How to Navigate Your Own Privilege

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Having privilege means that you possess an unearned advantage in society through some aspect of your identity, in comparison to folx who lack that attribute. These dynamics tend to reflect larger power differentials in society as folx who are members of a dominant group possess privilege over those whose identity marginalizes them by comparison.

While it can be uncomfortable to recognize that you have unearned advantages over other folx through no fault of theirs, working through your discomfort can allow you to utilize your privilege in a way that promotes more equitable outcomes for others in society.

This article will provide examples of what privilege can look like in everyday life, tips on how you can gain better awareness of your privilege, and how you can use it to work in solidarity with marginalized groups.

Examples of Privilege in Society

There are many ways in which privilege can present itself, and while there are general trends, anomalies do exist. It's possible that certain types of privilege may not hold true in all circumstances. What's more, when people are accustomed to having privilege, that experience is normal for them and thus it is hard to recognize. For example, you may have privilege based on facets of your identity in the following ways:

Race

When it comes to race, white folx benefit from an unearned advantage in society, as they are treated better than those who come from BIPOC communities based on their skin color.

While white folx do experience challenges in life, these challenges are not caused by the color of their skin. In addition to recognizing white privilege, research has found that such awareness of this kind of privilege alone did not result in a change regarding racial bias.

However, in addition to recognizing privilege, if white folx also feel empowered by their ability to engage in social change, that allowed them to take the actions needed to address injustice. Doing so ultimately results in an impact on racial biases.

Class

Wealthy folx have unearned advantages over those who lack such financial resources because they have greater access to opportunities. In this way, while wealthier individuals may deal with difficulties in life, these hardships are not caused by their increased financial resources in the same way that folx who lack wealth are oppressed.

Research shows that talking about class is often difficult because these discussions typically bring up the topic of race (an uncomfortable subject for many). Moreover, these conversations may also affirm the fact that those of a higher class are afforded privileges that others do not have the opportunity to access.

Research shows that middle-class students were less likely to talk about class than working-class students and had more punitive attitudes than those who were oppressed by class differentials.

If those with class privilege avoid talking about that and hold negative attitudes towards marginalized groups, this problematic way of thinking will continue. By this, it is crucial to get comfortable with acknowledging your privilege so you can utilize it for good.

Gender

Cisgender individuals possess privilege over transgender and nonbinary folx. Also, men have unearned advantages over marginalized genders.

While those who identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth may experience challenges, these difficulties are not tied to their identity as a cisgender individual. In contrast, cissexism greatly impacts the lives of trans and nonbinary folx.

Similarly, the difficulties that men face are not a result of their gender. Due to this, gender privilege oppresses marginalized genders and negatively impacts their lives in various ways.

In working towards more inclusive gender policies at a university, researchers found that "the work of facilitating a cultural shift, the reality of what often must occur, is time consuming and one that requires partnership across traditional lines of power and privilege."

Ability

Regarding ability, folx who are able-bodied have unearned advantages over disabled folx, which impacts their lives. Those who do not experience disabilities possess privilege over disabled individuals.

Research on the experiences of ableism found that 28.3% of the disabled students reported having experienced microaggressions in their social work classes, such as minimizing or dismissing disability issues, bullying, etc.

If these issues are being reported in an academic program, in which faculty are expected to promote equitable outcomes (a core value of the social work field), it shows how those working in academic institutions can fail to acknowledge their own able-bodied privilege when relating to disabled folx.

Sexual Orientation

With respect to sexual orientation, heterosexual folx possess privilege over other sexual orientations, as they benefit from societal constructs that place them in the dominant group over folx who are homosexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.

While heterosexual folx may experience difficulties in their lives, these are not related to their sexual orientation.

A study of heterosexual women sampled at twenty‐year intervals from 1952 to 1992 found that social change in attitudes can and did occur during the first 20 years, but less so in the second 20-year period. In this way, it is easy to see how those with privilege often take it for granted.

Other Examples of Privilege

These are just a few examples of how you can possess privilege in our society, but there are many other aspects of your identity whereby you may have an unearned advantage including:

  • Age
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Education
  • Citizenship
  • Appearance
  • Body size

Gaining Awareness of Your Privileges

Like most things, becoming aware of your privilege takes work, but if you are interested in helping to promote equitable outcomes for all folx, such investment in efforts to better understand your privilege can pave the way towards dismantling oppressive systems and attitudes.

This is really a challenge for all of us because of how we are socialized in society and because of the constant messaging we get in all different forms (education, media, etc.) about all of these different types of anti-isms. 

Some of us would benefit from individual therapy to assist with identifying privileges if we are unable to thoroughly work on it by ourselves. It is something that has to be continuously worked on.

Intersectionality

Back in 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term "intersectionality" to highlight the many attributes of one's identity.

What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality describes all of the ways in which an individual may be disadvantaged.

Intersectionality includes gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. Crenshaw argues that without taking these pieces of someone's identity into consideration it becomes difficult to understand the extent of an individual's marginalization.

Crenshaw argued that the "focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination."

In other words, once you have an understanding of the aspects of your identity that afford you certain privileges, it can be helpful to reflect on how your privilege manifests itself in different situations.

How Intersectionality Can Highlight Your Privilege

If you are white and able to reflect on your white identity and think critically in terms of your understanding of law enforcement, whereby Black folx are killed at a rate that is 2.8 times higher than that of their white counterparts, you may understand whiteness as a privilege.

In another example, you might take note of how your physical appearance, body size, and age offer you certain privileges over those with a disability or who are older.

If you are able-bodied, you likely do not experience people assuming that you are incompetent without ever knowing your work ethic and abilities.

By recognizing all the ways in which you are privileged, you will have a better understanding of how others become marginalized in systems that never made space for them.

Using Your Privilege to Help Others

After recognizing the ways in which you have privilege, you can use those advantages to help promote equitable outcomes for others.

Self-Reflection to Address Your Privilege

Self-reflection is a great way to understand your privilege because it fosters critical thinking so you can connect your individual lived experiences to larger systemic realities. Doing so can pave the way for you to help create social change.

Acknowledge Your Privilege in Conversations

When it comes to using your privilege to help others, you can probably imagine many ways to do good, but often those with privilege fail to recognize how much harm they can do when they do not think critically enough about the power they hold.

The potential for harm in this way is particularly impacted by that very privilege because having privilege can lead you to believe you have earned more than you have actually worked for. This can lead to feeling superior over your oppressed counterparts.

To avoid additional harm, when engaging in conversations about America's social issues, try to preface your statements with the aspects of your identity in which you have privilege.

For example, if you are a cisgender, white man and find yourself in a discussion about societal issues with someone who identifies as nonbinary, you can acknowledge that your gender and race affords you certain privileges in society.

By acknowledging your privilege, you limit the possibility of invalidating the other person's life experiences or silencing them altogether. It shows self-awareness, empathy, and compassion to those who are marginalized.

It's also important to be mindful of your privilege, and listen a lot more than talk when engaging with members of marginalized communities.

Privilege Lessens the Severity of Your Oppression

It's important to understand your privilege and marginalization affects the oppression you face.

Having privilege in one area can lessen the oppression you face in another. For example, white transgender folx face less oppression than transgender folx who are also BIPOC.

In another instance, an able-bodied white woman may have fewer disadvantages than a white man dealing with a disability.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to understand how having privilege affords you unearned advantages in life over marginalized groups. Acknowledging privilege in conversations can help to make room for oppressed folx to express themselves.

The more willing that you are to think critically about your privilege, the more comfortable you can become using your privilege to help enact social change—something that is extremely necessary for those who are continuously disadvantaged.

Deep self-reflection can feel overwhelming, but it's crucial to put in that consistent effort in order to see a shift in the treatment of those who are oppressed.

If you really want to make a difference, it's also important to examine the ways that you could use your privilege in your daily life to help those from marginalized spaces. That would ultimately have the impact on society that we need.

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