What is Privilege? How to Navigate It | Inclusive Employers

What is privilege? How to navigate it at work

Courtney Wright, our Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, delves into privilege and how to deal with it at work.

Continue reading to learn more about the various types of privilege, as well as privilege examples

What is privilege?

If you hear the word ‘privilege’ and feel a sense of discomfort, you are not alone.

Reflecting on the traditional meaning of privilege, you might think about someone who has been handed everything in life and hasn’t worked hard to get to where they are. I come from a working-class background and would often hear the phrase “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”, to describe people who had financial privilege.

Whilst it is undeniable that socioeconomic privilege is part of this conversation, it’s important that we recognise that our understanding of privilege in the diversity and inclusion space has grown beyond this.

The concept of privilege now helps us to understand the way wider society has developed through time to give advantage to certain groups over others.

Privilege is essentially the unearned advantages we have because of different aspects of our identity. It’s about whether or not the world has been designed with us in mind. Therefore, privilege is power.

Those from underrepresented or marginalised groups face disadvantages that those with privilege may not be aware of or have even considered. The existence of privilege is clear for those who don’t have it, and often invisible to those who do. That’s why it’s important we get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and educate ourselves on this.

You can’t control the amount of privilege you have but you do have some control over how you use your privilege to demonstrate allyship.

The different types of privilege

There are many different types of privilege. It’s not a case of ‘yes I am privileged’ or ‘no I am not privileged’ – it’s about recognising that individuals will have different characteristics that afford them privilege or disadvantage.

Intersectionality theory highlights that we don’t experience the world based on just one of these characteristics – the different elements of our identity overlap and intersect to create our experience of privilege and discrimination. Some individuals may face multiple barriers, which compound to create unique challenges.

To get you thinking this blog shares examples of how aspects of our identity may give us privilege but is not an exhaustive list.

White privilege

White privilege refers to advantages a white person has because of their race, as there is racial inequality in society.

Due to colonialism, white privilege impacts people across the world. Examples include;

  • Products are designed to suit your skin colour e.g. plasters
  • At school, you learnt about people from history that were your own race
  • When you walk around a shop you are not followed by a security guard

White passing privilege

People who are from non-white or multi-racial backgrounds and have skin that is light enough to pass as white may have white-passing privilege.

This means that society racialises you as white and that is the way you are treated. I can reflect on my own experience here as an example; I identify as mixed race, I have white British/white Irish/Black Polynesian American heritage, and I have light skin.

As people make the assumption that I am white, I have not faced racism in the same way that my sibling (who is not white-passing) has.

Although it’s important to recognise privilege here, being white passing does have unique challenges, which you can read more about in our multiracial blog.

Non-disabled privilege

Non-disabled privilege refers to the advantages that people have when they do not have a disability. Often, aspects of our society are not designed with accessibility as a priority, which can create barriers for disabled people.

  • You don’t have to think in advance whether a building you are visiting will be accessible or not
  • I can take public transport easily  
  • I don’t often encounter communication barriers

Age privilege

Age privilege refers to advantages people have because of their age. This can be a privilege associated with being younger or older.

  • People are less likely to question your ability or authority in your line of work (older)
  • Your age group is often represented in the media (younger)
  • You are not assumed to be stuck in your ways (younger)

Gender privilege

Male privilege refers to a disadvantage that is a result of the patriarchy, a system which was designed for men to hold power.

  • Safety equipment fits you as it is designed based on the average man
  • You feel safe travelling alone
  • You are not mistaken for being a note-taker in meetings

Cisgender privilege refers to the advantages that people have if their sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity.

  • People use your correct pronouns, and you are not often misgendered
  • You can easily find clothes that match your gender expression and are designed for your body
  • You can use public facilities such as toilets without anxiety about being harassed

Religious privilege

Religious privilege refers to the advantages that people have if their religion is the dominant one in society. For example, in the UK, Christianity is the largest religion.

  • You don’t find it difficult to find a place of worship near where you live
  • You can more easily get time off for your religious holidays as they align with Bank Holidays (in the UK)
  • You don’t have to worry about whether there will be the space or facilities for you to pray at work

Wellness privilege

Wellness privilege can refer to the advantages people have based on different aspects of well-being including physical, emotional and social.

  • You have a good work-life balance
  • You can easily find time to exercise or move in a way that keeps you healthy and you enjoy
  • You would describe your mental health as being good

Heterosexual privilege

Heterosexual privilege refers to advantages people may have because of their sexual orientation.

  • You likely won’t need to ‘come out’ about your sexuality as yours is seen as the default
  • Your relationship is always represented in media e.g. TV, Films, Adverts
  • You don’t worry about your safety when going out in public with your partner

Socio-economic privilege

Whilst this links to the more traditional view of the word privilege, socioeconomic background can be complex to define and explore. This may be related to your financial situation, housing situation, education, or personal circumstances.

  • You have financial stability or job security
  • You don’t worry about keeping a roof over your head
  • You can afford to take an unpaid internship or unpaid work experience to gain industry experience

Linking privilege through life to the workplace

Our experiences throughout life affect us in the workplace, we carry these with us. Those who have faced disadvantages may have a sense of Imposter Syndrome, be less likely to advocate for themselves and not feel empowered to speak up.

The workplace itself can widen inequalities – who gets promoted, who are awarded bonuses, who are paid more? Those who have privilege may feel more confident in the workplace as it has been designed with them in mind.

How to navigate privileges at work

Recognise your own privilege – even those of us from marginalised groups may have privilege in other aspects of our identity. By acknowledging our own, we can be role models for others to do the same.

Raise awareness – some people may not have had the opportunity to think about privilege in this way before. It’s important to recognise people are at different points in their inclusion journey and we want to bring them along with us. Raising awareness of privilege can help people within your organisation understand the ‘why’ of your inclusion and diversity initiatives.

Awareness to Action – once people are aware of privilege, we can better understand the structural barriers that are in place. This gives us the opportunity to move that awareness into action and inspire colleagues to support each other in implementing change.

Final thoughts

Privilege might feel like a difficult topic to discuss, but it doesn’t have to be. This concept helps us to better our understanding of the barriers that others face, challenge the way things are done and create a more open and inclusive environment in our workplaces and wider society.

If you’d like support on discussing privilege in your organisation, get in touch with your account manager or send us an enquiry here.