Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Privileged

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. 


  1. Good stuff! I also wanted to comment on this:

    "men are unable examine and interpret their behavior from a woman’s position in a patriarchal society."


    "men must acknowledge their position of privilege and be willing to examine their behavior through the lenses of the oppressed."

    That suggests we're doomed. I don't know if it is that bad, though. I think maybe a better "must" is that men must be willing to step back a bit, withhold judgement a bit, bite their tongue a bit, and give the benefit of doubt even when they know they are right and they know the less privileged person is wrong and when they are unable to see from that person's point of view.

    I think the fear is falling into the trap of scared, guilty, and not entirely sincere fawning over someone because of their status as a token oppressed person. But there's a wide range of possibilities between what you described and this other bad place.

    Also, I think that there are some simple practical arguments where even if the man is not convinced of the principles or disagrees with a woman's description of her own experience (!) - there are still practical considerations. Continuing behavior women find problematic will drive women away leading to an all-male organization. At that point recruiting new women would be extremely difficult. And even aside from a great body of evidence that gender parity makes groups more effective, there's the simple matter that needlessly driving off half of your potential membership is stupid.

    Basically, it might be easier to first change behavior based on what common goals and understanding exists, and then develop the ability to see from another person's perspective rather than the other way around. Part of the problem is that boys are brought up to see empathy as a weakness, so when a man comes under attack for not seeing something from another's point of view, their instinct is to shut that down even more. The more insecure they are, the more confidently they will refuse.

    “That was not sexism. Do you need me to tell you what sexism is?”



  2. You bring up some very valid points. I think establishing common goals is essential. I sometimes find it hard to establish common goals simply because we aren't always on the same page. But yes, we can try to work around this. Also, My article does tend to take on a pessimistic tone. Despite this, I have hope-or else what would be the point in writing. I have come across a handful of good men who are able to examine their behavior and are willing to acknowledge their position of power-they work beside women in the struggle against patriarchy. It is because of these men that I maintain hope:)