In and around the discussions about diversity and inclusion, there is a growing conversation around the concept of privilege and how this affects different people and how the delivery of inclusion initiatives may have different outcomes due to identity differences.
What is privilege?
Originally formulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, privilege as a concept came into wider use in the 1980s when it was defined by Peggy McIntosh as ‘Privilege exists when one group has something of value that another group does not, not because of anything that they have done or not done, but simply because of the groups that they belong to. Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance.‘ So, for example, the privilege (structural advantage) for a middle class white man is different to that of a middle class disabled white man.
It is worth remembering that most societies consider advantage in different settings such as schools, colleges and workplaces as having to be earned or based on merit. We grow up with the notion that hard work, for example, is valued and will somehow confer an equiprobable likelihood of recognition. However, this is not always the case. Privilege confers an added advantage to some over others and this can be reflected in the workplace. Privilege is also linked with other concepts such as implicit bias, cognitive bias of different types, stereotypes and explicit discrimination. Inclusion initiatives need to consider structural advantage in order to be effective. For example, in designing inclusion initiatives for disabled people in the workplace, the added issues of race/ethnicity, gender and class need to be recognised to ensure that inclusive measures are able to capture everyone.
The video below is an easily-accessible introduction to the concept of privilege. It’s less about being labelled in any way and more about acknowledging that privilege exists.
There are two basic aspects to intersectional thought:
(a) The assertion that oppressive systems (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism) are essentially interconnected and cannot exist independently of one another. Because of this a person’s experience of oppression is structurally multi-dimensional and relies on the place and space they occupy within each of these oppressive systems.
(b) These different oppressive systems are interrelated and are also formed, shaped and sustained by each other; which in turn generates unique social experiences of oppression.
While some people may gain a buffer from the impact of a particular type of oppression e.g class oppression being buffered if a person is white and male and therefore in a position to benefit from structural privilege; others have a different experience of class oppression – for example someone who is black and female and oppressed by class.
A lack of understanding of the relationship between different structures of oppression leads to antagonism between different groups struggling at the margins. For example, feminists putting needs ahead of race-based activists rather than seeing that both are related. Further explanation can be found below in a video of a talk by the person who developed the concept of intersectionality to bring different oppressed groups together to discuss areas where they can work together, Kimberle Crenshaw.