To fully understand privilege we must break through its hard outer shell.
Depending on our multiple identities, society grants us simultaneously a great array of privileges while marginalizing us based solely on these identities. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege (1988), we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders. A number of researchers have developed extensive lists (e.g., heterosexual: Ketner, 2007; white and male: McIntosh, 1988; Christian: Schlosser, 2003) charting the benefits and privileges accorded to individuals within differing dominant identity categories.
This system of advantages confers dominance on some social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, males, white people, heterosexuals, cisgender people, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), U.S. born, English as first language speakers, and others, while subordinating and denying these privilege to other groups, for example, females, racially minoritized peoples, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans* people, intersex people, those who do not hold to Christian beliefs and religious traditions, working class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, non-U.S. born, and non-English as first language speakers, among others. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s subconscious and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering subordinated group members.
The relative invisibility of this privilege to members of dominant social identities helps to keep this system firmly in place. I often use the analogy of dominant group privilege as the water in an aquarium where the fish neither see nor feel the water because it is so pervasive and taken for granted. For our society to move forward with greater equity, however, we need to be conscious of the water of dominance that saturates our environment.
With the above as a starting point, though, I caution us not to conceptualize dominant group privilege monolithically, for we must factor into the equation issues of context and intersectionality of identities. I contend, therefore, that we need to view forms of privilege along a continuum or spectrum rather than conceiving them as binary opposites.
One day, when I was very young, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon (Szymon) Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently but with deep affection, he said to me through his distinctive Polish accent, “Varn, you are named after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Simon talked about our mishpocheh (family) with pride, but as he told me this, he revealed an obvious sadness on his face. I asked him if our family still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called Nazis except his mother, Bascha who died of a heart attack in 1934. I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
I have since come to learn that the Nazi’s constructed European-heritage Jews, in fact, all Jews of every so-called “race,” as constituting a separate and lower “race” as justification for extermination as if we were vermin.
I first attended a workshop dealing with issues of white privilege in the early 1990s, and for me at least, looking back now, it seemed to have taken me somewhat longer than, for example, many European-heritage Christians to come to an acceptance that by dint of my skin color, hair texture, facial features, and most importantly, my European genealogy, U.S. society grants me a host of privileges denied those constructed as “persons of color.” My initial and continuing questions for years arose as, “In European society, my mishpocheh, in fact, all Jews then and in many areas still today, were and are not considered ‘white.’ If this is so, if the Nazis ruthlessly murdered the man after whom I was named because he was not white, how then can I have white privilege?”
After talking with many other Ashkenazim (Eastern and Central European-heritage Jews), and after conducting an extensive doctoral dissertation on the topic, I have come away with the insight that privilege is conditional, contextual, and intersectional.
I will present my argument in the form or numerous critical questions:
Do I have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege in the United States as I do during my frequent trips to Eastern Europe, in particular, to Poland and Ukraine? (I was to learn that the reason some people hesitated to shake my hand in Europe was their belief that I was fathered by the Devil!)
Did I as a European-heritage, Jewish, gay man have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege when I resided and worked in the overwhelmingly white, rural, politically conservative, and Christian-dominated state of Iowa as I do now living and working in the more diverse and politically progressive Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts? (Some of my Iowa students expressed to me both in person and on their final papers over the years that though they enjoyed me as their professor, they nonetheless felt obliged to inform me that I will be spending eternity in Hell if I do not stop being a “practicing homosexual” and if I do not accept Jesus as my “personal savior.”)
Do I have the same or different degree and depth of male privilege being a gay and somewhat more stereotypically “feminine” man than do traditionally “masculine” heterosexual men?
Do black and Latino men have the same or different degree and depth of male privilege within the larger society as do white men?
Do white men have the same or different degree and depth of white privilege as do white women?
Do I as a white gay Jewish 66-year old man have the same or different degree and depth of privilege as a white gay Jewish 40-year old man, for example, when it comes to applying for a job position to which we are both highly qualified?
Do I as a college educated white man having earned a doctorate degree have the same or different amount and depth of privilege as a white man without a college degree?
I could continue in this vein for numerous pages, but I think by now my major assertions become evident: that we need to factor issues of context and identity intersectionality when we investigate issues of dominant group privilege.
I must, nevertheless, be very clear: my intent is not to deconstruct out of existence the reality and enormity of dominant group privilege and its effects on both those with and those denied it. I hope, however, that we will not only continue, but more importantly, expand our interrogation of the issues theoretically and empirically in the day-to-day lived experiences of people, and that as we move forward, we will undertake a somewhat more nuanced approach. As I have done this in my inner personal work and in my teaching, I have discovered a deeper more complex understanding, and I have experienced less resistance within myself and within my students when addressing issues of unearned privilege.
Though we can never fully quantify privilege, by discarding the bifurcated polar perspective while charting privilege along a continuum taking into account context and identity intersectionality, I believe we will come to a fuller and deeper awareness of issues of power and privilege, marginalization, and oppression as we work toward a more socially just society and world.
Ketner, L. Heterosexual privilege. http://members.aol.com/
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31(1), 44-51
–Photo: Bindaas Madhavi/Flickr