Situations of privilege and disadvantage are connected in that one situation cannot exist without the other, and they lie on opposite ends of a spectrum. Privilege happens only in relation to disadvantage, and likewise disadvantage happens only in relation to privilege. This does not mean that social dynamics cannot change, because they certainly do change not only for individuals, but also for groups and even societies.
Systems of privilege/disadvantage (which is a very different social dynamic than individual acts of discrimination) have been historically created in such a way that certain members of society automatically receive benefit for the simple reason that they were born into the membership of a privileged group. What this means is that in the U.S. (as in other countries) we, as a society, have historically created social systems that automatically privilege certain groups of people – those groups being the group of men (male privilege) the group of white-skinned people (white-skin privilege) the group of non-disabled people (able-ism), and the group of heterosexual people (heterosexism), for example. Being born into these groups automatically entitles members to certain privileges:
- higher paying jobs for men (translates to less poverty for men).
- less likelihood of incarceration for white-skinned folks (translates to less poverty for white-skinned folks).
- ease in mobility for non-disabled people (translates into greater work opportunity and less chance of poverty for nondisabled folks).
- tax and insurance benefits, plus the ability to make medical decisions for heterosexual partners (translates into less poverty for heterosexual couples).
Non-privileged group members do not have the same opportunity to enjoy these benefits to the same degree as members of privileged groups do. This inequality can be seen in socioeconomic status statistics, for example.
In other words, members of marginalized and stigmatized groups (women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community, for example) are generally excluded from participating FULLY in mainstream society, sometimes by discrimination, sometimes by group dynamics that create social ‘norms’, and sometimes even by law. One cannot ‘give up’ the privilege even if the privilege is not wanted, because it is bestowed onto members of certain groups by society in general. The group of white-skinned, non-disabled heterosexual men is the most privileged group in U.S. society.
It is important to understand, though, that a person can be privileged in one area of their life and simultaneously also be disadvantaged in another. Additionally, one can be a member of an advantaged group and NOT FEEL privileged. Likewise, there can be folks who are members of disadvantaged groups who DO realize areas and degrees of privilege. These few exceptions do not negate the reality of the systemic violence that is embedded into the domination systems that we know as sexism, racism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, for example. Although we cannot escape the privileges that society bestows on us, those who do enjoy privilege can use their privilege to empower others. Indeed, it is the folks who do have privilege who have the greatest ability (power) and opportunity to change the unjust systems.
A good resource for understanding these social dynamics is Privilege, Power and Difference by Allen G. Johnson.
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