Privilege is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (2004, 4th Edition) as: "A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste." The "privileged" are the members of the dominant groups addressed previously.
Privilege, however, is not something that people can see. It is part of the invisible systems, or institutional processes, that surround people on a daily basis. The Center for Public Health Education (1997) points out in their Building Bridges to Cultural Competency Training Manual that one of the reasons that privilege can be hard to identify and define is because those who have it and who are benefiting from these "unearned advantages" cannot fully comprehend its full impact on those without it.
Reflecting on Privilege
The effects of privilege are hard to see when they remain in the shadows and unexamined
by those impacted by them. We, as a society, need to be cognizant of privilege, both
individual and systemic (i.e., privilege that is built into institutional systems).
Privilege must also be recognized as such and 'named' as such. Naming privilege means
that we see it, own it, and can then work to
rectify its negative impacts.
It is true that during this process those who are privileged may experience guilt. This guilt means that something has struck a chord with them. The important thing is to not let this guilt become a paralyzer. It should be used to motivate people to find ways to challenge the status quo. Guilt can also politicize people into separate political factions. Rather than letting privilege divide us by race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., what is important is that we recognize it for what it is and use this knowledge to help address inequities.
This work can be done collectively. In fact, large social movements can bring people together from all types of social divides. So while it may be uncomfortable to start examining privilege, this can be a transformative way to bring change and social justice.
Click on the example below to learn more.
Example of Power as it Relates to Context
Power differentials exist in various circumstances. They change as we move through different situations and contexts. Society has placed value on some characteristics (sexual orientation, race, gender, etc.).
For example, in a class, Alexa (a student) would have reduced power and privilege while the professor has more. If Alexa were to go out to work with a community partner in their environment, the people from that agency may have more power than she has. However, if either that professor or community partner tried to navigate through Alexa's hometown neighborhood, Alexa would have more power. Power and privilege (like agency, as illustrated previously) are fluid.