Privilege? Where?

I have been having a lot of conversations about feminism in the last few months.

Like, a lot.

I have been a quiet feminist for a long time. I followed feminist instagram accounts and read feminist things, but I mostly kept my thoughts to myself. Then there was one little bump in the road, barely worth remembering, and it opened the floodgates.

I’m one of those on the internet: sharing feminist things, having debates, and being a little bit sassy.

One thing people ask about a lot is privilege: “I don’t feel like I have any privilege over anyone else.” Well, the very fact you don’t notice your privilege is privilege. Because, trust me, the people who don’t have that status do notice.

In 1988, in one of the first essays about privilege, Peggy McIntosh described it as a “package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day,” later describing it as an invisible knapsack:

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes tools, and blank checks.

Peggy mcintosh, “unpacking the invisible knapsack”

McIntosh spoke specifically about race and gender: the “advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages” but also the advantages of being born white. Now, privilege is recognized in many other realms: class, sexual orientation, religion, education, age, physical ability, etc.

How many of these apply to you?

Sometimes people argue against these ideas by saying that everyone is capable of making different choices, but this way of thinking fails to recognize the roadblocks in the way for some that simply do not exist for others. You may not recognize it, but we are all living in a damaged culture with systems designed to benefit certain groups of people – usually white men.

You didn’t do anything wrong by either being born into privilege or being born into oppression. That’s not the point. It’s what you do with it that matters: do you fight to maintain the status quo, or do you use your privilege to lift others up?

It’s also important to understand that this is not always on an individual, person-to-person level: it’s large scale, institutional, and systemic. “While individual experiences are important, we have to try to understand privilege in terms of systems and social patterns” (Privilege 101). So yes, while people may not recognize their own privilege on a personal and individual level, they benefit from a system and society that benefits them at the disadvantage of others. Look at the above privilege bingo. How many of those squares do you fit?

Intersectionality is the idea that different factors in discrimination can overlap with others. For example, as a white woman, I experience the systemic disadvantages of being a woman but also the privileges of being born white. I was able to go to university, my parents are still married, I identify as cisgender (the sex I was assigned at birth), and I am also heterosexual. Also, despite my constant complaints to the contrary, I am not poor. I am bad with my money but not poor.

All of these factors come together to create my lived experience of privilege alongside oppression. They do not cancel each other out. I can speak about the experience of being a woman but when it comes to speaking about racism or ableism or other -isms, it is important that I allow the people actually living with that oppression to speak.

There’s a lot of criticism in feminist circles about white women because they often show up in spaces for people of colour to say “we’re not all bad!” But that’s missing the point. I don’t take it as a personal attack when I hear things like that: I recognize my own privilege and do what I can do dismantle oppressive systems.

Peggy McIntosh concludes:

“I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. So one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them.”

peggy mcintosh

There are ways to use your privilege in ways that help the “other.” But sitting on your hands, comfortable in the status quo, and saying, “not me!” is complicity. So, how do you use your privilege for good?

  1. Recognize and acknowledge your (white, male, heterosexual, etc) privilege.
  2. Speak out against (racism, sexism, oppression, discrimination) when you see it.
  3. Prepare to be uncomfortable. If it’s uncomfortable for you, imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for the people living it.

So we can sit around and pontificate about whether or not privilege exists, but that’s of real no benefit to anybody. Instead of crying “not all men!” or “not all white people!” channel that energy into actually doing something about it. Google is free, do your research.

Check your privilege, and ditch the knapsack.

4 thoughts on “Privilege? Where?

  1. I’m curious how being tall is a privilege? My dad was tall, he faced challenges with home design, car design, clothing and airplane seating. If he was around today he’d probably be in trouble for taking up to much space on the bus. I’m not saying he had a bad life but being tall didn’t make him automatically privileged. I’m a tall woman, just at the threshold of being too tall for some men to find me attractive. Buying shoes or clothes can be more difficult. I’m happy to be who I am but being tall doesn’t grant me any special privilege.

    What about not a red-head. I think red hair is attractive.

    My dad was intelligent, but busted his ass in the Navy so he could attend college on the GI Bill. I don’t his pursuit of education made him privileged, just hard working. Perhaps being a white male gave him privilege, but the pursuit of education wasn’t something that was gifted.

    And we can’t really know one’s internal feelings to know if they are emotionally healthy. I feel as if my dad’s intelligence was perhaps paired with an odd personality that made life somewhat more difficult. Perhaps he would be classified as somewhere on the spectrum today.

    I do agree that there are roadblocks for some, but this can simultaneously exist with the idea of choice. My sister has made many devastating choices in her adult life when had she stayed in the path she was on she would probably be much more successful than I am.

    Being Christian isn’t necessarily a privilege, especially if you come from a denomination that preaches that women are less than.

    I don’t disagree with some of the components listed in privilege bingo, but some of them are puzzling.

    But even if we think privilege is something that tips toward men, especially white men…there is no examination of lack of privilege for men. My son will be signing up for the draft next year when he turns 18, something my daughter did not have to do. Men are more likely have been engaged in combat experience as as a result suffer mental problems. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women.

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    1. Hi Kate, thanks for your thoughts and comment. Some of the things in the privilege bingo (it’s not original content from me!) were puzzling to me too. I’ll try to address these as best I can.

      With the height thing, there is a lot of pressure (on men mostly) to not be short, so I think that is where that is coming from. It doesn’t mean that life is perfect for tall people (for example, your dad) but there could be some social benefits from that height. There are also some drawbacks for some people from being tall. Privilege is not an all-or-nothing.

      As for university, there’s no denying that going to university takes hardwork, but for some it may be impossible (or at least close to impossible) because of financial reasons or other circumstances.

      As for emotional health, you’re totally right, but that is supposed to be for self-reflection. If someone is generally emotionally healthy (i.e. no severe mental health issues), then it doesn’t affect their life in the same way it would for someone with severe mental illness.

      Again, not that people who are “emotionally healthy” are always happy, but as I said, it is not an all-or-nothing.

      For redheads, they get made fun of quite a bit from what I can tell. There was a joke some time back about redheads having no soul, so I imagine that’s where that comes from.

      I think following a mainstream religion can definitely be a privilege, especially when we see how Muslims are talked about in the media. There is more privilege in being Christian than Muslim.

      I think it is important to recognize that privilege doesn’t mean someone’s life is perfect or that they don’t face difficulties. They just don’t face the same oppression as other groups. The draft is definitely one example, and I think there shouldn’t be a draft at all. But the people who put that draft in place? White men.

      I hear the suicide example a lot as well, and I think that can also be traced to the idea of “be a man, don’t cry, don’t show weakness,” again standards that are put in place by a patriarchal society. It could also be argued that men are drafted because of the oppressive view of women: weak, mild, stay at home, not capable of combat.

      I think the equality that feminism espouses benefits everyone.

      I hope this addresses some of your questions!

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      1. I’m not sure if I agree with your take on suicide, I think it is more nuanced than that. Certainly the pressure to be a certain kind of man fits in. Boys are more likely to be given psychotropic meds during their school years than girls. While I think in some cases they may be necessary we don’t always see that for some boys we aren’t meeting all of their needs. I think all kids need fresh air and physical activity but for some boys the lack is more troublesome if we don’t provide what is really almost as important as food and water.

        Perhaps the tall should be changed to “hasn’t achieved average male height”.

        I think of myself as mostly a feminist but having a son makes me think twice about some issues.

        There is no doubt that having the label of Christian has less baggage than the label of Muslim. I was talking about the damage done to women who participate in Christian denominations where women are treated than less than.
        Regarding the draft, just because a man put the draft in place doesn’t negate the lack of potential privilege for men. While it is unlikely that there would be a draft in my country, it is still the message that men are more disposable than women that is being received. If you don’t register for the draft when you turn 18 in the US you are denied certain privileges such as applying for a student loan.

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  2. Certainly it is more nuanced than that, and I don’t mean to downplay the high rates of men who have died by suicide.

    The point of the post isn’t to say that white men have it all, but merely to point out that in our damaged society, there are unequal systems at play, and those who do have certain privileges must consider how to use that privilege for good.

    I’m not sure that having a son should cause you to rethink feminism. The things we can trace back to the patriarchy have negative effects on everyone. Moving toward a more equal society benefits people on all sides. We should get rid of the draft entirely! I’m not even sure of its purpose since anyone can enrol in the military anyway. (A Google search tells me that the male-only draft has been ruled unconstitutional as of February 2019, but no changes have been specified). You bring up a good and valid point, and pretty much any feminist I have come across would agree wholeheartedly.

    I guess I’m just not sure that those examples negate the fact that men, generally, experience more advantages than women. It doesn’t mean that the issues you bring up don’t matter, but we can work toward making the world a better place for everyone, regardless of sex, race, orientation, religion, etc.

    Again, I’m not trying to say that people of privilege (in the examples you bring up: men) experience no hardship. Just that, generally and systemically, they possess privilege that others don’t and can use that privilege in a way that moves our society to a more equal one.

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