If you’re frustrated by people telling you how privileged you supposedly are, this was written for you. If you’re struggling with how to explain these concepts to another who denies them, this was written for you. The following is a nonpartisan, apolitical, areligious overview of the basic concepts of gender and race privilege for people who have never studied such concepts in detail. It uses straightforward language and examples and is non-judgmental of race, gender, education, politics, and religion. This document will not label or demean you, so please read with an open mind.
WHY LISTEN TO ME?
I am a white male who teaches these concepts at the college level in nonpartisan ways. Politics are not a part of my teaching, my classroom, or these subjects. My personal political views are never expressed in my classes, nor do they influence the subject matter at all. I didn’t make this critical gender and race theory stuff up; it was built and cultivated by thousands of scholars far more educated and intelligent than myself. I’m merely the person who took the time to read and study it so that I can relay it to you and my students.
WHAT IS PRIVILEGE?
This question is central to this document and will be answered throughout. Keep in mind we’re only dealing with gender and racial privilege here. The simplest explanation is that privilege is a set of unearned benefits that someone gains for relatively arbitrary reasons.
OK, so what does that mean? Privilege is “unearned” because it’s not based on something you chose to do. In general, neither gender nor race is a choice; I did not pick to be white or to be male. Therefore, I didn’t earn my whiteness or my maleness.
Privilege is “relatively arbitrary,” meaning that what makes me privileged doesn’t really have any practical reason. For example, there’s nothing biologically different about a man that makes him better at teaching than a woman, yet more professors at the highest tiers of colleges are men, and male professors are paid more than women on average. In this example, male privilege is “relatively arbitrary” because men get special benefits based on a difference (their gender) that does not matter to the situation.
I DON’T FEEL VERY PRIVILEGED, PART 1
The most common dispute of privilege is that the disputer does not feel privileged. If you are white or male and have endured many hardships and struggles in your life, it feels really unfair to be lumped into this category of privileged people. Your life certainly doesn’t feel blessed or special or magical in any way. You might see people of oppressed races and genders who have much better and easier lives than you, so being told you’re privileged is pretty insulting. To understand this better, we need to understand sample sizes.
The hardest thing about science to understand (and this goes for anyone, including scientists and myself) is the concept of sample size. Sample size is how big the group is that you’re using to test an idea like privilege. As humans, we are very good at understanding the world from our own perspective. That makes sense; if we had to understand every individual’s perspective to understand the world, none of us would know much of anything. So we shortcut it to assume that the experiences of others are the same as ours. While this works in enough cases to be a useful shortcut, it fails us in big ways sometimes.
In order to be scientific and accurate, a sample size must be very large (the term is “statistically significant”). A small sample size will often fail to describe something that affects many people.
OK, so let’s look at America: there are over 300 million Americans. Let’s assume that you have a modest 100 friends on Facebook whose lives and experiences are just like yours. If you look at 100 people everyday and see 100 who are just like you, it starts to feel like this represents the world. Maybe they’re 100 hard-working people struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe they’re 100 Christians. Maybe they’re 100 Democrats. Maybe they’re all three of those things. The problem is: they only represent 0.0000003% of America. That’s such a small number that is not a scientific way to study people. In any experiment, a sample size this small can give us wild results.
Let’s imagine that an ice cream shop wants to test broccoli-flavored ice cream. That sounds really disgusting to me. However, if they test all 300+ million Americans, it’s very likely that they can find 100 people who like it. What if you and all your friends really liked the broccoli ice cream? What if the ice cream shop only asked you and your friends? They would assume that broccoli ice cream would be a best-seller. Get that in stores right now! But they would be wrong, because the other 300 million of us realize that broccoli ice cream is the most repulsive thing we can imagine. By sampling a small group, they failed to accurately represent all Americans. By contrast, only 9 out of 10 Americans love chocolate. 10% is actually a really large number. That means that over 30 million Americans don’t love chocolate. If 10% of America doesn’t love chocolate, I can definitely believe that 0.0000003% of Americans love any gross flavor I can imagine.
I DON’T FEEL VERY PRIVILEGED, PART 2
OK, so all of that was a really long look at why sample size is important. Here’s how it boils down: even if you don’t feel privileged, you are basing this feeling on a very small sample size. Yourself, your friends, your family. But most people don’t honestly know enough people to have a big enough sample size. So while you might not feel privileged, you aren’t able to know if you are or not because you can’t actually compare yourself to enough people.
We look for very obvious signs of privilege, and it usually comes down to money. If I work hard every week to pull in a small or even modest income, I don’t feel all that privileged. I can see many other people who have a lot more than me. If I’m a man, I can see women who are making a lot more money than me. That might make it seem like male privilege is a joke. I mean, if male privilege were real, shouldn’t I make more money than a woman? But my sample size here is only two: I’m comparing myself with one other person. What if I’m just really unlucky and she’s really lucky? What if we both like broccoli ice cream? Maybe we’re both in the 0.0000003%. It doesn’t feel that way from my perspective, but my sample size isn’t big enough for me to know.
So while you might not feel privileged, that doesn’t mean you are not privileged. Privilege usually appears in forms other than money. Just because you have privilege does not mean you have success in life, financially or otherwise. The difficulty is that privilege is often made up of things that do not happen to you. And it’s really hard to notice something when it only exists as the absence of something else. For example, a white person is far less likely to be pulled over for driving at night than a black person. This is due to racial privilege. But the white person will never notice not getting pulled over. That person’s night will go on normally. A man is far less likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace due to gender privilege. But he will never notice not being sexually harassed. How can he notice something that never happened?
Who does notice these privileges? The oppressed groups do. The black person driving at night fears being pulled over simply because of the person’s race. The woman in the workplace experiences oppression in the form of sexual harassment. The woman might wish that she were a man so she didn’t have to experience regular sexual harassment. This is an oppressed person recognizing the privilege of another because the oppressed person experiences something tangible and real instead of the absence of something.
In short, it is almost impossible to recognize your own privilege because of all the invisible benefits it provides to you. You need to actively study the oppressed to learn the ways in which your privilege makes your life easier and better.
ISN’T THIS ANOTHER FORM OF OPPRESSION?
Is calling a group privileged the same as oppression? Are we just lumping a bunch of people together into a group because of how they look? Is this just another form of racism and sexism? The short answer is that no, recognizing privilege is not oppression. Privilege is, in fact, the opposite of oppression. Marginalized and oppressed groups suffer in real ways due to oppression. Privileged people do not suffer due to privilege.
Look at it this way: imagine that every time a woman goes to an ice cream shop (I really like ice cream), she is given less ice cream in her cone simply because she is a woman. Now imagine that a man is in line beside her, and he gets a full cone of ice cream. If the woman argues against her smaller ice cream, she is pointing out a legitimate oppression that she has experienced. If the woman points out how the man gets more ice cream, she is pointing out an inequality. What grounds does the man have to complain about this? Is the woman not allowed to point out the inequality because she might hurt the man’s feelings? He has the extra ice cream, after all.
But you might say that the man did not choose to get extra ice cream. He just got it because he’s a man; he didn’t ask for it. That’s true. It’s not his fault that he is privileged. Maybe he would even feel bad if the woman pointed out the inequality. But just as I stated earlier, he doesn’t even realize his privilege until she points out her oppression relative to it. If a woman hadn’t been in line next to him and spoken up, he would never have realized that he had privilege; he would just assume that he got the amount of ice cream he was supposed to get. It’s not up to her to worry about his feelings if she points out the inequality. In fact, if she does hurt his feelings, and if he feels guilty about it, he can always share his excess ice cream. He can take his privilege and use it to help empower someone who has been oppressed. Or he can ignore the inequality and enjoy his extra ice cream and just feel really special. Either way, he is privileged, whether he realizes it or not.
WHAT ABOUT REVERSE RACISM? THAT ISN’T FAIR
Many people will point out that they do not have privilege when other groups get special benefits that they do not get. For example, colleges have scholarships for many minority races, but you will not find scholarships for being white. This is what many people refer to as reverse racism. It seems very unfair to give extra help to other races while ignoring white students. And that’s correct: it is not fair. It is not fair to give more to one group than to another. However, the problem here is again one of perspective. The white student in this example had a greater chance to attend a well-funded high school just because the student was white. If the student got into trouble, the student had a far greater chance to receive a more mild punishment than a student of a minority race. These situations are also not fair. The white student has benefited from these privileges for her or his entire life. So if students of other races get special scholarships for which the white student is ineligible, every instance of special benefit needs to be considered. In the giant scales of benefits, the white student’s side of the scale is still more heavily weighted; adding the minority scholarships to the other side of the scale helps to bring the scales closer to equal, though the racial privilege still outweighs all the benefits of Affirmative Action.
To simplify the example even more, that’s like an ice cream shop giving a white person an ice cream cone every day. One day, the shop sends a special invitation for a black person to visit the shop. The shop gives the white person her or his ice cream. The shop then gives the black person five ice cream cones. That seems wildly unfair to the white person. That feels like discrimination. However, the white person is forgetting about the dozens of ice cream cones she or he has already received from the shop. The black person just has five. When we expect to get special treatment, it doesn’t feel special; it feels normal. Then, when we see someone else get special treatment, we feel like we’re being discriminated against.
WHAT ABOUT THE DOUBLE STANDARD OF FEMINISM?
Looking at gender privilege, men often point out how women want the best of both worlds: they want to be treated like princesses, and they also wanted to be treated like equals. They want men to buy dinner and hold doors open, but they also want equal pay. This seems pretty unfair for them to expect both. Men in these situations might feel like the women are the ones getting special treatment and privilege, not the other way around.
Let’s try another example using ice cream: I give a male student in my class ice cream every day before class starts, but while he eats it, I make fun of him, tell him he isn’t good enough, point out that he should work out more, and just generally act like a jerk to him. But this ice cream is really delicious, so he puts up with this treatment because hey, he wants the tasty ice cream. Once class is over, though, is that student going to complain about me? Absolutely. And he has every right to. He will go and tell his friends what a jerk I am, complain about how it isn’t fair for me to single him out. But he’s still going to want the ice cream. In fact, if I took away the ice cream and was nicer to him, he would probably miss the ice cream even though he would not miss being treated poorly.
This is the same situation in which women find themselves. They deserve to be treated equally, but they have grown accustomed to having certain benefits. Just like the student, they want to be treated with equality and decency, but they also still like all the perks they used to have. Can we blame them for this? Again, this does not invalidate gender privilege. If women are actually treated equally in every way, they will come to expect equal treatment, not special treatment.
PRIVILEGE IN ACTION
OK, this is the last lesson about privilege. If none of the rest of this document meant anything to you, this scenario should hopefully prove to you that privilege exists and how it works. (I apologize for leaving the ice cream motif behind for this final example.)
Imagine you’re driving on the highway as you’ve done many times. Out of nowhere, a car cuts you off, causing you to swerve and slam on your brakes. You pull up beside the car and look over to give the driver a piece of your mind (and possibly a rude gesture). Your reaction is based upon the driver.
If it’s a person wearing ethnic garb, you might think or say: “that might be how you drive in your country, but in America, we have rules.”
If it’s a black person, you might think or say: “maybe you could drive better if you sat up straight and turned down the rap music.”
If it’s a woman, you might think or say: “see, this is why they say women can’t drive.” And if you are also a woman, you might think or say: “it’s women like you who give us a bad reputation.”
If it’s a white man, you might think or say: “Asshole.” Or maybe “jerk,” in case your kids are in the car.
See the differences? Any other group gets lumped together. Racial minorities. Women. All stereotyped and lumped together. “Women can’t drive.” But white men? You’re just judging that one guy who can’t drive. You’re not going to assume that all white men can’t drive based on this one jerk. You’ll treat the white man as an individual, judging him on his own merits and flaws.
This is privilege. This is the effect of privilege, even on the oppressed. You don’t even notice when you’re giving that person special benefits, and you don’t notice when you’re receiving them yourself. It’s the intangible assumption that a privileged person is somehow better than others or deserves certain treatment based on relatively arbitrary reasons. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just because you don’t feel like you get special treatment doesn’t mean you don’t. And just because someone points it out doesn’t mean that you’re being treated unfairly or oppressed.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- If being privileged unsettles you or makes you feel guilty, use your privilege to help empower those who are not privileged.
- Help your fellow human. Spread the word. Grow the understanding.
- Share the Unwritten podcast, in which we address this important social issue.