For a male, white, straight, cis1 or similarly advantaged person coming into contact with social justice politics for the first time, it can feel like a personal attack. Words like ‘privilege’ can seem like they blame the individual for something over which they had no control. This short guide aims to explain social justice politics (sometimes called identity politics) and the privilege model from the ground up.
Social justice activists often speak of privilege. The concept originated with feminism, but other strands (such as antiracism, queer liberation and trans liberation) quickly took and adapted it. Simply put, if society perceives one as having one of a certain set of identities (including all of the examples in the first paragraph and more besides) society will generally make it easier for one to live one’s life. The term refers to the behaviour of society, and not to something that the privileged person has done or failed to do, and most of those who use it do not mean to blame the privileged person for their privilege.
The nature of privilege means that the privileged person almost never notices that they have it; one simply assumes that society treats everyone in the same way. Moreover, experiencing oppression of one kind does not enable one to see one’s own privilege of a different sort. For example, a gay man experiences oppression in the form of heterosexism and homophobia, but he still can’t, on the basis of his own experience, form an awareness of the male privilege he carries. Almost everyone belongs to some oppressed class or other, and almost nobody completely lacks privilege. Different forms of privilege and oppression can interact in a very complicated way.
A person with privilege can obtain some indirect appreciation for their privilege by talking to people who lack that privilege; for this and other reasons social justice activism stresses the importance of oppressed people having channels for society to hear their voices. Kyriarchy2 makes sure that the dominant narrative of our society reflects a privileged (cis, white, straight, male, middle-class, able-bodied, …) experience.
The imbalance inherent in a privilege/oppression dynamic means that members of an oppressed class may sometimes wish to create a space which excludes people with privilege. Just like privilege itself, those who create such spaces do not necessarily make any judgment about the character of individual members of the privileged class. Privilege by its nature touches everything, and some members of the oppressed class may not feel comfortable talking about deeply personal aspects of their own oppression in front of people who have not experienced that oppression.
This essay is not intended to cover everything, but I hope it serves as a basic introduction.
1: The word ‘cis’ means ‘not trans’. Chemists and classicists should know this already.
2: Some feminists and other social justice activists use the word ‘kyriarchy’ (from the Greek ‘kyrios’, meaning ‘master’) as a replacement for ‘patriarchy’ that encompasses all forms of oppression. Others criticize it. Personally, I like the term, so I’ve used it.