If you’ve spent any amount of time online, particularly reading about issues related to inequality, you’ve likely heard the term “privilege.” This word is commonly used to describe a group of people whose day to day lives are made more just or safe simply because they belong to a particular social group. These “dominant” groups can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. A dominant group is defined as a social group that controls the value system and rewards in a particular society, or a group that has more power than subordinate groups. This imbalance exists in government, business, the entertainment world, educational systems and more. For example, there are more men than women in government, white children tend to have greater access to high quality education than children of color, certain benefits that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples may not be not available to same sex couples, and many of our public spaces do not accommodate people with disabilities. Typically, if you’re a member of a dominant group— for example, if you are white or heterosexual — you are said to have privilege in those aspects.
This concept can be confusing for anyone who may have a certain kind of privilege, but doesn’t feel “privileged” in the way that the word is usually understood. In this context, privilege does not necessarily mean that you are wealthy or that you have unlimited opportunities. Instead, privilege is defined as the opposite of oppression, the opposite of being subjected to unjust treatment. You can be disadvantaged in some way (e.g., income) and still have privilege. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh famously described what privilege means in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” She gave 50 examples of how white people have “privilege” just by being white, ranging from the ability to shop without being followed or harassed by store employees, to being late without having the lateness reflect on the race as a whole. At its core, privilege is an unearned set of benefits given to people who fit into a particular social group. When other social groups do not get these same benefits, that’s the definition of privilege. Ideally, the benefits that come from privilege are the way that everyone should be treated.
It is understandable to look at privilege individually — i.e., your own personal experience with privilege and oppression — but privilege is about the system as a whole. Privilege does not “guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else. A white person, for example, can work hard and have little to show for it, can be mistreated by the police without cause, be denied a job they’re qualified for. What privilege does is load the odds one way or the other so that the chance of bad things happening to [privileged] people as a category is much lower than for everyone else, and the chance of good things happening is much higher.” It is also intersectional, meaning that the different aspects of privilege and oppression can interact with each other. For example, if you are a gay white woman, you may experience oppression based on being gay and a woman, but you still have privilege as a white person. As Phoenix Calida put it,
“Being poor is hard. Being poor and disabled is harder.
Being a woman is hard. Being a trans woman is harder.
Being a white woman is hard, being a woman of color is harder.
Being a black man is hard, being a gay black man is harder.”
Because nobody asks for privilege, having privilege does not make a person bad. It is simply a fact of our current social structure, and something that we should all acknowledge when talking about issues like racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, ableism and more. Understanding privilege — and how it impacts people’s lives — is an important step in becoming a more empathetic person, and being part of the solution to the injustices that plague our society.
While this cartoon leaves out one important aspect of privilege — gender — it is still a very helpful illustration of the concept.