Writing in the seminal Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan G. Johnson states that the flip side to every privilege is oppression.
The main dimensions of identity that show this privilege-oppression hierarchy are:
⚖️ Straight — LGBTQ
⚖️ Male — Female
⚖️ Cisgender — transgender
⚖️ White — BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour)
⚖️ Middle & upper class — working class
⚖️ Able-bodied — disabled
Johnson also writes that the interplay between different social categories is complex.
For example, you may not see ‘male privilege’ made real in your life if you are a man from a working-class background due to added obstacles related to class.
But being a man of colour from a working-class background will more likely than not provide a double disadvantage.
And, of course, there are many experiences that don’t break down neatly into a privilege-oppression narrative. This stuff is not an exact science nor a law to abide — it’s a tool to help us all consider how to create fairer workplaces, friendship groups, communities and societies.
Resist Black Girl Sticker by @eleonoraarosio
Writing about the impact of class on career progression, Friedman and Lauriston describe privilege as a ‘labour saver’. It makes some things easier.
If you have a privilege, you still earned what you achieved. But that road you walked and proved yourself upon was, in some ways, made for you.
Morph Frame by @cindysuen.
Sometimes, oppression and privilege are seen as a zero-sum game
A zero-sum game describes a game where, if one player gains something, it must be at the expense of another player.
Academic analyses can sometimes look at systemic issues through this zero-sum lens: for one group to be dominant, another group has to be held back.
But if oppression is a zero-sum game, what does restorative justice look like?
Have you ever heard (or held) the opinion that, if women get a slice of the cake, there will be less for men? Or, if we let immigrants into the country, they’ll “take our jobs”?
Although sharing usually means meeting in the middle, equality is not a zero-sum game. But zero-sum thinking is a huge blocker to dismantling oppression.
Kehn and Ruthig (2013) found that a significant number of men believe that a decrease in discrimination against women corresponds with an increase in discrimination against men.
In 2016, further research by the same researchers found that women can hold this win-lose perspective about gender status, too.
GIF by @mummu.
Zero-sum logic is the reason that the Black Lives Matter movement was countered with an All Lives Matter movement. ‘All Lives Matter’ comes from a fear that, if one group’s rights and protection were to progress, then other groups’ rights and protection would have to regress.
It is the same logic that makes some people see affirmative action as racism against white people.
Sure, things like job opportunities, spots at top universities and even time to speak in a meeting can seem like finite resources. But get this — equalising opportunity isn’t just the right thing to do, it may actually benefit you to share, extend and give away your privilege.
📈 Immigrants contribute more to public spending than native citizens do in the UK (although it’s unknown what the net impact will be when immigrants reach retirement age) and have a powerful effect on investment and innovation in the US.
📈 NBER attributes 25% of the US GDP growth per capita to the employment and progression of white women and Black people.
📈 An inclusive workplace results in 2.3X more cash flow per employee over 3 years.
Academics Flores & Sims ask people to stop seeing rights, opportunity and equality as finite resources.
Instead, they say, people with privilege need to use their position and relative power to create new attitudes and practices where a history of privilege-oppression stops creating differences in outcomes.
Start by looking at what upholds privilege around you
✅ Listen out for ‘codes’. At work this week, listen out for phrases that give someone credit or opportunity because of their privilege. “I think this candidate would fit right in.”, “I love Maria, she always sounds so polished.”, “Yeah, he’ll do great on that project team as he’s just one of the guys.”
✅ Ask someone that does not share a privilege you do if they’ve ever noticed double standards. Do they mention something you didn’t think of?
⚠️ Don’t put them on the spot in front of a group or ask them to speak on behalf of their entire group. If there’s a chance this conversation wouldn’t be comfortable for them, head to Google or find a good book instead.
✅ Reflect on what makes you feel like you belong or not and why. Does it relate to your membership in any groups or whether you seem/look/sound the part?
🗝️ Your key takeaway
Checking your privilege is considering which key privileged groups you are a member of and whether there are attitudes and norms that make your life easier at the expense of others’ opportunities or wellbeing. Everyone wins when you dismantle the barriers faced by oppressed groups so start to look for them everywhere.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Get the latest posts in your email