One of the most amazing parts of a women’s studies education is the opportunity to put names to problems. The phenomena of women struggling with “the problem that had no name” is one that persists, even today: we experience discrimination, harassment, inequality, disempowerment, and oppression, but we struggle to define it, label it, or successfully articulate why it was wrong without the vocabulary to do so. As I’m sure you’ve learned from Tumblr, one of the most integral pieces of that vocabulary is the juggernaut: “privilege.” It’s common now, when we spot inequities, to label the unfortunate consequences points of “oppression,” and we’re very quick to assume the root cause of those inequities is, thus, a form of “privilege.” But sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s a universe in between and a lot of components that make privilege and oppression real things, and it’s fundamental to understand them.
The problem with broad application of these terms outside of their intended meaning is that they diminish their real truths. Privilege and oppression are part of a spectrum of disempowerment and cultural norms, and the stuff in between is just as important. Some stuff sucks and is uncomfortable, but isn’t oppression. Some people have had super easy lives, but not necessarily because they’re in a culturally privileged social group.
So, students, let’s talk today about privilege, oppression, and the building blocks that make them possible in our fucked-up world. Since this is a massive lesson, it will happen in a two-lecture series. This week, we’ll define privilege and oppression, examine the smaller components of injustice that allow them to flourish, and differentiate between them all. In our next session, we’ll break down how privilege and oppression work as mechanized parts of our social structure. We’ll also examine what is and isn’t privilege. Make sure you stay tuned!
The Five-Second History of “Privilege”
Privilege as we understand it was first discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 1900s. Du Bois pioneered the practice of putting an intellectual lens on the more powerful group instead of only the marginalized when he wrote “The Souls of White Folks” in 1910. In 1935, he discussed what he called the “wages of whiteness” — rights and courtesies that white people experienced but were not afforded to Black people. “White-skin privilege” also became part of the conversation for civil rights activists during the 1960s.
It took a longer time for these ideas and terms to permeate academia and later, public consciousness. Although academics have long observed discrimination and analyzed marginalization, the term “privilege” gained widespread use after a 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh in which she documented 46 ways in which she experienced the world differently than people of color.
The hallmark publication, in which McIntosh “unpacks the invisible knapsack” of her own privilege and the male privileges which she, as a woman, cannot access, reframed sociological conversations about inequality by focusing on the unearned assets, access, and advantages imparted upon those who benefit from those systems of inequity. In other words, her essay spurred the understanding of the world women’s studies now espouses and imparts on its students: that even as opportunities grow and inequality diminishes, systems of privilege and oppression keep different social groups on different footing outside of individual factors like motivation, intelligence, skill, and expertise.
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
What Privilege and Oppression Are
“Privilege” encompasses exclusive rights and resources only made available to members of a specific social group. Some academics define privilege as being something one is born into, and others also define it as something one can access through different avenues (race, for example, is a biological category that one can’t alter, whereas completing higher education can move folks between social groups). Either way, individuals can have access to various kinds of social privilege at any time, and so it can be hard to narrowly define or specifically outline the fruits of those privileges at a glance. Just like oppression is connected — and, in many ways, invisibly so — privilege exists throughout the networks of our identities, and different privileges may play into one another or coexist alongside alongside our own oppressions. Someone could benefit from white privilege and have access to legal resources, authority in their field, and physical safety in situations that people of color don’t, but still suffer from discrimination, harassment, and even violence as a woman or a queer person. Having access to white privilege doesn’t mean someone can’t also suffer from the oppression of being queer or a woman or poor. It’s the ability to see interlocking privilege and oppression that has led us from “the patriarchy” — a term used to describe a world dominated by men and masculine influence — to “the kyriarchy” — a term used to describe a world where social class, race, national origin, age, and other factors just as wildly impact our social status as our gender.
Although the word “privilege” may make one think of luxuries, often what comes along with it for members of different groups are basic rights. In McIntosh’s essay, a lot of the benefits she observes about being white include access to education, being treated with respect by the justice system, and other experiences that should be widely accessible to all in a just society. Other results of privilege, however, are sort of “bonuses” – members of the group don’t need them to survive, but feel they deserve them nonetheless and get defensive about them if folks try to take them away. (Think men’s socially permitted entitlement to women’s bodies.) Because of the psychological impact of socialization and the widely accepted cultural norms that reinforce privilege and oppression, members of privileged groups often don’t even realize that what they’ve experienced isn’t always something they’ve necessarily earned on their own individual merits.
As McIntosh observed:
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.
For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.
What she touches on here is that privilege is part of a larger “matrix of power” that all human beings find themselves living among, no matter their relative social status. In order for privilege to work, it needs a whole structure of social power surrounding it.
Scholars have illustrate the relationship of the privileged and oppressed as that of “agents” of privilege limiting, consciously or unconsciously, access to their privileges to specific “targets.” In other words, white people are agents of white privilege — and the system they are implicit in and benefiting from systematically limits access to different rights and resources to people of color, the “targets” of their privilege. Even the best of allies will benefit from a social system of domination throughout their lives.
That’s where oppression comes into play: just as privilege confers special luxuries and basic rights exclusively to certain social groups, oppression denies those same things to the “other.” Oppression and privilege go hand-in-hand. because those with privilege are participants in a social structure that uses that privilege specifically to limit the opportunities or resources of another group. To categorize an action or trend as socially oppressing, according to Marilyn Frye’s definition, requires being able to identify a corresponding benefit for that behavior to a social group:
Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere… As the cageness of the birdcage is a macroscopic phenomenon, the oppressiveness of the situations in which women live our various and different lives is a macroscopic phenomenon. Neither can be seen from a microscopic perspective. But when you look macroscopically you can see it – a network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding of women and the lives we live.
(We’ll discuss Frye’s definition more next time, as we dig in to what the system of privilege and oppression looks like and what is encompassed within it, but the main takeaway here is that privilege and oppression can be seen in micro and individual experiences, but those experiences need to be a part of a larger system in order to qualify as examples of privilege and oppression themselves.)
In order to better understand the matrix of power that privilege and oppression rely on, you need to understand the building blocks. Privilege and oppression are not systems founded on an individual level, because by nature they identify broad experiences impacting entire groups of people based on an aspect of their identity. Instead, privilege and oppression rely on a lopsided social order that is created, upheld, and borne from power, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and inequality. These components, at various levels and in different ways, create and shape the structures that keep privilege in place and oppression occurring.
The Building Blocks
Power is a mechanism for social domination. There are different types of power: cultural power, personal power, and institutional power. When all three overlap, systemic power is formed. Folks, social groups, organizations, and institutions with power have the ability to shape cultural discourse, lend authority to different ideas, and, often, seek out a platform to do both. They can construct their own reality and, sometimes, influence the realities of other people.
A good example of power is that of the majority white, male Congress that represents the diverse nation of America. Cis, straight, white dudes have the ability to legislate and pontificate about everyone else, and it can be hard for us to talk back. When their power influences how government and other public institutions run, they have the ability to reinforce oppression through systemic power by using their own persona, cultural, and institutional power to shape the realities of other people’s lives.
A prejudice is a judgement made without facts. In this context, “prejudice” refers to negative biases or evaluations of groups of people that are unfounded in reality or rational thought. Prejudices can be harbored by anyone, and can have their root in folklore, social myths, religious values, individual experiences, or stereotypes and generalizations. That being said, not everyone with a prejudice will act on that prejudice — nor will everyone with a prejudice be able to negatively impact a group simply by holding a negative belief about them. We see prejudice everyday in the form of stereotypes and generalizations and even common tropes. Dumb blondes, universally genius Asians, and women who can’t drive are all mythology created by prejudice.
Bigotry is what happens when people with prejudices allow those pre-judgements to color their interactions with other people and their other behavior and beliefs. Anyone can be a bigot and act in a bigoted way, just as anyone can harbor prejudice. You do not need any form of power to be prejudiced or bigoted. We all have bigoted relatives, right? Like, the grandfather who literally refuses to listen to anyone talk about anything because of his preconceived notions of what people’s lives are like. That’s bigotry. When he takes it to the next level and treats your girlfriend like shit, his prejudices against queer people become bigotry.
Inequality is, simply, the opposite of equality. When resources, rights, and access are distributed exclusively due to prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination, inequality blooms. There’s a big difference between “inequality” and “unfairness,” and what’s key is that inequality reinforces prejudice and impacts entire groups of people, though how that inequality impacts them may look entirely different from person-to-person. Structural inequalities make it hard, for instance, for women to succeed like men in the workplace: double standards for behavior, a persistent wage gap, and socially permitted sexual harassment can push women out of their jobs or otherwise limit their opportunities.
Discrimination is the act of denying groups of people rights or access that others widely have based on prejudices about them, and thus can be exerted on individual members of that group or the group on a whole. Senators discriminate against queer couples en masse when they vote to deny us marriage rights, but business owners make that shit personal when they refuse to host our ceremonies or take pictures of our adorable flower grrls on the big day.
The Differences Between These Different Things
What makes each of these terms important is that they both play into each other and exist outside of one another, but the combinations of how make a huge difference. Men can oppress women by using power conferred to them via male privilege to discriminate against women due to their own prejudices about them, but women who express bigoted ideas toward men have neither the power nor privilege to impact men’s lives socially through those ideas; when white folks act in a bigoted way, it reinforces discrimination and inequality toward people of color, but black women likely have no access to the resources necessary to reverse that impact even if their prejudices make them desire to do so.
Many of the concepts above can also be observed on a micro level, whereas privilege and oppression, as we discussed before, are large systems that make the most sense when observed broadly by group membership and not individual experience. An individual can change their prejudices or recant their bigotry, but privilege and oppression have to do with enormous social systems, and it takes actual widespread societal change to get rid of them. Even if an individual privileged person is very active and committed to ending oppression, that doesn’t erase their privilege — social systems are still set up to benefit them. Likewise, it’s important to remember that it isn’t just individuals that perpetuate inequality and discrimination – it’s the accepted social norms that allow them to exercise their privilege in an oppressive way that creates social problems. Privilege and oppression aren’t just the sum of one or two acts, and even the nicest person with privilege cannot rid themselves of its implications. Whether consciously or unconsciously, folks with privilege are part of systems that oppress others. When people with privilege don’t actively work to be aware of how their privilege is affecting their lives, they’re perpetuating these problems by taking the advantages of their social position for granted, and not working to extend their resources and rights to others.
What should also stand out is that privilege and oppression, alone, are the most powerful forces listed above. We all possess, in some ways, social power and prejudice, but neither will alleviate us of our oppression or alter our privilege. Likewise, it should be pretty clear from the definitions that these factors create and feed into not only the others, but the entire system of privilege and oppression as a whole. The building blocks don’t just go away once they are identified as parts of the larger system; rather, the system can then enable them or popularize them and they can in turn further the validity of the system using their own influence.
Let’s examine, for example, racism. Racism is a system of oppression of which white privilege is a part. White folks’ combination of power and prejudice creates the racism that people of color experience. Because white folks are in a position of power, their bigotry plays into that system and perpetuates social norms that breed discrimination and inequality for people of color. Those people of color are thus oppressed, because they lack access to the systems of power enabling that discrimination and inequality and cannot work through the same means to disempower white folks or to merely even the playing field.
Privilege and oppression are solar systems, whereas discrimination, inequality, power, prejudice, and bigotry are just planets. Sure, those planets have moons. Sure, those planets have gravitational pull. Even ants make an impact, after all. But when we discuss privilege, and when we cite our own oppression, it’s important to notice the distinctions between these elements and be accurate about whether we’re living on the planet or looking at the solar system from space.
Readings For This Unit
- “Oppression and the use of definition.” Frye, Marilyn. Permalink.
- “What Is Privilege?” Handout from Create Wisconsin. Permalink.
- “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” McIntosh, Peggy. Permalink.
- “Explaining White Privilege To A Broke White Person.” Crosley-Corcoran, Gina. Permalink.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor, email carmen at autostraddle dot com.