Here’s an overview of power and privilege and its role in systemic oppression to help you understand how privilege shows up in your life—and what you can do to address it.
What does privilege mean?
Privilege explains how certain people have unearned advantages in society because of their identity. These advantages affect things everyone should have but are inequitably distributed because of systems of oppression. White privilege, for example, highlights the privileges that white people experience in our society because of their race. It’s apparent in everyday activities like shopping without the fear of being followed or buying or renting a home without facing discrimination based on your race. It’s also apparent in the systems and structures that surround us. White people, for example, are generally assumed to be law-abiding unless proven otherwise. In contrast, people of color, particularly Black and Latine people, are often assumed to be criminals until proven innocent. There are other unearned privileges for other identities, too, like being young, skinny, able-bodied, male, or straight.
Note: Privileges become more complex when we consider multiple parts of our identities. Consider the privileges that white women have compared to South Asian women or lighter-skinned Black women compared to darker-skinned Black women. That’s why the concept of intersectionality, coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw to discuss the unique challenges that Black women face, is important to remember. You may find that you are marginalized but still have relative power.
• Use this video to unpack power and privilege in your own life (2 min exercise).
• Reflect: What privileges, if any, do you benefit from based on your identity? What type of power does that bring to spaces where you spend time?
Understanding privilege is important because it shows who benefits from the systems of oppression we live in. In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh writes how she had been taught about racism disadvantaging others but had never been taught about the advantages of white privilege. When we understand our privileges, we can use them to help dismantle oppressive systems. We should also each acknowledge the privilege we carry and how it influences our worldview and stay educated on what challenges others face with a different identity than our own.
People who criticize equity and inclusion efforts also tend to overlook the concept of privilege. They might advocate for a “colorblind” approach to treat people “equally.” But when they do, they ignore that, at default, things are easier for some people and harder for others. That’s why we need an equitable approach to solving things and practices that help reduce how unearned privilege provides opportunities for some and not others.
What does power mean?
Power is often a result of the privileges we have in the world. Power is the extent to which we can change the conditions of our lives—and the lives of others—in dominant culture. People who are granted unearned privileges tend to have outsized power in many spaces, including at work, in their neighborhood, and in relationships with other people.
Take, for example, the stereotype that all scientists are men—a trope re-iterated through the news and media and reinforced by decades of excluding women from scientific fields and academic opportunities. Today, a man applying for a senior scientist position might “look the part” more than a woman, even if the woman is more qualified. The male privilege at play will result in this man being hired, giving the man more power in the scenario and in the field.
This often means that those making decisions fail to reflect the needs of marginalized groups. People in power tend to share their power with people with similar privileges. Groups, corporations, and institutions work the same way.
Some people in positions of power, consciously or otherwise, are terrified of losing it or afraid of empowering those more marginalized. This can result in sheer violent and oppressive acts, as we’re witnessing with the alt-right movement in the U.S. It can also result in more subtly violent and oppressive acts like a company deciding to only look at resumes with names they understand or a teacher not giving “too many women” a chance to share in class. These practices of power hoarding or disempowerment don’t just maintain the status quo. They continue to marginalize other people. This is how oppression works and how it perpetuates in society.
What can we do about it?
Power isn’t a zero-sum game and doesn’t have to be. But many of the systems and institutions in our society rely on power, and we see power unfairly distributed. It doesn’t have to be this way. Many communities over time have honored the diversity of their collective experiences and used more collaborative ways to make decisions.
When we understand privilege and power, we can work together to find more harmonious ways to make decisions instead of relying on unstated acts of superiority. And we can leverage whatever power we have to support those most marginalized. This might look like hiring a co-founder with a different identity than your own or giving money radically to causes that deserve it.