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IBARW: A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn't.
I'd like to thank buggery for reading this for me in its draft form, making helpful suggestions, and titling this for me.

I want to talk about privilege today, because it's fundamental to most modern discussions of racism. And sexism, and ableism, and lookism, and classism, and dot dot dot. And because I've seen some pretty odd definitions of privilege out there. The standard resource on privilege is White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. But I think that resource is clearly not working for some people based on some very defensive reactions I've seen, so I'm going to be presumptuous and try on my own.

Privilege is not: About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you've done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it's not those things, and it's not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can't balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn't.

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It's about advantages you have that you think are normal. It's about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It's about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.

Almost everyone who is reading this had some form of privilege. If you are a member of three marginalized groups, in ill health, and poor, you're still able to access and use the internet, both demonstrating and conferring privilege.

Some privileges are easy to demonstrate: Can you go into a random restaurant and order food? That's not something that those with food allergies, diabetics, celiacs, or a range of other conditions can count on. It's not something people whose religious convictions include following Kosher, Halal or other faith-based dietary restrictions (there are Christians, Buddhists and others to whom this applies) can count on in western society either.

Some privileges are harder to demonstrate: If you get a job, to what extent was that based on the way you look, your gender, your accent, your connections? How can you tell?

How privilege is bad for the privileged: Privilege makes you blind. Privilege is a big bag of stuff you're not forced to think about. If you're white, have you ever wondered to what extent those who find you sexually attractive do so because of your race? Have you ever wondered why a certain colour is called "flesh-tone?" Have you ever worried that the way you act might cause someone to judge your entire race? If the answer to any of those question is yes: here is your cookie, and don't say I've never done anything for you. If the answer is no, this is your opportunity to change that.

Why acknowledging privilege is a necessary pre-requisite to talking about race: Because the privileged and the un-privileged live on the same planet, but in two different worlds. If you don't begin by acknowledging your privilege, then the chasm between is too vast to traverse. There can't be productive conversation between a person who thinks they've gotten where they are on their own merits, and someone who knows that they would never have been given the opportunity to compete on the basis of their merits. If you've ever tried to describe to a man what it feels like to live under the threat of sexual assault and had him respond by suggesting pepper spray, a male escort, or self-defense classes, then you know in part what this is like.

What you can do about your privilege: This one is harder, but the first and fundamental thing we can do is to be aware we have it. Please don't try to come up with reasons why you are an exception: why your white privilege "didn't help you" in X situation. First, you're embarrassing me, and second, you're missing the point.

When I was in high school, we played a game we called Asshole, or to be polite, Donkey, which was a basic discard card game. The twist was that after each round, when the next round's cards were dealt, the loser had to give their two highest cards to the winner, who could give any two cards to the loser. Obviously, this set-up disadvantaged the loser, and benefited the winner. But even with that advantage, the loser could still win the next round, and the winner could still lose. That doesn't mean there was a level playing field.

Be aware of the things you can do because you're privileged. Be aware of their impact. Be aware of the things other people can't do because they lack that privilege. Own your privilege.

As you continue to rock so very, very much. *applause*

This is a really great post. Mind if I link?

I never mind linking! I'm flattered!

Privilege is not negated. I can't balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral.

A poor man, a rich woman, and a middle class "disabled" man have very different experiences of their white privilege, even if they are all white. Just as I can't know how much my privilege has influenced many situations in my life, an observer can't either. (And I'm not trying to put words in your mouth here- I know you didn't make any claims of that sort.)

Privilege is pervasive, and largely invisible to those who have it. I could tell you some things about "able privilege", because I don't have it, but I'm on shakier ground discussing white privilege or male privilege, which are privileges I have. I do know that some of the things that are talked about as "male privilege" are also part of "able privilege"- I certainly don't have the same feelings about walking home at night that someone more "able" might have, for example, even if I can't really know what that experience is like for a woman.

If someone tells me he's from a wealthy background and went to Harvard on his parent's dime, I begin to form opinions about "advantages" he's had. If I then find out he was blind from birth, I have to revise my assessment. Not all privilege is the same.

I do agree with you that a lot of what we take for "male privilege" probably have a lot to do with intersections of other things that are taken for default (and hence, privilege.) Perhaps "religious majority privilege" or "English speaking privilege." But I'm not seeing that a person would have "less" male privilege because of not having some other privilege. Wouldn't that person just have, say, male privilege, but not white privilege, or white privilege, but not able-bodied privilege? Like, I don't know, say male privilege is thirty units of privilege (UP) and able bodied privilege also thirty UP, and white privilege another thirty UP. (All values more or less made up.) We could then, in imaginary objective land, add all these up to determine someone's total privilege.

I admit, I do have a strong bias toward separating things into neat categories, which is not actually how the world works, but I had thought I could actually apply that schematic here. :(

I think that card game analogy is one of the most elegant explanations of how privilege works I've yet seen. I'm totally using that the next time I need to do so (with proper attribution, of course)

Thank you! It's flawed, of course, in that the card redistribution is open and acknowledged by everyone, there's no reason not to gloat if you find yourself benefiting, but I think it draws a distinction between the benefits one realizes and the advantages one starts with. Hopefully.

(Deleted comment)
Heh! Our rules were not so complex. The outermost bracket swapped two cards, and the next bracket in swapped one- everyone else was neutral. I can't remember if there were seating arrangement rules or not. But it did rather illustrate a lot of things neatly, didn't it?

Presumably you can guess what the loser was called.

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MMWD! I have been reading all the IBARW posts linked on! THERE IS TOO MUCH STUFF TO KNOW! I am not going to LIVE long enough to learn it all! I am going to DIE WITHOUT ABSORBING ENOUGH SMART.

This is a great post; I'm adding it to my memories and I'm sure I'll be referring to it in the future.

On a trivial note: the version of that card game that I played in various Korean-American youth groups was called Revolution; three brackets swapped cards, and we reorganized seating with each round. New players joined at the bottom; if the lowest rank player managed to go out first, the rest of the round was called off and the entire social order flipflopped. The game also shows up in the Fruits Basket manga where it's called Dai Hin Min, which I believe means "rich man, poor man." I am amused by how wide-spread the game it.

Thanks! I, for one, am amused by how everyone who recognizes this game has a much politer term for it.

Added to my "Privilege 101" links. I would also recommend checking out my "Check my WHAT?" post (which, in its next update, will include a link here).

Thats very flattering! I think I've put a link to your post on the g-w boards, but that might just be that I intended to put a link there. I need to check.

*steals all the things you said and pretends I said them*

*follows buddleia everywhere she goes because she's providing me with some extremely insightful and enlightening reading today*

(Unless this is being read to you by a text reader in which case... uh. My very bad. I apologize.)

Don't. My husband, a white male attorney, was born with partial sight and has been totally blind since he was 13. And he still has white privileges, and male privileges, and educated human privileges. He doesn't use a text reader at home, but he does at work.

But may I point out that privilege does not make you blind; and that the sooner we stop using "blind" to mean so many negative things the better the world will be for people like him? "Privilege is imperceptable." is much better, even though it's a long, "educated" word.

yes, using the word blind, to mean lack of perception is totally ableist and uncool.

An interesting post - I'm pleased I stumbled upon it.

The concept of being privileged may bring forth negative results, adding many unpleasant hangers-on to any variety of privilege. I first encountered it when I was visiting New York and found that absolutely every Black woman I met refused to be polite to me. My white American friends had to explain that this is a frequent problem white women face when interacting with black women, and sometimes Hispanic women. Apparently this behaviour is a subtle slap in the face to white women, an indicator that their privileged existence is offensive to black women.

Needless to say, I just found such behaviour horribly obnoxious. But I can see how it can reside as a feeling of intense resentment and anger and spill out into visible reactions when one has, quite simply, had enough.

Apparently this behaviour is a subtle slap in the face to white women, an indicator that their privileged existence is offensive to black women.

I'm sorry, but this explanation really does not seem particularly realistic. I have to wonder what else might have contributed to the perception of this behavior....

Oh! This is awesome! Adding to the newbieguide.

Thanks. I'm pleased to hear that.

From a complicated series of linakges (starting at Flickr) I ended up linking this to a discussion at Feminism Without Clothes

Since I thought it was a good piece of commentary I went to look at your info (as well as your blog, in general) and decided it was worth looking at on a regular basis.

Thanks for having it.

as has been pointed out, and is not editable, Candy stopped the blog, and now it seems to have been highjacked... don't follow the link.

Hey, I know this is an older post, but do you mind if I link it on my community, altfeminism?

Edited at 2008-03-29 11:12 pm (UTC)


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