A Primer on Privilege in 500 Words or Fewer

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This is reposted with permission from Serving Tea to Friends

When I wrote my last post, I got a few questions about privilege. Since my fellow Tea-Servers are in the middle of finals and moves across the country, I figured I’d explain to the best of my limited ability.

And because my last post was so long, I’m going to attempt to do this in 500 words or fewer. Game time!

Privilege Starts with Power

Power is the ability to influence your world. This works both on micro– and macro– levels. People with power have the most influence over their own lives as well as the ability to shape the larger world. People with power have more authority in any given situation than those who don’t. Their opinions are respected more. Their experiences are considered more valid.  The kinds of experiences they have are inherently shaped by their power.

Power is Inherited

Power tends to concentrate and grow. This is particularly true for sociological power, which is not obvious to most. When a system is created in which people with certain characteristics are valued above others, a cycle is created in which the next generation of people who have those characteristics obtain that power without even really knowing it.

Inheritance is Systemic

Who gets power and who doesn’t depends entirely on the society that is constructed, and that is not something that individuals control. There is no mastermind waving a wand, and there is no conspiracy. Oppression is societal — the result of massive numbers of actions combining to create patterns of behavior.  Most people who have power don’t realize it, didn’t ask for it, and don’t know how to acknowledge it.

Systems Create Power

Large-scale patterns of behavior that favor particular groups of people over others generate people use that power (however unconsciously). Use of the power reinforces the system. Those group narratives become favored over others, unrepresented narratives become undervalued, and the power remains with the groups of people who had it in the first place.

And so on, and so forth.

For Example…

I criticized Lindy West for not acknowledging her privilege. Lindy West is a self-described middle-class white woman. Because she has power, the ways racism effect her are patently different than the ways racism affects others. Racism affects real people in serious ways. There might be things that people of color would prefer to talk about instead of hipster racism. Maybe hipster racism isn’t all that important to them. Instead of asking this first, West wrote about racism with respect to how it affected her as a white person, without acknowledging the desires of people who are more seriously affected by it.

More importantly, because she has the privilege of a white person’s perspective, people listened. She used her privilege to shift the debate from topics that peoples of color might have wanted to talk about to topics that she as a white person cared about. By doing this, she perpetuated the cycle of privilege.

And that’s not cool.

(497 words, including this sentence — word.)

  • CrackerJacker

    498 when you put the word “who” into the first sentence of the Systems Create Power paragraph.

    I appreciate your argument and your example might be initially true (sorry Lindy!), however, I do not believe that people listen to Lindy because of the privilege of a white person’s perspective. They listen because she has the privilege of a platform. But in 2013 there are no shortages of platforms for wildly diverse people. Blaming her reach on her color is confusing correlation for causation.

  • Hi Gina! I love this post — my work team and I would like to distribute it to our volunteers to prime them on the concepts of privilege and oppression. Would it be ok if we used it? (and credited you, of course).