Social Privilege and the Underprivileged

Social privileges (e.g. white privilege, male privilege, class privilege) vs. social burdens (racism, sexism class discrimination

Another blogger mentioned in a recent post that a therapist had pointed out the privilege that came with her being white and educated, as if that somehow made her less entitled to have a mental illness. So what does it mean to have privilege? And can you have privilege but still be in a crappy situation?

Privilege is a term that’s often used in the context of social justice. Wikipedia describes social privilege as:

“a special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others; often, the groups that benefit from it are unaware of it. These groups can be advantaged based on age, education level, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and social class.”

We all have a wide variety of characteristics, some innate (like skin colour) and others acquired (like education). Any of these characteristics can make us more or less likely to experience certain problems.


The notion of intersectionality was originally put forward by Black feminist researcher Kimberlé Crenshaw as a framework for understanding the way that various elements can affect the challenges that an individual faces. An individual’s experience can’t be understood only by a single aspect of their situation; instead, it’s necessary to consider how multiple factors intersect.

Privilege is not a score on a report card, and being in a position of privilege with respect to one particular characteristic doesn’t somehow mean that your life is better than someone without that same characteristic.

What you don’t see

Privilege is also not something that’s subjectively apparent without being exposed to additional information. Being white is something that gives me tremendous privilege because it makes me less likely to experience a range of different problems. But unless I’m made aware of the problems that other people face as a result of not being white, the lack of problems I experience related to being white is going to seem like just the normal way of things.

However, being white does not automatically mean I’m better off than my neighbour who is black. I think this is where sometimes people speaking out online around white privilege sometimes get it wrong. If you try to whack someone over the head with the fact that they’re white and that makes their life good, they’re going to give you reasons A through Z why their life is really crappy.

Intangible privilege

Realistically, social privilege doesn’t always confer tangible benefits. It can simply mean not being exposed to certain problems. Yet you may be experiencing all kinds of problems because of another characteristic. Privilege, or lack thereof, with respect to certain characteristics can lead to particular types of consequences.

A black man is probably more likely than a white man to get shot if pulled over by police. A woman walking alone at night is probably more likely than a man to get sexually assaulted. An LGBTQ teen is probably more likely to get beat up than a cis/hetero teen. A person with mental illness may experience stigma that a person without mental illness wouldn’t experience. None of these potential consequences are inherent in being black, female, LGBTQ, or mentally ill; instead, they come from how society frames these characteristics.

What do we do about it?

So, does privilege with respect to one characteristic protect us from problems related to some other characteristic? Most likely not.

Being white and well-educated doesn’t make me (or Kacha) less susceptible to mental illness or the stigma that goes along with it. It just means we’re not as susceptible to the problems that can go along with being not white or not educated.

In the end, we’ve all got problems. And maybe rather than trying to one-up each other, as a society we really need to just start respecting each other a bit more and (gasp!) be prepared to listen.

You may also be interested in the post Social Privileges as a Counterpoint to Social Burdens.

Social justice and equality - graphic of Earth surrounded by diverse children

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

33 thoughts on “Social Privilege and the Underprivileged”

  1. Oh wauw what a privilege it is to be of some inspiration to a post. That is maybe an honor and not so much a privilege!
    I agree with the conclusion of your post. We as a society put those barriers up and someone who doesn’t experience the negative consequences just can’t understand. But everybody has his or her problems and we can’t sit in our ‘poor me’ role because the ‘other’ seems to have a better life. We are responsible how we deal with our life and how we tread other people.

    I get that there always will be problems, there will always be groups of people who are being marginalized because of the dominant group at the time.

    But why is it always the same, I don’t get that. How can we evolve as a race when we ‘decide’ to focus on people who are perceived of being weak (mental health), stealing our money (racism) and undermining some morals (LBGTQ+). It’s always the same old song, mostly sung by some old, rich guy. (this is not always true, woman can be vile as well).

    But with me, when that therapist pointed that out me, it felt like I was not to have any mental problems. It is not always easy to open up about them and being told that I was in a place that everything should me hunky dory… I mean isn’t that what depression in itself can be, when you feel like sh*t AND guilty because apparently there is no reason to be depressed about. She was privileged to have me as a client and she messed up.

    1. She really did mess up, and it’s disturbing that someone who works in mental health things that only certain kinds of people can have mental illness.

      1. She is some kind of mental health worker, not the kind that would survive in psychiatry maybe. She has the ‘privilege’ to work in a regular hospital, imagine. Being severely ill and op top heaving to deal with that! I would be cured in a hot minute!
        I’m ok with the experience but still mourn my 50 euro! I would rather buy candy or chips or give it away to an honest person. Ah, we live, we learn 🙂

          1. I do have the biggest sweetheart of a therapist now, she is so very good and I will post about her. It’s like day and night. When I meet ‘night’ again, I will switch my flashlight on to chase her away. I’m a bit too good and not that strong yet to set strong boundaries but I’m learning 🙂 It will not happen again, believe you me.

  2. I am far from privileged and I am white. I don’t get everything I want or have an easier time getting things I want. I once worked with a woman. No one knew she was transgender. No one could tell just by looking at her and how she acts. You are right that you can never really know what hardship someone faces just by looking at them.

  3. This is a great post, and it really got me thinking. Whilst in therapy I was made to feel that my mental illness wasn’t as bad as other people’s and that I was lucky and privileged in that respect. But only on reflection I found that degrees of mental illness are not comparable, just because I don’t appear to be as ill as others it doesn’t make me less worthy of needing help.

  4. I feel like class warfare is the real warfare, but race definitely plays a part in it. Once you are in the lower class though, I don’t think they really care about you regardless of your race.

  5. Wow, this is complex (intersections), and authentic listening is important. If you don’t see what others see, try reading or listening to their words.

    Also, anyone can help make society—and the Internet—more just and welcoming by doing one thing: try to be intentional about the language you use. When we refer to opposing forces as “black and white,” we may be emphasizing racial difference and division. Try “all or none” as an alternative. When our fears are expressed as a “dark” menace and our joys as a bright “light,” we may be emphasizing racial difference and division. How about “painful” and “blissful” as substitutes? When we use a name for people as a slur (ie “that’s retarded”; “we got gypped”), we may be emphasizing difference and division.

    Let’s explore new synonyms not associated with someone’s abilities, nationality, race, religion, sexual or gender identity, etc. We have varied, living languages that change based on usage. Please deemphasize language of hatred and division. This is how we can spread love today!

  6. And if we ever use language that offends someone, we would like to be told so that we can learn and grow. And we could try to tell another person if their language contributed to our feeling excluded. It sounds scary, and we did it recently with someone we really, really trusted, and they were receptive. Whew! 😅

    1. Yes the only way to learn is through talking openly. A while back in a post I had used the term transgendered and a trans person responded and explained why transgender was the preferred term. I was so glad they told me, because I want to learn.

  7. I love this post! We have so so many groups bringing awareness and that’s awesome.
    The down side is that we’re all of us a mixed group of privileges and obstacles/disabilities/hindrances (?). All the ‘specialized’ groups shouting for attention and recognition are creating a deafening roar. Everyone is talking and no one is listening.

    If we all led with tolerance and acceptance we’d find more points in common than differences.

  8. It’s difficult to feel privileged for being ‘white’ while at the same time ‘being a single mum’, experiencing domestic violence and having depression……. I could go on.

    I’ve been told by colleagues “yes but you’re lucky you’re white, you have a good job and a great home and a nice car……..!” Like all that just fell from the sky and landed in my lap. I was also a minority at work, I didn’t feel privileged, and why should I?

    i respected my colleagues and adored our patients because of their characteristics – and not for any other reason. I liked them not because of what they were but because of who they were.

    People need to look beyond just colour, appearance, possessions etc before deciding who’s privileged and like most of you agree, we need more listening, practicing tolerance, acceptance and understanding.

  9. I appreciate your insight. I would add that within each sub-culture (racial, religious, ethnic, economic, etc), there seems to exist its own unique hierarchy of privilege. For example, Harlem, NY, in the ’50s and ’60s, was a community that was more or less self sustaining, in that members of that community often had their needs met through the businesses, schools, etc, that existed right within the community. A good friend of mine who grew up there in the ’50s was able to go to a local school, buy food in a local supermarket, get a haircut, attend church, and work his student job delivering papers, all within the community. Yet within this small-town-like community, there were distinct separations among the residents based on income (rich and poor African Americans were force to lived in the same communities due to racial segregation), education, lightness or darkness of skin tone, and myriad other distinctions. The concept of privilege existed on a small scale there exactly as it does in the larger scope of our society.
    The human need for identity must surely play a role. If I don’t know quite who I am and what my value is, I can at least feel like I do by establishing who I am NOT. If I’m richer than my neighbor, smarter than my brother, taller than my classmates, then I can construct at identity based upon the circumstances of others. Usually, a person creates this imaginary identity in a way that will favor themselves. This is human nature. And if he feel he is “better” by comparison, he will operate this way in the world, and set out to confirm it to himself by “lording” over those he feels are inferior. This sets up the whole construct of privilege. Just one factor; but a significant one.

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