“Privilege” is a word you’ll hear often in social justice spaces, both offline and online.
Some people understand the concept easily.
I am writing this in English. You are able to read it. Congrats - we are both privileged.
Others – and I was like this – find the concept confusing and need a little more help.
Before we get started, I want to clarify that this blog is not entirely comprehensive. That is to say, it’s not going to explain everything there is to know about privilege. But it’ll give you a good foundation on the basics.
Think of privilege not as a single lesson, but as a field of study. To truly understand privilege, we must keep reading, learning, and thinking critically.
We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.
Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion, to name a few.
Because privilege is normalized, it can be challenging to recognize at first. Recognizing and addressing your own privilege will be a constant process that will require a great deal of reflection and adaptation over time.
Addressing privilege is usually uncomfortable and you may experience a range of emotions from defensiveness and anger to guilt and defeat. As difficult as it may be, it is important that you commit to recognizing and addressing your own privilege.
Because privilege in so uncomfortable, discussing privilege can often bring about “hot” moments in the surroundings.
Privilege, simply put, is societally granted, unearned advantages accorded to some people and not others. Generally, when we talk about privilege, we are referring to systemic or structural advantages that impact people based on identity factors such as race, gender, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexuality, class, and body type. We might also include the level of education and other factors of social capital under the umbrella of privilege.
Privilege is inextricably linked to oppression, because, while systems, social norms, and biases are advantages for some people, there are others who are disadvantaged by those same systems, norms, and biases.
For example, think of a flight of stairs. Stairs are in virtually every building with more than one floor and in many outdoor spaces. It is generally assumed that people have the physical ability to walk up the stairs to access higher floors. However, a person with a physical disability that makes them unable to walk upstairs must contend with the assumption that everyone who needed to get to the second floor would have bodies that could use the stairs. The design of buildings that privileged some bodies contributed to the oppression of others.
Some of the most common defenses against privilege refer to the validity of personal achievement and personal struggles. People want to have total ownership of their achievements and may resist attributing aspects of their success to unearned advantages. Similarly, people may feel as though privilege somehow invalidates the reality of the challenges they faced. This is not the case. Having privilege does not necessarily mean that someone hasn’t struggled; however, those struggles can’t be attributed to the oppression of aspects of their identity that are privileged. And often privilege makes an individual’s struggles easier to overcome than they would have been otherwise.
For example, if a student who speaks English as a first language and a student who speaks English as a second language are both taking the same test, the test may be very difficult even without a language barrier. The first student may have studied very hard, lost sleep, and struggled while taking the test. The second student may have studied just as hard, lost just as much sleep, but the language barrier of having to mentally translate during the exam adds a level of difficulty that the first student did not have to navigate. This doesn’t mean that the first student didn’t earn an “A,” nor does it in any sense take away from the hard work they put into preparing for the exam. However, it does mean that their privilege allowed for them to take the test without the additional obstacle of having to translate.
A PERSON’S ABILITY TO SPEAK A CERTAIN LANGUAGE CAN ALSO DETERMINE HIS OR HER POSITION IN THE SPECTRUM OF PRIVILEGE.
Fluency in English is also recognised as a corollary of other forms of privilege which is also something I cannot deny. However, when understanding a person’s language privilege in a country like India, English speaking privilege has to be contextualized.
OUR COUNTRY IS ONE WITH A LOT OF DIVERSITY AND WE WOULD ALL BE MUCH BETTER OFF RECOGNISING IT FOR WHAT IT IS, RATHER THAN TRYING TO HOMOGENISE IT.
Among the Privileges I hold are
Caste Privilege: I had no idea what my caste was until my eight class. I had never been affected by it, and hence, I was oblivious to it. This is the clearest way privilege works – by rendering itself invisible. Being unaware of my caste privilege was the clearest symptom of my caste privilege. I will never have my admission and progress in university doubted or dismissed because of affirmative action policies. My achievements will be lauded as a result of my hard work, my caste privilege never being taken into account, while any achievements by lower-caste peers will be ignored in favour of scoffing at their reservation category. My family’s upper-caste privilege has allowed me easy access to education. With even my grandfather holding a degree, I never had to doubt the fact that I would receive the best education possible. I have never gone to school and made to feel like I don’t belong, been asked to clean toilets because of my last name, or been stigmatised to the point of suicide.
Class Privilege: My caste privilege certainly lends itself to my class privilege, as the two intersect widely – 93% of Dalits live below the poverty line. I have the luxury of never going hungry and being able to take education for granted. I have the luxury of not immediately getting a job after graduation – I can take as much time as I need to “figure it out” and “follow my heart” (all implicitly class-tinted truisms). I can walk into malls or restaurants with watchmen not treating me with suspicion and disrespect, mobility of access not granted to the lower class.
Religious Privilege: While I personally identify as an atheist, I have an outwardly Hindu sounding name, which cloaks me in the privilege of hegemonic Hinduism. Being viewed as a [upper-caste] Hindu means I will never be treated like a cultural outsider on the basis of my name or religious practices or my eating habits. I do not have to prove my patriotism repeatedly for fear of false terrorist charges being slapped on me. I will never be discriminated against in the search for houses or jobs, that are frequently denied to Muslims on the basis of their religion.
Ability Privilege: As a mentally and physically able-bodied person, I do not face the oppression that comes with being disabled. Everyday objects and buildings are designed for me to use. My choice of university or workplace is not limited to those that offer wheelchair accessibility. I do not have to look for subtitles every time I want to watch a documentary screening. My body and its abilities are not made into swearwords like ‘retard!’ or ‘lame!’, or into the punchline of a Helen Keller joke.
Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of privileges. Neither are the examples identified in each kind exhaustive of the atrocity against the oppressed.
These privileges do not exist in isolation. They intersect with each other to create a multiplicity of oppressive relationships- a matrix of domination.
(Detailed Research Paper- http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/252.html)
But privileges and oppression are not mutually exclusive of each other. One can be the victim of certain kinds of oppression and complicit in other kinds of systems of oppression.
Oppressions too, do not exist in isolation. In fact, they interact in specific ways to produce specific kinds of lived experience – experiences that those with privilege never have to face, or even consider. This interaction of oppressions is called intersectionality.
Male Privilege: Being a man automatically entitles one to a bunch of privileges. Right from being the preferred sex at birth, men live their lives being valued much more highly in society than women. They are much less likely to be raped, harassed or sexually abused as they go about their daily lives – in the home, on the streets, or in the workplace. Excluded from the expectations of childcare and homemaking, they are allowed to focus solely on personal growth and career-building which adds to their societal value, while domestic work is not considered productive labour. Being a man confers upon them the privilege of self-worth, something that is constantly whittled away from women in several ways – from being seen as baby-making machines to being valued exclusively for our physical appearance to body-shaming (so that this coveted physical appearance reaches unattainable standards).
So now what?
Acknowledging privilege is an uncomfortable process. It might make you feel guilt. It might make you defensive – but I didn’t ask for this!
Unfortunately, giving up privilege is not really an option. We are born into our privileges, and while we can adopt some practices that shed us of directly oppressive practices that we are complicit in, we cannot entirely rid ourselves of our privilege.
So how do we contribute to social justice movements we believe in while occupying the privileges we do? How do we, in other words, be good allies to minorities?
Acknowledging our privilege is definitely the first step, but it cannot be limited to that. Some identity politics theorists have criticised the ‘acknowledgment of privilege’ as being nothing more than a cathartic way for the privileged to get over the guilt associated with privilege.
You can push back on privilege in a number of ways. Challenge those systems that accord privilege to you and not to others. It is very important for you to speak out to members of your own social group when they undertake practices that reify privilege. Men should stand up to their male friends when they are making sexist jokes. The able-bodied should demand wheelchair accessibility in the buildings they frequent. Producers of media should strive to represent more marginalised categories in their TV/films/comics/novels to increase representation.
But the most important way to be a good ally is to listen.
Make sure your voice is not drowning out the voices of the marginalised. The voices of the privileged often occupy centre stage – there are constantly reports of all-male panels talking about feminism, and all-Savarna academics writing about Dalit movements. As a holder of privilege, one needs to take the back seat and make sure one listens to the lived experiences of the oppressed, as these are often never heard.