Invisible Privilege – a handy, snappy definition

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter ’round the net about invisible privilege. I decided to construct a quick, easy, soundbyte definition for it, since that’s the attention span of the people who most need to learn the concept. I think I’ve got it:

Invisible privilege is what you’re experiencing when you tell someone outside your race, gender, class, etc., “I don’t know why you’re complaining; the system works just fine for for me.”

If you are so inclined to break out of your privileged thinking, here are a couple of tips:

  • Admit the possibility that someone in another race, gender, class, etc., could have a different experience of the exact same culture that’s working so well for you. It may help here to be aware that historically, societies have made distinctions based on those things, even if you’re really, really convinced that’s all done now and everything is equal.
  • Think of a life situation in which you’re disadvantaged. If you’re really fortunate, maybe the worst thing you can think of is your lack of athletic talent or something. That’s okay; you can work with this. Now, imagine that sports is the only way you’re allowed to earn a living, and you suck at it. If you imagine it well enough, feelings of panic and frustration and injustice at the system should start to form. This is called “empathy”. You may find it uncomfortable at first; hang in there!
  • This may take some practice: don’t give up!

Excuse my cheekiness – I’m teasing myself as much as any of you reading. You see, the path can be even trickier for those of us who have experienced a lack of privilege firsthand: we tend to forget that there are almost always people out there who have actually experienced less privilege than we have. For example, I’ve been a female who can’t fit into her assigned gender role to save her life, and I’ve been relatively poor; but on the other hand, I have the privilege of being white, of being fairly smart, and of having been better off financially than a lot of people. It’s easy to forget the ways in which you have it easier than someone else when you’re busy focusing on how you have it worse.

It’s really all relative. Bill Maher made a good point on a repeat of “Real Time with Bill Maher” which aired today. He was talking about someone in the Bush administration who criticized those citizens of New Orleans who didn’t get out when they were first advised to do so. One of his panel members pointed out that most who didn’t get out didn’t actually own cars with which to get out, due to poverty, or were too poor to fill up the ones they had, given the price of gas. They didn’t just choose to ignore warnings for the hell of it. Maher said that people like the ones on the Bush administration, who’ve been so privileged all their lives, just don’t get it: they’re thinking, “Well, you just pack your spring water into your Range Rover and drive to your summer home – what’s the big deal?” Indeed.

It takes some imagination and guesswork to begin to see your own privilege, and it’s probably a lifelong exercise. I’m still discovering privileges I enjoy in comparison to other people, as well as privileges some other people have over me (good lord, how many people in the US have multiple homes while I can’t afford one?). In an ideal world, the only privileges would be those given to each individual by nature: smarts, good health, physical prowess, etc. But in the real world, privileges are handed out willy-nilly according to random neutral traits like gender and race, and irrelevant traits like one’s religious affiliations or economic status. Being conscious of these manufactured differences is the first step to neutralizing their effects.


  1. says

    I had this experience the other day, when my prof asked a class member about racism in this country, and he said it had “basically disappeared.” I looked at him and said, “You are a straight, white, Christian male. Can’t you see that other people might have had difference experiences than you?” He looked as though he’d never thought about it. Of course, this is a guy who is writing a thesis on tolerance, and explained that he experienced intolerance at a Bible Camp once when some richer guys made fun of his clothes. Ah, the injustice! i can’t make it through the class without the impulse to vomit at least once.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    It really is hard to see, when your privileges are built-in system defaults. I try to be patient with people who seem never to have thought about it before; it’s the ones who get it, but feel they’re entitled to these special privileges, who piss me off. That’s just narcissism.

    This all makes me think of the story of Siddhartha, the young prince whose father sheltered him from knowledge of old age, disease and death. When Siddhartha discovered those things on his own, suddenly he wasn’t content to be a pampered king-to-be anymore, and went off to find enlightenment. The father knows this is what will happen, which is why he tries so hard to keep Siddhartha’s privileges invisible to him.

    Makes me wonder what would happen if a lot of people started facing up to the invisible privilege system at once. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes.

  3. scarlett says

    I was once partnered with a Chilean girl for a uni project, and she had a habit of referring to all white girls as princesses. She wasn’t being particularly bitchy about it, just from her perspective all white girls were princesses. I took offence at first and then got to realise that, given the patriarchal, poverty-striken country she came from, her perception was pretty understandable. For example, she could not explain to family in Chile that in Australia if you don’t work the government gives you a fairly generous welfare payment, they subsidise your uni fees by 75% (and you can defer the remaining 25% interest free) and the government PAYS you to go to uni. Almost-free tertiary education, and a living allowance to go with it! Something I’d grown up entitled to these people had no concept of. It made me very aware that being a woman puts me at a disadvantage, but being an intelligent white person in a western country (particularly one that’s not the US- not offence to Americans) gives me some incredible advantages that I ‘earned’ by a system no less arbitrary then my ethnicity and country of birth.

  4. Prosfilaes says

    There’s also the flip side of the coin. There was a study of people with disfiguring facial scars from birth after reconstructive surgery. These people had problems coming to terms with the fact that not everything that had gone wrong with their lives was due to their scars.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Hell, that makes ME jealous of you for your uni payment system. Our college costs are closing in on 20 times what they were thirty years ago, and our government’s solution is to make student loans tougher to get. /rolleyes

  6. scarlett says

    I think that’s why made me think I had it pretty good. I spent a few months thinking about what I want to do and it hit me; study media. Now, I’ll just tick that box that says I’m an Australian citizen (which automatically gets me 75% off my fees) and tick the box that says I choose to interest-free defer payment on the remaining 25%…
    The funny thing is, we still get complaints about having to defer-pay that remaining 25%…
    My friend’s comments about her familiy’s inability to comprehend that we get virtually-free tertiary education made me realise just how privlidged I am. And yet, my being white from a middle-class family has still come into play, something I’ll write about if someone reminds me. It makes me think ‘well, what did I do to deserve to be born white in a western country in a middle-class family when there are so many people more disenfranchised then me?’ I stil believe in humanism, but it makes me feel small about spouting off about my unfair lot in life when there are people who have it a lot more unfair.

  7. scarlett says

    In context of my previous comment… I guess some people will always mope about ‘what I haven’t got’ as opposed to ‘what I’ve got’… for some reason Helen Keller springs to mind…

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    These people had problems coming to terms with the fact that not everything that had gone wrong with their lives was due to their scars.

    Is your point that some people blame all their problems on their skin color, gender, or other “marginalized” traits? I’m not sure how closely disfigurement and disability correspond with racial and gender issues: race and gender are neutral traits, whereas no one wants to be disfigured or disabled. The attitudes may legitimately be a bit different in those two situations.

    That’s why we would benefit from less dualism in our thinking. No one is simply “privileged” or not: we all have some advantages and some disadvantages. Sometimes a disadvantage can be your advantage if you figure out a way to make it work for you. For example, I think as a woman I can get by with speaking my mind more easily than a man can in certain situations. In other situations, the opposite is probably true. I try to keep the good and the bad in mind at all times, because I prefer to be realistic rather than optimistic or pessimistic.

  9. scarlett says

    I saw it as some people feel so sorry for themselves that they blame a particular oppurtunity-depriving flaw (physical, socialiogical, whatever) on everything that went wrong in their lives. I think this is a personal thing and not a matter of invisible privlige. We all have less or more privlidge then someone else, just some people feel more sorry for themselves over what they haven’t got.

  10. scarlett says

    I recall a few conversations I’ve had with male friends, where they’ve basically said they know they’re at the top of the food chain through no less arbitrary reasons then being white, straight, christian men from wetsren countries, and that even though they woiuldn’t exactly mind if their privlidges were taken away and redistrubted based on less arbitrary criteria, they’re not about to go about changing the system to disadvantage themselves, because that goes against a fair human nature to look after yourself.
    At this risk of generalisng on a topic I know nothing about, I think the great majority of people who enjoy invisible privlidge either aren’t aware of it or are aware of it and don’t plan on doing anything to disadvantage themselves, which I think is different to knowing you have unfair privlidges and thinking you’re entitled to them and being prepared to defend your right to them by whatever means nessasry.


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