Explaining Privilege Part 1: WHAT Is Privilege?

Two women of color of different racial backgrounds and varying levels of privilege spend time together.

Let’s talk about it: What is privilege? It’s a big concept and a word that’s used so frequently, to many people it’s meaningless. It’s often misinterpreted to mean “out of touch,” “your life is perfect,” or sometimes, just “you suck.”

But it actually means none of those things.

CN: discussion of consequences of oppression

What Is Privilege?

Privilege is the ability to receive social, financial, and institutional benefits based on a trait you have that society considers desireable. But unlike benefits received in response to merit, skill, or dedication, these traits are almost always something outside your control such as race, gender, or physical ability. In other words, collectively, society has decided that certain people should receive certain benefits, and certain people should not, and which group you’re in is entirely based on luck.

In my article “Who Is Marginalized?”, I discuss which groups are denied these benefits and some of the primary ways marginalized groups are affected by this denial. Also included in the article is a list of their more privileged counterparts: White people, men, cisgender people, able-bodied or mentally healthy people, people who practice some form of Christianity, skinny and/or mainstream attractive people, and rich or financially stable people.

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But what do I mean when I say these groups receive “benefits” from society? If you are white, or a man, or straight, or able-bodied, there are certain advantages you can expect to get when moving through the world. Here are some examples of benefits given as a result of a variety of different kinds of privilege.

Examples of social benefits:

  • Social acceptance in the majority of communities
  • Ability to assume physical safety in the majority of social situations
  • Being represented in media by people like you and being portrayed as human and likable
  • Increased likelihood that your perspective will be taken seriously and trusted as reliable in a social interaction
  • Freedom or leeway in decisions regarding appearance

Examples of financial benefits:

  • Increased likelihood of being given a job
  • Better and more frequent career advancements
  • Lower interest rates on loans and higher likelihood of being approved for lines of credit
  • Lower costs of living (example: unpartnered men don’t have to pay for the cost of birth control, pregnancy or children; healthy or able-bodied people can pay less in insurance premiums and less in daily costs of treating health issues)
  • Inheritance of the financial benefits or property from relatives who received financial benefits due to privilege

Examples of Institutional benefits:

  • Increased likelihood of getting jobs in law enforcement and the legal system
  • Lower penalties for criminal infractions
  • Ability to receive appropriate help from law enforcement if you’re in trouble
  • Increased likelihood of getting jobs in leadership positions and management
  • Having societal structures like buildings, sidewalks, clothing, medical treatment, and bathrooms designed with people like you in mind
  • Tax benefits such as marriage or legal dependents
  • Increased access to a good education.
  • Ability to vote

Some of these benefits may seem like a given, or something that everyone has. Others may seem like something you have earned through hard work and skill. You may be unaware of the degree to which other groups that aren’t like you don’t have access to these advantages or the ways in which they are prevented from accessing them due to something outside their control.

Privilege is a Lack of Obstacles and Barriers

Metaphorical “Do Not Enter” signs may block some people from certain achievements.

Privilege can result in opportunities or benefits that improve your quality of life, but it also can result in a lack of barriers to success. Privilege does not mean that your life isn’t difficult. It means that however difficult your life is, you encounter fewer obstacles and barriers in managing these difficulties, and you are more likely to have access to benefits to decrease the consequences of these difficulties.

John Scalzi wrote this widely shared article, comparing privilege to playing a video game on a lower difficulty setting. To summarize: Whatever quest you go on, whatever boss you fight, if you’re playing on easy mode, you’re more likely to survive. In easy mode, you have access to more resources, you level up easier, you recover faster than someone playing on hard mode. Between the two players, the one on easy mode is more likely to survive the same boss fight. Scalzi explains that it’s possible to play badly and lose on easy mode, and it’s possible to play extremely well on hard mode and succeed. But the conditions under which you play are different.

That means that someone who has the exact same life as you with all conditions the same except for one difference, such as being female where you are male, the woman will have a more difficult life than you. She is also likely to be less successful in life than you, even if you encounter the same set of life problems. The same is true for a black person if you are white, or a queer person if you are straight.

In the real world, you don’t get to choose which difficulty level you’re given. In the real world, the consequences of losing a boss fight can be life-threatening.

Privilege helps you avoid additional obstacles in life, but what sort of obstacles do people encounter in the real world?

Obstacles privilege can protect you from:

  • Microaggressions or harassment in day to day life
  • Physical assault or threat of assault
  • Legal consequences for a minor infraction or for no infraction
  • Untreated health problems
  • Hostile work or living environments
  • Worrying about accessing basic necessities such as food, clean water, bathrooms, or housing
  • Bigotry from people in positions of power over you
  • The mental health fall out of all of the above

While you might work very hard at your job to pursue a promotion, and then earn it, it is going to be much more difficult to pursue the same promotion if you face daily sexual harassment in the office, or if you are skipping breakfast and lunch in order to save money, or if your boss thinks that people of your race are inherently lazy and incompetent. If your privilege protects you from these obstacles, completing the same difficult accomplishment will be much easier for you than someone who lacks that privilege.

A prism ball refracts a spectrum of colors and qualities of light

Privilege on a Spectrum

Privilege isn’t just a black and white thing where either you have it or you don’t. There are a lot of forms of privilege and a lot of variables that determine how much privilege you have. In “Who Is Marginalized” I talk about the “default” vs the “variant,” how society splits us up into groups that are considered normal and ones that are considered abnormal. For every category of “default vs. variant” listed, each person has a separate spectrum of privilege, least to most. You’ll score differently on each spectrum, and where you score depends on an infinite number of factors, including how you were raised, what sort of work you do, where you live, and what you look like.

For example, a man has more privilege than a woman does, but a woman who enjoys wearing dresses and baking will be more successful in a conservative community than a woman who prefers T-shirts and plays basketball, because adherence to strict gender roles will be socially rewarded in a conservative culture and deviating from those gender roles will be socially punished. But that same woman who likes T-shirts and basketball won’t encounter as many social barriers in a more liberal or queer community, where gender roles aren’t followed as strictly or where it is seen as valuable to blatantly disregard traditional gender roles.

Privileges in certain areas will outweigh the oppression of other areas, some will balance to be basically equal but different. Some sources of oppression will stack with other types of oppression, making the overall level of struggle not just cumulatively worse but exponentially worse. This stacking of different sources of oppression is called Intersectionality.

Sometimes the intersection of certain privileges with certain particularly powerful types of oppression can make it difficult to understand the oppression of another group. For example, it can be easy to see poverty as equally oppressive as living life as a person of color. It’s common for white people who’ve lived in poverty their whole lives to balk at the idea that they have privilege. Gina Crosely-Corcoran does a good job of explaining how this particular dynamic can exist in her article “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.”

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So if you’re thinking, “my life was so difficult, I couldn’t possibly have privilege,” I could just come back to my earlier point and say: whatever struggles you suffered as a poor white person, a poor black person with the same life experienced worse, or whatever your circumstances are. But when the level of oppression you’re experiencing is as serious as Crosely-Cocoran describes, it’s pretty natural to respond with, “Huh? How could their life possibly be any worse than mine?” The reason it’s difficult to look at another group and understand the ways in which you have advantages that they don’t is a central part of privilege: blindspots.

Even looking into your car’s side or rear view mirrors, you still have blindspots.What Are Blindspots?

Put simply, you don’t know about the problems you don’t have. You might know about other people’s problems in a general sort of way, like you know that your friend’s family doesn’t have much money, or that your aunt hasn’t been able to find a job in a long time. The part you don’t see is the ways society has reinforced the struggles these people are having and made it difficult or outright prevented them from accessing solutions.

When you see someone who has a problem that you don’t have, it’s natural to want to help them and to focus on solutions that are in their control, rather than just waving your fist and blaming the universe for your problems. It’s easy to assume that the reason you don’t have the same problem is choices that you’ve made, therefore, if your friend makes the same choices, their problem will be fixed!

Let’s take financial privilege as an example.

You might tell your friend who doesn’t have much money that you have some great tips for saving up, that they’d be able to afford to buy new clothes and replace their old worn out stuff if they were just more careful with their money.

What you don’t know is that they do budget for every item that they buy, to make sure that food, bills, and basic needs like soap are covered. Every item is agonized over and weighed against other expenses, and generally, they are able to get by. But then the car broke down and they had to get it fixed or else they would lose their job, where’s that $500 going to come from? Next month’s rent or next month’s groceries? They’ve tried to go job searching to find a job that pays more, but they can’t always afford the extra gas money to drive to interviews, and some employers have dismissed their candidacy because they look run down and unprofessional. Their lack of money is reinforced and continued by their lack of money.

So why haven’t you run into these problems? You may not realize the privileges you had that allowed you to use the solutions you suggest to your friend. Maybe when you were in a financially tough spot, you had friends with money who could give you or let you borrow some. Maybe when you lost your job, you had family members in the industry who helped you find a new one or connected you to someone who could. Maybe when a big unexpected expense came up, you were able to pay for it with your credit card and pay it off later. You were able to resolve each crisis, rather than living in a constant state of crisis management.

Because these solutions were easily accessible to you, it’s easy to think that they are guaranteed to everyone and that if someone isn’t using these solutions, it’s because they are choosing not to. But because of your privilege, you’re assessing their situation based off of the wrong information.

Some people find it easier than others to hop over the barriers they encounter.

What if your entire community was too poor to give or loan you money, or if none of your family had management/leadership positions or friends with higher positions to connect you with a job, or if your bank wouldn’t approve any kind of line of credit or loan because your income was too low? Those solutions wouldn’t have been available to you. When someone tells you a problem that’s caused at least in part by oppression, your privilege may make it difficult for you to anticipate all the ways this problem affects this person’s life and the solutions that aren’t available to them. Blindspots mean that the conclusions you reach about someone else’s life are likely to be misinformed.

Blindspots are caused by a lack of awareness

In some cases, you may not be aware that it’s possible not to have certain privileges. From your perspective, these resources are guaranteed to everyone. In some cases, the resources or advantages that you benefit from are so normal to you that you don’t even notice their existence because you’ve never not had them. And the more privilege you have, the more likely you are to be taught that “the system” works.

We’re taught that if something bad happens to you, there will always be a recourse. If someone’s robbed you, you can report it to the police and get it sorted out. If you lose your job, you can go on unemployment until you can find another one. If you get sick, you can get medical care so that you can recover and get better. If you’re hungry, there are programs to set up to make sure you get food. It’s often a shock to discover that for a great many people, the system doesn’t work, and the reason it doesn’t work has nothing to do with the choices those people are making. It has to do with the fact society decided that these are people who don’t get those benefits.

For example, when your doctor gave you pain medication for your regular back pain, you probably had no idea that his decision was influenced by the fact that you’re a man. Doctors statistically are more likely to treat complaints of pain from a man more aggressively than complaints from a woman, even when the reported pain levels are more severe. The fact that your female friend couldn’t get pain medication for the same or worse condition from the same doctor is not her fault. But if you assume that the system works and that doctors treat patients with equal consideration, that doctors treat all patients the same way they treat you, then the logical conclusion is that your female friend should have done something differently.

Your blindspots lead you to conclude that the responsibility for the problem lies with the victim of oppression, rather than the people with more social, political, and financial power who are reinforcing the oppression.

Here we are, 2,500 words in and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the functions of privilege. If you’d like to read more about specific types of privilege and the ways they manifest, check out the links below.

This article is Part 1 in an educational series called Explaining Privilege:

Read Part 2: The Cycle of Reinforcement

Read Part 3: The Consequences of Scrutiny

Read Part 4: The Invisibility Cloak

Further Reading:


About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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