Privilege and social power
A right is a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something:
- the right to an education
- the right to access shelter and food
- the right to be believed until proven to be lying
- the right to be considered equal to your peers
- the right to flee persecution and seek asylum.
Privilege is an unearned advantage that some have and others don’t. If someone has a privilege, they have advantages over others for reasons they don't control — like their gender, race, religion, cultural background, sexuality, ability/disability, financial status and level of education.
Fill a hospital ward with newborn babies and it would be impossible to know much about their families and what the first month of their lives might be like. And unless the babies were wrapped in colour-coded blankets, you’d also have no idea of their sex.
Our sex, our family, our country of birth is a matter of luck. We have no control over these things.
Being born into some form of privilege doesn’t mean you will have an easy life. You can be privileged and still encounter difficulties.
But if you don’t have to worry about having enough money to pay bills and buy food, or you won’t face discrimination on the basis of gender, faith or disability, there will be some negative experiences that will never affect you. And that’s ok—we have no control over the circumstances of our birth.
We can control what happens next, or at least we can try to.
Privilege as a positive force
Privilege can mean increased power. Increased power can lead to an imbalance of power. Any imbalance of power can be abused, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.
Awareness of privilege can be a powerful force for positive social change.
If a person or group recognises that their circumstances give them an unearned or unfair advantage over others, they can take action to correct the imbalance.
Ask yourself—is that fair? Is that right?
If a person or group is discriminated against because of circumstances outside of their control, that isn’t fair. When a person’s lack of privilege prevents them from exercising their rights, that’s a problem that must be addressed by society.
Lack of privilege
The social norms and prejudices that support privilege can also disadvantage those who lack privilege.
For example, think of a flight of stairs. Any building with more than one level will have stairs. However, a person with a physical disability may be unable to walk upstairs, or may face obstacles in doing so.
If the design of a building doesn’t take account of the needs of people with a physical disability, it has the effect of oppressing those people and privileging people who are physically able.
Lack of privilege makes it harder for some to do what to others can come easily.
Privilege and oppression are intersectional—one person can experience both privilege and oppression in different aspects of their identity.
For example, a person may experience racial privilege for being white, but class oppression for being working class. Or they may experience gender privilege for being male but may experience oppression for being gay or Indigenous.
It’s often easier to notice oppression than privilege. We notice when we are being unfairly treated, or when someone else has an advantage for no other reason than their privilege.
You’ve always wanted to learn the piano. Music is everything to you and is a critical part of your identity and your dreams for your future.
But there’s no spare money for piano lessons, let alone regular access to a piano. Your friend, however, has a baby grand piano in their house. This friend complains about being forced to learn piano; they have no interest in it at all. For you, it would be a privilege to have access to a piano, to have lessons and a pathway towards achieving your dream.
It’s not your friend’s fault their parents are wealthy and can afford a piano. It’s not your fault that your parents are struggling to pay essential bills. Your friend has privilege through their family, and you lack privilege.
Role of privilege in social power
Privilege can play a powerful role in who has social power and influence within our community. Our race, gender, financial status, education and cultural background can determine our level of influence within our group and community.
Think about your friends, your peers. Does privilege play a role in power dynamics within your friendship group? Are some group members encouraged in directions that others are not for no clear reason? Do you defer to others because you feel they have more power than you?
Additional resource: Challenging power imbalances in groups
Privilege and safety
Privilege can determine the level of safety felt by some members of our community.
For example, in our society, freedom of movement is something we consider to be a right. But women and those who identify as LGBTIQ are more likely to feel unsafe if they are out in public spaces and, in particular, walking home alone at night.
Freedom of movement should not just mean free to move from one location to another. It should mean free to move safely, without fear of harassment or violence.
Gender-based privilege means boys and men experience gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence at much lower levels than girls and women. This is an unearned benefit of being male.
Everyone should expect to be treated respectfully wherever they go regardless of their race, gender, culture, education, religion and disability.
As members of a community we need to challenge the norms and privileges that limit the rights of some to experience freedom of movement, safely, and without violence.