Understanding privilege

Some organizations talk about privilege and have developed a common and shared language around what it is as part of their diversity initiatives. Other organizations don’t yet have a common understanding.

We can think about privilege as:

“Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.” ~Peggy McIntosh

The idea of privilege can trigger people in a lot of different ways. The reaction can be, “Are you kidding me? Do you know how hard I had to work to make it here? And you’re saying it was all handed to me?” People can feel genuinely attacked at the idea that their accomplishments are the result not of their hard work, but of their class or race or sex or other group. And, when feeling attacked, we can go into fight or flight.

On the other hand, this response can cause others to feel frustrated at the inability to grasp what appears obvious. “We don’t know who discovered the water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t the fish” is a quote which sums this up. It can be very hard to see what we take for granted. Sometimes we believe everything we’ve done was done in a vacuum, all by us, alone. But this is never true. We always had help, from someone, on some level. The idea of privilege simply points out that one way in which people can have help is because of structures existing in society such as racism or sexism or socioeconomic class.

Believing privilege alone explains why a person is successful (and thereby diminishes that success) is a common misconception. Gina Crosley-Corcoran, MPH, explains her difficulty understanding white privilege given her own impoverished childhood in an article in the Huffington Post. She writes about how the concept of “intersectionality” helped her understand what people were talking about. Intersectionality refers to the notion that privilege is much more nuanced than we commonly think of it. You may have privilege because you are white, you may lack privilege because you are disabled. You may have privilege because you are male, you may lack privilege because you are homosexual.   You may lack privilege because of membership in more than one group. In other words, privilege exists or does not exist in the intersection of all of these things, but in a nuanced way.

This comic explains how privilege can work in simple terms.

This scholarly treatment of the subject is also a good read.

The important thing to remember is talking about privilege can trigger people. If it triggers you, notice your own reactions and ask yourself, “Why?” Remember, accepting the idea of privilege does not denigrate all of your hard work. You don’t need to defend yourself personally. All recognizing privilege does is to acknowledge different people have different advantages. I think we can all agree on that basic truth.