Privilege Part 2: Internal vs External Effects

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

Previously, I wrote a piece explaining privilege and intersectionality. This is just a brief follow-up. If you missed it, check here. From that, it should be clear the trouble that is created by privilege in modern western society. The focus of much of today’s activism is in dismantling the effect of privilege, through enacting protections for groups lacking those privileges, and through making us all aware of how privilege affects us. This has led to disagreement over the impact of privilege, who really has it, and how much it matters. In order to get past this argument, we have to understand how privilege impacts our lives. The truth is that privilege has TWO effects – an internal effect, and an external effect. Often when people disagree on the role of privilege, it’s because they aren’t talking about the same effect.

Let’s start with the external effect of privilege. This is when people, or a system, treat you differently because of your identity. It results in things like white people having an easier time getting mortgages than black people, wealthy kids being able to access educational support not available to poor kids, and cisgender people having an easier time getting hired than transgender people. These, ultimately, are examples of discrimination, which in some cases is illegal already, in other cases is not but should be, and in yet other cases, not reasonably dictated by law, but in need of changing through policy measures nonetheless. This differential access to resources, based off aspects of identity, is the core of the inherent inequality in our society. It’s what racism/sexism/homophobia/insert-bigotry-of-your-choice-here looks like. When people say things like “The system is racist!” this is what they’re talking about. So, the external effect of privilege is really important, because it helps to maintain the power imbalance, by giving more advantages to the people already benefitting the most from inequality.

With that said, the internal effect of privilege may actually be more insidious, and harder to eradicate. Because the internal effect is the belief that you actually deserve the benefits of privilege. It’s the internalization of a lifetime of advantage and deference that is actually just the result of your identity, incorporated instead as a sense of merit. You didn’t get that job because you’re white, you got it because you earned it. You didn’t get into Harvard because your parents went to Harvard, you got in because you deserved to. You didn’t ace the SAT because your parents could afford a tutor, you aced it because you’re just that smart. And so on. Dangerously, the internal effects of privilege are very good at blinding people to the external effects of privilege. Because in order to get people to recognize their privilege, they have to be willing to believe that, perhaps, they DIDN’T earn that promotion, they aren’t that smart, they aren’t that talented, they’re just privileged. That’s a very hard pill for almost anyone to swallow, so there’s no wonder they resist it. Especially in the US, where we’ve done such a great job selling the American Dream, convincing people that they’ve succeeded not on their merits, but on their race, gender, sexual identity or orientation, family status, etc, is bound to be an uphill battle. It can even be so insidious that people will fully recognize the existence of privilege IN GENERAL while refusing to recognize that they themselves benefitted from it. When people are resistant to recognizing their own privilege, they will be unable to ally with others and fight for their equality. Instead, they will interpret their sphere as one that’s unique in being merit-based, and disbelieve that others are disadvantaged because of their identity. These are people who will vote liberally, donate to charities, spend their time registering voters, and in their own workplace, not speak up when time and again, POC are passed over for promotion, gay co-workers face microaggressions not lobbed at straight co-workers, and disabled co-workers are seen as lazy, instead of lacking necessary accommodations. And just like all politics are local, so is all activism. If you aren’t an ally in your own backyard, you’re not really an ally anywhere.

If we do a sufficient job of eradicating the external effects of privilege, eventually the internal effects disappear. However, it’s unlikely we’ll have the power to do that without the support of people who have been brainwashed by the internal effects of privilege. Therefore, our first goal has to be developing techniques for making people aware of not just privilege in general, but the role of privilege in their own lives.

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Dr. Congdon is an anthropologist, anatomist, scientist, feminist, activist, conservationist. When those things collide, she writes about it here. She wants you to vote, and stop littering.