What’s Your Privilege?
Today I wanted to talk about an extremely important topic, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it in just one episode – but I’m doing it anyway! It is the discussion of equity, power, and privilege.
In order to broaden our perspective, we have to begin to analyze the individual, systemic and structural systems in place in our society that give power to some groups or individuals and not others. I will start by saying that I am not the go-to resource for learning about this. There are many educational resources out there, many of which I will quote in this episode, that can help you to understand the full breadth of these issues that I will link in the episode show notes for you to reference. Remember that I am learning about many of these topics with you. But I feel like not talking about it at all would be amiss.
I think the point of this episode is really to use my position as a podcast host with many unearned advantages to begin to spread the spark or curiosity to those who may not have done so already to look at the unearned advantages or privileges we all have so that we can begin to weaken the systems that uphold them. To change these systems, we have to be able to see them and understand them – and then take action to change them.
This isn’t to blame, shame, or guilt anyone – or even to preach about the right thing to do or say. I’ll give some definitions and pose some questions and thought exercises you could use that might help you get started thinking about this complex topic and let you take it from there.
I think the first place to start is to give a few definitions – but remember that getting stuck in these definitions can prevent us from thinking critically about them. So take everything cited and said here and question it.
So the first is a term I’ve already used – unearned advantage. This term was drawn from the work of Peggy McIntosh – American feminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and Author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which is her reflection and observations on systemic and personal privileges.
In that piece, Peggy says the unearned advantage is an exemption from discrimination. So having a privilege is the often subconscious “upside” to not being oppressed or discriminated against because of membership to an identity group.
Vanderbilt University explains privilege further saying;
Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups. In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:
Middle or owning class people;
Privilege is characteristically invisible to people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned, and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent.
Unlike targets of oppression, people in dominant groups are frequently unaware that they are members of the dominant group due to the privilege of being able to see themselves as persons rather than stereotypes.”
So being able to broaden our perspectives will require us to look both at privilege in ourselves and societal systems.
Agent + Target
Something they mention in that text is dominant groups, also known as agents – and targets. The online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California defines them this way.
Agent: Members of dominant social groups privileged by birth or acquisition who knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of the target groups.
Target: Members of social identity groups who are discriminated against, marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, or exploited by an oppressor and oppressor’s system of institutions without identity apart from the target group and compartmentalized in defined roles.
Then that begs the question of what is oppression – to which the USC Social Work Program says
The key features of oppression are:
- An agent group has the power to define and name reality and determine what is normal, real, and correct.
- Differential and unequal treatment is institutionalized and systematic.
- Psychological colonization of the target group occurs through socializing the oppressed to internalize their oppressed condition.
- The target group’s culture, language, and history is misrepresented, discounted, or eradicated, and the dominant group culture is imposed.
The Four Levels of Oppression (the “ism’s”) happen and are reinforced at all levels.
The four levels are:
- Individual: feelings, beliefs, values.
- Interpersonal: actions, behaviors, and language.
- Institutional: Rules, policies, and procedures – think about our legal system, education system, public policy, hiring practices, and media images.
- Societal/Cultural: collective ideas about what is “right.” such as beauty and truth.
Let’s reflect for a moment.
Think about your name. What does it mean? Who gave it to you?
What identity groups do you relate to the most? Think about your Gender, race, ethnicity, ability status, sexual orientation, education level, religion, age, socio-economic class, language, nationality, or any other groups or identities you feel tied to.
Can you reflect on ways you may be the agent or the target of oppression due to your identity? What about factors at an institutional or cultural level?
For example, my name is Lena – and my privilege stems from being white, cis-gendered, with a master’s education, no disabilities, resources to food, access to health care, and familial support. On the flip side, identifying as a woman puts me in a target group for oppression. I haven’t been immune to life’s hardships, but I also have unearned advantages that have put me above the rest of society just because of how I was born, and the resources afforded me because of my identity.
Take a moment to reflect on your identity.
So our personal beliefs and actions, whether subconscious or not, can perpetuate oppression. But what about systemically? Dominant groups in power have put institutional and structural policies into place that perpetuate these systems of unearned advantage. Institutional oppression comes from policies and practices, and structural oppression deals with how those institutional effects interact and accumulate across institutions and history. That is systemic.
The American Dream
The widely held belief in the American Dream and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is an example of the myth of meritocracy. If we work hard, be good people, and have the right attitude, we can succeed as individuals regardless of our identity groups and institutions. But believing we can achieve on merit alone has led to many people overlooking their privilege and not understanding that not only are they at an advantage, but others are at a disadvantage – and even further that our systems prevent upward mobility equitably across all groups.
Think about how you, your parents, or others in their lives got to where they are today and what systems and identities may have led to that. Research by Lorriz Anne Alvarado says the best way we can enact change is to “realize our “full potential as initiators and participants in institutional change efforts” (Astin & Astin, 2000, p. 67). Once we can reflect and make change within ourselves, the next step is to make an effort to change our surrounding communities.”
Similarly, Peggy McIntosh says that we can use our privilege for change by brainstorming how to use our unearned advantages to share power and create equity among society and our institutions. This could be through speaking up, intervening when we see something isn’t right, becoming an ally, volunteering, organizing your groups towards a goal, using your resources such as your time, money, education, or connections to help others and more.
As I mentioned at the beginning – this is really to get you to observe, reflect, and think with a broader perspective.
tips for Discussing Privilege
If you choose to discuss this subject further, here are a few tips from a social worker on Global Citizen that may help you discuss privilege with others or even dig deeper yourself.
1. Lead with empathy
Like we talked about last week – try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes or emotions, maybe asking them how they are not privileged first so they don’t feel attacked, and then following up with ways that they think they may be privileged. Remember that leading with empathy allows us to be more open-minded and increases our chances of problem-solving.
2. Understand that privilege is relative
Just because we don’t have certain privileges doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from other privileges. “Our identities are nuanced and intersectional.” Once we realize all of our identities are multi-level, it makes it easier to work together for a more equitable world.
3. Remember that Systematic injustice is good for no one
This is a full quote from Global Citizen,
Systemic privilege hurts everyone.
Consider white privilege – For instance, in the US white privilege is a construction created by rich Europeans who wanted to combine their wealth by pitting poor Europeans against Indigenous and African peoples working as slaves. Poor white people were made to feel that they were superior to other races, and were given small privileges over people of color to create diversion. What this meant was that poor white individuals got to be superior to blacks, but still were not on equal footing with wealthy whites. Ultimately, these privileges don’t create advantage for the vast majority of the population, and subsequently, this division creates unfairness – and that’s bad.
Similarly, men have social and economic privileges over women. This is created from a deep-rooted patriarchy that prioritizes men over women. Male privilege isn’t helping anyone ultimately, though – it doesn’t help families where mothers make less than male partners, and it doesn’t benefit women in helping to advance the fields of science, math, technology, journalism, finance, and engineering. We all lose when people are treated unfairly and not on the merit of their person.
Ultimately, in order to move from a space of marginalization, people need to confront their privileges and recognize that inequality helps no one.
4. Don’t take it too personally
When discussing privilege, you don’t need to feel guilty or defensive. One of the things I’ve stated since the beginning of this show was to give yourself grace. As I mentioned, systems perpetuated these inequalities, many of which happened long before you were born. It doesn’t help us or the world to feel guilty; instead, we can lead with empathy and compassion and then follow with action. We can use our privilege for good and work together to share power.
5. Consider ways to equalize power
You’re already doing this by reflecting on the questions in this episode. Continue to dig deeper and ask more questions – what can you do to stop the cycle? How can you take an active role in your organizations to stop the cycle? Start to broaden your perspective using the tips from last week’s episode, which will help you to understand others better so we can work together for a better world.
Something to grow on
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I want to challenge you to continue this conversation with at least one friend or family member. Pose to them some of the questions I asked you today, and see how their experiences may look different from yours. Brainstorm ideas for ways to enact change in your own life or organization. Then next week, maybe you pick another friend or family member and get their experience. The more we learn about our friends and neighbors on Hometown: Earth, the better we will be able to support one another and the sustainable planet we all hope to see one day.
I know this is a topic I’ve been meaning to hold myself accountable for learning more about, and I hope you choose to do the same.
My inbox is always open if you want to chat.
Until next time, thanks for joining me, neighbor.
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