The Making of Privileged Identities

(This work is drawn from my Doctoral research and is heavily informed by the scholarship of Michael Foucault (1972, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982) and Judith Butler (1988, 1990, 1993, 1997)

In a previous post, I talked about why we need to talk about Privilege, about the reality that society is set up to benefit certain groups of people and those groups of people accrue unearned privilege as a result. I also talked about the fact that there is a causal relationship between privilege and discrimination. One cannot exist without the other.  We also know that Privilege and discrimination occur across all domains of identity – race, gender, class, sexuality, faith, marital status, parenthood, and whether a person is disabled by society or not. So, depending on the intersection of the identity categories you are in, society will be more, or less, set up to benefit you and, consequently, you will experience different degrees of privilege and discrimination.

To understand more deeply how this works we need to look at how identities are constructed, how these processes of affect attitudes and behaviours, and how this creates individual and systemic privilege and discrimination.

Identity, though, is a fluid, tricky and slippery concept to try and pin down. Is it something innate? Are we born with it? Is it something we determine? Is it something we learn? Is it fixed or can it change? Equally, how do we know what our race, gender, class, etc is? How do we recognise these in others?

To explore some of this, first of all, ask yourself “Who am I?” and try to answer without referring to some form of identity category, whether that be categories of race, gender, class, occupation, education, or sexuality, etc.

It’s tricky, isn’t it?

I’ll use me as an example. Who am I? I am a man. I am a White man. I am a White, middle-class, CIS gendered, heterosexual man with a PhD who isn’t disabled by society and runs his own company.

These descriptors are all identity categories, and it is likely that you used identity categories to describe your identity too. But where do these categories come from and how do we know that we fit into them?

In very simple terms, the answer to this last question is we know that we fit into them because we have been told that we do. Back to me as an example. I have been told that because my skin is the colour it is, I am ‘White.’ I have been told that because I was born with a penis, I am a ‘man’, etc. You have all been told similar things depending on your bodies, how they are shaped and what they look like.  

However, we have not just been told who we are because of how we look. We have also been told how to behave based on the identity category we have been told we are in. For example, I have been told that in being marked as a ‘man’, the ‘normal’ way to perform my masculinity with my penis is to be exclusively heterosexual. I have also been told that to be middle-class I need to have a university education, work in a professional management career, read a broadsheet newspaper, and occasionally go to the theatre. I have been told that as a White British person I should reserved and undemonstrative. I have been told that as a White, middle-class, heterosexual man, I should also be rational, ambitious, confident, strong, and a leader. You will have also been told how to behave based on the identity category you have been put in.

So where do these categories and rules of behaviour come from? Who or what has told us these things about ourselves and each other? In simple terms, it is the discourses in the society in which we are born into and in which we live that tells us these things. Our social environment is full of historic and contemporary discourses of identity; full of narratives and stories that we are told – by philosophers, by scientists, by politicians, by newspapers, by our parents, by the TV, by pop music, by our peers – that communicate ideologically driven messages about who we are and how we should behave. These discourses attempt to inscribe a particular meaning of, for example, race and gender, onto our bodies and condition us to behave in a particular way because of that meaning. However, they also convey value judgements about the different meanings and behaviours they force upon us all.

The same discourses that have told me that I am White have also told me that being ‘White’ is to be superior to and more socially and culturally valuable than being Black or Brown; that to have a penis means I am superior to and more valuable than people who don’t; that to perform heterosexuality means that I am superior to and more valuable than those who perform another sexuality. That because I went to university, read a broadsheet, and occasionally go to the theatre, I am superior to and more valuable than someone who left school at 16, reads a red top and watches Love Island.

In essence, these socially constructed discourses of identity communicate ideological rules of cultural intelligibility that position us within society and seek to regulate our behaviour. There are rules of cultural intelligibility around race, gender, class, sexuality, etc and if we comply with these rules, we are recognised and accepted as ‘normal’. However, if we do not comply with them, we are marked as ‘not normal’ and unacceptable. As an example, think about how non-binary and transgender people have been marked by society because they break rules of cultural intelligibility around gender.

These notions of normal and not normal are not a simple binary of either/or though. The discourses communicate an intersectional scale of what is deemed to be ‘normal and acceptable’, and what isn’t. In Eurocentric societies like Britain, they tell us that the pinnacle of normal and acceptable is to be White, to be middle-class, to be a man, to be heterosexual, to not be disabled by society, etc and to behave accordingly. The further a person or group people are away from this intersectional pinnacle of identity and behaviour, the more they are marked as not normal and unacceptable. Contrastingly, those identity categories that are constructed as ‘normal’ tend to be unmarked and unremarked upon and this form of ‘invisibility to the self’ reinforces their normalcy. Thus, White women are marked by their gender identity, but their Whiteness is normalised and made invisible to them.

Of course, there are other, alternative discourses of identity, such as non-binary discourses of gender and decolonial discourses of Blackness, that resist, disrupt, and refute these messages; that communicate different ideas about identity and create alternative domains of cultural intelligibility in which people can be their true selves. However, the ones I have been referring to here – the discourses of Whiteness, of masculinity, of middle-classness, of heterosexuality, etc, are the dominant ones in our society. They are ‘hegemonic’ or ‘normative’ discourses in that they seek to establish their ideologies about who we all are and how society works as the ‘normal’ state of affairs and just how it should be.

These normative discourses also communicate ideological value judgements and negative stereotypes about the character and behavioural traits of the people that they mark as belonging in ‘other’, ‘not normal’ categories. For example, think the hyper-sexualised ‘Jezebel’ stereotype of Black women, think the Black man as the thug, as the absent father, as sexually aggressive and violent, think the South Asian/Middle Eastern Muslim man as a misogynist and a terrorist, but also think ‘Chav’, think ‘Benefits Street’, think ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’, think Jeremy Kyle…. These value judgements position people differentially and hierarchically in relation to the ‘normal and acceptable’ group, which is positioned as the normative ‘benchmark’ against which all others are judged.

Crucially, these normative discourses condition the way people in the ‘normal and acceptable’ categories – the White person, the man, the heterosexual, etc – see themselves, others, and the world around them. They communicate and establish conscious and unconscious biases, both positive and negative ones, about people. Equally crucially, in conditioning these attitudes and beliefs, they also condition behaviours and so the everyday cultural practices of a group.

These everyday cultural practices are very often discriminatory to those who are ‘othered’ by them, and privileging to those who are in the ‘normal’ group. We see these cultural practices in operation in the street, in the pub, in the workplace. We see them in who is recruited, who is promoted, who is paid more, who is elected, who is favoured and afforded privilege and power, etc. However, the negative judgements and biases that exist in these everyday cultural practices inform not just day-to-day interactions but also how people in positions of power make decisions, develop policies and procedures, design products and services, write legislation, determine right and wrong, etc. Combined with day-to-day practices, these create a system of power that results in a society that is set up to benefit certain people; to afford the ‘normal and acceptable’ people Privilege and power and discriminate against and disadvantage others.

Thus, the normative discourses of identity that mark certain bodies and condition the cultural practices of the ‘normal and acceptable’ groups in society bring individual and systemic privilege and oppression into reality.

So, to bring about an equitable, inclusive, and fair society, then, we need to explore and challenge these normative discourses. We need to talk about how those of us who are privileged are conditioned to see ourselves, others, and the world around us. We need to talk about how they impact on attitudes, behaviours, and practices. We need talk about how privilege plays out in our workplace, and in our social context. We need to make these processes visible, own them and disrupt them.  

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Routledge London

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter. Routledge, London

Butler, J. (1997a). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press. Stanford. California

Butler, J. (1997b). Excitable Speech. Routledge, London

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London : Tavistock Publications

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York : Vintage Books

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality Vol 1. London: Penguin

Foucault, M. (1979). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Brighton, Sussex : Harvester Press

Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), pp.777-795

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