What Privilege Sounds Like


This viral video, which inspired an array of spin-offs, makes fun of what unacknowledged privilege sounds like to someone who doesn’t have the same privilege.

Okay, let’s define “privilege.” In her article “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh describes privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that [we] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [we were] ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.” Basically, having privilege gives us an unfair advantage; how much privilege we enjoy might change according to context, but some of us have more privilege than others. How aware we are of that privilege is another story.

So why is it important to think about privilege?

In Michael Kimmel’s lecture “Mars, Venus, or Planet Earth,” he notes that  the moment he first understood what privilege was and that he had it as a white man. We’re often taught to see racism sexism, etc. as something the creates disadvantage for others, and so we focus on their oppression; however, the other side of that coin is the work of privilege, which requires another group’s oppression. We cannot change one without changing the other.


Do you recognize any of the statements from “Derailing for Dummies”? Chances are someone has said some version of these to you in your lifetime. Or perhaps you’ve relied on some of them yourself without thinking.

The problems with derailing comments aren’t that they “hurt others’ feelings” or that they “offend someone” or that they’re not “politically incorrect.” The problem with derailing comments is that they reinforce a power dynamic in a given conversation that allows one person to assert his or her privilege in a way that automatically dismisses or devalues the other person’s ideas or experiences, and/or shuts down any chance for actual dialogue and human growth – for both parties.

Some of the time, we use derailing comments to deflect our own feelings of guilt or discomfort with the fact that we have privilege. That is, we may want to deny the knowledge of another’s oppression because it inevitably raises questions about our own advantages – and where exactly they come from.

So how do we turn knee-jerk derailment into compassionate listening and the potential for creative change? And how do we move beyond simply feeling guilty, which is often paralyzing, when we are called out for saying something sexist or racist or otherwise insensitive or ignorant? Guilt is unproductive: “as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt” (Lorde 118).




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