The Complexities of Intersectional Privilege/Oppression

Privilege is complex. It is not only related to economic and material wealth. It’s psychological and emotional too. For example, that no White person experiences systemic racism means that we are all psychologically and emotionally privileged in comparison to People of Colour. Even more complex, though, is the reality of intersectional privilege. People are privileged and disadvantaged in different ways based on the make-up of their identity along numerous different lines.

Whether you are Black, Brown, White, or Mixed; identify as a man, a woman, or gender fluid; as working-class, middle-class, upper-class, or any class across the spectrum; whether you are heterosexual, gay, bisexual, or pan-sexual; whether you are disabled by society in some regard or not; whether you are Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, any religion or no religion; whether you are from ‘Up North’, ‘Down South’, or a ‘foreigner’; whether you are a citizen, a migrant, a refugee or asylum seeker, or an ‘illegal’; all of these elements of our identities, and more, intersect in our everyday lives and we accrue privileges and experience discriminations depending on the intersectional make-up of who we are.

What this means is that, given the multiplicity of the intersecting elements of our identities, most people will experience simultaneous privilege and oppression. This doesn’t deny the reality that a White, working-class woman will experience a greater degree of racial privilege than a working-class Woman of Colour or, indeed, a middle-class Woman of Colour, but it does mean that she will experience a different form of intersectional privilege/disadvantage. This creates more complex and nuanced issues for addressing privilege and creating contexts of equity than we might imagine.

What this intersectional nature of privilege/oppression means is that we need a variegated and nuanced approach to addressing inequity. We cannot assume that by instigating initiatives to address racial inequality that we have created or are working towards conditions of equity for all. It is well known that when we instigate initiatives to address Whiteness, it is a fallacy to assume that we are addressing the situations of discrimination for Black women – even if we achieve racial equity, Black women will still be experiencing gender discrimination, amongst other discriminations too.

Equally, it is important to account for the fact that others, a man who is disabled by society, for example, will experience intersectional privilege/oppression. How this is experienced and the degrees to which the privilege or oppression aspects will be foregrounded in that experience is context dependent. Research (Atewologun and Sealy, 2014) has shown that people’s experience of privilege/oppression shifts quite fluidly from situation to situation, partly depending on who other people in the situation are and how they behave, and partly on the physical and socio-political context of the situation.

This situational and contextual variation in the degrees of privilege and oppression affect all people, whether they are intersectionally oppressed, intersectionally privileged/oppressed, or intersectionally multi-privileged. However, the effects of this fluid shifting of privilege and oppression and the manifestation of people’s responses to it is, perhaps, most complex in those who are intersectionally privileged/oppressed.

Research (Case, 2012) has shown that those experiencing simultaneous disadvantage and privilege (in the research the respondents were members of an anti-racism group for White women) will behave differently in different situations. Whilst in the group meetings, they claimed a greater understanding of racial discrimination than White men can have due to their own experiences of gender discrimination. This provides an insight into how what are perceived as common experiences of oppression can be foregrounded by the intersectionally privileged/oppressed to claim an ally identity. Although, this process is reflective of the work of White, middle-class feminists critiqued by Kimberlee Crenshaw (1989) and indicative of how the privilege of the simultaneously oppressed and privileged can reinforce the oppression of the intersectionally oppressed by marginalising their unique experiences.

Interestingly, the White women in the study also talked about how age, status, and gender power dynamics worked to keep them silent when witnessing racism outside of the discussion group setting, which reveals their simultaneous oppression and privilege, but also the privilege they hold in being able to remain unseen when witnessing racism and highlights the effect of situational and contextual variation on behaviour.

What this reveals is that not only are there no ‘one size fits all’ approaches to addressing single forms of oppression that will work to create equity, but that privilege itself works differently from situation to situation, particularly for those who are intersectionally privileged/oppressed, and these are the majority of people in society. As the intersectionally privileged/oppressed move from situation to situation, not only will their experiences move through degrees of privilege and oppression, their behaviour is likely to change as well; change to behaviours that, perhaps, even in their complexity, reinforce their privilege in some way.

There is a need to understand that there are those in society who are simultaneously oppressed and privileged, as well as those who experience simultaneous multiple oppressions and those who experience simultaneous multi-privileges. This understanding has to be factored into the work of creating contexts of equity or we will be left with a situation where those who experience intersectional oppressions and those who experience intersectional oppression and privilege remain disadvantaged in comparison to people like me, in comparison to the White, middle-class, heterosexual man.

Atewologun, D and Sealy, R (2014) Experiencing privilege at ethnic, gender and senior intersections. Journal of Managerial Psychology 29(4). pp.423-439

Case, K.A. (2012). Discovering the Privilege of Whiteness: White Women’s Reflections on Anti-racist Identity and Ally Behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 68(1), pp.78—96

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8).

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