the rounds on instagram about AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), and how many words and phrases that originated within black communities but have become common within mainstream slang. A lot of these words comes from black queer culture (especially drag culture), and have been popularized by shows like Pose and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Some of the words on this list, however, have been part of American pop culture for decades. The post was stating that non-black people do not have the right to use these words, as they are not part of their culture. They came from black communities and they belong to black communities, and use of them by non-black individuals is a form of cultural appropriation.
Now, I had a big problem with this, not with the concept, but because a lot of the things that they listed were terms that have become so mainstream that they have become part of my culture as well, and I felt anger that I was being denied something because of my racial heritage.
Similarly, last week I got into a twitter argument with a friend of east-asian descent concerning the sexist messaging present in the movie Mulan (the film puts forward a lot of problematic messages about girls and doesn’t properly negate them). Her stance was that I was not allowed to critique the movie because I am not of asian descent. I felt very bothered by this, since the film is an American film that I grew up watching, and the messages I mentioned were also messaging I received and internalized frequently due to my religious upbringing.
Both of these incidents were cases of me failing to acknowledge my own white privilege, of me acting privileged. Part of me knew this in the moment, but I didn’t want to admit it.
When a person tells you that you are being privileged, it is not meant to be an insult, it isn’t a debate tactic, it isn’t a dismissal. It’s them trying to tell you that you have a blind spot. The proper response is not to argue with them; if you’re driving a car and somebody tells you “Don’t merge, there’s a car there,” you don’t argue about the existence of the car. You listen, you check your blind spots, and you correct your position.
Don’t be the asshole who gets into an accident because of your ego. Take it from me, you won’t feel good when it happens.
- A Cultural History of Privilege
- New Yorker: The Origins of Privilege
- White Privilege: A History of the Concept
- Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide