DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST. There are plenty of people who know much more about this stuff than I do. I relied heavily on two resources when writing this blog, and I encourage you to check them out: John Hopkins University Diversity Wheel, and "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. This blog just contains the thoughtful thoughts of a thinky thinker with a blog. Okay. Here goes.
Less Accurate: Boxes of Privilege
We tend to think of privilege like this:
More Accurate: The Mighty Wheel of Privilege
So it's probably actually better to think about privilege like this:
I came up with these categories based on a ton of articles on the topic, and on the input of a few other smart folks I know. In the center of the wheel are things that can be changed, but it takes some doing. And sometimes it takes privilege in one area to improve your privilege in another. (For example, you often need a higher income level in order to make changes to your appearance.) The outer ring of the wheel are things that can't be changed or controlled. (Note: chromosomal sex refers to male/female/intersex...what your DNA says. Gender identity is in the brain, and refers to being either cisgender or transgender or gendered in some other way.)
What is privilege?
If the answer to the majority of those questions is "yes," then you have privilege as a member of that group.
For example, let's take gender and answer these questions. I'm a woman.
1. Are the majority of people in your area a part of your group? KIND OF--IT'S PRETTY EVEN.
2. Are the people portrayed in film, music, magazines, ads, and other media a part of your group? KIND OF. THERE ARE FEWER WOMEN, AND THEY ARE OFTEN OBJECTIFIED.
4. Are public facilities set up to accommodate you? YES.
5. Are people in your group in positions of power? IN VERY SMALL PROPORTIONS.
6. Are you statistically less likely to be a victim of harassment from strangers or law enforcement? NO. WOMEN ARE MUCH MORE LIKELY TO BE HARASSED, ESPECIALLY SEXUALLY.
7. Are you statistically less likely to be targeted by laws of your land? NO. HEALTHCARE LAWS IN THE UNITED STATES, PAID LEAVE, AND OTHER EMPLOYMENT LAWS TEND TO HURT WOMEN.
8. Are issues specific to your group taken seriously? NOT ENOUGH.
So based on these questions, women have a little bit of privilege, but not very much. If we need a clean-cut answer, the answer is no, women don't have privilege.
But, hey! Wanna know who has privilege in each of the categories of the wheel? I did some of the leg-work for you! You may not agree with this, but based on my reading and talking with others, here's a handy kind of short-cut guide to who has privilege in the United States.
Targeted vs. Underprivileged
There's also the important idea of members of certain groups being "targeted." Often, these are groups that lack privilege. But sometimes it gets a little more complicated than that. Let's say you've got an American community that's 55% Christian, 5% Muslim, 20% atheist, 10% Hindu, and 10% Jewish. The Christians may have the most privilege in this community, since they're the majority. The sayings on our legal documents and money reflect their beliefs, for example. So on the surface, it looks like Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and Jews are all underprivileged. But in recent years, Muslims have been targeted as victims of hate crimes or harassment, more so than Hindus or Jews or atheists. So members of the Muslim community may need more protection, or at least more attention.
Privileged vs. Valued
There are also some groups that are more highly valued than others, but that aren't necessarily "privileged." Being valued by society means that you'll get more respect for being in a certain group...and it may come with some of those "extras" that we mistake for "privilege." The questions listed above (the ones we used to measure privilege) don't quite apply, but life is easier for the people in these categories. Here are some examples of valued groups:
Because until we acknowledge these things, many of our conversations about social issues are going to devolve into “My life has been harder!” and “Privilege isn’t a real thing!” And that doesn't help anyone.
Let's look at an imaginary situation. We've got two people here: Imaginary Person A and Imaginary Person B. The X's represent areas where the person lacks privilege, and the checkmarks represent ares where the person HAS privilege.
Person A is a rich, college-educated, middle-Eastern, heterosexual, cisgender, Muslim woman, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call her Amira.
Person B is a poor, college-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian man, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call him John.
Let's say Amira posts an article on Facebook about discrimination against women wearing hijab in the workplace, and then this happens in the comments...
JOHN: Why don't you just pick somewhere else to work?
AMIRA: That's really unfair. I shouldn't be limited in where I work because of my religious beliefs.
JOHN: You're asking for special treatment! That's the definition of unfair!
AMIRA: Dude, how is it special treatment to want the exact same thing other people want--being able to work someplace?
JOHN: Look, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but it's WAY easier for you to find a job someplace than it is for me. I had to scrape my way through college, and I've got huge student loan debt. I can't afford to be picky, so you should just be grateful for any job you can find! Some of us don't have it that easy.
AMIRA: Just because my parents were rich doesn't mean my life was easy. My childhood was really difficult. You're a white, straight, Christian male, and I really don't want to hear you complain about your privilege.
JOHN: That's BS. I'm so sick of people telling me to "check my privilege" when they don't know anything about me. Did you go to school hungry? Did you have to buy all of your clothes second-hand? Did you have to take out huge loans to go to school? Did you get beat up every day of high school? So don't tell me to check my privilege.
Sound familiar? So here's where I think having a "Wheel of Privilege" paradigm would be helpful. At this point in the conversation, both Amira and John could take a step back and examine their own personal wheels of privilege. Then maybe, just maybe, something like this could happen:
AMIRA: John, I hear you. I know your life has not been easy. Being a white, straight, Christian male doesn't automatically equal an easy life. I shouldn't have implied that. But we're talking specifically about women wearing hijab in the workplace, and that's a game you don't really have skin in, if that makes sense. It feels crappy to have you dismiss my very real struggles when you don't know what it's like to experience them.
JOHN: Fair enough. But will you at least acknowledge that being rich does make things easier for you?
AMIRA: Fair enough.
(conversation continues, remaining focused on the issue at hand)
You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I don't imagine (see what I did there?) that I can single-handedly shift the world's paradigm when it comes to thinking and talking about privilege. But maybe it will help a little. If anything, this gives me a handy link to paste into the comments section of the next Facebook debate about privilege. Feel free to do the same.