Got privilege?

The first time that someone told me I had “privilege” I just about flipped my lid. They could have just as well been speaking another language, the idea made absolutely no sense to me. I was certainly not living a life of leisure, perched atop some inherited wealth. Privileged? Absolutely not, I had worked hard. I served in the Marine Corps, working hard there, I had done well in college working hard there, I had (at times) done pretty well in my sales career and had (at times) worked hard at that. I was the opposite of privilege.

In my mind.

But then I met a dude.

I met a dude that shared with me his story of being gay and HIV+ and it is a pretty atrocious story and it is not atrocious because of him, it is atrocious because of the rest of us. He is a stand up guy. The two of us are in some ways different, but we also have a lot of things in common. One clear difference though has been in how we have been treated by people, groups and institutions.

This conversation illuminated for me that there were some very real differences in how people were treated by society. There is a certain amount of friction that comes with some aspects of social identity…that itself is problematic, it makes meritocracy, justice and democracy much more activist propositions. This conversation also really caused me to wonder how I would respond to being treated the way that someone else had been treated. I have never had to deal with a whole bunch of vile stuff that this guy had to deal with pretty consistently throughout his life.

None of this changes the fact that I had worked hard…it just added a bit more truth to the story and brought some attention to the context. In addition to my hard work, my natural and developed talents and probably a bit of luck, serendipity and coincidence, I also benefit from a great deal of privilege because of my social identity. Society views and treats me very differently than it treats my friend, simply because of the real or perceived social groups that we belong to. My privilege does not guarantee my success, it simply tips the scales in my favor; it does not guarantee my friends failure, it simply tips the scales against him.

The playing field is not level unless we make it so.

It was a few years later before I really dug into this idea of privilege when I began doing diversity and inclusion work. Peggy McIntosh, who I was later able to meet, helped greatly with a definition, some wonderful examples of how privilege shows up and by sharing some of her own story.

“Privilege exists when one group has something of value that another group does not, not because of anything that they have done or not done, but simply because of the groups that they belong to. Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance.”

This post is the beginning of a conversation around privilege. Think about a couple of things…

  • Does the definition provided here make sense?
  • Do you benefit from any privilege?

Be good to each other.

  1. Jeffrey Cufaude

    I wonder a lot about privilege, specifically this: if individuals work very hard and earns benefits that are conferred upon them, does their new status then afford them additional privilege that is bestowed upon them more because of the social group of which they are not part versus their merits of their contributions. Shorter version: once you’ve earned your way in, do you get granted permanent resident status?

  2. Sarah Imran

    I believe individuals that are in privileged situations often don’t realize their that they are living privileged lives until someone points it out to them, because they are normally surrounded by other privileged individuals. Is privilege something to be ashamed of or something to run away from? I believe it’s all about awareness, conscious choice an appreciation.

  3. joe gerstandt » Privilege as Pathology

    […] last post included a basic definition of privilege. There are some basic characteristics of privilege that I […]

  4. Karin

    We rarely hear clear, non-defensive, non-offensive discussions about privilege. Our bias, our human nature knee-jerk reactions to that which threatens our comfort keeps us comfortably in place-until something we can’t control forces us to see differently. And sometimes, even then we don’t get it. Witness the person who experiences a life threatening illness or accident, or loses a loved one suddenly emerging from their grief with a fountain of wisdom that the rest of us are supposed to heed. But that wisdom includes many privilege oriented ideas-that the support and care received depends on where you started from.

  5. Maira (@EmpowermentExp)

    This is such a timely post for me right now as I’ve found myself reclaiming my own privileges in the last couple weeks and really seeing how not claiming it has been an obstacle for having compassion for others who do not share my privileges.

    The definition you posted is spot on… “unearned advantage or conferred dominance” and the ramifications of this are deeply personal. As a Filipina woman I still have anger and bitterness for the years I spent wishing I was a white, blue-eyed, blonde haired girl b/c even before I could really think, I felt left out, sidelined or outright ignored.

    Through the years, I have met many folks, most of them Caucasian, that take the “I don’t see color” approach and this is so maddening. While I know that privilege takes many forms besides race and skin color, it is one of the most obvious. And when white folks don’t want to see color, it’s like they don’t want to see a huge part of my story and what makes me, ME.

    I could go off for ages about this subject. I am just thankful that you’re talking about it and bringing awareness to a hugely explosive topic for most involved, for those of us that want and need not only this kind of awareness but action as well.

    Many thanks!

  6. joe gerstandt » The Impacts of Privilege

    […] have already posted a definition and some characteristics. There are also a number of posts and articles that provide examples of […]

  7. Race and Politics

    […] in my “world.” It has been very eye opening for me, helping me to better understand my privilege. I am thankful that they trusted me enough to open up like that and share their world with me. […]

  8. Emily

    It is hard as a struggling poor person to realize that I have privileges, yet I obviously do. It begins with the assumptions made about me as a 30-ish attractive white female and spirals from there. It is important to constantly remind ourselves of our privilege and take steps to help the marginalized.

  9. Jason Lauritsen » Popularity is Suffocating Talent

    […] sure that meant I had a lot of benefits that I didn’t even recognize (for more on this, read Joe Gerstandt’s series of posts on privilege this week–powerful […]

  10. 20 Examples of Ability Privilege — Everyday Feminism

    […] Credit: Joe Gerstandt […]

  11. The Political Hat

    Much of this “privilege” shtick is hyperbole. That there are instances of discrimination against non-whites, non-males, and non-straights does not mean that the wider society is racist, sexist, or whatnot.

  12. Privilege, inclusion and HR – Thinking About Learning

    […] McIntosh via this blog post from Joe […]

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