Addressing Privilege: Why It’s Hard, Why It’s Necessary

Image via Elias Schewel
Image via Elias Schewel

By Allison Epstein, Associate Editor

In my younger days, the big fads were slap bracelets and Pokémon cards. Today, it’s Buzzfeed quizzes. There’s a quiz on everything, from “Which One Of Jesus’ Disciples Are You?” (Saint Andrew) to “How Many Life Skills Do You Have?” (52/100, so apparently it’s a miracle I’ve lived to 22). But the one that’s been circulating among my Facebook friends lately, particularly those who self-identify as feminists, is one that at the same time makes me a little uncomfortable: “How Privileged Are You?” Because I, a middle-class, cisgendered, heterosexual white female about to graduate from a public four-year university, got the result, “You’re not privileged!”

Excuse me. Buzzfeed, thou dost protest too much, methinkst.

I hear this all the time, mostly because for quite a while I was one of the people saying it:

“I’m not privileged, I’m a woman.”

“I’m not privileged, I’m on scholarship in college.”

“I’m not privileged, because I’m not a racist/sexist/homophobe/all-around horrible person.”

Intersectionality, for those not used to the idea, is  a difficult thing to come to terms with right away. The idea of intersectional feminism is that each of us contains a multitude of different identities, some of which carry more social capital than others. Think of it this way: both Beyoncé and I identify as women, but both race and class enter into our identities and change the way that we interact with the world. Saying that our experiences are the same because we’re both women would be limited and a little ridiculous. (Seriously. I am nowhere close to Beyoncé’s level.)  Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s not easier to take Buzzfeed at its word and declare myself exonerated.

On the contrary, coming to terms with privilege has been a tough journey, for me and for others. Fighting against body policing and discrimination is part of my life, but it’s all too easy to slip into the mindset that bodies that look like mine are the primary battleground. My body’s rights are important. But they’re not the only ones.

Here’s the thing about privilege: just because you’re oppressed in one sphere of your life does not mean that you aren’t at an advantage in others. It also doesn’t discount that oppression, but privilege, like all things in life, runs on a spectrum. There’s no binary thinking here, no Horrible Privileged Person versus Oppressed and Underprivileged Person. Denying this undermines the idea of intersectionality in the first place. It prevents us from thinking about one another in complex ways, recognizing various parts of our identities that help shape who we are, and relegates us into tiny boxes of Majority or Minority. Life is not that simple.

It can be tough to think about this sometimes, particularly when a certain facet of your identity is so clearly not privileged, and has a tangible effect on your everyday life. I came to the body-positive community, as many do, because of issues I was having with my own body image and self-worth. I wanted to find a network of individuals who would present messages that were different from the dominant narrative in the media, and I was looking for support as I worked toward recovery from an eating disorder. When I loathed my body almost every waking minute, I certainly did not feel privileged. If you had told me at that point that I enjoyed certain societal favors because of my identity, I can’t imagine I would have been too receptive. Look at this, I would have said. Does this look privileged to you? This is miserable.

And it was. But one layer of misery does not undo the layers of entrenched struggle experienced by people of different identities than my own. As a white woman, the amount of privilege I enjoy is staggering, when you sit down and think about it. The benefits of being white in America are too numerous to count, but among them you can include…

  • Mainstream narratives of eating disorders or body image issues are represented almost exclusively by people of my identity, so that the validity of my experience is not inherently questioned.
  • I don’t have to deal with assumptions that my place as a student was achieved not because of my work or intelligence, but because of my race.
  • Statistics of the male-to-female wage gap (commonly represented as 77 cents to the dollar) refer to people of my demographic, not for women of color for whom the gap is significantly higher.

I could sit here and write for hours and hours about the ways my existence as a white woman helps me out in the world. The infuriating but true fact is that our culture expects people to default to white, and those who do not are automatically subject to difficulties that I, and other white women like me, do not have to face. I could also add examples of thin privilege, cis-privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, and tons of others, if I had the space to do so. (Check those links for whole articles devoted to considering these important ideas!)

But beginning an examination of racial privilege isn’t easy. There’s an inherent pushback against admitting that one benefits from socially constructed systems of oppression. Hey, I get it. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. We’ve been conditioned from a young age to believe that racism is a thing of the past, that “we don’t see race,” and that admitting that we observe someone is African-American or Latin@ or Asian-American pegs us as racists. Though Stephen Colbert’s response to the #CancelColbert controversy might have left a few things to be desired, he summarized a common response to trying to address privilege:

I just want to say that I’m not a racist. I don’t even see race. Not even my own. People tell me I’m white and I believe them, because I just devoted six minutes to explaining how I’m not a racist.

The fear that prevents us from addressing privilege, and the guilt-inducing element that makes it hard to start thinking about it critically, is this gut-wrenching fear of being “the bad guy.” No one wants to be the Evil White Person, the supremacist, the bigot. Admitting that we benefit from an inherently racist system built on the oppression of people of color? Sounds a whole lot like endorsing bigotry at first glance. No wonder it’s hard to take the first step.

But here’s the thing: I did not create this system. Neither did any other individual white person now living. It’s the same way that no one man you know created the patriarchy, or one rich banker created the capitalist system. We were born into it, but we do benefit from it in tangible ways: socially, economically, and mentally.

I can’t hide from privilege by repeating the areas in which I’m oppressed. The first question on that Buzzfeed quiz is “Are you white?” There should be a box that instantly pops up and says “Yes, you’re privileged!” Same thing with “Are you heterosexual?” and “Do you have any physical disabilities?” and “Do you have an eating disorder?” Reminding everyone that I’m a woman, or that my body is subject to extreme societal scrutiny, or that in many different areas I’ve had a rough shake in life, does not erase the fact that in many other ways I am exempt from difficulties that others must deal with on a daily basis. It doesn’t make my struggle less real. It means that I, as a person, cannot be defined either as Oppressed or Oppressor. All of us, in various ways and to varying degrees, are parts of both and neither.

So, what do we do about this? Hiding from or denying the privilege we enjoy based on the bodies we inhabit is not the solution. Difficult questions arise when we look critically at the space we occupy in the world and analyze how our self-presentation affects our day-to-day and long-term existence. But these power structures can’t afford to go unchallenged. Privileges, whether based on race, biological sex, gender expression or identity, ability, age, size, class, religion, or any other element of our identity, cannot continue without being analyzed. It’s only when we assume that everything is equal, perfect, and uncomplicated that our privilege begins to become a problem. If you don’t think about the issue, it doesn’t go away. It exacerbates inequality instead of masking it.

So when a Buzzfeed quiz or someone close to you calls you out, make sure your first response isn’t denial or crippling guilt. Whip out a pen, put a mark in that box, and – you guessed it – check your privilege. That takes strength, not bigotry.

Related Content:

Whitewashed Journalism: Why Do Only White-Passing Latinas Make It To Our Screens?

What Is Race Between Friends?

White Privilege and the Problem with Anne DiFranco’s Apology

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