Privilege can be defined as an entitlement or immunity granted to individuals or groups by society or the state. By default, the privilege of some disenfranchises others. Privilege is power. Those who have been granted privilege-either by birth or merit- have been granted access to society’s formal institutions and the “epistemes of knowledge.” Admission to these power structures has allowed the privileged to define and institute society’s laws, mores, and social norms. In essence, the privileged have shaped reality as we know it today.
What individuals or groups hold privilege in present day American society? The answer is complex. Marxists would generally argue that privilege (power) lies in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and is manifested through their control over labor power and the monopoly over the modes of production. Although a class analysis is essential to the formulation of an accurate interpretation of power relations, such an analysis alone would be insufficient. To gain a complete picture, privilege and power should be examined in the context of gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. Privilege has been awarded to specific groups in society, and ones level of power can be measured based on affiliation to these groups. Traditionally, those with privilege in American society have been wealthy, white, heterosexual, and male. With that said, this essay does not attempt to outline a complete analysis of privilege and power in today’s society. Since this blog is devoted to addressing issues pertaining to patriarchy, I will focus on privilege in relation to traditional male/female relationships.
Socialization begins at an early age, and this process is largely shaped according to ones sex at birth. As early as six years, children are already beginning to understand their roles and expectations based on gender. Girls are taught to be gentle, emotionally expressive, and submissive. Boys on the other hand, are taught to be tough, emotionless, and dominant. Such variances in socialization perpetuate the male/female power dynamic. By young adulthood, most individuals have based their identities on these social expectations, and their interpersonal relationships reflect what is learned in early childhood.
Mores and gender roles have been accepted as the norm and have been adopted by the majority of society. Despite this, there seems to be a discrepancy in how men and women interpret behavior under the confines of patriarchy. Men, like other privileged groups, view social interactions from a dominant position. Men have long established rules of interactions, and their interpretation of these interactions have been accepted as truths. Women continue to maneuver around and/or come into conflict with these established “rules” and “truths.” The discrepancies between men and women often lead to the disruption of interpersonal relationships, including inadvertent sexism and the absence of healthy resolutions.
I will illustrate this with a personal example. I recently had a disagreement with a man that I worked with in the struggle. The man behaved in a manner that left me confused over his intentions. I confronted the man about his behavior, and with a defensive attitude he denied engaging in any behavior that could have potentially been misleading. Feeling objectified, I accused him of behaving in a sexist manner. Instead of examining his own actions and attempting to see things from my perspective (a woman’s perspective), he reacted in anger. In response to my allegations of sexism, he declared “That was not sexism. Do you need me to tell you what sexism is?” As if a man in the position of privilege needs to tell me what sexism is. The power differential is quite apparent in such a statement.
I provide this example because it clearly illustrates three points. First, men and women frequently interpret behavior differently under patriarchy. Secondly, these incongruities lead to the disruption of interpersonal relationships. And thirdly, healthy resolutions are almost impossible because men are unable examine and interpret their behavior from a woman’s position in a patriarchal society.
Men, as a privileged group, have shaped society’s laws, customs, and social norms. In positions of power, men have developed rules and truths regarding social interactions. Man’s privileged position within society hinders his ability to interpret and judge his actions from a position of disadvantage. In order to rectify this disconnect and create healthy egalitarian relationships, men must acknowledge their position of privilege and be willing to examine their behavior through the lenses of the oppressed.