Tag Archives: privilege

What is Privilege?

Privilege is something hard to define and very difficult to detect if you’re in a place of it. I find that in trying to answer what privilege is, it is often much easier to look at experiences one has not had.


In Ellen Jean Samuels’s essay “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse” I was faced with the difficulties of simplifying the intersectional approach to feminist discourse. I’m very used to picking out white privilege and male privilege in the world, but am still a novice at examining heterosexual privilege and able-bodied privilege. So my running list of “have you evers” that signify privilege (the fewer you check, the more privilege you have) was full of items like this:

Samuels, despite her argument that we must be careful in finding broad similarities, caused me to add another broad term to the list:

Have you ever had to come out?

The mere statement “come out” without the preposition “to” is open as it allows for the interpretation of the phrase to apply to one’s personal grappling with an identity they’re not sure they can share with the world (237). Though I may have thought of this as an item on my mental list for heterosexual privilege, I never would have thought of it as something that could cover the experiences of the invisibly disabled or even myself as a racially-ambiguous mixed-race girl.

Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse”

What Is Discrimination?

In its most basic form, discrimination is a form of social control and manipulation. Discrimination is present in almost every aspect of life, as it is deeply rooted both nationally and internationally, and is also apparent on playgrounds and in job interviews. I believe that discrimination can be attributed to social insecurity, or an effort to maintain hierarchical power and unearned privilege.

Growing up as a Jew in the thickest region of the  Bible belt, discrimination was prevalent. When I was a child, my parents tried to shield me from antisemitism by surrounding our family with other Jews. However, as I grew older I began to feel the burn of discrimination that I had naively thought was outdated. There are currently organizations and social groups at the University of Texas, and throughout the state of Texas, which do not accept Jewish members. This concept sounds appalling and unbelievable, but is simply a known fact of life for Jews living in Texas. This discrimination is the result of a factitious linkage between Jews and undeserved stigmas. Privileged groups constantly use discrimination as a desperate attempt to protect themselves against seemingly threatening groups. Privileged groups in Texas shield themselves from Jews for a variety of reasons. Some have never before met Jewish people, and therefore simply rely on stereotypes, and others are not accepting of those who differ from the white, Christian norm. Groups are discriminated against simply because they are different, as our society is deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity or difference.

What is Discrimination?

Everyone knows what discrimination is. To treat others badly compared to another based on some (usually immutable) characteristic. May people are aware that discrimination is wrong — done by those only who are obviously racist, sexist, transphobic, etc. But is that what discrimination really is?

The thing is, everyone discriminates. You might not be homophobic, but you might treat a woman who chose not to wear makeup differently than one who did. You might not refuse to pick a woman to be on your team, but think twice a man applies to be a babysitter. And all of these treatments are based in prejudice; discrimination is not just hate, but could be as simple as picking a boy over a girl to play a game.

Because of some (unrelated) characteristic, people tend to think that there is some connection between those who share that same attribute. Stereotypes created through justification, or pretending that it isn’t a stereotype is how discrimination spreads.

What is Privilege and how does it play out for people with “invisible” identities?

Ellen Samuels compares two types of “invisible” identities – invisible disability and femme lesbians. There are many other kinds of identities that can also be called “invisible”: mixed race, bisexuality, nonbinary gender, intersex, perhaps even transgender as a whole when viewed against cisgender queers. Some of these are invisible because their markers of difference are less clear (for example, a person of mixed race might have lighter skin; a straight binary trans person post-transition might appear to most as cis), others because there is simply no category in society for that kind of identity (for example, bisexuality is often considered a “lie” or a “closet case” and nonbinary gender identities are simply not recognized). Most of these identities get branded as “privileged” by their dominant and more visible identity counterpart due to their (supposed) ability to pass, but how much truth is there to this label and to what extent does this labeling simply perpetuate oppression of more marginalized groups? As Samuels writes, “Like racial, gender, and queer passing, the option of passing as nondisabled provides both a certain level of privilege and a profound sense of misrecognition and internal dissonance.” Similarly, if a mixed race person passes as white, a nonbinary person passes as the gender assigned to them at birth, a trans person passes as cis even in the gender they identify as, a bisexual person passes as straight, it is likely to cause internal strife. Whether the act of passing was intentional or not, the pressures to pass, sometimes making passing the only option, result from social norms and perceptions. More bisexuals or nonbinary people, for example, would chose to “come out” if their identities were available as comprehensible categories for them to claim instead of being challenged by both queer and straight/both cis and trans people alike.

While “passing privilege” certainly exists, it is not the same privilege that people who belong to the privileged categories/identities possess. While bisexual people who pass as straight gain some amount of straight privilege, it is conditional on their true identities being hidden and far less extensive. Tobi Hill-Meyer cautions on the dangers of using “privilege” accusations as a weapon against oppressed groups, writing “When trans women are pressured into being silent, rarely offering their opinion, and refusing leadership roles for fear of being seen as male or accused of having male privilege, that’s transmisogyny. When trans women are afraid to analyze or discuss the role of male privilege in their life because of the way accusations of male privilege have been used as weapons to silence, shame, and misgender trans women, that’s transmisogyny.” Moreover, discussions of passing privilege often ignore the internal aspect of privilege, denying people with “invisible” identities their sense of selfhood. For example, a person I follow on tumblr who identifies as trans and male to some extent but mostly passes as female posted recently that they still have male privilege stemming from their identity regardless of how they’re perceived and that denying this fact is denying them their identity and essentially being transphobic. In conclusion I want to quote Nico Dacumos from “All Mixed Up With No Place To Go”: “Nico is a flaming queer radical polysexual two-spirit female-bodied middle-class multiracial bottom who always ends up topping anyway Filipin@/Chican@ antimisogynist transgender butch fag in a polyamorous committed relationship with kids, extremely bad credit, and chronic illnesses and incurable diseases that seem invisible… The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing. In theory I should be able to claim all the identities and related spaces above, but we all know that’s not true. Instead I find myself isolated. And a liar” (23). Given the difficulty most people have with claiming just one “invisible” identity, it’s clear why more (invisible) identities would result in only more marginalization. The real question, then, is how we can make our communities more open and inclusive and how we can foster genuine discussions of privilege instead of “privilege wars.”

Works Cited

Dacumos, Nico. “All Mixed Up With No Place To Go.” Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. By Mattilda Bernstein. Sycamore. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2006. 20-37. Print.

Hill-Meyer, Tobi. “What Transmisogyny Looks Like.” The Bilerico Project. N.p., 25 Mar. 2009. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

Samuels, Ellen. “MY BODY, MY CLOSET: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 233-55.

What are the effects of privilege?

Providing accessible birth control to all U.S. women is inhibited by class and race privilege.  In this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=K_mu8CS0aWA

Republican Tom Price showed total ignorance that under-privileged women even exist. He opposes the Obama administration’s rule that insurance must cover birth control because he does not relate to the lower class (not that he can relate directly to the need for birth control, considering he is a man). Class privilege is a barrier that keeps lower-class women from getting birth control, since upper-class men are usually the ones making decisions regarding it.

In Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights, Angela Davis points out that white women experience white privilege when it comes to birth control. Women of color might not participate as much in the movement for accessible birth control because in the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that native-born whites were not reproducing enough, so birth control and abortion should be used “as means of preventing the proliferation of the ‘lower classes’” and races (Davis 210). Historically, birth control has been negative for women of color or low class.

The privilege of white, upper-class people inhibits the accessibility of birth control.

Work Cited

Davis, Angela. “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights.” Abortion Rights to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement. Ed. Marlene Fried. Boston: South End, 1990. 203-21. Print.

Big Question: What is Privilege?

The word privilege is used quite often when discussing issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and other instances in which a majority group is granted societal advantages over minority groups.  The concept of privilege is wonderfully described in this post on the blog of Tressie McMillan Cottom, a PhD student in sociology at Emory University.  In the post, Cottom describes how being raised in a black American family shaped her view on privilege, beginning with the story of how her mother’s ability to act as “a respectable black person” allowed her to assist an elderly neighbor who, lacking both a mastery of the Queen’s English and a fashionable outfit, was being continuously turned away by employees at a social services office.  Cottom remembers that it took her mother only half a day to accomplish what the elderly woman had been working on for over a year.  Cottom goes on to describe her experiences witnessing privilege at play in several other interpersonal interactions throughout her life.  The common thread is that poor people are often judged for “wasting money” on consumer goods that might be considered luxury, but that poor people who don’t display outward appearances of affluence are often ignored in stores, treated poorly by others, and passed over in interviews.  Furthermore, those that do portray a certain level of affluence are given preferential treatment on the job, receive better customer service, and are overall treated better in interpersonal interactions.  What is privilege?  Cottom’s examples illustrate the concept well: getting promoted to manager just because you showed up for an interview in a designer suit, having a school principal defer to your judgement simply because you’re a middle class parent and you know how to navigate the educational administrative system if you need to advocate for your child.  These are just a few (among many) reasons why poor people shouldn’t be judged for ever displaying any upscale or luxury belongings.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People.” Tressiemc. 04 Nov. 2013. Weblog. 06 Nov. 2013. http://tressiemc.com/2013/10/29/the-logic-of-stupid-poor-people

What is privilege?

When I first heard of privilege, I thought of the idea that my parents had taught me — of earning something. Something that is not a right, but rather something that had to be earned. Of course the definition of privilege in a feminist context is a near opposite to my former definition. Privilege describes not a particular earned ‘thing’, but rather what is unearned, Privilege describes the things given to those who fit the ‘norm’. The norm describes simply the ‘better’ or ‘natural’ category that society deems best. And the opposite of privilege, oppression, being the deviation from said norm.

The norm of heterosexuality, the norm of whiteness (in America), the norm of cisness, the norm of maleness; all of these describe a quality in which a person is deemed normal, yet this normal is deemed superior. Those who fit these characteristics don’t have to face the problems that many ‘others’ have to face (for the most part). Thus, this privilege is not something given, but rather something not taken away.

In media, we see those who fit the norm — or as close to the norm as possible. We see those who succeed overwhelmingly possess this attributes, even when considering population size. Their privilege, their closeness to the ‘norm’, is what allows them the opportunities to achieve these positions. So is privilege giving the opportunities? Or is oppression taking them away?