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7 September 2011, 12:00 pm 6 Comments

The Privileged Few

This post was submitted by Gella Solomon

Privilege is a tricky thing. It’s something that we all want, but that none of us wants to claim.

The game of who is more oppressed is a complicated one. When intersectionality is taken into account, questions of identity are more complicated than black or white, gay or straight, Christian or not. Being of a majority group in one aspect of one’s identity does not preclude minority status in another, and social minority is not always a numerical minority. Minority status may be visible or virtually invisible, concealable or not. Some are able to pass or to assimilate to minimize the stigma they will bear in mainstream society, others cannot. Still others are unwilling to so.

In was not very long ago that assimilating, passing, was part and parcel of the American dream. Everyone wanted to be white and upper-middle class. Everyone wanted a suburban house with a yard and a dog. It was only whackos, bohemians, radicals, who sought to assert their distinctive cultural or ethnic identities. Very often these cohorts were made up of the discontents who were, for whatever reason, because of their skin color, bone structure, deeply ingrained mannerisms or accents, unable to pass, unable to disappear into the white suburban landscape. Black folks, Jewish folks, queer folks, and any number of other cohorts were excluded from this idyllic vision of the perfect American life. In time, things changed, and exclusion was limited to dark-skinned Black folks, People who were “too Jewish,” queers who couldn’t hide. If you were lucky and could pass, could be mistaken for White Protestant Anglo-Saxon, or at least toned down the distinctions of your culture so that it sort of resembled the norm, you did.

How things have changed. There is still discrimination, exclusion, assimilation, passing, but the new trend it seems is to vociferously claim the status of as many minorities as one can get away with. There are even those who seek to claim that the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant cohort is an oppressed minority. Everyone wants to argue that their lot is, or has been, or should be in theory, one of hardship because whatever cohort they belong to is an oppressed minority, or was. No one, it seems, wants to claim privilege anymore. It doesn’t stop anyone from taking advantage of these privileges; just the opposite, in fact. They are taken as a deserved reward for the perseverance over culturally imposed hardship.

My skin is white. Because of this, I enjoy a certain privilege in society that dark-skinned folks do not. I am well educated. Because of this, I enjoy a certain privilege that folks without access to education do not. Because of these things, I do not experience the sort of systemic discrimination faced by the folks who do not share these qualities, which are the result of nothing but accidents of my birth. I am also a religious minority. I am also a sexual minority. I also live below the poverty line. I am also a woman. These are areas in which I do experience a certain degree of discrimination and invisibility. These factors do not, however, erase the privilege of being perceived as white and well-bred.

It gets even more complicated, though. Within each area of minority, there are in turn minorities and majorities, oppressors and oppressed, privileged and discriminated against. Within the Jewish world, I am of Eastern and Western European heritage, which is the dominant ethnicity of American Jewry, and the privileged class of Jews in Israel. In that minority, I am of the majority, the privileged, the oppressor class. Within the queer world, I am bisexual, dominant in numbers, but invisible and discriminated against culturally and institutionally. There, I am a minority of a minority. The analysis could go on ad infinitum.

Ultimately, where does all of this posturing get us? Well, what I think most of us hope it gets us is off the hook. None of us wants to be implicated as an oppressor, or even as one of an oppressor class. It’s always safer and easier to identify as, and with, the oppressed innocent, to divert the accusatory pointing finger away from us and our ancestry, until you’d think there was no such thing as privilege. We all know that there is, we just don’t want to ever think of ourselves as benefitting from it.

The more courageous thing to do, I think, is to step up and own your privilege. Recognize, and acknowledge, and say out loud “I am white, and I don’t worry about being profiled.” “I am straight and I don’t think about my right to marriage and children, or worry about being bashed.” “I am a man and I don’t worry about being raped.” “I am upper/middle class and don’t have to worry about where my rent/next meal is coming from.” “I am educated and have opportunities that the uneducated never dream of.” “I am able-bodied and don’t have to wonder if the places I want to go are accessible, and I never think about curb cuts.” It is surprisingly empowering. It also opens our eyes to a world outside of ourselves. If you recognize your privilege, you can see better where injustice lies, and just by seeing, we move a step away from being a part of the problem, and a step closer to becoming a part of the solution.

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  • Levi said:

    “I am a man and I don’t worry about being raped.”

    This part kind of makes me uncomfortable…Mainly because I am a man I DO worry about being raped…Quite frequently, actually. Especially since I’m a queer man.

  • Gella Solomon (author) said:

    Levi, you make an excellent point, and it was one I thought about before writing those words. I decided to include it anyway, because, although it is a generalization which does not apply to all men, it is still an example of typical male privilege. It is always my hope and goal to try to avoid offense through exclusion, but sometimes generalizations are the best and/or easiest way to get a certain point across. But thank you for raising this, it makes up a little for the exclusion above that we can talk about it below.


  • Levi said:

    I perfectly understand your reasoning, it is just that men who are victims of sexual assault is a tricky one…Because while it does happen in fewer numbers than it does to women, the resources for men who are victims is horribly limited and not at all advertised (like the advertised support group on my campus is explicitly women-only, yet I have not seen any pamphlets or groups for people who aren’t cis women. Plus, men getting raped is still a universally accepted joke in our culture with no sign of people saying “that’s really not okay”.

  • Gella Solomon (author) said:

    Levi, this is, I think another facet of the whole “minority status” issue… I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently about how people who can be grouped as victims of such-and-such, or addicts, or sufferers of such-and-such illness, share a lot in common with groups that we think of as minorities. Taking this into account, victims of sexual assault are such a minority, and within that minority is a smaller minority of men… who really have the shit end of a number of sticks for exactly the reasons you cite. None of this changes, I think, the fact that there is such a thing as male privilege and that part of that privilege is that men, for the most part, do not have to think about sexual assault as much as women… but it is also precisely because of that fact that when a man is subjected to such a violation of that generalized privilege, society does not know what to do with that. It’s also, of course, tied in to all of the dom/sub gender stuff that floats around in our culture.


  • Anthony M. said:

    I cannot help but to think that perhaps the answer is to stop putting blame on people as though being born into a privileged category is a bad thing. Or feeling guilty at all for being born that way. If we are doing our part to fight racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia, we shouldn’t feel guilty for being born into any category that is labeled as ‘privileged’ by another.

    Further, it is simply silly to assuming that someone has lived a certain live because they belong to x category. That’s profiling, even if you are saying relatively positive things about that category.

    To appropriate the words of a favorite poet of mine:

    “So go ahead and label me // an asshole ’cause I can // accept responsibility // for what I’ve done but not for who I am.”

  • James said:

    Really enjoyed this piece, articulate and highly relevant. Thanks for writing it.