Thursday, February 21, 2008

Privilege

I’m not sure if Peggy McIntosh is considered outdated in feminist and WS circles by now but when I started studying feminist theory, she was the first exposure I had to privilege. I couldn’t believe how privileged I was just because I am white and I was even more shocked to find just how privileged my white (especially straight) guy friends were for having the added bonus of being male.


Privilege isn’t something people normally think about because it’s easy to ignore something you take for granted day to day. I don’t think that privileged individuals walk around and intentionally use privilege to their betterment. I do think that people tend not to notice they are privileged because they have spent their lives living in a way they are comfortable with and not confronted by. Once privilege is brought to someone’s attention, s/he is challenged by the concept that s/he can work less hard than others for some of the things that others do not have.


Frankly, this is a concept that blew my mind because after I learned about it, I couldn’t believe how few people considered the theory at all. Since privileged people are generally (consciously or not) unaware, once challenged they have two choices:


1. Do nothing. Continue living their lives just how they are, privileged and all.
Or
2. Recognize their privilege and use it to help others.


Many people, even once challenged, live in denial of their privilege: “Why should I give up what I’ve earned?” or “No one helped ME get to where I am, why should I help others?” These common reactions are actually misconceptions. For one, you may have “earned” what you have with the help of being privileged (in whatever way privilege applies to you). And although no actual person or people may have helped you get to where you are, an institutionalized system of privilege, classism, and racism set up society to aid in your success.


Moving on to the good stuff. How are we actually privileged? Again, though outdated, Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack provides great examples of white privilege that are often overlooked:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.*
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.

Although Ms. McIntosh enlightened me in college, since then I have admittedly given very little thought to privilege. Yes I try to live my life acknowledging and recognizing what I have and what others don’t (and how to equal out the world) but I haven’t thought about it in an academic way in quite some time. That is, until recently. One of my fav feminist blogs, A Feminist Response to Pop Culture posted about privilege based on Racialicious’s recent series of posts on whether class has trumped race. The items of privilege they discuss are mostly in terms of class which I think is very current and especially important. Class based privilege is all about access to resources. Education and access to education is a huge part of that.

Here is a list they posted, anything in bold makes me privileged:

If your father went to college
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college

If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home (but they were mostly in Russian)
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind (piano - free, & flute - $20/half hour)
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it (once i got to college)
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp (Jewish Community Center)
If you had a private tutor (For about 1 month, for math)
If you have been to Europe (Born in Russia, should that count?)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house (a condo...)
If your parents own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (Only senior year)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

Check out Racialicious’s terrific post (part 3 of her series) on acknowledging class privilege.

Also, feel free to comment on privilege or even post your own bolded list.

*I realize that since Peggy Mc compiled her list "flesh-colored" makeup has expanded to include all shades of flesh, but at the time, this was a relevant example.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

we just read this article/discussed this in class recently.

It is interesting - a girl in my class actually said, "There's no racism any more right?"

I was dumbfounded but at least she asked and didn't just go about life assuming.

Through my class and your blog my eyes have been open to so much. Since learning of all this my next thoughts are..."what can I do about this - what is within my power to do about it?" I don't have all the answers yet but I'm working on it!

-brandi

~JennaBella~ said...

I think this list is mostly for those 'growing up' so I've included things i've done myself, and things that were 'privileged' to me.
The only ones that apply to me:
- If you had a computer at home
- If you had more than 50 books at home
- If were read children's books by a parent
- If you had a credit card with your name on it (Nobody gave this to me, and I was solely responsible for it's payments.)
- If you have been to Europe (Only after raising my own money while paying for school)
- If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
- If you lived in a single family house (only after years of base housing)
- If your parents own their own house or apartment (again, only after years of base housing)
- If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline

Anonymous said...

Another blessing:

That your Parents are married to Each Other!!!

Happy Sadie Hawkins Day (Feb. 29). May your maidenly prayers be answered!

Feminist Gal said...

Huh? Not really sure what Anonymous means... but all are welcome to comment nonetheless ;)

Kandee said...

Great post. You articulated privilege in a way that I've been trying to for a little while now. I'll bookmark this one. And yes, they do make more shades of make-up, but nothing has changed for Band-Aids after all these years.

Sarah J said...

If your father went to college
If your father finished college

If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home

If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind (horseback riding, total rich bitch lessons)
If you had more than two kinds of lessons (art, horses, gymnastics for like a year)
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively (not the way I dressed in high school though)

If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe (summer semester, in college)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parents own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room

If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (Only senior year)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries (my grandmother did much more of this, really)
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family


What an interesting exercise. I never had it explained in quite those terms, but living as a white college student in New Orleans was a pretty good exercise in waking up to my own privilege.

Smirking Cat said...

I've seen a similiar list about the privileges of being male, and yep, most men who I mention it to become very defensive, as if I'm challenging the fact they accomplished anything on their own merit. It's eye opening to consider your privileges and how different you may be without them.

Renee said...

Peggy McIntosh is definitely still taught in WS classes, even with third-wave profs. She came to my campus a few years back before I got here (sadness). I made my ex read her privilege stuff and he called it "bullshit." I made my current beau read them and he about cried. It's certainly jarring.

Anonymous said...

Dear Feminist Gal:

Here is a blurb on Sadie Hawkins and the holiday that commemorates her great achievement:

http://deniskitchen.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=CTGY&Category_Code=bios.sadiehawkins

Though a modest achievement by today's standards, Sadie Hawkins can nevertheless be considered an early pioneer of Feminism in the 1930s where the word Feminism was yet to be coined. This woman of such incredible beauty can never be acused of trading upon her good looks due to the circumstances of her accomplishment. She became an icon for her generation. Regrettably, she is half-forgotten. However, she is also due for a revival due to the current state of Feminism.

Have I explained this to your satisfaction?

A. Nony Mus

Feminist Gal said...

Dear A. Nony, Al Bundy, Baba Yaga's Husband, and the many other alter-egos you've commented under:
If you hate my blog so much why do you come around so often? Don't you have Male Rights Network blogs to enjoy?
Take Care, FG

Smirking Cat said...

Tsk tsk, if A. Nony Mus researched facts more in depth, he or she would know the word feminism was in use long before 1930. It was in print already in 1895. Sorry, lack of knowledge is not a passable "privilege" for anyone.

Bianca Reagan said...

I have written about privilege, too! Looky here.