A Primer on Privilege

A Primer on Privilege

In this series, we’ll discuss the concept of privilege.

Privilege can be a tricky topic to tackle. And it’s often misunderstood. When many of us think of someone who is privileged, we conjure up an image of a super-rich person who’s never had any problems. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Privilege in the context of social justice refers to the unearned advantages some groups of people have relative to other groups.

Dr. Christena Cleveland describes privilege as the way(s) some groups are accommodated, while others are alienated.

In some ways privilege is the flip side of discrimination or oppression. If discrimination describes the negative effects of bias on some groups, privilege highlights the positive advantages given to another group as a result of that same bias.

Privilege can also be tricky because it touches on core aspects of our identity, some of which we have little to no control over. It’s difficult to accept the idea that we may be part of a group who has unfairly received advantages over others.

Some of the categories of privilege commonly examined in the U.S. are race (white people/people of color), gender (male/female), class (upper/lower), sexual orientation (straight/gay), disability (able/disabled), language (English speakers/non-English speakers), height (tall/short), weight (thin/heavy), age (young/old), and education (highly educated/poorly educated).

On this website, we’ll mostly be discussing white privilege.

African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois first wrote about the concept of white privilege in his 1910 essay, The Souls of White Folks. He used the term “wages of whiteness” to describe the advantages white people had in areas like education, criminal justice, and society in general.

The most widely-cited resource on white privilege today is a 1989 essay by Wellesley professor Peggy McIntosh entitled, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. We highly recommend you read her essay to help flesh out your understanding of the concept of white privilege. (Feel free to skip down to page 4 of the PDF, where the actual essay begins.)

How familiar are you with the concept of privilege? How does considering privilege make you feel? What aspects of privilege are confusing to you? What other questions do you have? What do you disagree with?


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