Privilege is frequently discussed in term of race, gender and sexual orientation. If you are white, male and heterosexual, you are one of the most privileged members of society, according to most frameworks of privilege.
Intersectionality is certainly a useful way of looking at societal systems of oppression and an aid in offering critiques of it. But, I think there are many kinds of privilege beyond race, gender and sexual orientation. Perhaps one of the most important is class.
I remember being in the military and having a friend explain to me how much harder life was for him than it was for me because of his race. At the time, I was not really aware of how black enlisted men tend to have to do worse jobs than white enlisted men. But, it was obvious if you cared to look and think about it. I was also not aware of the differences in incarceration rates for black and white men and other forms of systemic oppression in society at large probably because they didn’t effect me.
My focus was on something a little more immediate. I observed, “It looks to me like you and I are scrubbing the same toilets.” We were only cleaning toilets and not sewer lines because we came from middle class backgrounds and were able to do well on the military’s standardized tests. Being able to do well on these tests was a kind of privilege, one influenced by economics.
But, I’ve met a gay, female of color who laughed at the notion of joining the military. “I’d never do that.” She was able to go to college without first spending four years earning the G.I. Bill. How does that factor in to the conversation on comparative privilege?
Or what about the fact that education is a privilege. I knew another white, heterosexual male that enlisted in order to send back money to his family. He likely retired from the military and did not get to go to college. Does the fact that he needed to work to support his brothers and sisters and could not afford to attend college even under the G.I. Bill count in our calculus of privilege?
Today, I posted an article on age discrimination in the workplace. Older workers are more expensive. Some of them get stuck doing things the same way year after year, so they might not be as effective. Our culture also puts a premium on youth. Is there a youth privilege? The fact that older workers tend to make more money seems similar to the fact that men generally make more money. It’s also why they are the first to be fired. How can you do an accounting of these competing benefits and drawbacks?
And you might identify a whole range of other privileges. Some that come to mind include: intelligence, sociability/likability, attractiveness, health/hardiness/ableism, etc. It’s pretty clear that when you start getting beyond gender, race and sexual orientation, it becomes really difficult to assess comparative privilege.
If you have the vocabulary and the theoretical framework to talk about privilege, you probably come from a privileged background. Someone who is from the middle class and able to go to college isn’t going to be aware of the problems of the poor, just as the problems of race were, and in some ways still are, invisible to me. It’s a blind spot in the discussion of privilege, and there are many of them: the old, the ill, the disabled, the socially disconnected and the many others that often don’t make it into the conversation.
In the end, we only talk about the categorizations that reduce reality to acceptable representations. Those that are too complex get dropped by the wayside.