The “P” Word: Examining the Intersections of Privilege and Oppression

Discussing the topic of privilege can be uncomfortable, if not outright aggravating for many people. You may wonder how you can be considered “privileged” when you’ve experienced hardships and roadblocks in your life that would suggest otherwise. But when we talk about the “p-word” in the context of sociology, we have to understand that pointing it out is not an ad hominem attack. Nobody is denying your work ethic or accusing you of any wrongdoing–unless of course you willfully use your privilege to oppress others and don’t make any sincere effort to unpack it. Rather, it indicates how mainstream society has favored you over others simply because you possess a more socially desirable attribute.

One of the most well-studied and widely discussed areas of privilege is racial privilege—more specifically, white privilege. I’ve had many conversations with white folks who express that their lives have been anything but “privileged”. Whether they share stories of growing up impoverished or having been the victims of abuse, it is clear that they have experienced some form of oppression; and I think it’s fair to say that most of us have. But oppression does not exist in a vacuum and nor does privilege. You can simultaneously be both privileged in one regard and oppressed in another. And while you may be victim to oppressive systems like poverty or misogyny, you still benefit from your whiteness. Just as I, although I am black and a woman, benefit from being middle-class, abled, educated, and cisgender.

Racial privilege is being able to pinpoint—even if just roughly—where your ancestors originated, without having to take a $100 DNA test. Racial privilege is not having to wonder whether or not your hairstyle or natural texture will be received poorly in a job interview. Racial privilege is when your ethnic group—despite making up 62 percent of the population—has the lowest poverty rate in just about every state. Racial privilege is the fact that figures of color being portrayed as being white is invisible, yet white figures portrayed as people of color is hypervisible.

If we want to have a meaningful understanding of how privilege operates, we have to think of it as a system that extends beyond the individual. While anybody who knows me will attest to my work ethic, I am not naïve to the privileges that have contributed to my achievements—in addition to and not in place of—my ambition. For instance, I was given a lot of social capital as a child. Having an attentive lawyer for a mom taught me how to engage with adults on a sophisticated level at an early age, thus equipping me to make good impressions that would lead to opportunities later in life. My mother wouldn’t have been able to become a lawyer without my grandfather’s Mississippi work ethic, physical ableness, and the charming Coca-Cola smile that earned him a job as a General Motors department manager in the 1960s—a time when black men in managerial roles were outliers.

So many of us become fragile when confronted about our privilege because we internalize it as an accusation. We think we are being cited for gross entitlement or a difficulty-free existence. We need to broaden our understanding of privilege and acknowledge its function as a social inheritance, in addition to its socio-economic connotation. Your possession of privilege is a reflection of societal systems, not your individual character or circumstances.

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43 thoughts on “The “P” Word: Examining the Intersections of Privilege and Oppression

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  1. I started hearing about white privilege and wanted to try to understand what it means. As a woman I have faced bias against my gender but never gave the thought of white as being an advantage. But now I am beginning to understand.
    I know I have a long way to go but am trying to take off my rose colored glasses and really see. Thanks!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I think a lot of it has to do with a sort of two-dimensional thinking, I suppose out of simplicity or, worse, intellectual laziness. If you’ve had problems and I’ve had problems than we both have had problems so my whiteness and your blackness have no bearing on our lives. Even worse, and I hear these arguments around the campfire at family reunions (unfortunately), you have had a general manager and a lawyer in your family background, we a farmhand and a retail clerk, so how DARE you talk about OUR privilege.

    But, as you stated (quite impressively!), oppression and privilege have layers. Life isn’t simple. We can’t make up our mind about a thing and then seek to justify our conclusions with examples. Examples should, instead, enrich and evolve our minds. We can’t give in to the lazy way of thinking.

    Well said, all of it. I wish I could pass it along to others that I know who reject privilege (and oppression) out of hand, but I already know the outcome. This example does not fit their conclusion.

    I’ll try, anyway, dammit. Let the campfire cursing begin. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and offering such thoughtful feedback! We all have a responsibility to continually unpack these intersections. Otherwise, conversations about a given form of oppression will continue to be met with denial and defensiveness by those unaffected.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Your grandfather was a manager at GM and you mom a Lawyer, how is it that for privileged? My dad was a maintenance man at a old folks home and my mom a part time bank clerk. I got a very a very poor quality elementary, middle, and high school education. I could not afford to go to any college. I had difficulty at job interviews due to a lack of education and experience. Making generalizations based on race is by it’s nature a form of racism. Stereo types do not have color and are all equally inaccurate. When you describe difficulties that blacks in America face you go along way to gain the understanding of Americans that are not black. This brings you much closer to gaining the awareness that you seem to be seeking. As soon as you generalize about other races you lose your objectivity and appear one sided. Their is racism in America but the truth is that it is contained within every race. I feel that it should be denounced equally. You are a very good writer and much that you say is true. You are trying to bring awareness to the struggles blacks endure and that other races cannot understand and are ignorant about. The problem is by generalizations such as “white privilege” instead of just “the privileged” you are displaying some of that same ignorance.

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    1. Respectfully, I think you may have missed the point of this particular article. Privilege and oppression have many intersections and I would encourage you to research those concepts further than this short essay if you want to truly understand how privilege functions on a societal level.

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      1. Privilege and oppression do have many intersections but they are not black or white. If you truly want to change peoples minds you have to go beyond preaching to the choir. if you are willing to look beyond race you will find that economics is where they meet.

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      2. You didn’t offend me. I just find it exhausting to keep laying out the same pieces of evidence that show how race and class are connected but not the same issue. People of every economic class perpetuate racism. Some of the biggest proponents of white supremacy are poor white people–hence the president’s main voter base.

        And as I mentioned in the essay, black people make up 13% of the American population and have the highest poverty rate. Yet, white people make up 62% of the population and have the lowest rate of poverty. How can this be explained in any other way but acknowledging how systemic racism has included and excluded certain collectives of people in the distribution of tools needed to rise out of poverty? The only alternative is that poor people of color are responsible for their own collective economic condition.

        My career outside of this blog involves collecting data and doing research on the effects of systemically racist practices and policies on communities of color, as it pertains to health disparities. I look at the evidence all day everyday.

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      3. No offense again but you find it exhausting because you are fixed in your position.

        “Yet, white people make up 62% of the population and have the lowest rate of poverty. How can this be explained in any other way but acknowledging how systemic racism has included and excluded certain collectives of people in the distribution of tools needed to rise out of poverty?”

        Come on you know that this is much more of a complex issue for you to say “How can this be explained in any other way “. There are a multitude of other reasons that contribute. I am not arguing in any way that there is racism. I am arguing your assertion of “white privilege”. I am in the 62% that you speak of but I have been afforded no privilege whats so ever. If what you think is that whites cannot understand how it is to be poor and black then logically that argument can be turned completely around and say that you do not know what it is to be poor and white. You are assuming a privilege that I can say does not exist based on my color. Saying that is the equivalent of me making a blanket statement that blacks do not face any racism, it is an equally ridiculous statement. Again I am not saying that there are not privileged whites. But I know there are many privileged blacks as well. You are a very good writer and make a lot of good points. Turning the ignorance that most whites have about how it is to be black on it’s head takes away your higher ground. In today’s hyper political environment there is a total lack of debate and discussion. If we can truly talk we might find out that we are not so different.

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      4. In the interest of self-care, I’m not going to go back and forth with you other than to make this final point: the entire premise of my essay is that “privilege” is more complex than just economic status, which is what you appear to be fixated on. There are several ways in which a person can be privileged and I laid out many examples of how privilege functions. I brought up physical ableness, race, gender, and intracultural colorism, which all have intersections of privilege and oppression in themselves. I explicitly said (more than once) that we need to broaden our understanding of “privilege” as being solely about who has money and who doesn’t.

        And when I mentioned racial privilege, only one example I gave pertained to economic privilege. Last I checked, knowing where your ancestors came from and being visible in mainstream media are not indicators of any individual’s economic status. Maybe re-read those parts and you’ll better understand what I’m saying.

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      5. And in response to your initial comment, my point in sharing those narratives about my mother and grandfather were to say that my grandpa–who came up in Jim Crow Mississippi, by the way–broke the cycle of poverty in the family because of his work ethic in addition to people choosing to give him an opportunity. Without opportunity, work ethic doesn’t mean much. Furthermore, implying that I’m ignorant because you don’t particularly understand or agree with what I expressed in the article wasn’t necessary.

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      6. I am sorry that you took it that way. I did not mean to imply that you were ignorant. I implied that the idea of “white privilege” meaning that all whites are privileged is ignorant. Ignorant does not mean dumb it means uninformed. If you thought I meant it as an insult I truly apologize. I did not mean it that way.

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  4. Good piece, especially on the duality of privilege and work ethic:

    “Nobody is denying your work ethic or accusing you of any wrongdoing–unless of course you willfully use your privilege to oppress others and don’t make any sincere effort to unpack it. Rather, it indicates how mainstream society has favored you over others simply because you possess a more socially desirable attribute.”

    Work ethic does not exist in a vacuum. Salute.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And to further expand, I’m also speaking from experience about how I hear other adults talk about these moments in history as being “so long ago” and they tell people to just move on, as though they have no present-day implications. So many people deflect conversations about the intergenerational trauma of institutions like Slavery and Jim Crow because they truly don’t realize how in the grand scheme of world history, these things didn’t end all that long ago. And I believe part of that thinking can be attributed to the warped sense of time we have as children.

      For example, when you’re in the 4th grade, the 1960s sounds like forever ago. But as you become older, you may start to realize that a year’s time doesn’t take long to pass. Logically, you should be able to put into perspective that there are people alive in 2017 who were directly impacted by Jim Crow law, with great-grandparents who were slaves. We seem to understand how wealth and success gets handed down through generations but as a society, don’t really acknowledge or understand how oppression and trauma gets passed down as well.

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  5. No problem. It’s interesting how much one’s personal identity can be so heavily tied to the idea of work ethic. We all like to think we earned what we have. It’s a rude awakening when the narrative is complicated by the idea of privilege and systemic advantages. On the flip side, it can be relieving for oppressed people to learn their social standing is not solely tied to lack of work ethic or moral failure, but to powers beyond their control. If nothing else it tells them they’re not crazy for feeling powerless.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You mentioned:

        “Having an attentive lawyer for a mom taught me how to engage with adults on a sophisticated level at an early age, thus equipping me to make good impressions that would lead to opportunities later in life.”

        It reminds me of the ability to effectively code switch in different social spaces. Do you think “code switching” is a privilege in and of itself as well?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh I absolutely believe being able to code switch is a privilege. Our professional survival is often dictated by our ability to assimilate into predominantly white spaces.

        We know how the mainstream treats POC who don’t speak the king’s English. Many POC have missed out on opportunities because they were not equipped with the “right” social capital .

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “Our professional survival is often dictated by our ability to assimilate into predominantly white spaces.”

        Agreed. I like to think of code switching as a symptom of capitalism. American capitalism, especially, centers whiteness as the norm. The more one is in proximity to it the more social capital one will have. Because white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. are performative we are all pressured to conform to these norms. Like you said our survival is dependent upon it. Capitalism rewards those who conform. I hate how this cog in the system automatically disempowers so many though.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Liz I just read this on line and remembered when you talked about privilege of the white folk. Read this and I’d love to hear your take on it. Thanks.
    Public uproar was at an all-time high at a North Carolina school board meeting (SEE VIDEO BELOW) over far-left “equity training” (SEE MORE BELOW ON EQUITY TRAINING) for government-school teachers. Allegations were made by furious parents that a teacher forced white and Christian students to stand up in class and apologize for their “privilege.”

    “Hello, my name is Farren Wilkinson … I just want to shed light on a situation that happened at Western Rockingham Middle School. Where a teacher caused some of her students to stand up and apologize to other students base on their inequal opportunities of education. So I would like to know how our schools can allow an educator to humiliate bully and degrade children. This is not a matter of race but a matter of a teacher using fear and the embarrassment of children to satisfy her own personal anger or beliefs. These children are not responsible nor accountable for any inequalities that are believed to be present,” Wilkinson said.

    “The actions of this educator does not provide safe, nurtureing, dynamic and integrative learning. If she is not held to the standards set by Rockingham County schools, how can we expect other children to learn and grow to be productive citizens in society,” Wilkinson continued, “If nothing happens, if she’s not repremanded, for these actions, and when the parents call to ask what has been done. They are being assured that this was taken care of. But how was it taken care of? What did happen? What was her training? What was her consequences for this action? Because again, these children are not responsible for any inequalities that may exist in the school system nor should they be publicly humiliated among their peers for her own satisfaction.

    After Wilkinson’s testimony, another parent, Robert Jeremy, who said he had a 9-year-old son, expressed outrage to the school board because of the racism, bigotry, and hate expressed by the teacher against the young child based on his “race,” Christian views, and heterosexuality.

    http://100percentfedup.com/parents-outraged-nc-teacher-forcing-white-christian-students-stand-class-apologize-privilege/

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    1. Before I begin, I’m going to paste what I found on the website’s “about us” page:

      “We are two moms inspired by the life of Andrew Breitbart. We’re exposing the lies of the left & MSM propagandists.

      Our lives took an unexpected turn on the day that conservative activist Andrew Breitbart died. Together, we came to the realization that we could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the country we loved being destroyed by an apathetic citizenry. Our children don’t deserve to grow up in a world where they will be slaves to the debt we have recklessly saddled them with. Our goal is to expose the lies and hypocrisy of the progressives in academia, the entertainment industry, and MSM through the use of social media.”

      I will view the coverage of any outlet who attributes Breitbart to being their inspiration, and who cites their primary mission as being to expose the “left” through a very skeptical lens.

      That said, if the reporting is accurate, this teacher should’ve known better. Most middle schoolers are not in a place to intellectually and emotionally process the intersections of their social privilege. They’re just trying to get through pre-teen angst and be accepted by their peer groups. I don’t see how such a class exercise could make them feel any other way than embarrassed and humiliated. If she wanted to host a discussion about privilege, it could have been done in a much more sophisticated and emotionally safe manner.

      However, when it comes to self-identified right-wingers , you can’t deny that there is a collective sentiment that white privilege is a figment of POC’s imagination. More parents do need to become aware and have honest conversations at home about privilege and oppression, so that they can raise children who don’t inflict trauma on others. But as I said, this class exercise was inappropriate. Something like that would be better suited for a college-level sociology course, wherein students seek to unpack privileged aspects of their identities.

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  7. New to this conversation via WP. But glad I found you. Your very articulate expressions on these subjects is terrific. Looking r=forward to reading more. Your responses to the comments are so clear and incite full = impressive. What you say is important – and who you are is equally as important. Don’t give up

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  8. “Rather, it indicates how mainstream society has favored you over others simply because you possess a more socially desirable attribute”

    “Your possession of privilege is a reflection of societal systems, not your individual character or circumstances.”

    These are beautifully articulated explanations of privledge that help alleviate the accusatory position conversations of privledge usually take (as you discussed in this piece). Thank you so much for composing them! I have found this to be one of the hardest parts about discussing privilege and these are points I will defanitely utilize in future conversations I have about privledge to help ease into the conversation!

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  9. While it is true that most of those who frown upon the p-word as an accusation, do so with innocence; there are indeed some who consciously reject to see it.

    These people of the “chosen-ignorance” is rather very dangerous than the first kind. By denying the existence of their privilege while still drowning in it, allows one to believe that all good in their life is somehow rightfully theirs and in turn come to the diabolic idea that those who suffer are suffering solely due to their own doings. This, as you can see, will start to project itself as a feeling of superiority soon after. Eventually leading to to the tendencies we would sociologically denote to fascism like racial superiority, extreme nationalism, religious extremism, etc. This is why (I think) such a type of ignorance should be acknowledged separately and actually be considered as a growing social menace.

    Liked by 1 person

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