Privilege, and people’s acceptance or denial of their own privilege, has been on my mind a lot lately. The privilege I’m referring to is born from systematic and institutionalized oppression and inequality. This privilege is not earned – it is granted to select groups that fit societal standards of “normal” and “right.” These privileged groups are deemed superior to the groups that are “the Other.” For example, in a patriarchal society, male is superior while female is “other.” In this society, men are automatically granted privilege and opportunity purely because they are men. This is called male privilege.
The intersectionality of privilege is important to recognize. There are all of kinds of privilege in addition to male privilege (white privilege, thin privilege) that I’ll discuss further below. Things get complicated when you look at every aspects of a person’s societal role and attempt to ascertain their level of privilege. For example, I am a woman, and therefore less privileged than men. However, I am also white, and therefore more privileged than people of color – both male and female. I’m also cisgendered, relatively thin, and born into the middle class. I’ve got a lot of things going in my favor, and these things add up to my privilege. That being said, gender plays a huge role in privilege – not all privileges are created equal. Male privilege is one of the most powerful and pervasive in society, along with white privilege.
The Basics: A quick lesson in different types of privilege
Okay, so we’ve discussed male privilege already. Pretty straight forward. There is also cisgendered privilege, meaning that the gender you were assigned at birth is the one you identify with. Transgendered individuals do not have this luxury – their assigned gender does not match how they feel inside and therefore they must fight to be recognized as the gender they identify with. Even after a transition, many trans man are assumed to be “not real men” and trans women aren’t considered “real women.” A trans man still has more privilege than a woman, but less than a cisgendered man.
Race is an obvious one. White privilege is, to this day, frighteningly pervasive. As Michael Kimmel aptly summarizes, “Only white people in our society have the luxury not to think about race every minute of their lives.” For more information on white privilege, or if you’re not convinced that it’s a thing, please see Killing Rage, Ending Racism by bell hooks.
Class is something I don’t consider as often as I should. By class I mean the economic situation you are born into – be it middle class, upper class, or poverty. I am extremely lucky to be part of a family that is fairly well off. We’re nowhere near rich, but we live comfortably and have what we need. I’ve never had to worry about having enough food to eat or having enough clothes for the winter, and admittedly I have taken these things for granted. People who are born into lower class families struggle to make ends meet – dinner on the table is not a given and meeting basic needs becomes difficult. Not to mention those who live in poverty (many of whom, by the way, are people of color and women – ah, intersectionality!), who may not even have a place to come home to. The privilege of the wealthy is a powerful and dangerous thing when it is abused.
We live in a heteronormative society, meaning that being heterosexual is the norm. Any other sexual orientation is, by default, the “other.” This is so deeply ingrained in us that movies, music, and television more often than not assume heteronormative audiences and ignore the existence of any other lifestyle. Consequently, we see very few gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the media (not to mention asexual or genderqueer). This invisibility of LGBTQ folks screams heterosexual privilege, among a host of other inequalities.
Lastly, I want to mention body type/shape. Thin privilege is something I’ve recently become aware of, and as a body positive feminist it’s very important for me to address. I strongly support the acceptance and love of ALL body types and fat shaming disgusts and enrages me. I’ve had my own struggles with body image and weight, but in the face of these struggles it’s important for me to remember that I am, and have always been, skinny. So while it has been difficult for me to see my own beauty, society has always supported and accepted my body type. Other women who are more full-figured don’t have this luxury – they’ve been ridiculed and fat shamed for most of their lives. It’s important to note that thin shaming is NOT okay either – but thin privilege needs to be recognized.
Now that we’ve got the basics, let’s talk about the invisibility of privilege. In my mind, this is the most insidious thing about privilege. So many people do not realize they have privilege and become very defensive when forced to confront it. For example, Men’s Rights Activists have got a serious case of privilege denial and become scary defensive when confronted with the realities of sexism. We all know how defensive white people can be about racism…from “I don’t own slaves, stop bringing that up!” to “it’s not my fault I’m white,” people get really worked up. Michael Kimmel says it better than me:
“The invisibility of privilege means that many men, like many white people, become defensive and angry when confronted with the statistical realities or the human consequences of racism or sexism. Because our privilege is invisible, we may become defensive. Hey, we may even feel like victims ourselves.”
It is critical to remove this cloak of invisibility so that more and more people are able to own up to and accept their privilege. In addition, the recognition of privilege should be followed by using said opportunities and advantages to affect change. I honestly believe that this is a crucial part of any effort to establish equality, which one reason that feminism needs men! Women should not be left to eradicate sexism, just as black people should be expected to “fix” racism. People of power and privilege owe it to society to be advocates for equality. I may be white, but I will speak up for the rights of blacks because I know that it’s the right thing to do. I may be straight, but I believe wholeheartedly that the LGBTQ community deserves the same basic human rights as me. So even if you are a white, straight, wealthy male – especially if you are – please use your privilege and speak up on behalf of others. Better yet, team up with others who are already forming activist groups. Below are some of my favorite privileged fellas who advocate for women and the feminist cause. Check ’em out.