Explaining Privilege

The word “privilege” has gotten to be a problem because, while it is a very good word for describing the status people receive for possessing certain labels — in my culture those labels are white, straight, cisgender, male, affluent — it is a terrible word for conversations in which a privileged person is having difficulty understanding the obstacles faced by people who are not like them.

Today in a discussion about lack of female representation at the upper ranks of most companies, I engaged in discussion with a guy who recognized that women are professionally underrepresented, but didn’t seem to think that anyone had a responsibility to change it through the deliberate recruitment and advancement of women. This is a valid position, although it’s one I disagree with. Failing to keep women out of leadership isn’t enough. Unprivileged classes of people need an extra boost to get the same opportunities that privilege people have.

There are systemic obstacles to female advancement in professional settings. One of these is the lack of qualified female professionals to begin with. Historically women have been shunted toward soft fields of study like literature, which provide extremely limited and low-paying career opportunities. (This is not to say that liberal arts don’t matter culturally, but rather that they are not economically valued and make for questionable educational investments in terms of payoff.) Economically valuable fields like law, medicine, and engineering are dominated by men, who go on to shape technology, politics, and corporate culture.

This is changing, and many companies are investing in programs that encourage girls to become engineers and scientists. But the payoff of these efforts won’t come for two decades, after these girls have finished their educations and entered the workplace. It’s going to take some serious changes in the short term to be sure that there is room for these women when they arrive and expect to be equally integrated. So yes, that means some affirmative action in the short term. A company that hasn’t bothered to put any women on its Board of Directors will not look attractive to a young female go-getter. It’s possible that a company with an all male board is not actively discriminatory; mere statistics should result in a few companies with mostly male or mostly female leadership from time to time. But the lack of women leaders and low female representation among the workforce means discrimination is a possibility. Women will naturally be drawn to companies that have offered hard proof of non-discrimination through proportional representation throughout the company. The same idea applies to other non-privileged people such as LGBT people and people of colour.

None of these ideas seemed to be familiar to the guy I was speaking to. I thought things were going so well. I didn’t think I would completely alter this person’s thinking because an intelligent person shouldn’t be easily swayed. But I did hope to plant some ideas.

I think my mistake came up when I tried to explain why it is difficult for some people in power to acknowledge difficulties they have never experienced. I said that white, straight men don’t often walk into an office and notice that almost everyone is different from them. It was at this point that he exploded with a canned diatribe about how all the feminists want to do is destroy white men and turn them into castrated slaves who are no longer allowed to contribute to society as retribution for millennia of perceived abuses.


Ten years ago when having conversations on feminist-related topics, the conversation usually quickly fell apart. The men in the room would begin making fun of the women, who usually had a valid point to make. The women would take offence at an ad hominem attack that had nothing do do with the material point of the discussion. The men would then accuse the women of being emotional (likely because we were all on our periods) and use this as evidence that we couldn’t be taken seriously to begin with. The ridiculousness of this logic shouldn’t require refutation, but it’s a battle that non-privileged people have to have every single time the issue comes up.

Happily men have really come a long way. Overt misogyny is getting rarer in my experience, at least among my circle of friends. The lingering problem is a lack of awareness of privilege and the resulting lack of understanding about how privilege perpetuates inequality in the workplace and in society. And it is oh, so, hard to have this conversation without having it all fall apart as it did today.

There has got to be a way to help privileged people (mostly white, straight, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men) understand that by making room for others, they do not have to surrender anything for themselves. It’s not like there is a limited supply of happiness in this world, and elevating women to the status of men will somehow rob men of their happiness or relevance. White men aren’t the enemy; they are potential allies. Straight people don’t lose anything by accepting their LGBT brothers and sisters and non-gendered siblings. They gain a whole lot. Putting down privilege shouldn’t mean loss of advantage in life; it should mean gaining a whole lot of opportunities to network with all of humanity in all of its diversity. There’s nothing wrong with being white or male or straight, and don’t let anybody say otherwise.

How can we improve the conversation? How can we help the privileged become aware of their privilege so that they can avoid stepping on others and make room for everyone? How can we discuss the abandonment of privilege as a freeing rather than limiting process? How can we do this in a way that doesn’t trigger a negative reaction or create the false perception of a personal attack?