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The Philosophy of (Invisible) Privilege

I am a cisgender female, I am Dutch, white, 23 years old, mostly straight, and able-bodied. What did I just do here? I identified the social categories that shape my life, and, in that, recognised the ways in which I am privileged.

Yet, why is this important? Acknowledging the ways in which privilege shapes our lives is I think a good place to start o draw attention to the fact that privilege comes at a price. For, it is in itself necessarily relational, as it stands in direct relation with oppression.

But what is privilege? Why is it ‘invisible’, and why is this a problem?

Allan Johnson, a sociologist who wrote extensively on the topic of privilege, defines privilege as being “allowed to move through your life without being marked in ways that identify you as an outsider, as exceptional, or “other” to be excluded, or to be included but always with conditions”.

It thus allows us to not have to constantly think about and be reminded of our skin colour, sex, sexuality, and class in the same way that those in less privileged positions are forced to. We are granted the luxury of obliviousness that is denied to others simply based on the groups they belong to.

For example, without having to be aware of it, white privilege comes with the oppression of non-whites, male privilege comes with women’s subordination, and heteronormativity comes with the marginalisation of those who do not identify as heterosexual.

The complex nature of being privileged is such that we can both be in a privileged position, and be oppressed at the same time. For example, I am a woman, which means that I am less privileged than the average male, but I am also cisgender, which means that I identify with the sex I was assigned at birth. This means that I am naturally more privileged than a woman who does not identify with her assigned sex.

Understanding how to bring the dominant groups into the conversation, then, is challenging. The real trouble is not to be solved unless those who are dominant feel obliged to make the problem of privilege their problem. For those who are most privileged are often the most unaware, and therefore most reluctant to talk about privilege.

Yet, why is this? Why does the question of privilege make us feel uncomfortable? I think it is because we do not like to think of ourselves as oppressors. Thinking of privilegedness in this light forces us to question our position of power. Change, then, does not only concern those around us, those who are less privileged than us, it must necessarily affect our lives, too. Hence, the fact that our comfortable ways are challenged, makes us feel deeply uncomfortable

In other words, in opening the discussion on privilege, we draw attention to the ways in which it is significant, rather than being something that just is. In making something significant, it is no longer invisible.

Instead of reclaiming the true meaning of privilege and its wider implications, then, we choose to ignore the problem entirely, in making words such as racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism ‘dirty words’. The words themselves are turned into phobias, and their true meanings are made invisible. Ignoring privilege, then, keeps us in a state of delusion.

Ultimately, privilege does not make you who you are. It is a spectrum, and a complex system of social construction that determines whoever is included or excluded, praised or harassed, taken seriously or dismissed.

If we want to change at all we must accept the language that surrounds privilege, and step away from being sensitive and defensive regarding this topic. In this, it is important to remember that even though being privileged is not ‘our fault’, for we are simply born with or without it, it is still our responsibility to be aware of the ways in which our privilege may directly or indirectly negatively affect the lives of others.

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This article was largely inspired by Allan Johnson’s (2001) book Privilege, Power and Difference. If you are at all interested and would like to learn more I highly recommend reading it!

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About Veerle Engel

Veerle Engel

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