Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Invisible Power and Privilege

by Miki Kashtan

Some months ago I wrote a piece about privilege and needs (part 1 and part 2) where I explored what I see as the root causes of attachment to privilege. Here I want to look again at privilege with a different aim. I want to shed some light on the way privilege operates on a societal level, and how it comes to be so invisible. I also want to speak about the challenges of invisible power relations as they play out within groups.

Understanding Privilege
Privilege is a form of invisible power. Sometimes privilege also provides us with structural power in direct relationship with another. In the past, this form of privilege was legalized and prevalent. For example, until not that long ago, men had the legal right to have sex with their wives, and consent was not necessary. Such forms of formal privilege have largely been removed, because the official sanctioning of privilege is no longer socially acceptable.

As a result, in recent decades the structural nature of privilege is much more invisible and indirect. As a person with fairly light skin, for example, I have access to untold number of privileges that are mine to enjoy and which are not available to people with darker skin. I can, as a very simple example, go in and out of stores without having security officers look at my movements. If I stand in the street and wave a taxi, it’s likely to stop for me. If I break the law, I am likely to get a lighter sentence than a person who belongs to other groups.

Those of us with privilege are often unaware of the legal or social norms that give us access to such resources simply by virtue of being members of a certain group, without any particular action or even awareness on our part. It’s easy to assume that everyone would have the same access, or to not even think about it at all. Even when our privilege provides us direct individual advantage at the direct expense of another individual, the direct relationship may be hidden under socially sanctioned norms such as individual merit which replace the more explicit forms of the past. A particularly acute example of such relationships occurs both in the educational system and in the workplace.

And so it is that these forms of privilege are largely invisible to those of us who have them unless we take proactive action to learn about them. Those without such access, on the other hand, are usually acutely aware of their lack of access. This creates a gap in experience which is usually excruciating for members of both groups.

Privilege and Group Dynamics
Considering how invisible privilege can be to those who have it, and yet how apparent to those who don’t, it is no surprise that creating truly diverse groups and organizations is the exception rather than the norm.

Here’s one classic form this struggle takes. Whenever I am in any group in which the question of diversity arises there will almost invariably be a well-meaning white person who will express some version of “Why can’t we all just get along and forget our differences. We’re all human, after all, aren’t we?” The gap between this experience and the pervasive, acute, and unending barrage of discrimination, lack of access to material resources, and encounters with the authorities takes more effort to bridge than most people have energy for, especially those who are already worn out by such ongoing challenge of just making it through the day every day. Even if nothing gets said, the gap in experience remains enormous, all the while being known to one group and not to the other.

In addition to the gap in experience in terms of understanding what happens, the different training that different groups receive, itself part of the gap in access to resources, recreates societal dynamics within the group. White people, men, and people with class privilege are more likely to speak in groups and to have their opinions taken seriously than people of color, women, or lower class people, respectively. As one particularly painful example, when a jury is selected, the likeliest person to be chosen as foreman, and I use that word in this way deliberately, is the white male with the highest education in the room. We clearly don’t mean to dominate or take away from others’ access to power, to choice, to participation in decisions, to shaping the vision and direction of a group. And yet we do, without knowing we do it.

Different access to resources makes for different life experiences, which makes for different perspectives, sometimes even about reality or the nature of life. This is part of why the conversation can get so hard. In many situations the differences in perspective are so deep that we see and hear completely different realities, even before the inevitable process of interpretation and assigning meaning to what we observe begins. When the gap is so large, both people want to be heard at the same time while simultaneously having trouble hearing others.

Stay tuned for the 2nd part of this post in the coming days.


  1. I read this post with great interest. Certainly there are many instances when privilege is invisible to me. The problem I have is when it is assumed that ALL members of a group have the same privilege or lack of privilege. It is usually assumed that all men have more privilege than all women or all people of color have less privilege than all White people. This comes up when I read in this post that "Those of us with privilege are often unaware of the legal or social norms that give us access to such resources simply by virtue of being members of a certain group." While true in a general sense, to me this is also a stereotype that can lead to prejudice and hardening of the divisions between people. It also leads to putting oneself in the role of victim if you are a member of a group with less perceived privilege.

    As an example,I'm thinking of two female friends of mine who are people of color. I'm White. I go out socially with each of them (separately, they don't know each other) including to a variety of restaurants. Invariably the hostess and waitress approach them before approaching me. I tuned into the fact that a variety of nonverbal factors including style of dress, way I walk and talk etc. affect the way people see and react to me. Being a woman and being White are only part of my identity. Therefore, I realize that I may be treated in a certain way because I am female or because I am White but that it's not that simple.

    Another example is a comment I heard from a Black woman who has worked in fairly high level corporate jobs. Her comment was: "being a woman was more of a barrier for me on the job than being Black". I've also been in a situation where a Black with much less experience than me was hired over me. I was able to confirm that it was because of the color of her skin. In that particular situation, being Black was an advantage. However, in groups that I've been in with Blacks, I've found they assume I have more privilege than they do, all the time, because of the color of my skin.

    I'm not talking about ignoring privilege. What I'm saying is, it's complex. There are a lot of factors at play and it can be different in different situations. I choose to acknowledge privilege but to let go of any perceived victim or oppressor role that I might put myself or others into based on groups we belong to. I choose instead to see the dynamics of particular situations and to observe what is happening in the moment while also acknowledging all the baggage that we bring to the situation and all the constraints of social and legal norms. I also believe that most of us (and that includes White men) have been in both victim and oppressor roles at some point in our lives.

  2. Very sincere, deep, and well-written piece. The paragraph that begins "why can't we all just get along" - thank you, Rodney King! - is a small masterpiece.

  3. Deep bow of appreciation and thanks for articulating with such beauty what I have longed to consisely say in so many groups and showing me its possible. I get why you call this the Fearless Heart. Thanks for leading the way Miki.

  4. This piece appeared at the perfect time for me. I have just been hashing over these ideas in relation to my life. I went back to college at the age of 50, having only managed to complete a few basic college level classes right after high school. I was brought up in a family where few finished high school, much less college. Because I had more education than most members of my family, my self-identity included: intelligent, well-read, well-informed, capable of making important decisions - until I got to the master's program level. By the time I graduated from the program, I had come to realize that I had been living in a very small world for the first 57 years of my life. I was a communication major with a minor in political science so a lot of my education included attempts to understand the worldviews and experiences of others. I went into a major identity crises that I can't say I'm done with yet. I have been through seveal phases of shame, grief, shaking with fear, and hopelessness. And despite graduating suma cum laude, and obtaining a master's degree, I can hardly imagine how I can ever catch up on all that I never learned, never saw, and did not understood. Your words have given me a sense of confirmation for what I have been, and am going through. I'm so grateful that you are tackling these profound issues on your blog.