Social privilege

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In anthropology, privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.[1] In sociology, privilege is the perceived rights or advantages that are assumed to be available only to a particular person or group of people; the term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly in regard to age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and social class.[2] Two common examples involve having access to a higher education and housing.[2] Under a newer usage of the term, privilege can also be emotional or psychological, regarding comfort and personal self-confidence, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society,[3] it began as an academic concept, but has since been invoked more widely, outside of academia.[4][5]


Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois[edit]

Arguably, the history of privilege as a concept dates back to American sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois's 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Here, he wrote that although African Americans were observant of white Americans and conscious of racial discrimination, white Americans did not think much about African-Americans, nor about the effects of racial discrimination.[6][7][8] In 1935, Du Bois wrote about what he called the "wages of whiteness" held by white Americans, he wrote that these included courtesy and deference, unimpeded admittance to all public functions, lenient treatment in court, and access to the best schools.[9]

Codification of the concept[edit]

In 1988, American feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh published "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies". Here, McIntosh documented forty-six privileges which she, as a white person, experienced in the United States; as an example, "I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me", and "I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection". McIntosh described white privilege as an "invisible package of unearned assets" which white people do not want to acknowledge, and which leads to them being confident, comfortable, and oblivious about racial issues, while non-white people become unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated.[3] McIntosh's essay has been credited for stimulating academic interest in privilege, which has been extensively studied in the decades since.[10]

Challenges to the concept[edit]

In 2014, Princeton University first-year student Tal Fortgang authored "Checking My Privilege", a widely debated article in which he condemned classmates who told him to "check his privilege" for attributing his success in life to "some invisible patron saint of white maleness", and "for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth".[11] McIntosh afterwards told the New Yorker that Fortgang was resisting seeing himself systemically, she argued that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage, and should aim to try to see themselves in the context of societal patterns of discrimination and oppression.[12]


Historically, academic study of social inequality focused mainly on the ways in which minority groups were discriminated against, and ignored the privileges accorded to dominant social groups; that changed in the late 1980s, when researchers began studying the concept of privilege.[10]

Privilege, as understood and described by researchers, is a function of multiple variables of varying importance, such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship, religion, physical ability, health, level of education, and others. Race, gender and social class are felt by many sociologists to be the characteristics most determinative of a person's overall level of privilege.[13] Privilege theory argues that each individual is embedded in a matrix of categories and contexts, and will be in some ways privileged and other ways disadvantaged, with privileged attributes lessening disadvantage and membership in a disadvantaged group lessening the benefits of privilege.[14]

For example, researchers of social privilege would tend to view a lesbian university professor of European ancestry as benefiting from racial and educational privilege, but disadvantaged due to her gender and sexual orientation;[15] some attributes of privilege are ordinarily fairly visible, such as race and gender, and others, such as citizenship status and birth order, are not. Some such as social class are relatively stable and others, such as age, wealth, religion and attractiveness, will or may change over time;[16] some attributes of privilege are at least partly determined by the individual, such as level of education, whereas others such as race or class background are entirely involuntary.

In the context of the theory, privileged people are considered to be "the norm", and, as such, gain invisibility and ease in society, with others being cast as inferior variants.[15] Privileged people see themselves reflected throughout society both in mass media and face-to-face in their encounters with teachers, workplace managers and other authorities, which researchers argue leads to a sense of entitlement and the assumption that the privileged person will succeed in life, as well as protecting the privileged person from worry that they may face discrimination from people in positions of authority.[17]

Awareness of privilege[edit]

Some academics[example needed] highlight a pattern where those who benefit from a type of privilege are unwilling to acknowledge it.[3][14][18] American sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the state of having privilege as being "like running with the wind at your back", unaware of invisible sustenance, support and propulsion;[3] the argument may follow that such a denial constitutes a further injustice against those who do not benefit from the same form of privilege. Derald Wing Sue has referred to such denial as a form of "microaggression" or microinvalidation that negates the experiences of people who don't have privilege and minimizes the impediments they face.[19]

McIntosh wrote that most people are reluctant to acknowledge their privilege, and instead look for ways to justify or minimize the effects of privilege stating that their privilege was fully earned, they justify this by acknowledging the acts of individuals of unearned dominance, but deny that privilege is institutionalized as well as embedded throughout our society. She wrote that those who believe privilege is systemic may nonetheless deny having personally benefited from it, and may oppose efforts to dismantle it.[3] According to researchers[who?], privileged individuals resist acknowledging their privileges because doing so would require them to acknowledge that whatever success they have achieved did not result solely through their own efforts. Instead it was partly due to a system that has developed to support them;[19] the concept of privilege calls into question the idea that society is a meritocracy, which researchers[who?] have argued is particularly unsettling for Americans for whom belief that they live in a meritocracy is a deeply held cultural value, and one that researchers commonly characterize as a myth.[15][20][21][22]

In The Gendered Society, Michael Kimmel wrote that when privileged people do not feel personally powerful, arguments that they have benefited from unearned advantages seem unpersuasive.[21][further explanation needed]


Workplace sexism[edit]

Hays, a recruitment firm, sent the same job application to thousands of employers, only changing the name. One was "Simon", the other "Susan". Experienced hiring managers offered "Simon" an interview 15% more often than "Susan".[23]

Educational racism[edit]

According to McKinley et al.

Students of color are pushed toward academic failure and continued social disenfranchisement. Racist policies and beliefs, in part, explain why children and young adults from racially marginalized groups fail to achieve academically at the same rate as their White peers.[24]


The concept of privilege has been criticized for ignoring relative differences among groups. For example, Lawrence Blum argued that in American culture there are status differences among Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Koreans, and Cambodians, and among African Americans, black immigrants from the Caribbean, and black immigrants from Africa.[25]

Blum agreed that privilege exists and is systemic yet nonetheless criticized the label itself, saying that the word "privilege" implies luxuries rather than rights, and arguing that some benefits of privilege such as unimpeded access to education and housing would be better understood as rights; Blum suggested that privilege theory should distinguish between "spared injustice" and "unjust enrichment" as some effects of being privileged are the former and others the latter. Blum also argued that privilege can end up homogenising both privileged and non-privileged groups when in fact it needs to take account the role of interacting effects and an individual's multiple group identities.[25] "White privilege", Michael Monahan argued, would be more accurately described as the advantages gained by whites through historical disenfranchisement of non-whites rather than something that gives whites privilege above and beyond normal human status.[26]

While many critics agree that there are differences in social outcomes due to advantages certain groups hold, they disagree with the privilege paradigm that generates dichotomous thinking of oppressor vs the oppressed with clear hierarchies of oppression, they claim the reality of the dynamics of and enforcement of social privilege is a significantly more complex, multidimensional phenomenon than the privilege paradigm suggests.[27] Other critics highlight the irony that college students who commonly invoke privilege theory do so from a place of privilege on behalf of groups who often do not endorse the privilege paradigm; those invoking the privilege paradigm ignore the broad social privileges enjoyed in the developed world such as free expression, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceful assembly, rule of law, and individualism.[28]

Psychologist Erin Cooley reported in a study published in 2019 that reading about white privilege decreased social liberals' sympathy for poor whites (and increased their will to punish/blame) but did not increase their sympathy for poor blacks. [29]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Rohlinger, Deana A. (2010). "Privilege". In Ritzer, G.; Ryan, J.M. (eds.). The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 473–474. ISBN 978-1-44-439264-7.


  1. ^ "Privilege | Definition of privilege in English by Oxford Dictionaries".
  2. ^ a b Twine, France Winddance (2013). Geographies of Privilege. Routledge. pp. 8–10. ISBN 978-0415519618.
  3. ^ a b c d e Kimmel, Michael S. (2009). Privilege: A Reader. Westview Press. pp. 1, 5, 13–26. ISBN 978-0813344263.
  4. ^ Freeman, Hadley (5 June 2013). "Check your privilege! Whatever that means". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  5. ^ Hinsliff, Gaby (27 December 2017). "'Check your privilege' used to annoy me. Now I get it". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Shannon (2006). Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege. Indiana University Press. pp. 121–123. ISBN 978-0253218483.
  7. ^ Reiland, Rabaka (2007). W.E.B. Du Bois and the Problems of the Twenty-First Century: An Essay on Africana Critical Theory. Lexington Books. p. 3. ISBN 978-0739116821.
  8. ^ Appelrouth, Scott (2007). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. 304-305: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-0761927938.
  9. ^ Kincheloe, Joe L. (2008). Critical Pedagogy Primer. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers. pp. 60–62. ISBN 978-1433101823.
  10. ^ a b O'Brien, Jodi A. (2008). Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. SAGE Publications. p. 418. ISBN 978-1412909167.
  11. ^ Fortgang, Tal (2 April 2014). "Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege". The Princeton Tory. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
  12. ^ Rothman, Joshua (13 May 2014). "The Origins of Privilege". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
  13. ^ Casella, Eleanor C. (2005). The Archaeology of Plural and Changing Identities: Beyond Identification. Springer. p. 217. ISBN 9780306486944.
  14. ^ a b Garnets, Linda (2002). Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. Columbia University Press. p. 391. ISBN 978-0231124133.
  15. ^ a b c Case, Kim (2013). Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom. Routledge. pp. 63–64. ISBN 978-0415641463.
  16. ^ Sweet, Holly Barlow (2012). Gender in the Therapy Hour: Voices of Female Clinicians Working with Men (The Routledge Series on Counseling and Psychotherapy with Boys and Men). Routledge. p. 71. ISBN 978-0415885515.
  17. ^ Sorrells, Kathryn (2012). Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice. SAGE Publications. p. 63. ISBN 978-1412927444.
  18. ^ Carter, Robert T. (2004). Handbook of Racial-Cultural Psychology and Counseling, Training and Practice. Wiley. p. 432. ISBN 978-0471386292.
  19. ^ a b Sue, Derald Wing (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-0470491409.
  20. ^ Khan, Shamus Rahman (2012). Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology). Princeton University Press. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-0691156231.
  21. ^ a b Halley, Jean (2011). Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 67, 191. ISBN 978-1442203075.
  22. ^ Jackson, Yolanda Kaye (2006). Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology. SAGE Publications. p. 471. ISBN 9781452265568.
  23. ^ "The same resume with different names nets different results".
  24. ^ Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, Angelina E. Castagno and Emma Maughan. Review of Research in Education Vol. 31, Difference, Diversity, and Distinctiveness in Education and Learning (2007), pp. 159-194
  25. ^ a b Blum, Lawrence (2008). "'White privilege': A mild critique" (PDF). Theory and Research in Education. 6 (6(3)): 309–321. doi:10.1177/1477878508095586. Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  26. ^ Monahan, Michael J. (2014). "The concept of privilege: a critical appraisal". South African Journal of Philosophy. 3 (1): 73–83. doi:10.1080/02580136.2014.892681. eISSN 2073-4867. ISSN 0258-0136.
  27. ^ "White Privilege Is Real, but Well-Meaning White Liberals Are Helping to Perpetuate It".
  28. ^ "Privilege Checking the Privilege Checkers".
  29. ^ Cooley, Erin; Brown-Iannuzzi, Jazmin (29 April 2019). "Complex intersections of race and class: Among social liberals, learning about White privilege reduces sympathy, increases blame, and decreases external attributions for White people struggling with poverty". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi:10.1037/xge0000605. Retrieved 5 June 2019.