Privilege (social inequality)

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Privilege is a way of framing issues surrounding social inequality, focusing as much on the advantages that one group accrues from society as on the disadvantages that another group experiences. While the concept of privilege was originally limited to issues of race and gender, the term's usage has expanded greatly over the years to include other forms of social inequality, including class and sexuality. Many advocates of privilege theory believe that the main reason why privilege must be pointed out is so that those in positions of power can realize that they are privileged and can use this privilege to combat inequality.[1]


A 1988 essay, "Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege" written by Peggy McIntosh [2] is considered the foundation of a clear conceptualization of the mechanics of privilege. It begins by claiming that while men might be sympathetic to and supportive of gender equality, many men resist close introspection of their privilege. McIntosh claimed that social hierarchies are interlocking. This discovery led her to examine White privilege and how her own White privilege was a commonplace set of unquestioned assumptions. She gave an exhaustive list of what she sees as the enjoyable daily effects of White privilege, such as being able to go shopping mostly assured that she will not be followed or harassed, being able to shop for music and expecting to find the music of her race represented, staple foods that fit her cultural traditions at the grocery store, and someone who could cut her hair in any hair salon.[3]

Specific types[edit]

Group role[edit]

Privilege differs from conditions of overt prejudice, in which a dominant group actively seeks to oppress or suppress another group for its own advantage. Instead, theories of privilege suggest that the privileged group views its social, cultural, and economic experiences as a norm that everyone should experience, rather than as an advantaged position that must be maintained at the expense of others. Rather than being something that is earned, privilege is something that is given to a person based on characteristics they are assigned at birth, such as cultural identity and class.


Underprivilege is a lack of opportunities or advantages enjoyed by other members of one's community. It can include economic inequality, class discrimination and relative deprivation.


When steps are taken to reduce social inequality, those steps can be interpreted as having two effects: reverse discrimination for one group; and affirmative action for the other group.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Johnson, Fern L. (2009). “Privilege.” In S. Littlejohn, & K. Foss (Eds.), Encyclopedia of communication theory. (pp. 799-801). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  2. ^ First published as Peggy McIntosh 'White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies', Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Working Paper, 189 (Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988); better known in excerpted form as Peggy McIntosh, 'White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack', Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989), 9-10; repr. in Independent School, 49 (1990), 31–35.
  3. ^ Johnson, F. (2009). Privilege. In S. Littlejohn, & K. Foss (Eds.), Encyclopedia of communication theory. (pp. 799-801). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.