What does the research tell us?
Privilege is different from discrimination. Privilege is a systemic issue. Hierarchical systems, such as racism or heterosexism, reinforce societal advantages or disadvantages and create positions of privilege (those with unearned advantages) and oppression (those who may have impeded experiences due to lack of privilege). These advantages and disadvantages can be maintained both intentionally and unintentionally. Privilege and oppression are not one-and-done experiences. Often our privileges are invisible to us because they are so ingrained in society.
Privileged positions are seen as the “norm,” or the “universal.” For example, when we talk about white people, we rarely identify them as white, however, we often refer to a “black” character in a movie, a “black” actor, a “black” classmate, etc.
As educators, we have assumptions about what students should do, and assume they have a basic, shared understanding of norms. For example, Anthony Abraham Jack found that white professors were bewildered that minority and first-generation college students never came in to talk to them or ask questions during office hours. For some, this represented students’ lack of commitment to their education. When Jack conducted interviews with this population of students, he discovered that, in contrast, they were very sensitive to adhering to the rules, and interpreted “office hours” to mean that this is the professor’s time to conduct their work in their office and should not be disturbed. For some first-generation college students, they had been told that they had to succeed on their own, and they did not want to stand out as someone needing extra help.
Privilege is intersectional. We cannot examine identities such as gender, race, class, and others in isolation from one another. Identities interact and intersect at different levels. They shape people’s experiences and provide insight into why some people are more or less likely to experience certain forms of advantage and disadvantage.
Everyone benefits from some form of privilege, but we are usually not aware of this. For example, the murder of George Floyd and the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement revealed to many white people what Black people already knew – Black people are more likely to face police brutality and are treated unequally in our criminal justice system. Because we are unaware of our privilege, we contribute often unconsciously to the reproduction of inequity.
There are two different kinds of privilege: those that everyone should have (i.e., clean water) and those no one should have (i.e., the right to own another human being).
Privilege is essential to the operations of inequality. It is the flip side of oppression. Everyone has privilege, and recognition of this can be used for positive change. It can be the grounds for building understanding and empathy for one another, when we learn to see that they are a part of the dynamics of systems of inequality, such as race, gender, etc.