Expanding the Definition of Privilege: The Concept of Social Privilege

By Black, Linda L.; Stone, David | Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Expanding the Definition of Privilege: The Concept of Social Privilege


Black, Linda L., Stone, David, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development


Examinations of privilege have historically focused on gender and race. By placing privilege within the context of oppression, the authors offer an expanded view of the domains of privilege that include sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, differing degrees of ableness, and religious affiliation.

Los examenes del privilegio se han enfocado historicamente en el genero y la raza. Colocando el privilegio dentro del contexto de la opresion, los autores ofrecen una vista ensanchada de los dominios del privilegio que incluye la orientacion sexual, la posicion socioeconomica, la edad, difiriendo los grados de habilidad, y de la afiliacion religiosa.

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In many cultures, particular groups benefited and prospered because of the entitlements, advantages, and dominance conferred upon them by society. These privileges were granted solely as a birthright, not because of intelligence, ability, or personal merit. Ironically, privileged persons often believed that their personal qualities specifically warranted their inclusion in this group while simultaneously remaining unaware of the extent and impact of these privileges. Lack of membership in privileged groups was characteristically viewed as a lack of effort. Therefore, the belief was that those denied power, access, or visibility must, by definition, have earned their exclusion and oppression because of some personal defect. This belief is often referred to as the "myth of meritocracy" whereby a culture communicates that the oppressed could earn society's privileges if they were just different (e.g., more like the privileged group).

Many discussions of privilege have focused on gender, race, or both (Lucal, 1996; McIntosh, 1992; Pappas, 1995; Willis & Lewis, 1999). Dichotomous categorizations of privilege diminish an understanding of its intersections, intricacies, and influence. Numerous authors have called for a more inclusive definition of privilege (Bohan, 1996; McIntosh, 1992; Robinson, 1999), and some (Harris, 1995; Reynolds & Pope, 1991) have explored and identified multiple identities and oppressions.

In this article, we define privilege within the context of oppression, expand the domains of privilege by describing the multiple identities that one may hold, and describe the potential impact of privilege on the privileged and the oppressed. The domains are presented here in an order that reflects the relative attention each has received in the academic literature. The citations specifically related to privilege in the areas of racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation are more substantial than those for the domains of socioeconomic status (SES), age, differing degrees of ableness, and religious affiliation. Although, the domains of SES, age, differing degrees of ableness, and religious affiliation are viewed as critical to the discussion, they are discussed more tentatively because of a scarcity of articles in the literature.

defining privilege, oppression, and social privilege

PRIVILEGE

There is basic agreement among authors (Lucal, 1996; McIntosh, 1992; Robinson, 1999) regarding the definition of privilege. Drawing on the work of these authors, it seems that five core components provide the defining boundaries of this concept. First, privilege is a special advantage; it is neither common nor universal. Second, it is granted, not earned or brought into being by one's individual effort or talent. Third, privilege is a right or entitlement that is related to a preferred status or rank. Fourth, privilege is exercised for the benefit of the recipient and to the exclusion or detriment of others. Finally, a privileged status is often outside of the awareness of the person possessing it (McIntosh, 1992; Robinson & Howard-Hamilton, 2000).

The academic literature has primarily focused on the domains of race/ethnicity and gender (Crenshaw, 1997; Dyer, 1988; Jackson, 1999; McIntosh, 1992; Pappas, 1995; N. …

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