March 19th, 2012
My last post included a basic definition of privilege. There are some basic characteristics of privilege that I think are also helpful in considering privilege. I do not remember where I came across them, but they should be credited to someone other than myself. They have proven to be pretty valuable for me.
institutional domination: This is about who sits in the seats of power. So, on a national level we can consider who serves in the formal leadership roles of government (President, Congress, Mayors, Governors, etc.), business (CEOs and Directors of Fortune 500, etc.), media, education, and religious institutions. Are these roles dominated by a particular group, or is there obvious balance and diversity? Institutional domination can also lead to psychological domination, because it creates a very narrow picture of what success, knowledge, power and leadership look like.
cultural domination: This is about who defines mainstream culture (behavior patterns, symbols, institutions, values, traditions) and determines what is good and what is valued. As well as what is not. So, again if we look at this on a national level we might consider our cultural standards of beauty. If I were to open up Vogue or Cosmo magazine would I see examples of beauty in a lot of shapes, sizes, colors and ages? Or. Or. Or, would I see beauty as being a very specific shape, a very specific size, a very specific color and a very specific age? We could also look at historical figures that we celebrate and those we have largely discarded (Malcolm X for example). We could also consider the holidays we celebrate, how groups are portrayed in films, etc. Do these things come from the perspective of a particular group or are they representative of a diversity of experiences and identities.
normalcy: Identification and labeling of people and things that fall outside of cultural and societal norms. I am a white male and if I were an astronaut, a senator, or a gifted heart surgeon the laudatory articles about my accomplishments would not identify me as white or male. I would simply be Astronaut Gerstandt, Senator Gerstandt or Suave, Sophisticated and Talented Dr. Gerstandt (all of which look straight up crazy to me when I see them actually typed out). As a white male it is completely “normal” for me to be an astronaut, senator or doctor. I can be assumed to be white and male. But it is not uncommon to see articles that talk about a “Muslim Representative,” a “lesbian teacher,” or an “African American doctor.” Different from the norm.
superiority: Ideas about “normalcy” and lead to ideas of superiority; differences get translated into “better than” or “worse than.” Difference is not viewed as natural and valuable, it is wrong and this leads us to evaluate behavior not on the behavior, but through the lens of who is doing it. So we have “thrifty Christians,” and “cheap Jews.” Same behavior, very different value being attached because of who is doing it. “Active and concerned citizens” vs. “angry blacks.” “Strong and demanding boss” vs. “bitchy female ladder climber.”
So, you can look for these characteristics or indicators. In your organization, your profession, your community do you see any of these?
Privilege is social pathology, it distorts reality for all involved. Anything that distorts reality is inherently violent. Privilege pits people against each other, when it is the underlying social terrain that they should all be focused on.
Those that benefit most from privilege are the least likely to see it, because rather than bumping up against it, they benefit from it…just like one might benefit from a nice tail wind when riding their bike. You might very likely not even realize that you have a wind at your back, rather are pretty impressed with your own fitness as you fly down the trail. And from there it becomes pretty easy to adopt the belief that others (who do not have a wind at their back, or might be riding into the wind), simply need to work harder, complain less, etc.
Do you see evidence of any characteristics of privilege in your organization?
Do you see evidence any characteristics of privilege in your profession?
If you see evidence of privilege, do you feel called to action?
Be good to each other.