Seminar Paper #6


What are two take-home messages from the chapters you read in “Privilege, Power an Difference” that you would choose to share with a friend or family member? What do you believe their reaction would be to these messages? What communication knowledge, skills, or attitudes would be important to use in this conversation?


What is one topic from your reading that relates to the healthcare field, or if you do not work in healthcare, in your personal or future professional life? Why is it important for these public entities to understand these concepts?



What is an unanswered question that you have that you would be interested in discussing in next week’s seminar?

Third Edition

Privilege, Power, and Difference

Allan G. Johnson



Privilege, Power,

and Difference Third Edition

Allan G. Johnson, Ph.D.




Published by McGraw-Hill Education, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Copyright © 2018 by McGraw-Hill Education. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. Previous editions © 2006 and 2001. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of McGraw-Hill Education, including, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning.

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About the Author vii Introduction ix

Chapter 1 We’re in Trouble 1 The Trouble We’re In 5

Chapter 2 Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 12 Difference Is Not the Problem 12 Mapping Difference: Who Are We? 13 The Social Construction of Difference 17 What Is Privilege? 20 Two Types of Privilege 21 Privilege as Paradox 23 Oppression: The Flip Side of Privilege 32

Chapter 3 Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 35

How Capitalism Works 36 Capitalism and Class 39 Capitalism, Difference, and Privilege: Race and Gender 40 The Matrix of Domination and the Paradox of Being Privileged and Oppressed At the Same Time 44

Chapter 4 Making Privilege and Oppression Happen 47 Avoidance, Exclusion, Rejection, and Worse 49 A Problem for Whom? 53



iv Contents

And That’s Not All 56 We Cannot Heal Until the Wounding Stops 59

Chapter 5 The Trouble with the Trouble 60

Chapter 6 What It Has to Do with Us 66 Individualism: Or, the Myth That Everything Bad Is Somebody’s Fault 66 Individuals, Systems, and Paths of Least Resistance 68 What It Means to Be Involved in Privilege and Oppression 72

Chapter 7 How Systems of Privilege Work 76 Dominance and Control 76 Identified with Privilege 80 The Center of Attention 84 The Isms 88 The Isms and Us 90

Chapter 8 Getting Off the Hook: Denial and Resistance 92

Deny and Minimize 92 Blame the Victim 94 Call It Something Else 95 It’s Better This Way 95 It Doesn’t Count If You Don’t Mean It 96 I’m One of the Good Ones 99 Not My Job 102 Sick and Tired 103 Getting Off the Hook by Getting On 105



Contents v

Chapter 9 What Can We Do? 107 The Myth That It’s Always Been This Way, and Always Will 108 Gandhi’s Paradox and The Myth of No Effect 110 Stubborn Ounces: What Can We Do? 114

epilogue: A Worldview Is Hard to Change 135

Acknowledgments 142 Glossary 144 Notes 151 Resources 169 Credits 182 Index 183



For Jane Tuohy



About the Author

Allan G. Johnson is a nationally recognized sociologist, nonfiction author, novelist, and public speaker best known for his work on issues of privilege and oppression, especially in relation to gender and race. He is the author of numerous books, including The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, 3e (2014), The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, 3e (2014), and a memoir, Not From Here (2015). His work has been translated into several languages and is excerpted in numerous anthologies. Visit his website at and follow his blog at



Also by Allan G. Johnson


Not from Here: A Memoir

The Gender Knot

The Forest and the Trees

The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology


The First Thing and the Last

Nothing Left to Lose





I didn’t make this world. It was given to me this way!

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun1

It isn’t news that a great deal of trouble surrounds issues of privilege, power, and difference, trouble based on gender and race, sexual orienta- tion and identity, disability, social class. Or that it causes a great deal of injustice, anger, conflict, and suffering. We seem unable, however, to do anything about it as it continues from one generation to the next. We are, as individuals, as a society, stuck in a kind of paralysis that perpetuates the trouble and what it does to people’s lives.

We are, each of us, part of the problem, because, in one way or another, and for all our differences, we have in common the fact of our participation in a society we did not create. We can also make ourselves a part of the solution, but only if we know how. That there are choices to be made is true for everyone, no matter how we are located in the world, and the effectiveness of those choices can be no better than our understanding of how it works. What we bring to that is shaped by our position and experience of the world— as male or female, for example, of color or white, working or middle class. But no matter who we are and what we know because of it, we still need tools for making sense of reality in ways that connect us with the experience and lives of others. Because it is only then that we can come together across lines of difference to make something better than the legacy that was passed to us.

I wrote this book to help us get unstuck, by sharing a way of thinking about privilege and oppression that provides a framework that is conceptual and theoretical on the one hand and grounded in research and the experience of everyday life on the other. In this way it allows us to see not only where the trouble comes from but also how we are connected to it, which is the only thing that gives us the potential to make a difference.



x Introduction

When people hear “how we are connected to it,” they often react as if they’re about to be accused of doing something wrong. It’s especially com- mon among men and whites, but it also happens with women and people of color who anticipate being blamed for their own oppression. Either way, it is a kind of defensive reaction that does more than perhaps anything else to keep us stuck.

As a white, male, heterosexual, nondisabled, cisgender, upper-middle- class professional, I know about such feelings from my own life. But as a sociologist, I also know that it’s possible to understand the world and myself in relation to it in ways that get past defensiveness and denial to put us on a common ground from which we can work for change. My purpose here is to articulate that understanding in ways that are clear and compelling and, above all, useful.

Because my main goal is to change how people think about issues of privilege, I have been less concerned with describing all the forms that privilege can take and the problems associated with them. In choosing, I’ve been drawn to what affects the greatest number of people and produces the most harm, and, like any author, I tend to stick to what I know best. As a result, I focus almost entirely on gender, race, social class, disability status, and sexual orientation.

In the second edition, I added issues of disability, and I think it’s import- ant to say something about how that came about. Why was it not included before? The main reason is that I, as a person without disabilities, was unable to see the reality of disability status as a form of privilege. After the first edition was published, I heard from several readers—most notably Marshall Mitchell, a professor of disability studies at Washington State University—who urged me to reconsider. What followed was many months during which I had to educate myself and listen to those who knew more about this than I did. I had to come to terms with what I didn’t know about privilege and what I thought I knew, which is to say, I had to do for myself what I wrote this book to help others do.

Simple ignorance, however, is not the whole story, for the difficulties that people without disabilities face in seeing their privilege and the oppres- sion of people socially identified as disabled is rooted in the place of dis- ability in human life. Unlike gender, race, and sexual orientation, disability status can change during a person’s lifetime. In fact, almost everyone will experience some form of disability during their lives, unless they die first.



Introduction xi

People with disabilities, then, are a constant reminder of the reality of the human experience—how vulnerable we are and how much there is in life that we cannot control.

For many nondisabled people, this can be a frightening thing to contem- plate. Treating people with disabilities as if they were invisible, designing buildings as if everyone was nondisabled, seeing people with disabilities as inferior or abnormal, even less than human—all these oppressive practices enable nondisabled people to deny a basic feature of the human condition.

Accepting that condition is especially difficult for nondisabled people in the United States, where the cultural ideal of being autonomous, indepen- dent, young, strong, and needing no one’s help is deeply rooted. As any student of social life knows, however, this is based on an illusion, because from the time we are born to the moment we die, we all depend on other human beings for our very existence. But being an illusion does not lessen the power of such ideas, and I had to come to terms with how they affected my writing of this book.

You might be wondering why I use the word “nondisabled” to refer to people without disabilities. Wouldn’t “abled” be simpler and more direct? It would, but it would also cover up the reason for including disability issues in a book on privilege.

Consider this: if I have use of my eyes and you cannot see, it is reason- able to say that I have an ability and you have an inability. Or, put differently, when it comes to using eyes to see, I am abled and you are disabled. I might point out that my condition gives me certain advantages, and I’d be right, although you might counter that your condition gives you access to experi- ences, insights, and sensitivities that I would be less likely to have. You might even assert that your way of seeing is just different from mine and that you don’t consider yourself disabled at all. Still, if we’re looking at the specific ability to use the eyes to see, I think most people would agree that “abled” and “disabled” are reasonable ways to describe this particular objec- tive difference between us.

The problem—and this is where privilege comes in—is that not being able to use your eyes to see brings with it disadvantages that go beyond sight itself, whereas having the use of your eyes brings with it unearned advantages that go beyond the fact of being able to see. This happens, for example, when the inability to see leads to being labeled a “blind person” or a “disabled person” who is perceived and judged to be nothing more than



xii Introduction

that—a helpless, damaged, inferior human being who deserves to be treated accordingly. But not being able to see does not mean that you are unintel- ligent or helpless or inferior or unable to hold a decent job or make your own decisions. It just means you cannot see. Even so, you might be discrim- inated against, giving others—people who can see and therefore are not perceived as “disabled”—an advantage they did not earn.

So, “nondisability privilege” refers to the privilege of not being burdened with the stigma and subordinate status that go along with being identified as disabled in this culture. Admittedly, it is an awkward way to put it, but as is so often the case, systems of privilege do not provide a language that makes it easy to name the reality of what is going on.2

You may also have noticed that I don’t include social class as an example of privilege, power, and difference. I made this choice not from a belief that class is unimportant, but because the nature and dynamics of class are beyond the scope of what I’m trying to do. My focus is on how differences that would otherwise have little if any inherent connection to social inequality are nonetheless seized on and turned into a basis for privilege and oppression.

Race is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Biologists have long agreed that what are identified as racial differences—skin color being the most prominent—do not define actual biological groups but instead are socially defined categories.3 More important is that for most of human history, such “differences” have been regarded as socially insignificant. When Europeans began to exploit indigenous peoples for territorial conquest and economic gain, however, they developed the idea of race as a way to justify their behavior on the grounds of supposed racial superiority. In other words, by itself, something like skin color has no importance in social life but was turned into something significant in order to create, justify, and enforce privilege.4

Social class, of course, has huge effects on people’s lives, but this is not an example of this phenomenon. On the contrary, social class differences are inherently about privilege. It is also true, however, that class plays an important role in the forms of privilege that are the focus of this book, which is why I devote an entire chapter to the capitalist system that produces social class today. Although racism is a problem that involves all white people, for example, how it plays out in their lives is affected by class. For upper-class whites, white privilege may take the form of being able to hire women of color to do domestic service work they would rather not do themselves (such



as maids and nannies) or, on a larger scale, to benefit from investments in industries that make use of people of color as a source of cheap labor. In contrast, in the working class, white privilege is more likely to take the form of preferential treatment in hiring and promotion in skilled trades and other upper-level blue-collar occupations, or access to unions or mortgages and loans, or being less vulnerable to the excessive use of force by police.

In similar ways, the effect of race on people of color is also shaped by social class differences. Blacks and Latinos, for example, who have achieved wealth or power—such as Barack Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, or Ben Carson— are more protected from many overt and extreme forms of racism. In simi- lar ways, the children of elite black families who attend Ivy League colleges may be spared the most extreme expressions of racist violence and discrim- ination, while experiencing more subtle microaggressions.5

Without taking such patterns into account, it is difficult to know just what something like “white privilege” means across the complexity of people’s lives.

To some degree, this book cannot help having a point of view that is shaped by my social location as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondis- abled, upper-middle-class male. But that combination of social characteris- tics does not simply limit what I bring to this, for each provides a bridge to some portion of almost every reader’s life. I cannot know from my own experience, for example, what it’s like to be female or of color or LGBT in this society. But I can bring my experience as a white person to the struggle of white people—including white women and working-class white men—to deal with the subject of racism, just as I can bring my experience as a man to men’s work—including gay men and men of color—around the subject of sexism and male privilege. In the same way, I can bring my perspective and experience to the challenges faced by people who are heterosexual or nondisabled, regardless of their gender or race or class.

What I cannot know from my own experience I have tried to supplement by studying the experience and research and writings of others. This has led me, over the course of my career, to design and teach courses on class and capitalism, the sociology of gender, feminist theory, and, with a female African American colleague, race in the United States. I have written on male privilege and gender inequality (The Gender Knot), I’ve been active in the movement against men’s violence against women, and I’ve given hun- dreds of presentations on gender and race across the United States.

Introduction xiii



xiv Introduction

In these and other ways, I’ve spent most of my life as a sociologist and a writer and a human being trying to understand the world we live in, how it’s organized and how it works, shaping our lives in so many different ways. None of this means that what I’ve written is the last word on anything. If, however, I have succeeded in what I set out to do here—and only you will know if I have done that for you—then I believe this book has something to offer anyone who wants to deal with these difficult issues and help change the world for the better.

If, however, you come to this with the expectation of not liking what you’re about to read, I suggest you go next to the Epilogue before turning to Chapter 1.




C H A P T E R 1

We’re in Trouble

In 1991, a black motorist named Rodney King suffered a brutal beating by police officers in Los Angeles. When his assailants were acquitted and riots broke out in the city, King uttered a simple yet exasperated plea that echoed across the long history and deep divide of racism in the United States. “Can we all get along?”

Fast forward more than twenty-five years to mass protests against police shootings of unarmed black people,1 and King’s question still resonates with our racial dilemma—what W. E. B. Du Bois called, more than a century ago, “the problem of the color line.”2 It is a question that has haunted us ever since the Civil War ended slavery, and, like any serious question, it deserves a serious response.

In the 21st century, in spite of Barack Obama’s two terms as president, the evidence is clear that however much we might wish it otherwise, the answer to Rodney King’s question is still no.3 Whether it is a matter of can’t or won’t, the truth is that we simply do not get along. In addition to police violence, people of color are disproportionately singled out for arrest, prosecution, and punishment for types of crimes that they are no more likely than whites to commit. Among illegal drug users, for example, whites outnumber blacks by more than five to one, and yet blacks make up sixty percent of those imprisoned for that offense.4 Segregation in housing and schools is still



2 Chapter 1

pervasive and, in many parts of the country, increasing.5 The average net wealth of white families is twenty times that of blacks, with the 2008 financial collapse being far more devastating for people of color than it was for whites.6 At every level of education, whites are half as likely as blacks and Latinos to be unemployed or to have incomes below the poverty line. The average annual income for whites who work year round and full time is forty-four percent greater than it is for comparable African Americans. It is sixty percent greater than for Latinos. The white income advantage exists at all levels of educational attainment and only increases at higher levels.7

The damage caused by everyday racism is everywhere, and is especially galling to middle-class blacks who have believed what whites have told them that if they go to school and work hard and make something of themselves, race will no longer be an issue. But they soon discover, and learn anew every day, that nothing protects them from their vulnerability to white racism.8

As I write this, I’m aware that some readers—whites in particular, and especially those who do not have the luxury of class privilege—may already feel put off by words like “privilege,” “racism,” “white,” and (even worse) “white privilege” or “white racism.” One way to avoid such a reaction is to not use such words. As the rest of this book will make clear, however, if we can’t use the words, we also can’t talk about what’s really going on and what it has to do with us. And that makes it impossible to see what the problems are or how we might make ourselves part of the solution to them, which is, after all, the point of writing or reading a book such as this.

With that in mind, the most important thing I can say to reassure those readers who are wondering whether to continue reading is that things are not what they seem. The defensive, irritable, and even angry feelings that people in dominant groups often experience when they come across such language are usually based on misperceptions that this book will try to clarify and set straight, including, in Chapter 2, the widely misunderstood concept of privilege.

It is also important to keep in mind that the reality of privilege and oppression is complicated, and it will take much of this book to outline an approach that many have found useful—especially men and whites trying to understand not only how it all works, but what it has to do with them. It is an approach that isn’t widely known in our society and, so, as with any



We’re in Trouble 3

unfamiliar way of thinking, it helps to be patient and to give the benefit of the doubt until you’ve followed it to the end.

Problems of perception and defensiveness apply not only to race but to a broad and interconnected set of social differences that have become the basis for a great deal of trouble in the world. Although Du Bois was correct that race would be a defining issue in the 20th century, the problem of “getting along” does not stop there. It is also an issue across differences of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status,* and numerous other divides.

Since 1990, for example, and Hillary Clinton’s nearly successful candidacy for the presidency notwithstanding, there has been little progress in the struggle for gender equity. The average man working full time earns almost thirty percent more than the average woman. In spite of being a majority among college graduates, most employed women are still confined to a narrow range of lower status, lower paid occupations, and those women who have made inroads into previously male-dominated professions, such as medicine and law, are more likely than men to be in lower ranked, lower paid positions. At the same time, men entering occupations such as nursing and elementary school teaching are more highly paid than comparable women and are more likely to advance to supervisory positions. In universities, science professors, both male and female, widely regard female students as less competent than comparable males and are less likely to offer women jobs, or to pay those they do hire salaries equal to those of men. In politics, women make up less than nineteen percent of the U.S. Congress and hold less than a quarter of all seats in state legislature and statewide office, in spite of being a majority of the population. In families, women do twice as much housework and child care as men, even when also employed outside the home.9

There is also a global epidemic of men’s violence, including war, ter- rorism, and mass murder, as well as sex trafficking, rape, and battery directed primarily at girls and women.10 Official responses and public conversations show little understanding of the underlying causes or what to do, including the fact that the overwhelming majority of violence is perpetrated by men. Worldwide, thirty percent of women report having been sexually or physically assaulted by a partner, and women are more at risk of being a victim of

* Throughout this book, I use the word “status” to indicate a position or characteristic that connects people to one another through social relationships, such as student, female, parent, or white.



4 Chapter 1

rape and domestic violence than of cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria combined.11 In the United States, one out of every five female college students is sexually assaulted during their college careers, and sexual assault is so pervasive in the military that the greatest threat to women comes not from the hazards of military service but from sexual assault by male service members.12 In addition, harassment, discrimination, and violence directed at LGBT* people are still commonplace, in spite of signs of growing social acceptance, as with the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is still legal in most states, for example, to discriminate against LGBT people in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

In addition to issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, the estimated fifty-four million people with disabilities in the United States are vulnerable to abuse both within and outside their homes. They are routinely stereotyped as damaged, helpless, and inferior human beings who lack intelligence and are therefore denied the opportunity to develop their abilities fully. The physical environment—from appropriate signage to entrances to buildings, buses, and airplanes—is typically designed in ways that make it difficult if not impossible for them to have what they need and to get from one place to another. Because of such conditions, they are far less likely than others to finish high school or college and are far more likely to be unemployed; and, when they do find work, to be paid less than the minimum wage. The result is a pervasive pattern of exploitation, deprivation, poverty, mistreatment, and isolation that denies access to the employment, housing, transportation, information, and basic services needed to fully participate in social life.13

Clearly, across many dimensions of difference, we are not getting along with one another, and we need to ask why.

For many, the answer is some variation on “human nature.” People cannot help fearing the unfamiliar, for example, or women and men are so different that it’s as though they come from different planets, and it’s a miracle that we get along at all. Or there is only one natural sexual orientation (heterosexual)

* LGBT is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Some activists expand it to include “queer” (LGBTQ), a general term that refers to those who, in various ways, reject, test, or otherwise transgress the bound- aries of what is culturally regarded as normal in relation to gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation and expression. Some regard it as an umbrella term for the other four components of LGBT. “Queer” is also routinely used as an insult directed at LGBT people. A cisgender person is one who was assigned a sex at birth that culturally matches their self-identified gender, such as someone identified as female at birth who self identifies as a woman.



We’re in Trouble 5

and gender identity (woman or man) that must culturally match the sex we are assigned at birth (making us cisgender), and all the rest are unacceptable and bound to cause conflict wherever they show up. Or those who are more capable will get more than everyone else—they always have and always will. Someone, after all, has to be on top.

As popular as such arguments are, they depend on ignoring most of what history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, and, if we look closely, our own experiences reveal about human beings and how we live. We are not prisoners to some natural order that pits us hopelessly and endlessly against one another. We are prisoners to something, but it is more of our own making than we realize.

The Trouble We’re In

Every morning I walk with our dogs in acres of woods behind our house, a quiet and peaceful place where I can feel the seasons come and go. I like the solitude, a chance to reflect on my life and the world, and to see things in perspective and more clearly. And I like to watch the dogs chase each other in games of tag, sniff out the trail of an animal that passed by the night before. They go out far and then come back to make sure I’m still there.

It’s hard not to notice that everything seems pretty simple to them—or at least from what I can see. They never stray far from what I imagine to be the essential nature of what it means to be a dog in relation to everything around them. And that is all they seem to need or care about.

It’s also hard not to wonder about my own species, which, by comparison, seems deeply troubled most of the time. I believe we do not have to be, because even though I’m trained as a sociologist to see the complexity of things, I think we are fairly simple.

Deep in our bones, for example, we are social beings. There is no escaping it. We cannot survive on our own when we’re young, and it doesn’t get that much easier later on. We need to feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, whether it’s a community or a whole society. We look to other people to tell us that we measure up, that we matter, that we’re okay. We have a huge capacity to be creative and generous and loving. We spin stories, make music and art, help children turn into adults, save one another in countless ways, and ease our loved ones into death. We have large brains and opposable thumbs and are clever in how we use them. I’m not sure if



6 Chapter 1

we’re the only species with a sense of humor—I think I’ve known dogs to laugh—but we have made the most of it. And we are highly adaptable, able to live just about anywhere under almost any conditions. We can take in the strange and unfamiliar and learn to understand and embrace it, whether it’s a new language or the person sitting next to us on the crosstown bus who doesn’t look like anyone we’ve ever seen before.

For all of our potential, you would think we could get along with one another. By that I don’t mean love one another in some idealistic way. We don’t need to love, or even like, one another to work together or share space in the world. I also don’t mean something as minimal as tolerance. I mean treating one another with decency and respect and appreciating, if not sup- porting, the best we have in us.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine a community, for example, where parents don’t have to coach their children on how to avoid being shot by police on the way home from school, or raped on a date. Or a workplace where all kinds of people feel comfortable showing up, secure in the knowledge that they have a place they don’t have to defend every time they turn around, where they’re encouraged to do their best, and valued for it. We all like to feel that way—accepted, valued, supported, appreciated, respected, belonging. So you would think we’d go after it like dogs on the trail of something good to eat. We would, that is, unless something powerful kept us from it.

Apparently, something powerful does keep us from it, to judge from all the trouble there is around issues of difference and how far we are from anything like a world where people feel comfortable showing up and good about themselves and one another. And yet, for all the trouble, we don’t know how to talk about it, and so we act as though it’s always somewhere other than where we are.

It reminds me of sitting in a restaurant with an African American woman, as we talk about a course on race and gender that we want to teach together. And while we talk about what we want our students to think about and learn, I’m feeling how hard it is to talk about race and gender in that moment—about how the legacy of racism and sexism shapes our lives in such different ways, how my whiteness and maleness are sources of privilege that elevate people like me not above some abstract groups, but above people like her, my friend.

The simple truth is that when I go shopping, for example, I will probably get waited on faster and better than she will. I will benefit from the cultural



We’re in Trouble 7

assumption that I’m a serious customer who doesn’t need to be followed around to keep me from stealing something. The clerk won’t ask me for three kinds of ID before accepting my check or credit card. But all these indignities, which my whiteness protects me from, are part of her everyday existence. And it doesn’t matter how she dresses or behaves or that she’s an executive in a large corporation. Her being black and the clerk being white in a racist society is all it takes.14

She also cannot go for a walk alone at night without thinking about her safety a lot more than I do—planning what to do in case a man approaches her with something other than goodwill. She has to consider what he might think if she smiles in a friendly way and says hello, or what he’ll think if she does not. She has to decide where to park her car for safety, to remember to have her keys out as she approaches it, to check the back seat before she gets in. In other words, she has to limit her life in ways that almost never occur to me, and her being female is the reason why.15

As these thoughts fill my mind, I struggle with how to sit across from her and talk and eat our lunch while all of this is going on all the time. I want to say, “Can we talk about this and us?” But I don’t, because it feels too risky, the kind of thing both of you know but keep from saying, like a couple where one has been unfaithful and both know it, but they collude in silence because they know that if either speaks the truth of what they both already know, they won’t be able to go on as if this awful thing between them isn’t there.

It’s not that I have done something or thought bad thoughts about her because she is black and female. No, the problem is that in the world as it is, race and gender shape her life and mine in dramatically different ways. And it isn’t some random accident that befell her while I escaped. A tornado didn’t blow through town and level her house while leaving mine alone. No, her misfortune is connected to my good fortune. The reality of her having to deal with racism and sexism every day is connected to the reality that I do not. I did not have to do anything for this to be true and neither did she. But there it is just the same.

All of that sits in the middle of the table like the elephant that everyone pretends not to see.

The “elephant” is a society and its people—for whom a decent and productive social life that is true to the best of our human selves—continues to be elusive. In its place is a powerful kind of trouble that is tenacious, profound, and seems only to get worse.



8 Chapter 1

The trouble we are in is the privileging of some groups at the expense of others. It creates a yawning divide in levels of income, wealth, dignity, safety, health, and quality of life. It promotes fear, suspicion, discrimination, anger, harassment, and violence. It sets people against one another. It weaves the corrosive effects of oppression into the daily lives of tens of millions of women, men, and children. It has the potential to ruin entire generations and, in the long run, to take just about everyone down with it.

It is a trouble that shows up everywhere and touches every life in one way or another. There is no escape, however thick the denial. It is in families and neighborhoods, in schools and churches, in government and the courts, in colleges and the workplace, wherever people experience people unlike themselves and what this society makes of such differences.

The hard and simple truth is that the “we” who are in trouble includes everyone, us, and it will take most of us to get us out of it. It is relatively easy, for example, for white people to fall into the safe and comfortable rut of thinking that racism is a problem that belongs to people of color. But such thinking assumes that we can talk about “up” without “down” or that a “you” or a “them” can mean something without a “me” or an “us.”

There is no way that a problem of difference can involve just one group of people. The “problem” of race cannot be just a problem of being black, Asian, Arab, Sioux, or Latino. It has to be more than that, because there is no way to separate the “problem” of being, say, Native American from the “problem” of not being white. And there is no way to separate not being white from being white. This means privilege is always a problem both for those who do not have it and those who do, because privilege is always in relation to others. Privilege is always at someone else’s expense and always exacts a cost. Everything that is done to receive or maintain it—however passive and unconscious—results in suffering and deprivation for some- one else.

We live in a society that attaches privilege to a variety of characteristics regardless of social class. If I do not see how that makes me part of the problem of privilege, I also will not see myself as part of the solution. And if people in privileged groups do not include themselves in the solution, the default is to leave it to women and Asians, Latinos/as, blacks, Native Americans, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and the lower and working classes to do it on their own. Although these groups are not powerless to affect the conditions of their own lives, they do not have the power to singlehandedly



We’re in Trouble 9

do away with entrenched systems of privilege. If they could do that, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

The trouble we are in cannot be solved unless people who have privilege feel obligated to make the problem of privilege their problem, and to do something about it. For me, it means I have to take the initiative to find out how privilege operates in the world, how it affects people, and what that has to do with me. It means I have to think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, break the silence, acknowledge the elephant, and then take my share of responsibility for what comes next. It means I have to do something to create the possibility for my African American woman friend and me to have a conversation about race, gender, and us, rather than leave it to her to take all the risks and do all the work. The fact that it’s so easy for people in dominant groups not to do this is the single most powerful barrier to change. Understanding how to change that by bringing them into the conversation and the solution is the biggest challenge we face.

My work here is to help us meet that challenge by identifying tools for understanding what is going on and what it’s got to do with us without being swallowed up in a sea of guilt and blame, of denial and angry self-defense. It is to share a way of thinking about difference and what has been made of it. It is to remove barriers that stand between us and serious, long-term work across difference, and effective action for change that can make a difference.

We Can’t Talk about It If We Can’t Use the Words

Dealing with a problem begins with naming it, so that we can think and talk and write about it, so that we can make sense of it by seeing how it’s connected to other things that explain it, and point toward solutions. The language we need usually comes from people working to solve the problem, typically those who suffer most because of it, and who rely on words like privilege, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, heteronormativity, classism, ableism, dominance, subordination, oppression, and patriarchy.

Naming something draws attention to it, making us more likely to notice it as significant, which is why people often have a negative reaction to words like sexism or privilege. They don’t want to look at what the words point to. Men don’t want to look at sexism, nor whites at racism, especially if they’ve worked hard to improve their own class position. People don’t want to look because they don’t want to know what it has to do with them, and how doing



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something about it might change not only the world but themselves and their own lives.

One means of escape is to discredit the words or twist their meaning or turn them into a phobia or make them invisible. It has become almost impossible, for example, to say “men’s violence” or “male privilege” without men being uncomfortable and defensive, as if saying the words is to accuse them of something. The same is true of all the other “isms.” Since few people like to see themselves as bad, the words are taboo in “polite” company, including many training programs in corporations and universities. So, instead of talking about the sexism and racism that plague people’s lives, the focus is on “diversity” and “tolerance” and “appreciating difference,” all good things to talk about, but not at all the same as the isms and the trouble they’re connected to.

More than once I have been asked to talk about the consequences of domination and oppression without saying “dominant,” “subordinate,” or “oppression.” At such times, I feel like a doctor trying to help a patient without mentioning the body or naming what is wrong. We cannot get anywhere that way, with our collective house burning down while we tiptoe around, afraid to say “fire.”

The bottom line is that a trouble we cannot talk about is a trouble we can’t do anything about. Words like “privilege” and “oppression” point to difficult and painful parts of our history that continue to shape everyday life today. That means there is no way to talk about it without difficulty or the possibility of fear or pain. It is possible, however, to talk about it in ways that make the struggle worth it. To do that, however, we have to reclaim these lost and discredited words so that we can use them to name and make sense of the reality of how things really are.

Reclaiming words begins with seeing that they rarely mean what most people think they mean. “Patriarchy” is not code for “men,” for example, just as “racist” is not another way to say “bad white people.” Oppression and dominance name social realities that we can participate in without being oppressive or dominating people. And feminism is not an ideology organized around being lesbian or hating men. But you would never know it by listening to how these words are used in the media, popular culture, and over many a dinner table. You would never know such words could be part of a serious discussion of how to resolve a problem that belongs to us all.



We’re in Trouble 11

I use these words freely in this book because I am writing about the problems they name. I don’t use them as accusations. If I did, I would have a hard time looking in the mirror. Nor do I intend that anyone take them personally. As a heterosexual, nondisabled, white, upper-middle-class male, I do know that in some ways these words are about me. There is no way for me to avoid playing a role in the troubles they name, and that is something I must be willing to look at. But it’s also important to realize how the words are not about me, because they name something much larger than me, a system I did not invent or create, but that was passed on to me as a legacy when I was born into this society.

Like everyone else, if I am going to be part of changing that legacy, I need a way to step back from my defensive sensitivity to such language. Then I can look at the reality of what that language points to, what it has to do with me and, most importantly, what I can do to make a difference.




C H A P T E R 2

Privilege, Oppression, and Difference

The trouble around difference is privilege and oppression, and the unequal distribution of power that keeps it going. It is a legacy we all inherited, and while we’re here, it belongs to us. It is not our fault, but it is up to us to decide what we’re going to pass on to generations to come.

Talking about power and privilege isn’t easy, especially for dominant groups, which is why it is so often avoided, from politics to workplaces to college classrooms. Part of the difficulty comes from a fear of anything that might make dominant groups uncomfortable, angry, or otherwise cause conflict,1 even though (as we will see) groups are already pitted against one another by the system of privilege that organizes society as a whole. But a deeper reason is a misunderstanding of the problem itself, which is what this chapter is about.

Difference Is Not the Problem

Difference can, of course, be a problem when it comes to working across cultures and their varied ways of thinking and doing things, but human beings have been bridging such divides for thousands of years.

Related to this is the idea that difference makes us afraid of one another because we naturally fear the strange and unfamiliar, the unknown, what we



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 13

do not understand. What we fear we do not trust, making it difficult to get along in our diversity.

For all its popularity, the notion that difference is inherently frightening is really a cultural myth, one that justifies keeping outsiders on the outside, and treating them badly if they happen to get in. The mere fact that something is new or strange is not enough to make us afraid. When Europeans first came to North America, for example, they were not afraid of the people they encountered, and the typical response of Native Americans was to welcome these astonishingly “different” people and help them to survive.2 Scientists, psychotherapists, inventors, novelists (and their fans), explorers, philosophers, spiritualists, anthropologists, and the just plain curious are all drawn to the mystery of what they do not know. Even children seem to love the unknown, which is why parents are always worrying about what new thing their toddler will get into next.

What does frighten us is how we think about the strange, the unfamiliar, the unknown—what might happen next or what’s behind that door or in the mind of the weird-looking guy on the empty train. And those ideas, those fears, are not something we are born with. We acquire them just as we learn to talk or tie our shoes. Marshall Mitchell, for example, an expert in disability studies, tells of young children who “approach me in my wheelchair with no hesitation or fear. But, each year that they get older, they become more fearful. Why? Because then they are afraid of what they’ve been taught and think they know.”3

Mapping Difference: Who Are We?

Issues of difference cover a large territory. A useful way to put it in per-spective is with a “diversity wheel” see figure on page 15 based on the work of Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener.4 In the hub of the wheel are seven social characteristics: age, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, physical ability and qualities (such as height), and sexual orientation. Around the outer ring are several others, including religion, marital and parental status, and social- class indicators such as education, occupation, and income.

Anyone can describe themselves by going around the wheel. Starting in the hub, for example, I identify myself as a male and a man. I was assigned as male when I was born, and since my gender identification is as a man, the two are a cultural match, making me cisgender. Not so long



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ago, it did not occur to most people to separate sex and gender, based on the assumption that if you know how someone identifies in relation to gender (woman or man) then you also know what kind of body they have (female or male). In fact, however, human beings come in all kinds of sex and gender combinations, assigned, for example, as male when they were born but identifying themselves as women now, or as neither man nor woman, or as some combination of the two. Or they might be intersex, born with a combination of biological characteristics that cannot be easily clas- sified as either male or female.

Continuing on, I am also English-Norwegian (as far as I know), white (again, as far as I know), seventy years old, heterosexual, and nondisabled (so far). In the outer ring, I am married, a father and grandfather, and an upper-middle-class professional with a Ph.D. I’ve lived in New England most of my life, but I’ve also lived in other countries. If I had to identify my spiritual life with a particular tradition, I would lean toward Buddhism and earth-based practices. I served a brief stint in the U.S. Army reserves.

It would be useful to stop reading for a moment and do what I just did. Go around the wheel and get a sense of where you fit.

As you reflect on the results of this exercise, it might occur to you (as it did to me) that the wheel does not say much about the unique private individual you know yourself to be, your personal history, the content of your character, what you dream and feel. It does, however, say a lot about the social reality that has shaped your life in powerful ways.

Imagine, for example, that you woke up tomorrow and found that your race was different from what it was when you went to bed (the plot of a 1970 movie called Watermelon Man). Or imagine that your sex had changed (as happens to the central character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando) or you realized one day that you were not heterosexual, or you suddenly lost the ability to hear or see. How would that affect how people perceive and treat you? How would it affect how you see yourself? How would it change the material circumstances of your life, such as where you live or how much money you have? In what ways would the change make life better? In what ways worse?

In answering these questions, try to go beyond the obvious consequences to ones that are perhaps more subtle. If you are heterosexual now, for example, and you wake up gay or lesbian, your sexual feelings about women and men would be different. But what about how people perceive and treat you in ways



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 15

unrelated to sex? Would they treat you differently at school or work? Would friends treat you differently, or parents and siblings? What opportunities would open or close? What rewards would or would not come your way?

For most people, shifting only a few parts of the wheel would be enough to change their lives dramatically. Even though these specific characteristics may not tell us who we are as individuals in the privacy of our hearts and souls, they locate us in relation to other people and society in ways that have huge consequences.

The trouble surrounding diversity, then, isn’t just that people differ from one another. The trouble is produced by a world organized in ways that encourage people to use difference in order to include or exclude, accept or reject, reward or punish, credit or discredit, elevate or oppress, value or devalue, leave alone or harass.

This is especially true of characteristics in the center of the wheel, which are difficult to change (except disability, which can happen to anyone at any time). It is true that medical assistance is available for transgender people who decide that they want to transition from one sex

FIGURE 1. The Diversity Wheel. Adapted Loden, Marilyn; Rosener, Judy B. Workforce America: Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 1991, p. 20. Copyright © 1991 by McGraw-Hill Education. All rights reserved. Used with permission.






Sexual/ affectional orientation

Physical abilities/ qualities

Marital status

Parental status

Work background

Education Income

Geographic location

Religious beliefs

Military experience



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to the other (transsexual), and that it’s possible for some people to “pass” for a race or gender or sexual orientation that is other than what they and others believe themselves to be. But this is quite different from being married one day and divorced the next, or getting a new job that suddenly elevates your class position. Unlike the outer portion of the wheel, the inner portion consists of characteristics that, in one way or another, we must learn to live with, regardless of how we choose to reveal ourselves to others.

Perceptions are difficult to control, however, because we tend to rely on quick and often unconscious impressions of race, sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability status. Some are based on blanket assumptions— that everyone, for example, is heterosexual until proven otherwise. Or if they look “white,” they are white. We may not realize how routinely we do this until we run into someone who doesn’t fit neatly into an established cate- gory, especially sex and gender. It can be startling and can hold our attention until we think we’ve figured it out.

Our culture allows for only two genders, and anyone who doesn’t fit one or the other is perceived as an outsider. This is why intersex babies are routinely altered surgically in order to fit the categories of female and male. In contrast, in traditional Native American Diné (Navajo) culture, a person born with physical characteristics that are not clearly male or female is placed in a third category—called nadle—which is considered to be as legitimate as female and male. In some Native American plains tribes, people were allowed to choose their gender regardless of their physical characteristics, as when men might respond to a spiritual vision by taking on the dress of women.5

Most of our ways of thinking about sexuality are also based on culture. The idea of using “heterosexual” and “homosexual” to describe kinds of people living particular kinds of lives, for example, has been around for little more than a hundred years.6 And while differences in sexual behavior have long been recognized, whether gay or lesbian or heterosexual behavior is regarded as normal or deviant varies from one culture and historical period to another.

Characteristics at the center of the wheel, then, are hard to change and are very often the object of quick and firm impressions that can profoundly affect our lives. Clearly, diversity is not just about the variety the word suggests. It could just be that; but only in some other world.7



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 17

The Social Construction of Difference

The African American author James Baldwin once offered the provoca-tive idea that there is no such thing as whiteness or, for that matter, blackness or, more generally, race. “No one was white before he/she came to America,” he wrote. “It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.”8

What did Baldwin mean? In the simplest sense, he was pointing to a basic aspect of social reality—that most of what we experience is filtered through a cultural lens. In other words, it is to some degree made up, even though it doesn’t seem that way. There are all kinds of variations in physical appearance, including skin color, but unless a culture defines such differences as significant, they are socially irrelevant and therefore, in that sense, do not exist. A dark-skinned woman in Africa, whose culture does not include the concept of race, has no reason to think of herself as “black” or experience herself as black, nor do the people around her. African, yes, a woman, yes, but not a black woman.

When she comes to the United States, however, where privilege is organized around the idea of race, suddenly she becomes black, because people identify her as such and treat her differently as a result. In similar ways, as Baldwin argues, a 19th-century Norwegian farmer had no reason to think of himself as white so long as he stayed in Norway. But when he came to the United States, he quickly discovered the significance of being seen as white and the privilege that comes with it, making him eager to adopt “white” as part of his identity.9

Baldwin is telling us that the idea of race has no significance beyond the systems of privilege and oppression in which they are created, through what is known as the “social construction of reality.”10 The construction of race is especially visible in how its definition has changed, by including groups at one time that were excluded in another. The Irish, for example, were long considered by the dominant Anglo-Saxons of England and the United States to be members of a “nonwhite” race, as were Italians, Jews, Greeks, and people from a number of Eastern European countries. As such, immigrants from these groups to England and the United States were excluded, subordinated, and exploited. This was especially true of the Irish in Ireland in relation to the British, who for centuries treated them as an inferior race.11 It may occur to you that skin color among the Irish was



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perhaps indistinguishable from that of the “white” English, which raises the point that the objective facts of physical difference have never been the determinants of race. More important is the dominant group’s power to define racial categories in any way that serves its interests by including some and excluding others.

The social construction of reality also applies to what is considered “normal.” While it may come as a surprise to many who think of themselves as nondisabled, for example, disability and nondisability are cultural creations. This doesn’t mean that the difference between, say, having or not having full use of your eyes or memory, is somehow made up with no objective reality. It does mean, however, that how people notice and think about such differences, and how they treat people as a result, are a matter of culture.

Human beings, for example, come in a variety of heights, and many of those considered normal are unable to reach high places such as kitchen shelves without the assistance of physical aids such as chairs and stools. In spite of their limited ability, they are not defined as disabled. Nor are the roughly 100 million people in the United States who cannot see properly without the aid of eyeglasses. Why? Because the dominant group has the authority to define what is normal. In contrast, people who use wheelchairs, for example, to get from one place to another—to “reach” places they cannot otherwise go—do not have the cultural authority to include their condition in what is considered to be normal, that is, as one more instance of the fact that in the course of life, people come in many shapes and sizes and physical and mental conditions.

Disability and nondisability are also constructed through the use of language. When someone who cannot see is labeled a “blind person,” for example, it creates the impression that an inability to see can be used to sum up an entire person. In other words, “blind” becomes what they are. The same thing happens when people are described as “autistic” or “crippled” or “deaf”—the person becomes the disability and nothing more. Reducing people to a single dimension of who they are separates and excludes them by marking them as “other,” as people outside the bounda- ries of normality, and therefore inferior. The effect is compounded by por- traying people with disabilities as helpless victims who are “confined” or “stricken” or “suffering from” some “affliction” and then lumping them into an undifferentiated class—the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the mentally ill, the disabled.



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 19

Of course, using a wheelchair or being unable to see both affect people’s lives; pointing out that the concepts of disability and nondisability are socially constructed is not intended to suggest otherwise. But there is a world of difference between being treated as a normal human being who happens to have a disability, or being treated as invisible, inferior, unintelligent, asexual, frightening, passive, dependent, and nothing more than your disability. And that difference is not a matter of the disability itself but of how it is constructed in society, how that shapes how we think about ourselves and other people, and how we treat them as a result.12

What makes socially constructed reality so powerful is that we rarely recognize and experience it as that. We are encouraged to think that the way our culture defines something such as sexuality or race or gender is simply the way things are, that the words we use are naming an objective reality that exists independently of how we think about it. The truth, however, is that once human beings give something a name, it acquires a significance it otherwise does not have. More important, the name quickly takes on a life of its own as we forget the social process that created it and start treating it as real in and of itself.

This process is what allows us to believe that something like “race” actually points to a set of clear and unambiguous categories into which people fall, ignoring the fact that the definition of various races changes all the time and is riddled with inconsistencies and overlapping boundaries. In the 19th century, for example, U.S. law identified those having any African ancestry as black, a standard known as the “one-drop rule,” which defined “white” as a state of purity in relation to “black.” Native American status, in contrast, required at least one-eighth Native American ancestry in order to qualify. Why the different standards? Adrian Piper argues that it was mostly a matter of economics. Native Americans could claim financial benefits from the federal government, making it to whites’ advantage to limit the number of people considered Native American. Designating someone as black, however, took away power and denied the right to make claims against whites. In both cases, racial classification has had little to do with objective charac- teristics and everything to do with preserving white privilege and power.13

Race has been used to mark a variety of groups in this way. When Chinese were imported as a source of cheap labor during the 19th century, for example, the California Supreme Court declared them not to be white. Mexicans, however, many of whom owned large amounts of land and did



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business with Anglo “whites,” were also considered white. When the stakes are privilege and power, dominant groups often ignore such inconsistencies when it serves their interests.

What Is Privilege?

No matter what privileged group you belong to, if you want to understand the problem, the first stumbling block is usually the idea of privilege itself. When people hear that they benefit from some form of privilege, it’s not uncommon for them to get angry and defensive or claim it does not exist, or that it has nothing to do with them. “Privilege” has become one of those loaded words that names an important aspect of reality, making denial of its existence a serious barrier to change (so serious that it has a chapter of its own). It is important, then, to have a clear idea of what it means before going any further.

As Peggy McIntosh describes it, privilege exists when one group has some- thing of value that is denied to others simply because of the social category they belong to, rather than anything they have done or failed to do.14 If people take me more seriously when I give a speech than they would a woman saying the same things in the same way, I am benefiting from male privilege. A hetero- sexual black woman’s freedom to reveal the fact that she is married to a man is a form of privilege because lesbians and gay men often find themselves in situations where revealing their sexual orientation would put them at risk.

Note that privilege is not the same as simply having something good that others do not. Having loyal friends, for example, is both lucky and good. But it is not a form of privilege unless it is systematically allowed for some and denied to others based on membership in social categories, which must be socially recognized and conferred. In other words, having or not having access to privilege depends on how other people see us in relation to categories such as male or female.

Note also in these examples how easy it is for people to be unaware of how privilege affects them. When someone says good things about one of my presentations, for example, it might not occur to me that they would be more critical and less positive if I were Latino or female or gay. I might not feel privileged in that moment, just that I did a good job and should enjoy the rewards that go with it.

The existence of privilege does not mean I didn’t do a good job or that I don’t deserve to be rewarded for what I do. What it does mean is that I am



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 21

also receiving an advantage that other people are denied, people who are like me in every way except for being assigned to different categories. In this sense, my access to privilege does not determine or guarantee my outcomes, but is an asset that loads the odds in ways that make it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations I have will result in something good for me.15 In the same way, although being female or of color does not determine people’s outcomes, they count as liabilities that make it less likely that talent, ability, and aspirations will be recognized and rewarded.

This is also true of people with disabilities. Nondisabled people often assume that people with disabilities lack intelligence, for example, or are needy, helpless victims who cannot take care of themselves—people whose achievements and situation in life depend solely on their physical or mental condition and not on how they are treated or the obstacles placed in their way by a society designed to suit people without disabilities.16

The ease of not being aware of privilege is an aspect of privilege itself, what has been called “the luxury of obliviousness” (known in philosophy as “epistemic privilege”). Awareness requires effort and commitment, which makes it a form of privilege, having the attention of lower-status individuals without the need to give it in return. African Americans, for example, have to pay close attention to whites and white culture and get to know them well enough to avoid displeasing them, since whites control jobs, schools, government, the police, and other sources of power. Privilege, however, gives whites much less reason to pay attention to African Americans or how racial oppression affects their lives.17

In other words, as James Baldwin put it, “To be white in America means not having to think about it.”18 We could say the same about being a man or any other form of privilege. So strong is the sense of entitlement behind this luxury that men, whites, and others can feel put upon in the face of even the mildest invitation to pay attention to what is going on. “We shouldn’t have to look at this stuff,” they seem to say. “It isn’t fair.”

Two Types of Privilege

According to McIntosh, the first type of privilege is based on “unearned entitlements,” which are things of value that all people should have, such as feeling safe or working in a place where they are valued and accepted for what they have to offer. When an unearned entitlement is



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restricted to certain groups, however, it becomes an “unearned advantage,” a form of privilege.

Sometimes it’s possible to do away with unearned advantages without anyone losing out. When a workplace changes so that everyone is valued, for example, the unearned entitlement is available to all and, as such, is no longer a form of privilege. In other cases, however, unearned advantage gives dominant groups a competitive edge they are reluctant to acknowledge, much less give up. This can be especially true of men and whites who lack the advantages of social class and know all too well how hard it is to improve their lives and hang on to what they’ve managed to achieve. This can blind them, however, to the fact that the cultural valuing of whiteness and maleness over color and femaleness loads the odds in their favor in most situations that involve evaluations of credibility or competence. To lose that advantage would greatly increase the amount of competition for white men, who are a shrinking minority of the U.S. population.

The second form of privilege, “conferred dominance,” goes a step further by giving one group power over another. The common pattern of men controlling conversations with women, for example, is grounded in a cultural assumption that men are superior and supposed to dominate women. An adolescent boy who appears too willing to defer to his mother risks being called a “mama’s boy,” in the same way that a husband who appears in any way controlled by his wife can be labeled “henpecked” (or worse). The counterpart for girls carries no such stigma: “Daddy’s girl” is not considered an insult in this culture, and there are no insulting terms for a wife who is under the control of her husband.

Conferred dominance also manifests itself in white privilege. In his book The Rage of a Privileged Class, for example, Ellis Cose tells the story of an African American lawyer, a partner in a large firm, who goes to the office one Saturday morning and is confronted by a recently hired young white attorney, who has never met the partner.

“Can I help you?” says the white man pointedly. The partner shakes his head and tries to pass, but the white man steps

in his way and repeats what is now a challenge to the man’s presence in the building: “Can I help you?” Only then does the partner reveal his identity to the young man, who in turn steps aside to let him pass. The white man has no reason to assume the right to control the older man standing before him, except the reason provided by the cultural assumption



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 23

of white dominance, which can override any class advantage a person of color might have.19

The milder forms of unearned advantage are usually the first to change because they are the easiest for privileged groups to give up. In the decades leading up to the election of Barack Obama as president, for example, national surveys showed a steady decline in the percentage of whites holding racist attitudes toward blacks. This trend is reflected in diversity programs that focus on appreciating or tolerating differences—in other words, extending unearned entitlements to everyone instead of the dominant group alone.

It is much harder, however, to do something about power and the unequal distribution of wealth, income, and other resources and rewards. This is why issues of conferred dominance and the stronger forms of unearned advantage get much less attention, and why, when these issues are raised, they can provoke hostile defensiveness and denial. Perhaps more than any other factor, the reluctance to recognize the more serious and entrenched forms of privilege is why most diversity programs serve as little more than a distraction and produce limited and short-lived results.20

Privilege As Paradox

A paradox of privilege is that even though it is received by and benefits individuals, access to it has nothing to do with who they are as people. Male privilege, for example, is more about male people than it is about male people, making me eligible when people assign me to that category, which they can do without knowing a single other thing about me.

This means that actually being male is not required in order to receive male privilege. The film, Shakespeare in Love, for example, is set in Elizabethan England, where acting on the stage was reserved for men. The character of Viola wants to act more than anything, and finally realizes her dream, not by changing her sex and becoming male but by masquerading as a man, which is all it takes. In similar ways, gays and lesbians can have access to heterosexual privilege if they don’t reveal their sexual orientation. And people with hidden disabilities such as epilepsy or learning disabilities can receive nondisabled privilege so long as they do not disclose their status.

You can also lose privilege if people think you don’t belong to a particular category. If I told everyone that I’m gay, for example, I would lose my access to heterosexual privilege (unless people refused to believe me),



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even though I would still be, in fact, heterosexual. As Charlotte Bunch put it, “If you don’t have a sense of what privilege is, I suggest that you go home and announce to everybody that you know—a roommate, your family, the people you work with—that you’re a queer. Try being queer for a week.”21

The paradoxical relationship between privilege and individuals has several consequences. First, doing something about issues of equity and justice takes more than changing people. As Harry Brod writes,

We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be “outside” the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way which challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions.22

A second consequence is the paradoxical experience of being privileged without feeling privileged. This often results from how we use other people as standards of comparison—what sociologists call “reference groups”—to construct a sense of how good, bad, high, or low we are in the scheme of things. In doing this, we usually don’t look downward in the social hierarchy, but to people we identify as being on the same level as or higher than our own. This is why pointing out to someone who lives in poverty in the United States that they’re better off than many people in India doesn’t make them feel better, because they don’t use Indians as a reference group. Instead, they gauge how well they’re doing by comparing themselves with those who seem like them in key respects.

Since, for example, being white is valued in this society, whites tend to compare themselves with other whites, not with people of color. In the same way, men tend to use other men as a reference group. This means, however, that whites tend not to feel privileged by race in comparison with their reference group, because that group is also white. In the same way, men won’t feel privileged by gender in comparison with other men. A partial exception to this is the hierarchy between heterosexual and gay men, by which heterosexuals are more likely to consider themselves “real men” and therefore socially valued above gays. But even here, the mere fact of being



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 25

identified as male is unlikely to be experienced as a form of privilege, because gay men are also male.

A common exception to these patterns occurs for those privileged by gender or race but ranked low in terms of social class. To protect themselves from feeling and being seen as on the bottom of the ladder, they may go out of their way to compare themselves to women or people of color by emphasizing their supposed gender or racial superiority. This can appear as an exaggerated sense of manliness, for example, or as overt attempts to put women or people of color “in their place” by harassment, violence, or behavior that is openly contemptuous or demeaning.

A corollary to being privileged without knowing it is to be on the other side of privilege without feeling that. I sometimes hear women say something like, “I’ve never been oppressed as a woman,” as an assertion that male privilege does not exist. But this confuses the social position of woman and man as social categories with individual women’s subjective experience of belonging to one of those categories. The two are not the same.

For various reasons—including social class or family experience or being young—she may have avoided exposure to many of the consequences of being a female in a society that privileges maleness and manhood. Or she may have managed to overcome them to such a degree that she does not feel hampered. Or she may be engaging in denial. Or she may be una- ware of how she is discriminated against—unaware, perhaps, that being a woman is one of the reasons her science professors ignore her in class.23 Or she may have so internalized her subordinate status that she doesn’t see it as a problem, thinking, perhaps, that women are ignored because they are not smart enough to say anything worth listening to.

Regardless of what her experience is based on, it is just that—her experience—and it doesn’t have to square with the larger social reality that everyone, including her, must deal with in one way or another. It is like living in a rainy climate and somehow avoiding being rained on yourself. It is still a rainy place to be, and the possibility of getting wet is something people have to deal with.

The Paradox That Privilege Doesn’t Necessarily Make You Happy

I often hear men and whites deny the existence of privilege by saying they don’t feel happy or fulfilled in their own lives, as if misery and privilege



26 Chapter 2

cannot go hand-in-hand. As we saw earlier, this rests in part on the failure to distinguish between social categories and individual people’s lives. Being identified as male and white, for example, doesn’t mean you’ll get into the college of your choice or land the job you’re qualified for or never be stopped (or shot) by police when you’ve done nothing wrong. But it does load the odds in your favor.

Another reason privilege and happiness don’t always go together is that privilege can exact a cost from those who have it. To have privilege is to participate in a system that confers advantage and dominance on some at the expense of others, which can cause pain and distress to those who benefit. Although white privilege, for example, comes at a huge cost to people of color, on some level white people often struggle with this knowledge. This is where all the guilt comes from and the lengths to which white people often go to avoid feeling and looking at it. In similar ways, male privilege exacts a cost as men compete with other men and strive to prove their manhood, so they can be counted among “real men” who are worthy of being set apart from—and above—women, a standard of control and power that most men are unable to meet. It should therefore come as no surprise that men or whites may feel unhappy and associate their unhappiness with the fact of being white or male.24

What Privilege Looks Like in Everyday Life

As Peggy McIntosh showed in her unpacking of the “invisible knapsack of white privilege,”25 privilege shows up in the details of everyday life in almost every social setting. Consider the examples below based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability status.26 Most rely on quantitative data, such as income statistics or studies of bias in health care or housing or the criminal justice system. Some are based on qualitative data from the rich literature on privilege and oppression that records the experience of living in this society (see the “Resources” section at the end of the book).

As you read through the list, there are several things to keep in mind. Note that many of these examples of privilege—such as preferential treatment in the workplace—apply to multiple dominant groups, such as men, whites, and the nondisabled. This reflects the intersectional nature of privilege, by which each form has its own history and dynamics, and yet they are also connected to one another and have much in common. Also, consider how each



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 27

example might vary depending on other characteristics a person has. How, for example, would preferential treatment for men in the workplace be affected by race or sexual orientation? Finally, remember that these examples describe how privilege loads the odds in favor of whole categories of people, which may not be true in every situation and for every individual, including you.

Here they are. Take your time.

■ Whites who are unarmed and have committed no crime are far less likely than comparable people of color to be shot by police, to be challenged without cause and asked to explain what they are doing, or subjected to search. Whites are also less likely to be arrested, tried, convicted, or sent to prison, regardless of the crime or circumstances. As a result, for example, although whites constitute eighty-five percent of those who use illegal drugs, less than half of those in prison on drug-use charges are white.27

■ Heterosexuals and whites can go out in public without having to worry about being attacked by hate groups. Men can assume they won’t be sexually harassed or assaulted just because they are male, and if they are victimized, they won’t be asked to explain their manner of dress or what they were doing there.

■ Those who are heterosexual, male, white, cisgender, and without disabilities can usually be confident that whether they are seen as qualified to be hired or promoted, or deserving to be fired from a job, will not depend on their status,* an aspect of themselves they cannot change.28 Nor do they run the risk of being reduced to a single aspect of their lives (as if being heterosexual, for example, sums up the kind of person they are). Instead, they can be viewed and treated as complex human beings. They also do not have to worry that their status will be used as a weapon against them, to undermine or discredit their achievements or power.

■ Although many superstar professional athletes are black, black players are generally held to higher standards than whites. It is easier for a “good but not great” white player to make a professional team, for example, than it is for a comparable black.29

* A reminder that the word “status” is used here to refer to characteristics such as “male” or “female” that locate people in social systems.



28 Chapter 2

Similarly, in most professions and upper-level occupations, men are held to lower standards than women. Male lawyers, for example, are more likely to make partner than are comparably qualified women.30

■ Men, people without disabilities, and whites are more likely to be given opportunities to show what they can do at work, to be identified as candidates for promotion, to be mentored, to be given a second chance when they fail, and to be allowed to treat failure as a learning experience rather than as an indication of who they are based on their status.31

■ The standards used to evaluate men as men are consistent with the standards used to evaluate them in other roles, such as their occupation. Standards used to evaluate women as women are often different from those used to evaluate them in other roles. For example, a man can qualify both as a “real man” and as a successful and aggressive lawyer, while an aggressive woman lawyer may succeed as a lawyer but be judged as falling short as a woman.

■ Nondisabled people can ask for help without having to worry that people will assume they need help with everything, and can assume that they will get what they deserve without having to overcome stereotypes about their ability. They are less likely to be shuttled into dead-end, menial jobs, given inadequate job training, be paid less than they are worth regardless of their ability, and be separated from workers who are unlike themselves.

■ Men and whites are less likely to find themselves slotted into occupations identified with their status, as blacks are often slotted into support positions (community relations, custodial) or Asians into technical jobs (“techno-coolies”) or women into “caring” occupations such as daycare, nursing, secretarial, and social work.32

■ People who are heterosexual, male, white, cisgender, and without disabilities can assume that their status will not work against the likelihood that they’ll fit in at work, and that teammates will feel comfortable working with them.

■ Men, whites, and people without disabilities can succeed without others being surprised at their success due to their status.



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 29

■ People who are white, nondisabled, or male are more likely to be rewarded for working hard and “playing by the rules,” and are more likely to feel justified in complaining if they are not.

■ Whites are more likely than comparable blacks to have loan applications approved and less likely to be given the runaround during the application process, to be given poor information or have information withheld. During the economic collapse of 2008, they were also less likely to receive subprime mortgages than people of color and less likely to lose their homes through foreclosure.33

■ Nondisabled people, men, and whites are charged lower prices for new and used cars, and residential segregation gives whites access to higher-quality goods of all kinds at cheaper prices.34

■ When whites go shopping, they are more likely to be viewed as serious customers and not potential shoplifters or lacking the ability to make a purchase. When they try to cash a check or use a credit card, they are less likely to be hassled for additional identification and more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

■ White people are more likely to receive the best medical treatment that they can afford.35

■ People without disabilities and whites have greater access to quality education and health care. They are less likely to be singled out based on stereotypes that underestimate their abilities and to be put in special education classes that do not afford them the chance to develop to their full potential.36

■ Representation in government and the ruling circles of corporations, universities, and other organizations is disproportionately high for white, male, heterosexual, and nondisabled people.

■ Nondisabled people can go to polling places on election day knowing they will be able to exercise their rights as citizens with access to voting machines that allow them to vote in privacy and without the assistance of others. They can assume that when they need to travel, they will have access to buses, trains, airplanes, and other means of transportation and will be taken seriously and not treated as children.

■ Most whites and people without disabilities are not segregated into communities that isolate them from the best job opportunities,



30 Chapter 2

schools, and community services. Nor are nondisabled people segregated into living situations such as nursing homes and special schools and sports programs that isolate them from the everyday activities of social life.

■ It is easier for heterosexuals, whites, and cisgender people to find a place to live where they don’t have to worry about neighbors disapproving of them based on negative cultural stereotypes.

■ Toxic waste dumps, industrial pollution, and nuclear waste are less likely to be located near neighborhoods and communities inhabited primarily by whites, a phenomenon known as environmental racism.37

■ People who are male, white, heterosexual, cisgender, or without disabilities can usually assume that national heroes, success models, and other figures held up for public admiration will share their status.

■ Heterosexuals, people without disabilities, men, cisgender people, and whites can turn on the television or go to the movies and be assured of seeing characters, news reports, and stories that reflect the reality of their lives, and can assume that people who share their status will be placed at the center of attention.38

■ Those who are white, cisgender, or nondisabled can choose whether to be self-conscious about their status, or to ignore it and regard themselves simply as human beings.

■ Whites, people without disabilities, and those who are cisgender do not have to deal with an endless and exhausting stream of attention to their status, which they can view as unremarkable to such an extent that they experience themselves as not even having one. As a cisgender white person, for example, I don’t have people coming up to me and treating me as if I were some exotic “other,” gushing about how “cool” or different I am, wanting to know where I’m “from” and can they touch my hair, asking if the name I give is my real name or what do my genitals look like. In similar ways, men do not have to deal with excessive attention to their physical appearance.

■ If men, whites, cisgender people and people without disabilities do poorly at something or make a mistake or commit a crime, they can generally assume that people will not attribute the failure to their status. Mass murderers, for example, are almost always white and male, but rarely is this fact identified as an important issue.



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 31

■ Men, whites, and people without disabilities are more likely to control conversations and be allowed to get away with it and to have their ideas and contributions taken seriously, including those previously voiced in the same conversation by a person of color, a woman, or a person with a disability, who are then ignored or dismissed.39

■ Nondisabled people can assume they won’t be looked upon as odd or out of place or as not belonging, and that most buildings and other structures will not be designed in ways that limit their access. Cisgender people have the ability to walk through the world and generally blend in, not being constantly stared or gawked at, whispered about, pointed at, or laughed at because of their gender expression.40

■ Whites are not routinely confused with other whites, as if all whites look alike. They are more likely to be noticed for their individuality, and they may feel entitled to take offense whenever they are put in a category (such as “white”) rather than being perceived and treated as individuals without a race.41

■ Heterosexuals are free to reveal and live their intimate relationships openly—by referring to their partners by name, recounting experiences, going out in public together, displaying pictures on their desks at work—without being accused of flaunting their sexuality, or risking discrimination.

■ Heterosexuals and cisgender people can live in the comfort of knowing that other people’s assumptions about their sexual orientation are correct.

■ Nondisabled people can live secure in other people’s assumption that they are sexual beings capable of an active sex life, including the potential to have children and be parents.

Regardless of its form, privilege increases the odds of being accepted, included, and respected, of having things your own way, of being able to set the agenda in a social situation, and to determine rules and standards and how they are applied. Privilege grants the cultural authority to make judgments about others and to have those judgments stick. It allows people to define reality and to have prevailing mainstream views fit their own experience.



32 Chapter 2

Privilege means being able to decide who gets taken seriously, who gets attention, who is accountable to whom and for what. And it grants a presumption of superiority and social permission to act on that presumption, without having to worry about being challenged or otherwise held to account.

Privilege bestows the freedom to move through your life without being marked in ways that decrease your life chances or detract from how you are seen and valued. As Paul Kivel writes, “In the United States, a person is considered a member of the lowest status group from which they have any heritage.”42 This means that if you can trace your lineage to several ethnic groups, the one that lowers your status is the one you’re most likely to be tagged with, as in, “she’s part Jewish” or “he’s part Vietnamese,” but rarely, “she’s part white.” In fact, as we saw earlier, having any black ancestry is still enough to be classified as entirely black in many people’s eyes. People are tagged with other labels that point to the lowest-status group they belong to, as in “woman doctor” or “black writer” but never “white lawyer” or “male senator.” Any category that lowers our status relative to other categories can be used in this way.43

It’s important to note that privilege operates not only within societies, but between them as well. The sex trafficking of girls and women is global, for example, and disproportionately harms those in nonindustrial societies, whose people are overwhelmingly of color, a phenomenon that reflects both male and white privilege. The inhabitants of white-dominated industrial societies are also primarily responsible for producing the conditions that have led to climate change, and yet are also the most protected from its most immediate and devastating consequences, a global example of environmental racism.44

If you are male or heterosexual or white or nondisabled and you find yourself shaking your head at these descriptions of privilege—“This isn’t true for me”—this might be a good time to revisit the paradoxes of privilege discussed earlier in this chapter.

Oppression: The Flip Side of Privilege

For every social category that is privileged, one or more others are oppressed in relation to it. As Marilyn Frye describes it, the concept of oppression points to social forces that tend to “press” on people and hold them down, to hem them in and block them in their pursuit of a good life. Just as privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to hold them shut.45



Privilege, Oppression, and Difference 33

Like privilege, oppression results from the relationship between social categories, which makes it possible for individuals to vary in their personal experience of being oppressed. This also means, however, that in order to have the experience of being oppressed, it is necessary to belong to an oppressed category. In other words, men cannot be oppressed as men, just as whites cannot be oppressed as whites or heterosexuals as heterosexuals, because a group can be oppressed only if there exists another group with the power to oppress them. The negative side effects of privilege may feel oppressive, but to call this oppression distorts the nature of what is happen- ing and why.

It ignores the fact that the costs of male privilege, for example, are far outweighed by the benefits, while the oppressive costs of being female are not outweighed by corresponding benefits. Misapplying the label of “oppres- sion” also tempts us into making the false argument that if men and women are both oppressed because of gender, then one oppression cancels out the other and no privilege can be said to exist. So, when we try to label the pain that men feel because of gender (or that whites feel because of racism) whether we call it “oppression” or “pain” makes a huge difference in how we perceive the world and how it works.

The complexity of systems of privilege makes it possible, of course, for men to experience oppression if they also happen to be of color or gay or disabled or in a lower social class, but not simply because they are men. In the same way, whites can experience oppression for many reasons, but in a system of white privilege, it isn’t because they’re identified as white.

Note also that because oppression results from relations between categories, it is not possible to be oppressed by society itself. Living in a particular society can make people feel miserable, but that doesn’t qualify as oppression unless it arises from being on the losing end in a system of privilege. That cannot happen in relation to society as a whole, because a society isn’t something that can have privilege. Only people can belong to privileged categories in relation to people in categories that are not.

Finally, being in a privileged category that has an oppressive relationship with another category is not the same as being an oppressive person who behaves in oppressive ways. That the relationship between the social categories of male and female is one of privilege and oppression, for example, is a social fact. That does not, however, tell us how a particular man thinks or feels about particular women or behaves toward them. This can be a subtle distinction to



34 Chapter 2

hang on to, but hang on to it we must if we are going to maintain a clear idea of what oppression is and how it works in defense of privilege.

As we become more aware of how pervasive is the damage of privilege and oppression in people’s lives, it is easy to start feeling helpless and to wonder, “What can anyone do?” If you find yourself feeling that way now or later on, turn to Chapter 9, which is devoted to that question.




C H A P T E R 3

Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination

There are few areas of social life as important as economics, because this is how a society is organized to provide what people need for their material existence. Economic systems are the basis for every social institution—whether family and tribe or the state—which cannot survive and function without an economic base. It takes a great deal of material and labor to build a university, for example, or to pay for political campaigns or maintain a police force or an army. This means that the central role of economics in social life gives individuals and systems powerful reasons to go along with the dominant system. Industrial capitalism has been that system for several hundred years, and since the demise of the Soviet Union, it is virtually the only game in town.

Every form of privilege has an economic dimension, which means that the nature of capitalism as a system profoundly affects how privilege and oppres- sion work. The most powerful example of this is race, not only as it operates today, but, even more significantly, where it came from in the first place. When- ever I teach about race, there comes a point when students start saying things like, “We don’t get it. If race is socially constructed and doesn’t exist otherwise, and if human beings don’t have to be afraid of one another, then where does racism come from? Why all the oppression and hostility and violence over something that’s made up? And why would people make it up this way?”



36 Chapter 3

Finding the answer leads us into the history of race, where we learn two things that usually startle students as much as they did me when I first learned of them.1 First, racism in its modern form hasn’t been around very long—hardly more than several centuries and certainly not as long as people have been aware of the physical differences now used to define race.

Second, racism came into being in Europe and the Americas at the same time as the growth and expansion of capitalism as an economic system, which relied on both the aggressive colonizing of non-European peoples and the institution of slavery. Capitalism thus played a critical role in the development of white privilege and still plays a critical role in its perpetuation. As such, the capitalist economics behind race and racism have much to teach us about how privilege works, in all its forms.

Before going any further, however, it’s important to be clear about what I mean by race and racism.

Europeans were certainly not the first to think themselves superior to other peoples and cultures. But what they added to this was a belief in the idea that race provides a biological basis for superiority and inferiority, transmitted from one generation to the next through reproduction. This kind of thinking emerged with the African slave trade as a way to justify the wholesale enslavement of not only those kidnapped into slavery, but the perpetual enslavement of their descendants. Racism, in turn, developed as a set of practices that enact and perpetuate privilege and oppression based on race.2

An understanding of how capitalism figures in all this begins with understanding capitalism itself.3

How Capitalism Works

In describing capitalism, it’s important to distinguish its modern form from the ideal envisioned by Adam Smith in his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Smith saw capitalism as a collection of small, independent produc- ers and entrepreneurs competing with one another to provide what people need at a price they are willing to pay. This early version all but disappeared well over a century ago as it was replaced by a form of monopoly capitalism dominated by large corporations that are, in turn, owned and controlled by a wealthy elite.4

Modern capitalism also developed a close relationship to government authority, legitimacy, and power. More than simply an economic system,



Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 37

what we have is a form of political economy—through which the power and resources of the state are used to protect and promote the capitalist system and those who benefit most from it. This aspect of modern capitalism has progressed to the point where democracy is giving way to an oligarchic form of government in which power is held by a few. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, just 158 wealthy families (from a population of more than 300 million people) donated more than half of all the money used in the early stages of the campaign through which candidates are nominated.5 Presidential and Congressional elections require enormous amounts of money, and would-be candidates must secure the support of the wealthy, giving elites a great deal of power in deciding who become the final candidates.

The political consequences of concentrated economic power can also be seen by studying how federal legislation gets passed: Economic elites have a substantial impact on law and policy, while the vast majority of the population has little or none.6 In a typical scenario, legislation is passed or policies are enacted that are opposed by a clear majority of the citizenry but are supported by, and serve the interests of, the wealthy. Corporations also routinely receive what critics have called “corporate welfare” (or “crony capitalism”) in the form of government subsidies, grants, tax breaks and loopholes, cheap credit, and, most famously, bailouts, such as the multi-billion dollar Wall Street bailout of 2008.7

The goal of modern capitalism is to turn money into more money. Capitalists invest in what it takes to produce goods and services—raw materials, machinery, electricity, buildings, and, of course, human labor. It does not matter what is produced so long as capitalists can find a market in which to sell it at a profit—for more than it cost to have it produced—and end up with more money than they started with. Whether the results enhance human life (providing food, affordable housing, health care, and the like) or do harm (tobacco, alcohol, drugs, weapons, slavery, pollution) may be an issue for the conscience of the individual capitalist. But the system itself does not depend on such moral or ethical considerations, because profit is profit and there is no way to tell “good” money from “bad.” Even the damage done by one enterprise can serve as a source of profit for another, such as when industrial pollution creates opportunities for companies that specialize in cleaning it up.

Capitalists employ workers to produce goods and services, paying them wages in exchange for their time. Capitalists then sell what workers produce.



38 Chapter 3

For capitalists to make a living (unless they produce something themselves), they have to get workers to produce goods and services that are worth more than the wages capitalists pay them. The difference between the two is profit for capitalists and investors.

Why, however, would workers accept wages worth less than the value of what they produce? The general answer is that they don’t have much choice, because, under capitalism, the tools and factories and other means for producing goods and services are not owned by the people who actually do the work. Instead, they are owned by capitalists and individual and organizational stockholders. For most people to earn a living, they must work for one capitalist employer or another, which means choosing— unless the workplace is unionized, which most are not—between working on the capitalist’s terms or not working at all. As corporate capitalism has extended its reach into every area of social life, even professionals have to confront this choice. Physicians, for example, who were once regarded as the model of independent professionals, are increasingly compelled to become highly paid employees of health maintenance organizations. As a result, some have lobbied Congress for the right to engage in collective bargaining with HMOs (health maintenance organizations)—in other words, to form a labor union for physicians. Similar things are happening in the legal profession.8

Since capitalists profit from the difference between the cost of producing goods and services and what they can sell them for, the cheaper the labor, the more money is left over for them. This is why capitalists are concerned about increasing “worker productivity”—finding ways for workers to produce more goods for the same or less pay. One way to accomplish this is through the use of technology, in particular, machines that can replace people altogether. Another is to threaten to close down or relocate businesses if workers won’t make concessions on wages, health and retirement benefits, job security, and working conditions. A third and increasingly popular strategy in the global economy is to move production to countries where people are willing to work for less than they are in Europe or North America. Capitalists who rely on this strategy also benefit from authoritarian governments in these new locations, which may control workers and discourage the formation of unions and other sources of organized resistance, often with the direct support of government.9



Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 39

Capitalism and Class

The dynamics of capitalism produce enormous amounts of wealth, but they also produce high levels of inequality, both within societies and globally. The richest ten percent of the U.S. population holds more than seventy-five percent of all the wealth, including seventy percent of cash, more than half the land, more than ninety percent of business assets, and ninety-two percent of stocks. The richest twenty percent of households receive fifty-nine percent of all income, leaving forty-one percent to be divided among the remaining eighty percent of households.10

Such patterns of inequality both result from and perpetuate a class system based on widening gaps in income, wealth, and power between those on top and everyone below.11 It is a system that produces oppressive consequences. For those near the bottom, the costs are enormous, with living conditions among the rural poor, for example, including some Native American reservations, similar to if not worse than what is found in the most impoverished nonindustrial societies.12 Even among the employed members of the working class, as well as many in the middle class, chronic insecurity takes a physical and emotional toll. A great many jobs are alienating, boring, mind-numbing, and have little use for the talents that people performing those jobs have to offer. And the vast majority of workers have little if any control over the work they do or whether they keep their jobs.

It also doesn’t take much to see that with a large majority of the population having to divide up a small fraction of all income, there will not be enough to go around. While capitalism produces an overall abundance of goods and services, it distributes that wealth so unequally that it simultaneously creates conditions of scarcity for most of the population. This makes life for tens of millions of people an ongoing competition that is often full of anxiety and struggle. For most people, it would not take very much—a divorce or a serious illness or being laid off—to substantially lower their standard of living, even to the extent of putting them out of their homes.13

The “American Dream” aside, most people also have relatively little power to improve their class position.14 Much of the increase in household wealth, for example, is built on a growing mountain of debt, people working two or more jobs, and families relying on multiple wage earners to provide the standard of living their parents managed with one. Even when unemployment is low,



40 Chapter 3

and during the “recovery” from the economic collapse of 2008, most new jobs that have been created over the last several decades have been low-paying and with little chance of advancement. In addition, studies of occupational mobility show that most people are as likely to move downward as they are upward in the class system. Because of this, and the widening gulf separating the upper class from everyone else, the middle class is shrinking.15 Since 1964, the percentage of people who see themselves as middle class has fallen from sixty one to forty two, while the percentage seeing themselves as working class has risen from thirty five to forty six.16

In short, in an era of corporate downsizing, the flight of well-paying industrial jobs overseas, and the rapid growth of low level service occupations, the struggle to move up, for most people, rarely gets them anywhere but hanging on to what they have.17 There is, of course, upward movement by some, but excluding jobs in high-technology and health-related fields that are currently in demand, this almost always comes at the expense of others who must move down to make room for them, creating what economist Lester Thurow calls a “zero-sum” society—in which gains for some are offset by losses for others.18 This makes it inevitable that a substantial proportion of the population will live in poverty or close to it and that different groups will see one another as competitors and threats to their livelihood.

As we will see below, such dynamics play a key role in systems of privilege, especially in relation to gender and race.

Capitalism, Difference, and Privilege: Race and Gender

Given how capitalism works, its connections to race are both direct and indirect. The direct connection is most apparent in the enslavement of Africans on cotton and tobacco plantations, especially with the invention of the cotton gin in 1792 (just sixteen years after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations) that made it possible to process vastly more cotton than before.19 The number of enslaved blacks in the U.S. jumped from one million in 1800 to almost four million in 1860, just before the start of the Civil War.20 The primacy of profit was also apparent in the reactions of businesses that relied on paid white workers: they did not object to slavery on moral grounds, but complained that the cost of slave labor was so low that it amounted to unfair competition.21



Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 41

Following the Civil War, the demand for cheap labor was no less than before, and freed blacks were now often held in a new form of bondage by an oppressive system of tenant farming that kept them perpetually in debt.22 Beyond the South, the profitability of racism showed itself in the widespread use of Chinese immigrant labor to build the western railways under harsh and demeaning conditions. Even farther west, Japanese immigrants had similar experiences on sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii.23

Capitalism’s direct connection to race also appears in the acquisition of land and raw materials, which, like cheap labor, play a key role in the rapid growth of industry and wealth. In the heyday of capitalist expansion during the 19th century, Europe and then the United States found an abundance of what they needed in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. To acquire it, they relied on varying combinations of military conquest, political domination, and economic exploitation.24 They were spectacularly successful at it, especially Great Britain, a small island nation with few natural resources of its own, which nonetheless managed to become the world’s first global industrial power. Unlike Britain, the United States was rich in natural resources, but whites could get at them only by taking them from Native American tribes who inhabited most of the land, as well as from Mexico, which encompassed most of what is now the far west and southwest United States. Whites took what they wanted through a combination of conquest, genocide, and a complex array of treaties that they routinely ignored.25

To justify such direct forms of empire building, whites developed the idea of whiteness to define a superior and privileged social category, elevated above everyone who was excluded from it.26 This was a way to reconcile oppressive and often brutal methods with the nation’s newly professed ideals of democracy, freedom, and human dignity. If whiteness defined what it meant to be human, then it was seen as less of an offense against the Constitution (not to mention God) to dominate and oppress everyone else as the United States progressed toward what was popularly perceived as a divinely ordained Manifest Destiny.27

Other capitalist connections to race have been less direct. Capitalists, for example, have often used racism as a strategy to control white workers and thereby keep wages low and productivity and profits high. This has been done in two ways. First, beginning early in the 19th century, there was a campaign to encourage white workers to adopt whiteness as a key part of their identity— something they had not done before—and to accept the supposed superiority



42 Chapter 3

of whiteness as compensation for their low class position. No matter how badly treated they were by their employers, they could always take comfort in being white and free and therefore elevated above people of color, even those who might have a class position higher than their own.28

With the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War, however, lower- and working-class whites could no longer point to their freedom as a mark of superiority. The response to this loss was a period of violence and intimidation directed at blacks, much of which was perpetrated by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, with no serious opposition from the federal government or whites in the North or South.

Another way for capitalists to control workers is to keep them worried over the possibility of losing their jobs if they demand higher wages or better working conditions. Racism has a long history of being used in this way. The oppressed condition of people of color encourages them to work for wages that are lower than what most whites will accept. Employers have used this to pose an ongoing threat to white workers, who have known employers could use racial minorities as an inexpensive replacement. This has worked most effectively in breaking strikes and unions. As labor became more powerful at the turn of the 20th century, for example, employers often brought in black workers as strikebreakers. This strategy worked to draw the attention of white workers away from issues of capitalism and class and toward issues of race. It focused their fear and anger on the supposed threat from black workers, which made them less likely to see their common con- dition as workers and instead join together against the capitalists. In this way, racial division and conflict became an effective strategy for dividing different segments of the working class against one another.29

Similar dynamics operate today. The controversy over affirmative action programs, for example, as well as the influx of immigrant workers from South and Central America and the “outsourcing” of jobs to other countries, all reflect an underlying belief that the greatest challenge facing white workers is unfair competition from people of color both here and abroad. This ignores how the capitalist system is organized to increase the wealth of capitalists and investors by controlling workers in order to keep wages as low as possible. The result is that a small elite is able to control the vast majority of wealth and income, leaving a small share to be divided among everyone else. Such dynamics encourage competition not only in the working and lower classes but, increasingly, in the middle class.



Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 43

Given the historical legacy that cultivates among whites a sense of superiority and entitlement in relation to people of color, such competition is bound to provoke anger and resentment directed at people of color rather than at those whose wealth and power lie at the heart of the problem of inequality. In this way, dynamics of class fuel racial conflict, which, in turn, draws attention away from capitalism and the class oppression it produces. The result, as Michael Reich shows, is that white racism actually hurts white workers by strengthening the position of capitalists at the expense of the working class.30

Beyond race, capitalism also exploits people with disabilities through “sheltered workshops” in nonprofit organizations that secured for themselves an exception to the 1938 minimum wage law, enabling them to hire people with disabilities at less than minimum wages. Working conditions often separate workers with disabilities from nondisabled workers, place them under the supervision of nondisabled people, and provide little opportunity for challenge or advancement.31

Capitalism also makes use of gender inequality.32 The cultural devaluing of women, for example, has long been used as an excuse to pay them less and exploit them as a source of cheap labor, whether in the corporate secretarial pool or garment sweatshops or electronics assembly plants.33 Women’s supposed inferiority has also been a basis for the belief that much of the work that women do is not work at all and therefore isn’t worthy of anything more than emotional compensation.34 Capitalism could not function without the army of women who do the shopping for households (which is how most goods are purchased) and do the labor through which those goods are consumed, such as cooking meals. On a deeper level, women are still primarily the ones who nurture and raise each new generation of workers on which capitalism depends, and this vital service is provided without anyone having to pay them wages or provide health and retirement benefits.35 Women do it for free—even when they also work outside the home—to the benefit of the capitalist system and those who control and profit from it. Capitalism, then, provides both the economic context for the trouble that pervades privilege and one of the engines that makes it happen. And the class dynamics that arise from capitalism interact with privilege and oppression in ways that both protect capitalism and class privilege and perpetuate privilege and oppression based on difference.



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The Matrix of Domination and the Paradox of Being Privileged and Oppressed At the Same Time

As the dynamics of capitalism and class suggest, systems of privilege are complicated. This is one reason why people can belong to a privileged category such as male or white and yet not experience themselves as privileged, because they also feel the limitations of being working class or gay or having a disability. So a middle-class white lesbian’s race privilege and class make her less sensitive to issues of race and class, or her experience of gender inequality and heterosexism foster the illusion that she is informed about other forms of privilege and oppression. Or a working-class white man feels so pushed around and looked down on that the idea that whiteness and maleness give him access to privilege seems ridiculous.

Part of such feelings comes from seeing privilege as something that is just about individuals. From that perspective, either he is privileged or he’s not, and if he can show that he’s oppressed in one way, then that would seem to cancel out any claim that he is privileged in another.

But the truth is more complicated than whether he is privileged, because, as we saw earlier, privilege is not really about him, even though he is certainly involved in and affected by it. He stands to benefit from being identified as white and male, for example, but being working class can set up barriers that make it harder for him to access those benefits. If he cannot earn a good living, for example, he may have a hard time feeling like a man bonded to other men in their superiority to women. The social privileging of manhood still exists, but his class position gets in the way of the advantages that go with it.

Another complication is that categories that define privilege exist all at once and in relation to one another. People never see me solely in terms of my race, for example, or gender, but always as part of a package deal. Whether, for example, readers of my books perceive me as intelligent, credible, and competent is affected by more than the fact that I’m a published author, for they also perceive a person of a certain gender, race, and, from various cues, disability status and class, including my PhD. Even if they first meet me on the internet, they will form impressions of me if only by assuming I am white and male unless I indicate otherwise.

Given that reality, it makes no sense to talk about the effect of being in one of these categories—say, white—without also looking at the others and



Capitalism, Class, and the Matrix of Domination 45

how they relate to whiteness. My experience of being identified as white is affected by my being seen as male, heterosexual, nondisabled, and of a certain class. If I apply for a job, white privilege will load the odds in my favor over a similarly qualified Latino. But if the people doing the hiring think I’m gay, my white privilege might lose out to his heterosexual privilege, and he might get the job instead of me.

It is tempting to use such comparisons to calculate a net cost or benefit associated with each status. In other words, you get a point for being white, male, heterosexual, or nondisabled, and you lose a point if you are of color, female, gay or lesbian, or have a disability. Add up the points and you have your score on the privilege scale. That would put nondisabled white male heterosexuals on top (+4) and lesbians of color with disabilities in “quad- ruple jeopardy” at the bottom (–4). White nondisabled lesbians (0) and nondisabled gay men of color (0) would fall in between and on the same “level.” Life and privilege are not that simple, however, with being male giving you a certain amount of privilege and being white giving you more of the same, and being gay taking half of that away. Privilege takes different forms that are connected to one another in ways that are far from obvious. For example, historically, one way for white men to justify domination over black men has been to portray them as sexual predators targeting white women. At the same time, they’ve portrayed white women as pure and helpless and therefore needing white men’s protection, a dependent position that puts them under white men’s control. Note, then, how dynamics of gender and race are so bound up with each other that it is all but impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. How much race or gender “counts” all by itself cannot be determined.

This is why such systems have been described as a “matrix of domina- tion” or “matrix of privilege,” and not merely a collection of different kinds of inequality that don’t have much to do with one another. As Patricia Hill Collins, Estelle Disch, and others argue, each form of privilege is part of a much larger and interconnected system.36

Looking at privilege in this way makes it clear that each form exists in relation to all the rest, so that we can stop trying to figure out which is the worst or most oppressive. It also frees us from the trap of thinking that everything is a matter of either/or—either you’re oppressed or you’re not, privileged or not—because in reality most people belong to both privileged and oppressed categories at the same time.



46 Chapter 3

There are several ways in which dimensions of privilege are connected to one another. One form of privilege, for example, can defend or reinforce another, as when women who challenge male privilege are called lesbians as a way to discredit them, encouraging other women to remain silent regardless of their sexual orientation. In this way, the prejudice of heterosexism is used to support male privilege by silencing women.

Access to one form of privilege can affect access to others. Because the advantages of race, for example, generally give white men greater access to class privilege compared with men of color, white men also have fuller access to male privilege. This happens in part because male privilege is increased by men earning more than their female partners, an advantage that is more difficult for men of color to achieve, given their oppression because of race. Note, however, that this works only for heterosexual white men, since being gay can limit a man’s access to male privilege.

Access to one form of privilege can also serve as compensation for not having access to another. Men of color, for example, can make use of male privilege to compensate for the effects of racial oppression, just as white women can use race privilege to compensate for the effects of gender. Finally, as we saw earlier, subordinate groups are often pitted against one another in ways that draw attention away from the system of privilege that hurts them all. Asian Americans, for example, are often held up as a good example—a “model minority”—which makes other peoples of color look bad by comparison and encourages them to blame Asian Americans for their own disadvantaged status.37 In this way, Asian Americans serve as a distraction and a buffer between whites and other peoples of color, as Korean Americans did in Los Angeles after the police who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted and the rage of black people spread to Korean neighborhoods, where stores were burned to the ground. Only when the rioting reached the edges of white neighborhoods did police finally respond to pleas for help.38

The complexity of the matrix makes it clear that work for change needs to focus on privilege itself, in all its forms that condition how we think of ourselves in relation to inequalities of power. We will not get rid of racism, in other words, without doing something about sexism and class, because the system that produces the one also produces the others and connects them to one another in powerful ways.




C H A P T E R 4

Making Privilege and Oppression Happen

Although privilege is attached to social categories and not to individuals, people are the ones who make it happen through what they do and don’t do in relation to others. This almost always involves some form of discrimination by treating people unequally because they belong to different categories.1 Whether done consciously or not, discrimination helps maintain systems of privilege by enacting unearned advantage. When musicians audition for orchestras, for example, women are more likely to be hired—and men less likely—if candidates perform behind a screen so that judges cannot identify the musician’s gender.2

Like all behavior, discrimination is connected to how we think and feel about people, and prejudice plays a powerful role in this, both fueling discriminatory behavior and providing a rationale to justify it.3 Prejudice is complicated because it involves both ideas and feelings. Cultural ideas about race, for example, include values that elevate whiteness above color and the belief that whites are smarter, more honest, law-abiding, and hardworking. They also include negative feelings toward people of color—contempt, hostility, fear, disgust, and the like—along with positive (or at least neutral) feelings toward whites.

Privilege and oppression happen in many ways, from the overt and violent hate crime to the subtlety of all the ways there are to dismiss or



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devalue, make visible or invisible, include or exclude.4 It works at every level, from the spirit and the body to having a decent place to live and enough food to eat to getting home alive. As sociologists Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes point out, the oppressive consequences of privilege must be understood as lived experience that both damages people in the moment and accumulates over time to affect not only their behavior but also their understanding of themselves and life itself.5 And no matter what form privilege takes, it involves everyone in one way or another.

It’s important to stress that discrimination does not have to be conscious or intentional in order to have an effect. In orchestra auditions, for example, the judges’ bias may be unconscious, what Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji calls “implicit bias,” with the judges being oblivious to the distinctions they are making based on gender, until they become aware of the effect of “blind” auditions.6 As far as they’re concerned, they’re doing nothing more than picking the best musician for the job.

Note also that implicit bias can take the form of preferential treatment or favoritism that, on the surface, may appear unremarkable and unmotivated by prejudice against anyone. An Australian study, for example, finds that when passengers get on a bus and say they don’t have enough money for the fare but really need to get to the next stop, they are twice as likely to be given a free ride if they are white. People of color are less likely than whites to get free rides even when they wear business suits or military uniforms.7 Drivers are not supposed to give free rides to anyone, so that denying them to people of color doesn’t require conscious prejudice or hostile acts against them. The drivers are just doing their jobs. On the other hand, when they give a rider in distress a helping hand, they can see it as an act of compassion and generosity without being aware of the implicit racial bias that operates in deciding whom to help and whom to refuse.

Implicit bias can also appear in acts of microaggression that may seem insubstantial, even trivial, to dominant groups while having real and negative consequences for others.8 When a white person, for example, asks a person of color, “What are you?” it may appear to the speaker as mere curiosity, while having the effect of marginalizing the person of color by turning them into an object, a strange and exotic “other” in relation to the white standard and point of view. Or when a man expresses admiration for a female coworker’s body or puts up photographs of nude women in the workplace, what he may think is a harmless gesture enacts male privilege by sexually objectifying women and



Making Privilege and Oppression Happen 49

underscoring men’s authority to judge women on the basis of their bodies. Because a microaggressive act can be defended as “small” and ambiguous (“I was only kidding”), it can have an outsized effect by encouraging members of subordinate groups to doubt themselves—“Am I being too sensitive?”—as they try to figure out what to make of it and its significance. Such moments can accumulate into an exhausting source of distraction, frustration, and anger in the midst of everything else people have to do in their lives.

In all its forms, implicit bias may account for a wide range of discrimination—from hiring to health care to police deciding who to stop and frisk, or even to shoot9—with men, whites, and other privileged groups incorrectly perceiving themselves to be free of bias and therefore not part of the problem. The consequences, however, are the same.

Avoidance, Exclusion, Rejection, and Worse

Of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people, which is why shunning and banishment are among the most painful punishments to endure, a kind of social death. It is not surprising, then, that inclusion, acceptance, and being seen are key aspects of privilege. To see how, consider all the ways we affect whether other people feel welcome and valued, or like outsiders who don’t belong:

■ Whether we look at people when we talk with them, including whether we make—or, in some cultures, avoid—eye contact as a way to indicate interest and/or respect

■ Whether we smile at people when they come into the room, or stare as if to say, “What are you and what are you doing here?” or whether we stop the conversation with a hush they have to wade through to be included in the smallest way

■ Whether we listen and respond to what people say, or drift away to someone or something else; whether we talk about things they know about, or stick to what’s familiar to us

■ Whether we acknowledge that diversity exists and make room for it, or act as though everyone is either like us or that somehow, by default, they ought to be

■ Whether we accept people as they are or ask them to explain themselves—who are you, what are you, where are you from



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■ Whether we acknowledge people’s presence, or make them wait as if they weren’t there; whether we avoid touching their skin when giving or taking something; how closely we watch them to see what they’re up to

■ Whether we share with newcomers the informal rules they need to know in order to belong, succeed, and get along

■ Whether we invite people over to our home or out to socialize ■ Whether we say hello to people when they move into the

neighborhood ■ Whether we avoid someone going down the sidewalk, giving them

a wide berth when we pass or even crossing to the other side


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