Thoughts on Privilege

I posted a link to this article about privilege and intersectionality by Gina Crosley-Corcoran on the Facebook page the other day, and got a message this morning that it's gotten more attention than 95% of what I've posted on that page, so people must be looking at it!

I'm very familiar with the idea of privilege - I started reading about it a lot when I started writing my blog. It's an idea that would make intuitive sense to me even if I hadn't seen it in action. I can think of examples from my work and personal life, going as far back as elementary school, where I saw how membership in certain demographic groups in society affords people "privileges" that other groups don't necessarily enjoy. For some great articles about how privilege manifests itself, by the way, see Sam Killermann's writing on the subject at itspronouncedmetrosexual.com

I was less clear on intersectionality for a long time. I thought originally that it simply referred to the ways in which different types of privilege interact and the effect that it has on peoples' lives (which I guess is ultimately true). But one of the things that made me like Crosley-Corcoran's article so much was that her explanation of intersectionality took great care to point out that people can be privileged in some ways but not in others.

Privilege, Intersectionality, and Me

Crossley-Corcoran's article is timely for me. I feel like I saw intersectionality in action constantly when I supported intellectually disabled people as an agency worker. While I shared with them the experience of being part of non-privileged group (disabled people), I was definitely privileged in ways that they were not:

  • People addressed me when I was out in public instead of the person I was with
  • Assumptions about me were largely positive. People assumed that I lived on my own, had a paid job, etc., instead of being surprised to hear it (the way they often were with the people I supported who did these things.)
  • I could assume, as person without an intellectual disability, that information about the world would be provided to me in a way that would ultimately be useful, even if I had to work at it a bit. For government services in particular, it's often difficult for me to find out where to get information about important services, and to difficult to understand the information once I find out where to get it - people that I've supported, even with a fair level of literacy, have found it it next to impossible, and I spent a lot of my time with them helping them to find information and then present to them in a way that made sense to them.

I do feel that, as a disabled, non-Christian woman I'm part of several non-privileged groups. But I also think, as intersectionality tells is possible, that I'm an extremely privileged individual particularly among disabled people. I was thinking about that just before the holidays, even before I read Crossley-Corcoran's article:

  • I'm reasonably healthy. My disabilities aren't severe, and don't have pain associated with them. I don't need costly special equipment, supports, or a special diet.
  • I'm educated. People tend to (whether they should or not) give more authority to the words of people who are educated. I can safely assume that I can read what's put in front of me, whether it's a road sign, instructions, or a contract. A wider variety of higher-paying, higher-status jobs are open to me (theoretically...but that's another story, about high unemployment rates for disabled people).
  • I have enough money to meet my needs (largely because I'm lucky enough to have a job and don't have to rely on poverty-level disability income support). I have a roof over my head. I have enough money to pay for food, clothing, and my transportation. I'm lucky enough to live in a country with universal health care, so any care that I do require is provided at very minimal cost unless I require things that OHIP doesn't cover.
  • I'm straight, cisgendered, and white, and therefore protected from a variety of prejudices that tend to manifest especially in a small town. As a non-Christian, I occasionally experience the effects of Christian privilege in others, but not to the point where I'd consider it a real issue for me (although I certainly understand why it is for others).

When I was thinking about privilege and intersectionality before the holidays, I ran into some of the thinking traps around it that Crossley-Corcoran identifies. I wondered if I the areas in which I am privileged cancelled out the areas in which I'm not, or if I should feel badly about feeling privileged in the ways that I am. I think that I knew intellectually that I shouldn't, because I've even told male friends in discussion about gender and privilege, "It's not your fault that you're born the gender of the two that's doing most of the subjugating, and it's not a personal indictment that you're part of that just on the basis of being born that gender." But Crosley-Corcoran's article really drove home on person level that privilege isn't something over which to feel guilty:

"And listen, recognizing Privilege doesn't mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life. Nobody's saying that Straight White Middle-Upper Class Able-Bodied Males are all a bunch of assholes who don't work hard for what they have. Recognizing Privilege simply means that being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things that you take for granted (if they ever get to experience them at all)"

I don't think that I've seen an explanation of privilege that's much clearer than that. And even if you don't agree that privilege exists (as many people don't), I think that at least knowing the idea is out there and keeping it in a repertoire of "lenses" through which you view the world is constructive. It's a good personal exercise to look at what life's like for other people, and to wonder why that is. I'll be doing some more thinking about this. Be sure to read Gina Crosley-Corcoran's article, Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person, on her blog, "The Feminist Breeder".

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