Lately white privilege has been a hot topic. The people I’ve come across who take a stance against the idea of white privilege seem to have in common the line of thinking that they haven’t been handed anything, so how can they have social privilege?
I thought it might be worth reframing social privilege in terms of what one is not exposed to. It’s impossible to know what we’re not exposed to unless we witness the burdens that others are exposed to.
Social privilege vs. social burden
In the graphic above, the first column lists a few types of social privilege, and the second column gives some examples of the social burdens that correspond to that privilege. Those burdens come from prejudice and discrimination that happen at a societal level, but not necessarily at an individual level. Neither column A nor column B are exhaustive lists.
Column A exists solely because column B does, and solely in relation to the corresponding burden in column B. The burdens experienced in column B will differ based on the particular society and the point in time at which they occur. Column A doesn’t go away just because people in column A says it does; both column A and column B are only eliminated when the burdens of column B are eliminated.
The problem with minimizing the privileges in column A is that it implies that column B doesn’t exist, isn’t significant, or isn’t meaningful. I know that’s why I react very strongly when I see people minimizing white privilege; to me, it conveys a message that systemic racism either doesn’t occur or is only minimally important.
Having social privilege
As an example of having social privilege, heterosexual privilege doesn’t look like privilege to many of us; it just looks like normal… until you learn about the prejudice and discrimination experienced by people of other sexualities. If I wasn’t aware of all of the challenges faced by transgender people, it wouldn’t even cross my mind that there’s a form of social privilege that comes from being cis-gender. I can’t see that privilege by looking just at myself or others like me; I can only see it by looking outward and educating myself about the lived experience of trans people.
Having privilege doesn’t make someone a bad person; it’s not something that you have any sort of direct control over. I had no choice about being born white. I can and do choose to take an anti-racist stance, but that doesn’t change my white privilege. White privilege isn’t something that I hold within me; it’s a free pass that I get from society at large that means that I won’t get targeted by systemic racism because of the colour of my skin.
There’s nothing I can do to shed my white privilege on an individual level, since that privilege doesn’t exist because of me; it exists because of racism that occurs at a systemic level. White privilege will disappear when systemic racism disappears. To know when that happens, I need to listen to the people who’ve been subjected to that type of racism.
Intersectionality is basically the idea that a single individual can have a mix of some privileges from column A and burdens from column B. Having social privilege in one column A context doesn’t mean that you don’t face any column B burdens. I have social privilege from certain characteristics (e.g. white, heterosexual, cisgender), but am subjected to the social burden of mental illness stigma. None of those things cancels out any of the others; social privilege based on one characteristic doesn’t exempt anyone from experiencing social burdens related to another characteristic.
The issues surrounding a particular type of privilege and associated burden aren’t going to be the same for every social issue, so they’re not going to be the same conversation. Conversations about all social inequalities are important, but addressing a conversation about one type of privilege by redirecting to an unrelated type of burden ends up doing a disservice to both issues. If someone’s talking to me about cisgender privilege and I counter that by claiming the effects of mental illness stigma, two very important areas for conversation both end up being shut down.
Ideally, we’d live in a society in which column A doesn’t have to exist because there is no column B. Maybe we’ll get there and maybe we won’t; in the meantime, though, we need to talk, and far more importantly, we need to listen to others who are different from ourselves.