This came up in a recent post by Kacha of Food.for.thought – 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.
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.
Realistically, privilege doesn’t always confer tangible benefits. It can simply mean not be 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.
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.
I’ve done a more recent post on this topic, Another Way of Looking at Social Privilege.
There’s more on social issues on the Social Justice & Equality page.