Someone asked me this question at a house party the other week. “Why am I privileged?” More specifically, he asked: “How does the fact that I am a white, straight, cis male make me privileged?”
My jaw dropped to the floor. I am a sociology major. We talk a lot about privilege in my classes. In my small world of Colorado College, questions and impacts and causes of privilege permeate most conversations. After all, you don’t need to look far to see privilege and its ramifications in our daily lives, no matter if you come out on the winning or the losing side.
So when the guy at the house party asked me that question, I felt shocked. How could he not see his privilege? How could he have not taken a class that discussed privilege? Or held a conversation with friends on the topic? In all honesty, I felt appalled. And so, for five minutes in the crowded kitchen of the party, I let him have it.
What is privilege?
Privilege expresses itself in many forms and through multiple social indicators, including race, sexuality, class, gender and gender expression. The difficult thing is that they all entwine and intermix. Students weighed in on the topic:
“I feel like it’s advantages that are given or lack of obstacles that certain groups of people get because of their social position—race, gender, class, citizenship, etcetera.” – Maeve O’Connor Bethune, recent graduate, Colorado College
“For me, acquiring privilege is something that you are not responsible for. You are born with it. You didn’t earn it. I don’t think that privilege in of itself is a bad thing, but you have to recognize that it’s arbitrary. You shouldn’t capitalize on it, because it’s arbitrary.” – Rolando Barry, senior, Ringling College
“I think it is synonymous to entitled. A particular benefit that only a certain group of people have to the point that it becomes normalized.” – Niyanta Khatri, senior, Colorado College
Privilege involves having an identity, or multiple identities, that align with those dominant in society. Colorado College sociology professor Lauren Hannscott explained the guy from the party’s privileged position. “With race, white means he’s in the dominant subgroup. And as a heteronormative male he’s also in a dominant sub group. And it’s the same for all the other ones you listed. It doesn’t mean that he’s done something himself, but the way that he’s treated in every day life, the resources he has access to, all that are affected by his identity.”
Who gets this privilege?
Dominant identities are typically the most visible and in society and are considered valuable. We see these identities represented in politics, media, big business, expensive restaurants and high-end entertainment. Dominant identities are associated to wealth and success, making them trusted and accepted. In this way, they become engrained in all aspects of society.
Dr. Wade Roberts, chair of the sociology department at Colorado College, described this system. “Privilege is not merely the property of individuals and groups, but is institutionalized in many ways. Laws may codify privilege. Markets are very good in their own way of rewarding privilege. Educational institutions, too, depending on their practices, may do more to contribute to the reproduction of privilege (and exclusion) in a society than the democratization of opportunity.”
Privilege, and the people who embody privileged characteristics are normalized. People who don’t fit with these identities are considered different or less-than, leaving these individuals at a disadvantage. Dr. Roberts even referred to his own privilege. “Privilege and disadvantage are two sides of the same coin. My advantages as a white male, for example, often come at the expense and disadvantage of others. It would [be] unfair of me to not recognize that.”
What is white privilege?
Take white privilege. If everyone we see represented in trusted positions of power, wealth and leadership are white, then people associate whiteness with these characteristics.
Where does that leave people who are not white? These individuals are often characterized, without personal knowledge, as the opposite—lazy, criminal, uneducated. This impacts their job opportunities, social interactions and access to education.
Importantly, this process is cyclical—if people of color are restricted from borrowing money due to perceived untrustworthiness, then they are more likely to be at an economic disadvantage. This might make them more inclined to engage in illegal behavior to make money, and which might make law enforcement more suspicious. However, we must note that assuming an individual is untrustworthy or suspicious due to their race has nothing to do with one’s actions. It is an assumption of “less than” or “other” to the dominant, visible, trusted, familiar white.
People with privilege often don’t even notice. “The fact that you have to ask—that makes you privileged, the fact that you don’t notice—that makes you privileged,” said Dr. Gail Murphy-Geiss, professor of sociology at Colorado College. Even if you recognize how people from marginalized social groups, races and classes, are disadvantaged, it is still hard to see yourself at an advantage.
The hard task is acknowledging that disadvantage as relating to your privilege. “Of course, everyone feels that life is hard and challenging at points, so one doesn’t always feel their privilege at play. Those often subtle advantages and the very state of privilege feel normal. It is exceptionally easy for me to not see all of the ways in which life is easier for me due to my ascriptive characteristics… To be honest, life is easier and seems more just when I don’t acknowledge my privilege,” said Dr. Roberts.
When you are privileged, equality feels like oppression. It feels like you lose out, something you are used to having without question—used to deserving, due to the color of your skin, your gender, your background—is taken from you.
Examples of Privilege
In a controlled environment, the talented, dedicated and hardest workers should succeed. With no way to control race, wealth, gender, nationality and other social indicators, privilege can’t be controlled.
Wealth impacts more than an individual’s power for consumption and access. It affects the experiences that will shape their life, even the risks they can take. “I think privilege is the ability to do anything without having to think of the consequences, a lot of times. Always having a safety net, namely wealth,” said Westminster College senior Mahima Poudell.
O’Connor Bethune said, “I don’t have any debt, which is enormous. It gives me the opportunity to take a job that I want that doesn’t pay very much. I don’t have to live at home. I can have a car, I can travel.” Privilege exists even when you engage in activities without worrying about the cost. With the privilege of wealth, a person can engage in culturally and socially advantageous activities.
Poudell said, “I always considered myself pretty privileged, because I come from Kathmandu and have a good family. And then I came to the U.S. and it’s only now when I’m applying for jobs that I’m like oh shit, my name doesn’t sound right. Are they rejecting my application to work because my name isn’t right or am I going to become the token brown person in the office? It changes with context. It’s very unfair that some people assume good things about other people because of all the attributes that they didn’t earn, like being white. For people who don’t embody those, you have to earn that respect and prove that you are good.”
On average, for every dollar a man makes, a woman only makes 77 cents. Do women work less hard than men? No. Are women perceived as less directive than men, and therefore less suitable for leadership positions than men? Yes. Male privilege comes with the immediate consideration as a more serious, hard-working and intelligent worker. Plus, they don’t need to deal with daily instances of sexual harassment.
The disadvantage is even more pronounced for non cis-gendered, or non-gender binary individuals. Such individuals may face frequent overt hostility, or micro aggressions. O’Connor Bethune said, “You go into a clothing section in the store that’s for the gender you don’t present as, and you have people coming up to you and asking who you are shopping for and if you need directions. Which are little things of people telling you: Why are you in this space? This space is not for you.”
Even certain life-essentials like health care aren’t provided for gender non-binary and trans individuals. “Trans people often know their needs more than their healthcare provider,” O’Conner Bethune said. “Healthcare needs are often not covered, because they are not deemed essential. Mental health is not covered at all, which with the suicide rate is absurd.”
To be heterosexual is to be normal; this is a privilege. LGBTQ individuals, similar to non-gender binary folk, are taken as different and “other” to the accepted forms of sexuality. These deviant identities don’t fit in with the societal rules and norms of how people are “supposed to act.” As with privilege by gender, queers may have a harder time being accepted, taken seriously, given positions of power and responsibility. They might even suffer outright violence due to their sexual orientation.
Privilege on College Campuses
“Education in general is not a privilege, it is a right,” said Khatri. “Coming to Colorado College and being able to pay full fee is a privilege… You’re able to afford it and not see the value in that money. Or not see the challenges to other people who are not able to pay that price. I guess you are blinded by it.” Having access to an institution that charges over $65,000 per year and not worrying whether not being able to afford that kind of fee will impact your application, is undeniably a privilege.
The same goes for college past times. Khatri said, “Take ski culture. There is this dichotomy of people who are able to go and who are not able to go, based on whether you come from a family that has had the means to teach you. We see those differences.”
On college campuses, you might expect that everyone will take part in the activities that make up college life. But that isn’t possible for everyone.
Professor Hannscott asks her students to think about privilege in her Sociology of Education class. She explained how from the first to the last day, students develop more nuanced understandings of their educational backgrounds. “They’re starting to realize that yes, they might have worked really hard and done a lot of personal work to get to where they are, but they were aided by this larger social structure that gave them certain privileges,” Hannscott said. “Whether this is access to better schools, or more consistent home life… [they] didn’t have to worry about finding a job or even where their next meal was coming from.”
I asked Professor Hannscott how the boy from the party was privileged. She replied, “Historically, all the identities that that male identified with are empowered within the United States, so they are more likely to have more opportunities. That doesn’t mean that everyone with that identity has those opportunities. But when you’re looking on a societal scale, I would say that he was privileged, and sociology would say that he was privileged.”