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.

Understanding Privilege and Intersectionality: A Primer

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

 

Privilege and intersectionality are two concepts that get tossed around a lot these days. “Privilege” can be a very contentious idea, and there has been a lot of pushback and denial that it even exists, let alone that it’s an important sociocultural force. “Intersectionality” on the other hand is the newest buzzword among allies. The problem is that a lot of so-called allies touting intersectionality are the same people arguing against the existence and power of privilege, and that’s a problem because – privilege and intersectionality are linked concepts. You can’t really understand one if you don’t understand the other. That also means you can’t be truly intersectional unless you understand and acknowledge privilege. So, here’s a primer, breaking the two down, and explaining how they link.

Intersectionality is the idea that each person’s identity is made up of multiple components. No one is just one thing. I am a woman, and white, and a liberal, and a scientist, and an academic, and single, and middle class, and an American citizen, and a native English speaker, and and and … If we think of life as made up of adjacent and overlapping spheres, then each element composing our identity affects our ability to move in those spheres. Spheres come in all types. Your work environment is a sphere. The bar you go to for Friday Happy Hour is a sphere. The subway car is a sphere. The Internet is a sphere. Each sphere has a power structure, and where you fit in that power structure dictates the ease with which you move through that sphere. The various aspects of your identity determine where you fit into each power structure controlling each sphere. Access to that power structure is a privilege.

Privilege is the positive consequence inherently associated with specific elements of an identity. Depending on the sphere, certain privileges may be worth more than they are in other spheres. If a privilege is associated with a certain identity, and you have that identity, you have that privilege. It doesn’t matter if you feel it, or if you’ve ever recognized the effect, because privilege comes from how others treat you, and that relies on how THEY see you, not how you see yourself (more on this another day). Privilege comes in two types – those that are innate, and those you can acquire. For innate privilege, we’re talking about issues like race, sex, gender, sexual orientation and citizenship. Acquired privileges are things like education, wealth and residency (although you can be born into some of those, too). Having innate privileges can make it easier to get acquired privileges. Changing circumstances can eliminate acquired privileges, but never innate privileges. And lacking one type of privilege does not necessarily eliminate the effects of the other kinds. For example, growing up in poverty doesn’t eliminate any racial privilege you may have, it just means you lack economic/class privilege. Since some spheres are controlled by a power structure based on race, and others are controlled by a power structure based on class or wealth, you still have privilege in the race-based spheres, regardless of how you’re treated in the wealth-based spheres.

Who has the most privilege? Rich, straight, cis, white men will always have the most power, in any sphere. After that, generally speaking, white people have more privilege than non-white people. But the problem is that people think this is an adding game. It isn’t. It’s about spheres of influence, unfair power differentials, and using our privilege to elevate those who lack it. Spheres overlap more often than they stack. A white woman will have more privilege than a black man in spheres where race is more important, and less privilege in spheres where gender is more important. (This may seem complicated, but it’s still a simplified view. The idea of spheres I’ve presented is much more discrete than the reality. In reality, no matter the sphere – race ALWAYS matters, gender ALWAYS matters, sexual orientation ALWAYS matters – it’s really more about proportions than absolutes. And because of the variable nature of humans, things can vary. Not all work spheres are created equal. In some jobs, gender carries more power than race, and in others, it’s the opposite. So you can’t really ever take your personal experience and judge the validity of the claims of others based on whether or not it matches yours. Keep that in mind when you encounter people who state they’ve experienced biases you’re unfamiliar with.)

What this all means is that no two people who share one identity have experienced that identity in the same way. It means that what my experience of womanhood has been is not the same as the experience of womanhood of a black woman because my experience of womanhood has been modified by my whiteness, while hers has been modified by her blackness. However, her experience is not necessarily identical to that of another black woman, either, because one may be an American citizen and the other may not be, or one my straight while the other is gay ….. see how it starts to get complicated? This complexity matters, and treating it like it matters is called “being intersectional”. The REASON it matters is that those individuals who lack power in a sphere also lack visibility. When we identify figureheads for identities, we tend to choose those who are visible. Therefore, when we talk about “feminism”, we’re probably talking about white feminism, when we talk about what women need to be equal, we’re probably talking about what WHITE women need – because they’re the ones we see. They’re the ones with the visibility, and they get inserted into the default setting. But when we do that, and we address the issues of white women under the false notion that we are in fact helping ALL women, all we do is increase the gap between white women and non-white women (or cis women and trans women, or straight women and gay women, etc). We have to recognize the least visible and acknowledge that their needs, while different, are just as important. And THAT is being “intersectional” – it’s recognizing the diverse needs of people who share one identity that is the result of the fact that they have other identities that they don’t share with you.

I also want to take a minute to be clear – this is not just about race. Too often, people dissolve “intersectionality” down to an issue of race. That is specifically problematic in intersectional feminism, when it gets treated as meaning “women of color have it worse than white women”. That’s true, but that’s not the be-all, end-all of intersectionality. Intersectionality isn’t just about race. It’s about gender, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, economic status, citizenship…ALL identities can be served by an intersectional approach to activism, not just racial ones.

So, recognize what privileges you have, recognize what spheres in which you have power, and start using that power to elevate the voices of those trying to exist in that sphere without the advantage of the privilege. That’s really the only way we save everyone – by elevating those with the least power – by being intersectional.

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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.

A Modest Proposal To Eliminate Gun Violence (Hint: It Has Nothing To Do With the Size of Your Weapon or How Quickly You Discharge It)

By Judi Zirin

It would be surprisingly easy to limit gun violence in the US. There is one particular group that should be precluded from owning guns. This is a group that has been shown, consistently and statistically, to both be more violent and have more guns, so it makes sense they should have their access to firearms appropriately limited. They are most likely to engage in violent criminal behavior, most likely to both own guns and to misuse them, most likely to kill for sport, and most likely to keep their guns stored close by, locked and loaded.

Continue reading “A Modest Proposal To Eliminate Gun Violence (Hint: It Has Nothing To Do With the Size of Your Weapon or How Quickly You Discharge It)”