Back to Basics: What is Privilege?

This is part three of an ongoing series of going Back to the Basics in understanding feminism. [Part 1] [Part 2]

At the beginning of May, I took a short vacation out to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’d not been out there in ten years, and I’d never driven there by myself. I was excited to have some time getting reacquainted with my home state. I drove the 300 miles across the state, stopping at famous tourist traps along the way, pulling into Lead, SD, in the early evening. 

Lead (pronounced like the verb not the metal) sits nestled in the Northern part of Black Hills National Forest. The streets of the town are winding and steep – I remember thinking as I drove in that, man, I would never want to drive on these streets in winter.

The hotel I was staying in was in the center of town, in the old town hall, which had been converted into a space with about ten rooms. It was a beautiful old building, built in the early twentieth century, and still using radiated steam heat throughout the building. The parking lot for the hotel was behind the building, down a steep street. Getting into the building meant walking up a 20-degree angle, and then walking up five or six uneven steps. There was no secondary entrance for wheelchair access that I could see.

When I walked in, the host saw me, a young, presumably able-bodied woman with a hiking backpack, and went, “You look like you’re okay with stairs – I’m going to move you to one of the bigger rooms upstairs.”

I was okay with it, because I truly don’t mind stairs, and the room was bigger and had more privacy. But what he said – the assumption that I could just go up stairs if I wanted – bothered me. He knew that half of his hotel rooms weren’t accessible to anyone with a physical disability. Indeed, the hotel itself is inaccessible to anyone using a walker or a wheelchair.

The fact that I could rent a room here and not have to stay in a larger, chain hotel in nearby Sturgis or Spearfish is a privilege I have. The ease with which I was able to access that business and could walk back and forth to my car multiple times a day without having to worry about sliding down that hill and injuring myself is a facet of my privilege as an able-bodied person. And the host’s assumption that his patrons would be mostly able-bodied people is a facet of his privilege. 

Most people, when they hear about privilege, think it pertains to class privilege only. To be told to “check your privilege” is often considered an affront, especially in the era of quick-judging and quickly viral misinformation (which I, no doubt, have contributed to and am sorry for). When people are told to “check your privilege,” often what they don’t hear is “your experience is probably different and you need to be careful in talking about this subject.” What they do hear is, “Shut up!”

Much of this confusion stems from a basic misunderstanding about what privilege is. Many people don’t think the topic applies to them, because they picture the Romney kids and their multiple cars, and say “I’ve had a hard life! I can’t be privileged.” To many, privilege theory reads as a tit-for-tat comparison of oppressions – precisely the competition that intersectionality tries to avoid.

But, even if we disagree with the concept, privilege exists as an identifiable fact. One of the first major essays on privilege was by Peggy McIntosh, discussing the pervasiveness of white privilege and how it has affected her life. The essay is simple, but powerful. McIntosh lists the ways in which her whiteness has removed barriers that people who are not white often face. She lists many different aspects of white privilege, including: 

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. 

Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. 

I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race. 

I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race. 

I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.

I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

All of these factors of privilege have to do with the unseen and often unnoticed effects that race has on our basic, everyday interactions. Sitting in this coffee shop right now, in Sioux Falls, SD, I can look around the room and see that everyone here is white. If I happened to be a mother with unruly kids, I would not be judged as a “welfare mom,” but probably seen sympathetically in this environment. I can be pulled over by the police and not worry that I’m being targeted for my race. In applying for jobs, I don’t have to worry about having an “ethnic sounding” name. I can go wandering through a park at night without it being assumed that I’m up to something nefarious. 

When someone says that a person has privilege, it doesn’t mean that the person has never had hardships or hasn’t had a hard life. It merely means that they have avoided certain other hardships because they do not have characteristics commonly viewed negatively by society.

My ability to walk up the stairs in that hotel two weeks ago is a privilege precisely because it was something I did not have to think about and plan for when envisioning my trip. That extra worry was simply not there. As a white person, I do not have to worry that someone will decide not to rent me an apartment because of my race (yes, this still happens). As a cisgender person, I do not have to worry about choosing which bathroom to use at this coffee shop and what will happen if someone sees me in there. This is privilege. Privilege is not the presence of benefits, necessarily – it is the absence of worry.

Privileges do not negate oppressions or hardships we experience. White people who grow up in poverty still suffer the effects of being impoverished. But their privilege means they can probably use food stamps in the grocery store without being called a “welfare queen.” John Scalzi calls this playing life with the lowest difficulty setting, and I’m inclined to agree (his video game metaphor is good and you should check it out). It doesn’t mean that you won’t face battles and difficulties and hardships. It just means some things will be easier.

I am privileged in certain ways. I am oppressed in others. This is intersectionality, at its heart.

Intersectionality is, at its heart, a project of community. It both respects the individual because their story matters and prizes the individual’s place within community because the diversity of stories and experiences lead to greater understanding. Intersectional representation across differences in oppression and privilege is important because all experiences are necessary to understanding the scope of the problems before us. A black woman is going to bring a different perspective to a campaign than a white man, simply by virtue of life experience. A trans or non-binary person is going to nuance a human rights campaign in ways that a panel of solely cisgender people will not.

In understanding privilege in the church, this means our theology needs to expand to account for the differing experiences people bring to the text. Even something so simple as a sermon illustration can end up being invocations of privilege - Russell Moore's "ethical question" about trans* lives, for example, assumes that his audience is cisgender and subsequently alienates any trans person who might have wanted to attend his church.

This isn't about political correctness - it's about a very real exclusion that happens every Sunday. If you are not talking about God in ways that apply to all walks of life, how can you call that Good News?

Understanding our privileges and their intersections is necessary for creating a community that is the best for all peoples – not just for one or two groups.