What is Privilege

Privilege is a short hand for a concept known better these days as Dominant Class Privilege.

It is the antithesis of Stigma, the obverse of it.

As such, it is not a visible privilege, and not something granted by some governmental authority.

It is not being born to a wealthy family or the lap of luxury in the common knowledge way that we speak about normally when we talk about someone coming from privilege in most uses.

The sort of privilege we are talking about is very loosely related to those things, yet it is not those things that is being talked about.

It is a form of entitlement and immunity to stigma, yet cannot by earned by actions that you take – it is conferred entirely by your existence, and based solely on the ways in which you are alike to others who have, to some degree or other, social power as a result of being the dominant class of persons in that cultural milieu.

This kind of privilege we are talking about is more formally known as Dominant Class Privilege, and is an unearned thing.

You do not have to do anything to get it, and you receive it whether you want it or not. You benefit from it, by your membership, and it is unseen and unrecognized by you when you have it, unless it is exposed to you in some way, or you lose access to it.

A good example of this is the grocery store analogy.

You go to the same grocery store for five years. Although they change the end caps from time to time, the things you want and that you know how to get are always there, and you can find odds and ends and you can expect that in the US the manager is going to be a person who’s skin is pale, and is a man.

Over that same five years, a large ethnic population moves into the area, and they start shopping there, and the grocery store makes room on the shelves for the things they want. But the process of doing so means they move things around dramatically, and suddenly that 10 minute shopping trip you were taking takes 45 minutes, because now they’ve moved everything around in the store and it is harder for you to find the things you like, you want, and if you are like the overwhelming majority of people (which you will claim not to be, even though odds are you are), you will develop a subtle sense of resentment about it. They have a sense of strangeness about the store that they may or may not notice, but ultimately, many of them will go and find another store.

Now, a lot of people right now are saying, “no, I don’t do that” and yet, most of them do.

That sense of strangeness is what happens when your privilege vanishes — is blocked .

Privilege is not sexism, not racism, not Cissexism or Ciscentrism.

Privilege is not discrimination, in and of itself.

It can accompany it, and it can underlie it, and discrimination is derived from it in part, but it is very subtle, very nuanced, and is not about those who are in a position of broader social powerlessness and more about those who are in a position of broader social power.

In short, it isn’t about you, as an individual, it is about the culture, and time and place you live in, and how that culture, time and place affects your actions, your thoughts, and the way you interact with others. It is a part of your socialization, and an aspect of Structure.

People speak of “dog whistles”: words and statements that are seemingly innocuous, but are intentionally phrased so as to suggest something other than the seeming innocence. A good example of a more blatant dog whistle is the Bathroom Meme “They will allow men into the women’s restroom!”

On the surface, this is fairly innocuous. Men go into the women’s room
surprisingly often (I walked in on a guy waiting for his daughter yesterday at the grocery store and he was far more embarrassed than I was). But the idea that was dog whistled there is that letting men go into bathrooms is dangerous for women. And I *did* indeed feel some concern about having a man in the bathroom there — because as a part of society, I am expected to see men as predatory culturally, and therefore I should fear this man helping his daughter learn how to use the toilet. Not because of what he was doing, but because of what he was and therefore what he represented.

Incidentally, the argument used against trans people relating to the bathrooms is “men are bad people”. That is what they are saying, and if your reaction is to say “well, not all men are like that” then perhaps you should tell the folks trying to get the laws passed and such that they should stop doing that.

Privilege is like that. It’s subtle, it exists under the awareness level. It is, to an oppressed person, a screaming siren, and to those with privilege — that unearned Dominant Privilege — it is a silent agreement, a tacit understanding, and unspoken agreement that they are not even aware of having made.
System of Privilege
Privilege has three aspects that are fundamentally present:

  • Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
  • Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
  • Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.

All of those are things we all think about ourselves in general. Indeed, all three of those are things that LGBT+ people are fighting to achieve in the social group that is the culture of the United States.
Two really good examples of privilege as it’s been used by gay men against trans people recently include :

I don’t have privilege.

This one is an assertion of innocence. When one says this, one is
saying that they are not the cause of the problem, when, in fact, it is rather useful at pointing out that they are, in fact, a part of the problem.

I can’t be oppressing you if I’m pro trans.

This one deals in the worthiness of the individual. When something like this is said, it is staking a claim to being worthy of that trust and wealth (and, in this case, that wealth is a metaphorical sort, such as information, esteem, knowledge, etc. linking it as well to the question of their own competence).

It denies the unearned privilege the writer has not on the basis of the unearned privilege, but on the basis of their unrelated stance. This is similar to the argument “well, I have gay friends and they think you shouldn’t get married too”, or the “I know a lot of trans people and they like that movie.”

In both cases, the individual is asserting their privilege — you should listen to them because they are more worthy than you are and they support it by citing people that they know in the oppressed class as
evidence that they aren’t part of oppression.

These are, for the most part, trans specific examples of privilege in action, stripped of something important to understand, and that’s context. We’ll get to that in a few moments.

These are examples, as well, of the defensive posture that is taken when people are confronted with their privilege. This is a universal constant —people with privilege that is unseen and unrecognized always deny their privilege.

This is why calling people out on their privilege is important. This is why people do it, as well — it isn’t to say that you are somehow a bad person, it is to tell you to stop thinking of yourself as infallible in comparison to them.
Loss Of Privilege
That unearned privilege is very hard to lose. To lose it, you have to suddenly be stripped of your status. You have to affected by some form of stigma that reduces your ability to do this.

How, exactly, does someone “lose” being rich? How does someone lose being white? How does someone lose being a man?

Closeted gay folks are often perceived as heterosexual, and as a result are seen to gain the unearned privileges of heterosexual privilege.

They do not actually have it, however.  Nor can they — they are not members of that dominant class, and so cannot fundamentally have that privilege, though they can sorta “steal” from it by minimizing the degree of stigma through a bargain they engage in that requires them to sacrifice some aspect of themselves.

The same applies to light skinned people of color, and pretty much in any context where the term “passing” is applied — passing itself is a term of art that describes the effect of privilege and stigma and is part of the bargain that is made, much like even the most extreme of feminists must wear heels, hose, and makeup if she is going to succeed in the Fortune 500 companies as an Executive.

When they come out, they lose that perceived unearned privilege.

One of the most glaring experiences of a trans woman, however, happens frequently enough that’s it’s also a trope — a sort of fully expected and normal experience that’s very, very common.

That is the apparent loss of male privilege.

The most subtle form of it is often described as how when they were perceived as men they would be in a meeting and if they spoke, people stopped and listened to them. They gave their attention, and often would even stop what they were doing to allow the person to speak. Then they encounter a similar situation as a woman, and are ignored.

Their ideas — even if it is the same idea they may have expressed when perceived as a man —are suddenly less valuable, and have less merit and are lacking in worthiness.

This is the effect of privilege when it is used: it puts someone in their place.

It is, in and of itself, a form of oppression, and people are typically utterly unaware that they are doing so. Even a very supportive and dedicated person working on behalf of a particular oppressed group will do this and not realize it until they have it pointed out to them.

Privilege is Ciscentric

One of the interesting quirks to the notion of Trans people actually having privilege is that it isn’t possible. They can benefit from it, but they cannot actually have it.

It resides only so long as they are not known to be trans – which removes them from the group of men in the US culture at present, even if they are trans men. That knowledge changing things is why they don’t have that privilege.

The closest comparative, and one I draw on from personal experience, is the way that light skinned Black people are sometimes conferred temporary benefit to white Privilege. That exchange happens as an error on the part of the broader, dominant culture, and so when it is lost (through the discovery) the penalty for such is often extremely severe, up to and including accusation of “theft”, through fraud, and the infamous trans double bind of “fooling”.

Checklists

The most common way of demonstrating someone’s privilege in simple and reducible form is via a checklist. This is derived from the short form of the paper cited earlier.

Privilege checklists are often interpreted as being “individual specific”, and as having a uniformity to them. That is, when people see a privilege checklist, they often expect all of those things to apply to them.

This is an incorrect reading and a lack of understanding.

Identifying Privilege

Here is a five step test to see if privilege is in play:

  1. Membership: I am a member of a social group that is dominant through no action of my own, nor through being mistaken for a member of that social group.
  2. Stigma: I do not have stigma attached to me along that axis of oppression
  3. Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
  4. Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
  5. Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.

Being mistaken for something does not make one actually that thing.

Privilege is not lost: it is denied, it is taken, it is blocked. One cannot lose it, one is simply denied access to it, and that denial can only happen when one is removed from ones cultural milieu (thus changing who gets what privilege) or by not actually being a member of that social group that is privileged.

Privilege is not something one has over; privilege is always something one can do that someone else cannot without facing stigma for it. Privilege is not absolute, and it underlies the foundations of understanding intersectionality.

Benefiting from privilege is not the same thing as possessing that privilege.

This is why trans women cannot have male privilege, why bi people cannot have straight privilege, and why cis people (both men and women) do.

This is how privilege works; it is the antithesis of stigma. To understand privilege, you must understand stigma.