Social issues & social justice

Another Way of Looking at Social Privilege

Examples of social privileges and associated social burdens

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 are going 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 is 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, because 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 the fact that I have 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 will not 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 what people who’ve been subjected to that type of racism are saying.


Intersectionality is basically the idea that a single individual can have a mix of some privileges from column A and some 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, and 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.

Moving forward

Ideally, we would live in a society in which column A doesn’t have to exist for any social characteristics because there is no column B at all. Maybe we’ll get there and maybe we won’t, but in the meantime, we need to talk, and far more importantly, we need to listen to others who are different from ourselves.

You may also be interested in the post Social Privilege and the Underprivileged.

As well, Brendan of Blind Injustice did a great post yesterday on what privilege is.

social justice word cloud

There’s more on social issues on the Social Justice Issues page.

37 thoughts on “Another Way of Looking at Social Privilege”

  1. Very well thought-out and well-written, Ashley. For all the reading — and even writing — I’ve done on the themes, it’s never dawned on me before reading this that stigma and privilege are essentially opposites.

  2. Really well thought out post and absolutely what I needed to read today. We are having lots of conversations about exactly this right now in work and you helped me structure it clearly in my mind.

  3. Another insightful and informative post Ashley and one which has clarified something in a way that I can explain to others i.e. 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.

    Thank you.

  4. People don’t get it. They don’t want to believe it. Oh privileged means you’re Ivanka Trump. That’s not me, so I’m good. But I get it. As a white woman, I’ve always had a pass. Always been believed. Always been given the benefit of the doubt. The only time this comes to a screeching halt is when I go up against a white man. There, my privilege ends.

  5. That’s so interesting, and leads me to think we should extrapolate any stigma upon us to others’ stigmas. Like, if I’m judged for being mentally ill, I should use that to understand being judged for being gay. Right? Huh. I do try to think that way as often as possible!!

  6. When I got my loads of burden, I learned I was privileged, at least in the mediocre small community of my hometown. I don’t regret this experience.

    1. I guess the upside of some negative experiences is that they can promote learning. and understanding that can’t come from positions of ease. Now if only there was a way for people who don’t understand a certain type of burden to have to bear that burden for a day. I think change could happen very quickly if that were possible.

  7. Thank you so much for framing the topic of privilege in such a clear way. This is super and cannot be ignored. I also feel your chart is an excellent conversation starter. I feel as a person of both privilege and burden, I need to be open to talking about social burdens, their assumptions and how we got here. The dialogue to explore both your priviIege (if you have any) and your burden is important. How did we get here? What images were promoted when we were young? What beliefs/assumptions for or against racial and other forms of injustice were we raised with? Just starting the dialogue now is important rather than making myself feel good by denying my part in the burden column.

  8. I sometimes don’t get it. White privilege and systemic racism are baseline realist ones for me (and, I would have thought for all white people). We need to shit our damn mouths and have a heart for someone’s situation independent of our own! It is maddening to think we are all equal.

  9. We missed opportunities in college when professors taught about historical racism. AJ is on the lookout for society’s tricks. But he is a child and cannot always figure out such concepts without E2’s help.

    On your chart, we would propose adding to Column A “Being a parent” and corresponding in Column B both “discrimination against the childless” and “children are treated as parents‘ property”—however that could be worded…

    Love you, Ashley ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  10. I find this privilege thing confusing, the article you linked to I found helpful. I’ve been ‘seen’ as white, black, Eurasian, Native American and just about every nationality outside of Northern Europe – and treated as seen, so I get confused. And now I can add old and disabled to that list…

  11. This is a very thorough post.

    As you said here and as I said in my post, I think it is so important for people to remember that privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. I also think that intersectionality is important in talking about privilege because multiple social disadvantages can, well, intersect.

    PS Thanks for sharing my post!

  12. Ashley, this article is phenomenal. You’ve laid everything out in clear, logical way that presents things are they are without attacking anyone or pulling any punches. You’re just telling it like it is so that we can learn. This is one of the best explanations of social privilege that I have read by an ally.

  13. I love this post. Thank you!
    You’ve explained it really clearly. How the privilege is just because. And it’s true. If we live without the disadvantages we are privileged, even if we don’t always know to appreciate it.
    Love, light and glitter

  14. I very much appreciate that you concluded your post with an invitation to open dialogue. So I would like to challenge the concept of social privilege altogether. My challenge is not that it does not exist, but that the concept itself is intellectually unhealthy as far as fostering a reasoned dialogue from multiple viewpoints goes.

    I say that because first the concept is an oversimplification. Generally oversimplifications don’t lead to thoughtful dialogue. For instance, let’s say that I invented a term called “Male-violence” to explain why we have murders, and wars. I could argue for it by pointing to the fact that the majority of prison inmates, and military personal are men. However, using this term to describe all men would be intellectually dishonest, since an individual’s propensity to violence varies widely, and is not in any way beyond his control. It would also obscure the complexity of the various causes of violence, making it more difficult to have a nuanced discussion of the issue. The concept of social privilege does the same in relationship to social inequities.

    The second problem with the concept is that it is not morally neutral. The word “privilege” has a connotation of unfair advantage, or ill-gotten gain. As we’ve embraced the idea of social privilege we have created a perverse moral hierarchy, in which one’s moral status is dependent on the extent to which they have suffered discrimination. And in doing so, we have moved away from the concept of equality, in its truest sense. Additionally, the fact that “privilege” itself is not morally neutral, tells us that terms like “white privilege” or “male privilege” are inherently pejorative. So the question I would ask is…given our current social, and political climate, are pejorative terms more or less likely to foster constructive dialogue about social issues?

    The third problem that I see with the concept of privilege is that it is dehumanizing. In fact, this is part of the problem with excessive focus on group identity in general. To whatever extent we make generalizations about a person using their identity to a group, we simultaneously extract them from the uniqueness of their own personal story. And I would argue that to whatever extent we size someone up by extracting them from their story, we discount their individuality. As a result, we discount their humanity.

    Why is it not enough to discuss social issues using reason, and evidence alone? Focusing the discussion around semantic generalizations encourages people to sign on to a specific way of thought, and discourages dissent from that way of thought. That will never take us where we need to go.

    Thanks for letting me share!!


    1. I would argue that if there is a moral hierarchy based on exposure to discrimination, that’s a distinct concept from social privilege.

      I also don’t think that recognizing privilege is inherently pejorative. It does seem like some people, when presented with the notion of their own privilege, react defensively. My sense is that reaction comes from their own interpretation of the term rather than the original meaning.

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