How to Be a Privilege Traitor

There is a tremendous amount of structural injustice and inequality occurring, and when a structure is unjust, it’s important that people learn how to think structurally in order to change the system. The concept of privilege can really help with that thinking, unless …

I’ve been noticing a lot of anguish and conflict occurring in my online communities about the word privilege. White privilege, male privilege, elite privilege, and more … these things are finally being talked about openly, and thank goodness! But there has been a lot of backlash, because people are mistakenly thinking that their privilege is somehow intentional or should be shame-inducing.

Photo of author Karla McLaren - a smiling White middle-aged woman with silver hair and glasses
I have white, middle class, educated, heteronormative, able-bodied privilege, and I’m not afraid to use it for social justice. I am an intentional Privilege Traitor.

No. Just no. Privilege in this context doesn’t mean that you’ve got it made and you’re actively denying basic necessities to everyone. Privilege is a sociological term that helps us talk about structural inequality.

Your privilege isn’t intentional, and you don’t earn it; you’re born into it. It’s a feature of the social structure and not of you as an individual. However, as an individual, you have many choices about what to do with your unearned privilege.

Sadly, there’s a lot of push-back about privilege from people who feel that they’re being shamed or mocked for simply existing in their white skin or in their male bodies (etc.).

Some people intuitively understand the concept of privilege and can engage with it almost immediately (these people are often disabled or unprivileged in some ways, yet privileged in others, so they know the territory). However, many people are reacting and digging in — not just because the concept of privilege is somewhat shocking, but also because it is often explained very poorly.

You have to earn your privileges, young lady

One issue that I see is that the word privilege is very charged in its regular usage. Privileges in regular life point to a power inequality; they’re something you earn from an authority figure by being an obedient and high-producing child, or by being a compliant prisoner, student, or underling. The granting of privileges means that there is often a tremendous power discrepancy at play, and that’s charged.

My parents didn’t play the privileges game with me, thank goodness, but many of my teachers did, and it always felt like self-betrayal to play their game. I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office because I often refused to be manipulated into behaving for rewards or punishments. For many people, the everyday definition of privileges is pretty toxic.

On the other side of the coin, being privileged (in everyday language) can be a pretty unflattering situation — it can mean that you are unfairly empowered, self-satisfied and self-absorbed, and/or greedy. Think Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatuous.

So when people hear about (for instance) White privilege, they can react pretty intensely against it.

I think that it’s not only hard to look at the structural racism and structural inequality that is a foundation of our society — but it’s also shocking for people to think that they’re being called three awful things: 1) an intentional racist, 2) a compliant underling, and 3) also an unfairly empowered and greedy person!

It’s no wonder people fight against the idea that they have privilege!

But it’s actually an entirely different thing that we’re talking about

I was very fortunate to have learned the sociological definition of privilege, which is to unevenly give voice or status to something.

For instance, if you are writing a research study about life in a school, and you mistakenly privilege the accounts of the janitors, your study will be biased toward the janitor’s views, and it will be a failed study (if you intended to paint a picture of the entire social world of the school).

Here’s the big secret about privilege: If it’s working as it should, no one who has it will be aware of it!

When you work as a researcher or as a journalist, watching out for how you’re privileging certain voices is a way to make sure that you don’t mistakenly insert unnecessary bias into your work, whew!

In society at large, however, privileging occurs regularly and often unintentionally. The voices and structures that are privileged, sociologically speaking, create bias and inequality.

This privileging may not have been a conscious decision, but the bias becomes a fact of life, and there are repercussions for the people who have not been privileged. There is inequality built into social structures because privilege (and hierarchy) exists in social structures.

This definition of the word privilege is what’s so often missing in discussions of privilege — because the big secret about privilege is that if it’s working as it should, no one who has it will be aware of it!

If people were openly aware of their privilege, then it wouldn’t be structural, and it wouldn’t be hidden, and it wouldn’t be privilege in the sociological sense.

Privilege in the sociological sense isn’t something you earn through compliance, and isn’t something you get by being greedy or bigoted. Privilege is structural and invisible, and you should be completely unaware of it until you become enlightened about it.

It is a privilege to be able to talk about privilege!

So instead of shaming people about something they can’t possibly be aware of until they learn about this strange concept, let’s have fun with privilege! Privilege is not a personal failing; it’s something that we have no control over until we become awake to the absolute and inarguable facts of structural inequality.

When you are awake to privilege, you can stop being an unwitting tool of inequality, and you can use the power of your privilege in amazing ways.

Once you know privilege, you can use it as a tool of social justice. You can become a Privilege Traitor! It’s fun!

If you have white privilege (or any other racial privilege), you can work in a hundred ways to make race less toxic for people of color. You can use your privilege as a tool for social justice. #BlackLivesMatter #ImmigrationReform

If you have middle class privilege, you can work to make the excesses of the upper classes less toxic, and you can work to help people in the lower classes become more safe and secure. You have power; use it well. #InterrogateInequality

If you have upper class privilege, you can marshal your resources to create fluid and empathic networks of support that empower the people below you. #NoblesseOblige

If you have male privilege, you can raise your voice in support of women, and actively work to challenge the structures that demean, objectify, silence, and endanger them. #EqualityNow

If you have majority religious privilege, you can work to call out religious bigotry wherever you see it. As a member of the majority, your voice has a power that minority voices simply don’t have. #DoUntoOthers

If you have the privilege of education, you can use your skills to support people who didn’t have your opportunities, or you can lend your education to people in need, to struggling students, or to people who can’t read or write. #OpentheAcademy

If you have hetero-normative privilege, you can use it to make life safer and more just for sexual minorities and gender-diverse people. #NoH8

If you have able-bodied privilege (if you aren’t disabled or ill, or you don’t look disabled or ill), you can use it to advocate for accessible spaces, for education and social support, and for inclusion for all people with disabilities. #DisabilitySolidarity

And so forth.

No matter what privilege you have — even if you only have a tiny little bit, look closely. Simply having Internet connection and the ability to read and write in English is privilege, and you can wield it in service to so many people and so many causes. #KnowledgeIsPower #AccessJustice

Look closely at your privilege — not as a shameful thing that fills you with impotent regret and remorse, no! That’s a silly thing to do with power you’ve inherited. Instead, find all of your privilege and use it intentionally for the good of all. Structural inequalities can be righted, but only when people in the structure wake up, stop being cogs in the machine, and start using their power to challenge — and reduce — injustice.

Become a Privilege Traitor. Turn your unearned privilege into a blessing, a tool for social justice, and a dedication to the soul of the world.

Discover and celebrate all of your privilege and put it to work, you traitors. #PrivilegeTraitorsRock

23 Responses

  1. Claire Leveille
    | Reply

    Well said! I agree

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you, Claire! Rock on!

  2. Jean-Charles Massé
    | Reply

    It is a real pleasure to read you.

  3. MaryJo
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    I think this is the best article on Privilege that I’ve ever read. Thank you.
    P.S. I found “The Language of Emotions” so meaningful, again Thank You!

  4. KB
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    I often wonder how to use our power to empower others. And how to help them see that they have so much more power than they think – even those with privileges have SO much more power than we generally give ourselves credit for.

    I find so often that people use the word “privilege” to imply that those without are victims. I certainly have education privilege, but I think seeing those without my education level as powerless or victims doesn’t serve me OR them. So from a full cup of my own, how can I support the system in changing? (and personally, I think a full cup is important, and I think too many people try to give from a partially full cup which creates a cycle of codependence….)

    Anecdotally, I know plenty of people with less education who are more successful than my classmates (both financially and emotionally). So, how can I support them, without feeling like I need to “save them” (implying, again, superiority)?

    As a lesbian myself, I don’t want to be seen as a victim either. But what would support a systematic change of belief about homosexuality? What can one heterosexual person do? What is within their power? And what really *is* the problem – at its core? Why do these patterns exist and how can we really change them (not pretend to change them or change them on the surface)? Is the problem that we unconsciously (collectively) are playing out patterns and beliefs and conditioning that supports separation — race, class, education, ability, etc? And if that IS the problem, then wouldn’t the solution be that each individual person does their work to believe, in their bones (again, not pretending to believe), that we aren’t separate? B/c preaching it without practicing it isn’t effective. But preaching it and practicing it ripples waves exponentially.

    Just thinking out loud 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Kristen, and thanks for riffing on privilege. Because privilege is structural, I look at structure rather than at individuals. I’m also riffing now.

      I’m reading my favorite magazine this week, Contexts, from the American Sociological Society, and an article really brought me up short. It suggested that food banks and individual charities to help the poor or the homeless (and women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations) actually increased inequality and artificially gave local, state, and federal governments the idea that no serious or structural help was needed. I was like – what the what? Huh?

      But then I started thinking about the situation for homeless people in my county — Sonoma. I do impromptu street support whenever I see a homeless person, and see if they’re hooked into the local support network, if they need to call anyone, if they need a ride, etc. I say support “network,” but that’s being extremely generous. The state has set up a clearinghouse, and you can call 211 toll-free to get information on what’s available. That sounds supportive and structural, doesn’t it?

      But this network is actually a patchwork of food banks, church-run charities, day services, extremely controlling shelters (one requires a drug and alcohol test before a homeless person can even get on the weeks-long waiting list), community clinics, a mailbox service (but you have to have ID, and many of these people get robbed regularly), and emergency food stamps. Many of these services are run on donations, which is a very unstable way to do anything, and often the services will run out, or the centers will close on days when they should have been open because they don’t have any supplies — and the homeless people will show up and be turned away.

      But these services are far-flung, each one is open at strange hours on specific days, and just getting hooked up to services requires that a vulnerable homeless person has transportation, bus fare, a phone, and a scheduling calendar. Not to mention a legal address. What the actual fuck?

      I contrast that situation to the situation in the GLBT community, where people have gathered together to make very effective structural changes at the legislative and legal level. I have read about some concern in the community that all the focus on gay marriage supports a traditionally paternalistic institution and perhaps takes money away from youth community centers (since alienation and homelessness among GLBTIQA youth is so high), but as I look at one of the most successful minority rights movements in history, I have to bow to the wisdom of focusing on structure, and on formalized, bureaucratic, legal change when serious inequality is afoot.

      So I’m really rethinking my approach to homelessness, and looking at the way the focus on the individual (either the homeless person or the person giving donations to charities) is actually a way to blame the victim and stop any effective change from happening. Whoa. So now I’m rethinking how to use my privileges to make real change rather than support this patchwork of silly change that keeps vulnerable people running around the county to get sad, band-aid handouts or to stay in sad and unwelcoming places.

      But what you say about individuals is also important, as long as we’re not talking about extremely vulnerable people who are made vulnerable by structural inequality. It’s fine to tell people to think positively and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but it’s also helpful to empower people by helping them understand and work with the system to effect longterm change. Sometimes, I think that it would be wonderful to have licensed clinical sociologists to go to, rather than focusing everything on the psychological and the personal. Taking care of the self and improving the self is important, but understanding the self within the larger structure is also crucial. Riff!

  5. Sue
    | Reply

    You continue to be a must-read 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you MaryJo, Jean-Charles, and Sue, you traitors!

  6. cathy
    | Reply

    This is the first time that i have read about my privileges and felt empowered, rather than guilty.

    Thank you Karla. Now action seems possible. And potentially fun.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Cathy, and welcome to the fun traitor clan. We have cake!!

  7. Satatma Powell
    | Reply

    I am just finding your work and am so excited to read more! I have been talking about privilege a lot over the past week and sadly not understanding the extent to which this word was being misunderstood by people. Thank you, I am grateful to be able to share this. I also talk about emotion in the context of spirituality on my most recent blog. You may find it interesting 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Satatma, and thanks for the link. I didn’t know that Robert wrote about spiritual bypass! I just saw a big example of it last weekend, and I wish that I had remembered the phrase. I don’t know if I could have spoken of it in the situation, because the person was really advocating hard for ignoring emotions and dissociating into floaty cloud Godistan, but man, it’s such a crucial concept, especially when emotional work needs to occur.

      Privilege misunderstandings! Like you, I’ve seen endless misunderstandings, such that the word privilege often really negatively affects communication. It’s such a shame, because looking at social structure is one of the most astonishingly useful things ever. I love the concept of privilege traitoring, because it turns a scary and shame-filled thing into a cheeky game.

      Cheek away, privilege traitor!

  8. Michael
    | Reply

    I think much of the trouble is due to different definitions of what “privilege” means (as you note). It’s because of this that people being told they have privilege can often offend them so much. I know what people mean by saying it, but even now it still raises my hackles somewhat. Naturally this is never helped by those who do seem to use it as an accusation. Of course, I think misunderstandings occur anyway due to specialized jargon such as sociology uses, among other fields. While doubtless it helps to have a term for something that can be used without any long explanation, to people unfamiliar with that jargon this can be a bewildering opaque language that causes misunderstanding and given an impression that one is being talked down to sometimes.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes Michael — there’s so much confusion about privilege, and it doesn’t help when self-appointed social justice warriors tear into people and use the word privilege as an accusation. Sometimes when I’m online and people are having thread wars about whatever, I want to point out — You do know that there are tabs on your browser, and that that you could take a minute to go and educate yourself without even having to close down this page, right? Right?

      …. crickets ….

      I think it’s easier for people to just point fingers and fight than it is to listen or become educated. I mean, it’s easier in the moment, but it makes everything harder in the long run.

  9. Michael
    | Reply

    Yes, the more extreme users of “privilege” (like many concepts) turn off those who might be receptive otherwise. No one likes to feel assaulted. On the other hand, I do recognize people use extremists as an excuse not to change their views. This gives them an excuse to make themselves the victim (something that is quite popular in these days). Identity politics and victimhood have spread out so far that now everyone seems to be getting into them. And yes, it only hinders things.

  10. Ilona
    | Reply

    I love the idea of licenced clinical sociologists!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Me too!! If it were a thing, I would so sign up! I’m creating jobs for myself as an attending sociologist and a roving linguistic anthropologist until the powers that be get their acts together!

  11. Denise MaGee
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I love this article and have often cited it as a resource or used your explanation to help me inform someone of where they are privileged in their stance and how it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    At the same time, I often see how anger and shame are used to ‘wake someone up’. If I point out that this is not actually going to do so, especially if you are just throwing around terminology that automatically makes you feel defensive, then it’s just pointed to as ‘fragility’.

    I took the time to read about fragility and I certainly understand why the term exists, yet it seems to actually make things worse because it seems dismissive as well — a ‘my pain is so much worse than your pain I’m not even going to listen to you’ stance.

    I’ve also been trying to better understand the emotions that are arising when someone is being triggered or ‘fragile’. It feels like anger, shame, fear and I think grief. But for the bad rap shame and anger get, grief seems to get it even more so.

    Could you tell me your understanding of fragility and maybe point to where in your books I can find information or other resources, so that I can better explain this concept. I know the people I’m talking to care deeply about dismantling privilege, but it often comes across as slapping you in the face instead of truly allowing another to be open to change.

    Thank you for all the work you do. It has been truly life-saving for me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Denise — yes, I’m finding most activist behaviors to be not just counter-productive, but actually backlash-generating. It’s easy to see why people would want to get up in other people’s faces, but it’s counter to the way human psychology actually works.

      I would say that fragility is defensiveness, so there’s panic there (fight, flee, or freeze), and also an inability to feel healthy shame (brought on by the defensiveness). Since it can be very difficult to work with panic or shame, the in-your-face form of shaming activism actually pushes people into a place of emotional incompetence. Most people can’t hear when they’re defensive, panicky, and ashamed, so you might as well have said nothing rather than throw people into chaos.

      Some good work on learning how to speak in conflicts without raising people’s defensiveness, panic, and shame is Sharon Ellison’s Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. This link goes to a series of audio clips that introduce you to her work. I think you’ll like it.

      And yay about saving your life! We empaths have to stick together.

  12. Renee Benmeleh
    | Reply

    Yo yo! Loved reading this and the comments as well…

    So, I think, sadly, my pointing out to someone in my life to have some awareness of their privilege landed as shaming, though, it was not meant from that place. It seemed so “clear” to me that the awareness was missing from the perspective ( !!! ).

    I grew up in Venezuela. All my family were post-war immigrants from Greece, Turkey, and Morocco. Though many of the family had darker skin, some did not. My family scene was a cornucopia of food, music, customs, and some of the struggle of people of color or people trying to financially survive. My grandparents were holocaust survivors, and my grandmother came home from Aushwitz-Birkenow, and managed to go on a be a fabulous human being with a lot of shadow, for sure, but also deep, deep presence and love. May her memory always be for a blessing.

    My mother was also a single mom, and some of the nannies that took care of me lived in the barrio, some of them in shacks in the mountains. Many times, I went to their place and played with the kids, so, for me, being around people of color was just normal.

    My grandparents on one side worked hard! They earned their upper class privilege, and that was one influence in my childhood. The other side maintained, what we could call middle class standing until later when their children were able to move upwardly in the financial sense. They had new skills, and new opportunities.

    For the most part, you look at my family, and you might say “they are white”, and in many ways they are, in terms of their perspectives and their experiences.

    Its odd to walk around and know that I may not be discriminated against at first glance, but that I have been because I am gay, and inside I feel like a person with brown skin, and a two-spirit (which has nothing to do with being gay, but with feeling like I am as equally male as female), I am fairly sure it would be the case regardless of my sexual preference.

    What feels important to me about this awareness of privilege is finding an inner humility and gratitude, and yes, as you say, to use this time, energy, fire, financial resources, caring, etc…to shift the social construct.

    I look forward to bringing this into the field of awareness with gentleness.

    Thank you Karla!

    love! Love!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Loveya, Privilege Traitor! You’ve got curly hair privilege and fabulous babe privilege. And you share them beautifully! 😉

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