The Connection Between Privilege and Disadvantage

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.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Thinking About the Nature of Forgiveness

 A forgiveness quote that resonates with me at this moment is by Lewis B. Smedes,

Healthy anger drives us to do something to change what makes us angry; anger can energize us to make things better.  Hate wants to make things worse.

Thinking of this quote as a ‘forgiveness quote’ (although there is no mention of the word forgiveness) suggests that perhaps forgiveness can have something to do with a desire for social change. This sentiment mirrors an interest of mine, that of Nonviolence as a strategy for social change.

Nonviolent social change ideology insists that one cannot bring about peace through violent means.  This parallels the notion that “hate wants to make things worse”.  Hate in response to an injustice will not result in an improved relationship or personal well-being.  The strong negative emotion of hate will only bring about more negativity.

While hate begets negativity, the feelings of anger can act in the opposite way, as a force for reconciliation.  This may, at first, seem counterintuitive.  Yet if an injustice does not stir any strong emotion, it is unlikely to result in changed actions.  The strong emotion of anger can act as a sort of fuel, to propel one into action, perhaps to take a risk – or as Allan G. Johnson named it in his book, Privilege, Power and Difference, to get off the path of least resistance – and do something that will effect change.

An example of how anger can be used as a force for good, is when Mahatma Gandhi used his anger toward racial injustice to fuel his Nonviolent action (Nonviolence) that led to India’s eventual independence from the rule of Great Britain.  This independence was achieved through nonviolent means that also allowed for reconciliation and a working relationship between these two nations.  Gandhi recognized that the best way to ‘fight back against the enemy’ was to make him your friend.  This required forgiveness.  Anger was the fuel that motivated Gandhi’s creativity in developing a means for achieving peaceful reconciliation.

Another example of anger used as a force for good is that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of Nonviolence in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.   I read a news article yesterday, in the Daily Kos, that described Dr. King’s  accomplishments in a different way than I have ever before considered.  (I have recently begun to study a U.S. history that has not been ‘white-washed’ !)  What was brought to light in that article was that some folks might think that Dr. King was less-than-effective in his leadership, because there is still a great deal of racial inequality in the U.S. today.  Yet, this is not the only way to see and understand this situation.  In reality, and the thing that is difficult for many folks to see (we may tend to turn away from seeing what we consider ugly), is that the Reverend effectively led a movement that ended a reign of violent terror in the U.S.  In this way, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his anger toward racial oppression to fuel a successful social movement that brought a greater degree of social justice to oppressed groups of people.

I think that perhaps when we are engaged in feelings of hatred, we have a very limited view – that of our own pain and suffering.  Hatred could be a driving force behind the ‘white-washing’ of history.  Hatred for what was done in the past.  Hatred for the legacy of racism.   Hatred for slavery and violence.  Hatred for the massacre and extermination of so many people.  This hatred can be blinding in that it prevents some folks from looking very closely at the awful truth.  This leads to an incomplete and therefore rather mythical version and understanding of U.S. history (and therefore even ourselves today).  In forgiving, we may be better able to see a larger version of the truth – including the ugly parts – in a way that allows us to respond in thoughtful ways, rather than simply reacting to it.

Injustice can cause strong emotions such as anger and hatred, but these two strong emotions are not similar.  Hate is a destructive force, while anger may be thought of as a force that can motivate one into action that may result in positive social change including forgiveness and possibly even reconciliation.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.