In Explaining Privilege Part 1: WHAT is Privilege, I give a basic definition of privilege, review examples of benefits privileged groups receive and obstacles privileged groups avoid, and talk about how blindspots work and why we have them
Once you know that privilege exists and that you have blindspots, it seems like it should be simple to just stop participating in that system and fix it, right? But even people who’ve been involved in social activism for years wrestle with being aware of the places they have privilege and the gaps in their awareness of other people’s oppression. Why?
Socialization of marginalized groups, socialization of privileged groups, and institutional power structures, reinforce and maintain the blindspots of privileged groups, which in turn causes a cycle of reinforcement that deprioritizes the needs of marginalized people and incentivizes privileged people to disengage.
CN: ableism, racism, abuse of minorities, Trump, bullying, poverty, chronic pain
Note: When I use the phrases “marginalized group” or “privileged group” I’m always speaking in a relative sense. As I talked about in Par 1, privilege is on a spectrum and there’s a lot of competing factors that determine who has the power in an interaction and why. To simplify, when I use these two phrases, I’m imagining two people who are the opposite sides of the same spectrum. For example: If the marginalized person I’m referencing is black, that means the “privileged group” in that example refers to white people. Same with with able-bodied vs. disabled, gay vs straight, etc.
What is Socialization and How Does it Work?
Socialization is the process of learning ideas through social interactions about how a person like you should or shouldn’t behave, act, dress, think, feel, and aspire to be. Socialization comes from a lot of sources:
- watching those who lead by example, like family, peers, role models, and idols
- what your parents or guardians teach you explicitly when you grow up
- what you see people like you in the media doing (or not doing)
- daily interactions with acquaintances and strangers
Socialization is how our social interactions with people make it easier to pursue certain life paths and harder to pursue others. It’s the positive and negative feedback we receive from people about our choices.
Depending on what marginalized or privileged groups you are part of, you will be socialized to prioritize different values, modes of behavior, aspire to different goals, and even pursue different hobbies. Men are supposed to be into sports and sex but never express emotions. Women supposedly love baking and should aspire to having family, but aren’t good at math. If black people want a successful career they are encouraged to go into the entertainment industry or sports, but they should speak and dress like white people do.
Socialization continues to be reinforced through out your life utilizing various methods, such as social shame. For example, in this news story, a 9 year old boy was bullied repeatedly after wearing a “My Little Pony” backpack to school– an accessory socially encouraged for girls to wear and discouraged for boys. Rather than telling the boy he could wear whatever backpack he wanted and punishing the bullies, the school reinforced the social shame he’d already experienced: they told the boy he wasn’t allowed to wear the backpack. This boy was effectively taught through these social interactions to never wear or like “girly” things, that doing so would result in harassment, violence, and that he would receive no support from the people with the power to help him, otherwise known as instiutitional support. With things like social acceptance, physical safety, and institutional support at stake, this boy is much less likely to wear “My Little Pony” gear in the future.
Socialization reinforces blindspots
As I discussed in part 1, blindspots are a naturally occurring side effect of privilege, that lead you to have an incomplete picture of the struggles of marginalized people.
In addition to not understanding the intricacies of a type of oppression you don’t face it’s also likely you don’t know about the most severe outcomes of that oppression. But it’s not just that you lack that information. It’s that the social system of privilege makes it exceedingly difficult to get this information, it punishes marginalized groups for being vocal about that information, and it rewards privileged groups for ignoring it. Socialization is used as a tool to reinforce naturally occurring blindspots.
Socialization of Marginalized Groups
Marginalized groups receive a lot of socialization around their marginalization status: That they are less valuable than their privileged counterparts, that they can expect abuse for simply being part of a marginalized group, and that they must protect the people with privilege from the discomfort of considering the worst of their struggles. All of these tendencies contribute to preserving other people’s blindspots.
A very effective antidote to blindspots is promoting visibility. Visibility could mean that someone comes out to friends and family so that their community knows at least one person they care about who is gay. It could mean seeing members of a marginalized group in contexts you don’t normally see them, such as women working in a male dominated field, or a muslim mom joining a school committee in a highly christian populated school. Visibility can be promoted through platforms where marginalized people have the freedom to speak about their life experiences or to advocate for themselves. Visibility fills in the blank spaces caused by blindspots and undermines common stereotypes or inaccurate media representation. But the most common types of socialization of marginalized groups discourages the promotion visibility. Here are three ways in which that socialization can manifest.
1. Prioritizing the needs of the privileged above yourself
When you go through life having many of your basic rights undermined and neglected, it’s extremely easy to internalize the idea that you are not important. Because of this socialization, marginalized groups tend to adjust their actions to accommodate people from privileged groups.
Here’s a personal example: I have chronic pain, which means I have varying levels of pain in at least one part of my body– if not 20 parts– 100% of the time. The level of pain that is normal for me would probably be intolerable for a healthy, able-bodied person. But I don’t talk about it very much.
I know it would be considered rude or annoying for me to pipe up every time I have pain in my body above a 4 on the painscale. People don’t like to hear about how bad the pain is, what type of pain it is, or the list of all the places I’m hurting. It makes them uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s because they want to fix it and they can’t, or they don’t want to think about what it would be like to hurt 24/7, or they’ve been socialized to believe that if I’m hurting it’s my own fault.
Socially, I’m discouraged from telling them that every time I move my arm, the spot between my shoulder blades gets a little tighter and I’m not sure how much longer I can keep moving my arm if it continues, or that I’m counting down the minutes till I can sit down and rest. What I experience would be considered a crisis to them if they were in my shoes, but I say nothing because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable.
My concern for the discomfort of an able bodied person is likely to trump my own discomfort or the possible emotional relief I’d get from being open about the state of my body. As a result, able-bodied people remain in the dark about the extent to which my disability affects my quality of life and about the way I am protecting them from that information.
2. Fear of abuse
In the 48 hours after the 2016 election, first-hand accounts of assault and harassment poured in from women, Muslim people, Jewish people, and black people who were being targeted by Trump voters because of their marginalized status. According to ThinkProgress, there were 261 hate crimes documented between November 9th, 2016 and February 9th, 2017. Concern for your physical or emotional safety are variables marginalized groups need to guard against frequently. There are always people who take their social power over you very seriously and will reinforce it with physical or emotional abuse if their power is undermined.
I work as a cashier. Once, a disabled woman came through my line. My guess was that she had Cerebral Palsy, but her diagnosis is irrelevant. She was visibly disabled and she moved in an unusual way that drew the attention of the next man in line. He started staring and snickering at her. The woman and I both ignored him and finished our transaction pleasantly. After she left, the man watched her leave, still sneering at her, and then looked at me to see if I was in on the joke. Then he saw me: three black ACE braces, one for each wrist and one on my elbow. I was disabled too. He began to laugh and point and said, “Oh and you’re all wrapped up!” as if it was a very clever joke I had just performed by being visibly disabled in close proximity to another woman who was visibly disabled. Ha ha. Ha.
Another time, a customer placed his cash on the counter, out of my reach, where the only way I could get to it would be by bending in a very painful way. I asked him if he could please hand it to me because I’m not so good at bending that way. He snapped, “well you shouldn’t be working here if you can’t bend!” I learned to just ask for people to pass me the money and not explain why after that.
My examples are fairly minor, probably because my disability isn’t highly visible, but even so, fear of interactions like these are enough to encourage me to cover my braces when I can, to avoid calling attention to my disability as much as possible, and enough that I was thankful my disability is invisible in the days following the election as it made me less of a target. In order to avoid possible abuse, marginalized groups will sometimes hide their marginalized status if that’s an option, or they will refrain from fighting back in response to mistreatment for fear of fanning the fire even more. This tendency in turn allows privileged people to either not realize someone is from a marginalized group, or receive no accountability for mistreating them, encouraging them to continue to do so.
3. Dealing with people’s ignorance about their privilege
In Part 1, I talked about how the information you have about how the world works is different from the information a person who lacks your type of privilege has. However, because this gap in understanding is caused by blindspots, you usually don’t know that you don’t know what you’re talking about. As a result, marginalized people spend a lot of time getting their own problems explained to them by people who don’t actually understand them.
If I speak up about my health problems, I’m typically bombarded with suggestions and insensitive comments about what I should be doing with my body. People recommend supplements, alternative medicine treatments; they tell me I should get a different job, or how bad pain medication is for me; they recommend yoga, more exercise, a special diet; they tell me they’ve been through exactly the same thing when they sprained their ankle that one time.
By bringing up the topic of my body, I have unintentionally opened myself up to unwanted commentary about how to take care it. It puts me in a defensive position, where I have to explain the laundry list of reasons their suggestions don’t work for me, but every suggestion I shoot down is replaced with a new one. Though tempting, it would be rude to simply say “I know what I’m talking about and it’s not that easy!” These conversations are always exhausting and leave me feeling bad about myself for not having the body these people think I have. It’s taught me to only talk about my health problems with people that I trust.
If I can’t get past that first conversation without my thoughts and feelings getting derailed by someone’s ignorance, we’ll never get to the part of the conversation where I talk about the more serious ways my disability affects my life negatively: How it severely limits my options for getting a new job, how I’ve avoided returning to school because of the added challenges of pursuing accessibility, how medical costs are a constant drain on my income, how if I were in a dangerous situation I’d be unable to run if I needed to.
Because it’s such a drain on marginalized people to have the same surface layer conversation over and over in which the privileged person is unaware of their blindspots and unaware of the degree to which their information is incorrect, marginalized people opt out of having these conversations as often as possible. Privileged people get to keep their blindspots and have their assumptions about marginalized groups go unchallenged. They generally aren’t exposed to the darker truths behind the marginalized group’s struggles, unless someone close to them goes through it. Opinions developed in part as a result of their blindspots end up being reinforced by the side effects of their blindspots, making it difficult to break out of the cycle.
Socialization of Privileged Groups
But marginalized people aren’t the only ones responding to socialization, and they are far from responsible for this cycle of reinforcement. Privileged groups are also socialized in ways that reinforce their blindspots, and unlike people from marginalized groups, privileged groups have significantly more power to effect the kind of social and structural change necessary to break down the cycle.
Institutional privilege reinforces blindspots
Psychologically, we tend to gravitate towards people like us, but institutions like to take this tendency further. To reinforce our knowledge gaps about people not like us, institutions such as schools, media outlets, property owners, and government, structure society in ways that separate us further and insulate privileged groups from knowledge about just how bad it is elsewhere.
For example, the US has a long history of creating segregation in property ownership between white people and people of color, through methods such as:
- gifts of free or discounted property to white people
- legally preventing people of color from owning property
- banks granting mortgages only to people with “financial stability” aka only white people
- racial discrimination on the part of landlords and estate agents
- decades of unpaid labor and a racially motivated wage gap, leading to widespread poverty and people of color only being able to afford the cheapest housing
As a result, people of color and white people live in separate areas of the same cities, and due to the income disparity between people of color and white people, what race lives in what area directly affects the property value. Property owners and utility companies are likely to invest more money into areas with higher property value, and neglect areas with high levels of poverty. Also, the higher the property value, the better the schools in the area. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true, resulting in the majority children of color attending underfunded schools.
If you are born into a family with a decent amount of money, you’re likely to live your life surrounded by mostly white, financially stable people. Your neighborhood is likely to have low rates of crime and be kept in good condition. Your school is likely to have progressive teachers, consistent access to good quality supplies, and good programs for behavioral management. All of these factors put you on a fast track for better colleges and jobs later in life.
It’s also unlikely that you’d ever visit the poor neighborhoods where the rates of crime are high, the buildings are run down and trashed, or the utilities like water or electricity work intermitently. You may never know about the poor schools filled with burnt out teachers, not enough school supplies, and a police officer as a substitute for behavioral management. You could go your whole life not knowing that these conditions exist for other people, or the extent to which these conditions negatively affect the kids growing up in them, because the institutional structure of our society protected you from knowing.
Privileged groups believe they deserve their privileges to a fault
Our information gaps about the people not like us are constantly reinforced and it can lead us to a problematic set of conclusions: That we have these privileges because we earned them, and that people who don’t have them didn’t; that we deserve these inalienable rights but there are some people who do not deserve them; and that as the better, more deserving group, our needs are more important than our marginalized counter parts. We are socialized to believe that these ideas are true.
If you, Theoretical Person with Privilege, have been socialized to believe that your thoughts are valuable, that you should speak your mind, that speaking up and out is always a desireable trait and denotes qualities like leadership or bravery; if you have consistently been allowed the social freedom to act on this socialization through out your life and experienced social rewards for using this freedom, having someone to tell you to please stop talking is going to be uncomfortable.
You deserve to speak your mind, right? You have important thoughts and feelings and they should be heard. You’ve received social rewards for doing so in the past. It feels wrong and unfair to have someone stand in the way of you accessing one of your basic rights.
However, I’m guessing a lot of you have been on the other side of this exchange. As I talked about earlier, marginalized groups are socialized to see their needs as less important, to internalize the idea that they are not worthy of basic rights, and to avoid talking about their thoughts and feelings if they might be at all controversial or make someone uncomfortable. In short, marginalized groups frequently don’t have access to this freedom of expression that Theoretical Person With Privilege (TPwP) took as an inalienable right.
So, in a social interaction where TPwP is causing harm to marginalized groups in the course of freely expressing themselves, and a marginalized person (MP) asked them to stop, MP is asking TPwP to do something MP has been doing their whole life– accommodating and considering the emotional needs of others in a conversation. But because of TPwP’s blindspots, they don’t know this emotional labor is something regularly practiced by people with less privilege than them. They may react to the request to stop talking as if they are being asked to do something no one should ever be asked to do.
In this situation, TPwP maintaining and utilizing their privileges fully becomes more important to than addressing the potential harm they are doing, even when that means decreasing someone else’s ability to access the same privilege.
A specific example: A friend of mine explained he disagreed with he idea of male privilege. He said it can be hard to be a white man because sometimes when he compliments a woman on her appearance, she assumes he’s being creepy or wants something from her, even though he’s just being nice.
But society taught him that it was an okay and even good thing to comment on women’s bodies. Once he encountered women who were vocal about disliking objectifying comments made about their bodies, he began encountering some resistence to his previously unlimited access to commenting on womens’ appearance. He perceived this resistence to be grossly unfair, even though women have always been discouraged from commenting on mens’ physical appearance, even though it’s a small change to make in the name of increasing the emotional safety of women he interacts with.
Reducing uninvited comments on women’s bodies would help reduce a source of oppression against them and increase their ability to move through the world with a freedom that he already has. But he’s been socialized to believe it’s more important that he have access to a full range of freedom of expression, and the needs of the group with less power to effect change get deprioritized by him as a result.
The Consequences of blindspots
Blindspots reinforce themselves.
Because of our blindspots, we believe that these privileges were given to us based on skill, dedication, merit, or some inherent value (which by implication, marginalized groups don’t have). We don’t realize that many of these privileges were given to us purely based on the luck of what family and what circumstances we were born into.
Because of our blindspots, we’re more likely to make ignorant or insensitive comments to those with less privilege than us, because we aren’t aware of our ignorance. We’re more likely to abuse our power because we believe our needs are more important than those with less privilege than us. Because of our blindspots, we’re less likely to listen to people who are marginalized in ways we are not. All of these tendencies only serve to reinforce our own blindspots and keep us unaware of just how much we don’t know.
Because of our blindspots, we’re more likely to prioritize maintaining our privileges above helping marginalized people access the same privileges. This tendency makes it much less likely that privileged groups will do good work to remedy the imbalances caused by privilege, which helps maintain the status quo.
When given institutional privilege, people frequently make decisions that benefit themselves and benefit people like them. Rich white able-bodied lawmakers write laws that benefit rich white able-bodied people and severely disadvantage people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities. White cis male managers promote and hire other white cis men above women, people of color, and trans folk.
White and male is already a theme here but if you look at the people occupying these positions, you’ll notice that the vast majority of the the people in positions of institutional power are white, male, financially stable, able-bodied, cis, straight, and christian. Despite having the power to do an immense amount of good for marginalized groups, the very people we need to fix these imbalances reinforce them instead.
Because worst of all, reinforcing our blindspots is in our best interest. It helps us maintain or increase the amount of social, financial, and institutional power we have access to. It keeps us comfortable and protects us from unpleasant truths about things that don’t affect us. We like our blindspots. We reinforce our blindspots.
What does “Check your privilege” actually mean?
It actually means: Check your blindspots.
It means you’re speaking on a topic that you lack information and you don’t know that you lack it because of your blindspots. It means your perspective on the world is drastically different from the person you’re talking to, and that difference in perspective makes you less qualified to speak on this topic. It means take a moment, consider the idea that your success is in part due to the bias and prejudice of people in power who want people like you to remain in power. It means take a moment to face the uncomfortable idea that you might be harming someone else in order to preserve your comfort and ignorance.
This article is Part 2 in an educational series called Explaining Privilege:
- Read Part 1: WHAT is Privilege
- Read Part 3: The Consequences of Scrutiny
- Read Part 4: The Invisibility Cloak
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.