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Developed by Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway and Dr Linda Bartolomei, Graphics by Damayanthi Muthukumarage, Website by Anja Wendt

Session 10. The Power of Privilege

A Definition * B Background * C Tools and Excercises * D Stakeholder Excercises

Aim of the session 

The aim of the session is challenge us all to examine and acknowledge the privileges which we bring into the field, and to identify how to use, and not abuse, them. 

Suggested timing for the session

It will take about 30 minutes to introduce the material, then 90 minutes to complete the exercises. Applying the material to our work is an ongoing challenge!

Some PowerPoints to use when running this session.

A. Privilege – A Useful Definition

Privilege is unearned access or advantages granted to specific groups of people because of their membership in a social group. Privilege can be based on a variety of social identities such as skin colour, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, ability status, sexuality, age, education level and more. 


B. Background Readings on the Power of Privilege 

Whiteness theory, critical race theory and social privilege theory – Personal Reflections from the perspectives of the White, Upper Class lead researchers of this project, Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei 

While over the years, we had considered whiteness theory and other theories addressing the power of privilege, it was not until our work with the Global Compact on Refugees that we really understood and applied these to our work, as we struggled to address the barriers to the full participation of refugee women and girls. Lack of access to the decision making process affected not only their lives, but also of their families and their communities.  As we worked with elite policy actors and stakeholders from around the world, we also came to understand that the privileges inherent in your class position in society, and your gender followed closely behind white privilege as major barriers.   

This thinking has guided our work in the current research cycle. It has not been a comfortable process, we were forced to look at the privileges we have brought into the work, and how we have used (or mis-used) them over the years. It is nice to be given the power to speak ‘on behalf’ of others at prestigious international meetings, and have a seat at the policy table. Power is a great ego booster, and to consciously relinquish power can be difficult. This we have struggled to do, and often failed. However, the reward for challenging ourselves in this way is a different understanding and experience of power, the power that comes with building trust with individuals and communities and working collaboratively to achieve change. This is also the power that refugee women experience when they flourish and achieve great things on their own behalf, and when they are empowered to stand up to the forces that oppress them.   

Being conscious of white privilege and other social privileges, and expressing this honestly with colleagues, can at times also be used as an advantage.  In situations where women activists from the Global South have felt it would be unsafe for them to take certain actions or make certain statements in public meetings, they have asked us to do it, knowing that our privilege would protect us.  Until we genuinely achieve gender equality, and the world is no longer racist, which at times seem to be an impossible dream, this is a reality. If done in full knowledge of what is happening, this subversion of privilege is, at times, one of the more effective tools we have. If done badly, it just reinforces the power of the privileged.

One of the first clear articulations of white privilege is based on the now famous 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege And Male Privilege: A Personal Account Of Coming To See Correspondences Through Work In Women’s Studies, which is still relevant today and has been the basis of subsequent work, which both build on and critically analyse its usefulness.  McIntosh describes white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which white people do not acknowledge and which results in them being materially comfortable, confident, and oblivious to racial issues, while non white people tend to be less materially comfortable, confident, and alienated. She wrote that most white people are reluctant to acknowledge their privilege and instead look for ways to justify or minimise the effects of it, believing that their privilege is fully earned. Even those who understand that privilege is systemic may nonetheless deny having personally benefited from it and may oppose efforts to dismantle it.  They resist acknowledging their privilege because to do so would mean accepting that the success they achieved was not solely from their own efforts.

White privilege is a concept within Critical Whiteness Theory which contends that ‘whiteness’ is a socially constructed norm, whereby the ideologies, social norms and behaviors associated with white culture are normalised and upheld at the top of the racial hierarchy. This leads to cultural dichotomies between ‘white’ and ‘other’, based on expectations of stereotypical behavior. This construction of whiteness as the norm is reinforced by legal and political processes which privilege the ‘white’ race. It causes socioeconomic disadvantage among racial minorities.  This leads to an underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minority individuals and is therefore one of the key social structures that enforces white dominance. This is not easily recognised by the white majority, causing Coleman, Charles and Bonam (2020, p.2) to reflect that characteristic of whiteness is that it is often taken for granted or ignored. Even astute readers of racial justice may have given little thought to what whiteness is and where it comes from.  

Closely related is the field of Critical Race Theory which addresses the same issues of systemic racism from a different angle. It studies race and ethnicity rather than whiteness, and tends to be researched by and focused on people of colour, whereas whiteness theory is primarily researched by and focused on white people (Burton, 2009, cited in Chen, 2017). 

The concept of Social Privilege expands the concept of white privilege to include other forms of privilege, including class, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship, religion, physical ability, health and age, among others. Along with race and gender, class privilege it is the most influential. While all of these privileges are intersectional, Gender Privilege cross cuts all other groups. Class strongly influences one’s overall quality life, including health, mental health, education, profession, affluence, social status and access to power.

For us, White, Gender and Social Privilege Theory provided some answers to the important questions of why it was so difficult to persuade power brokers and key stakeholders to change their positions to addressing the barriers to the participation of refugees, in particular refugee women, as critical participants in the decision making about solutions which determine their lives.  They are clearly visible in the humanitarian and development arenas, which are dominated by white people and non-white people from the educated ruling class. This is a critical barrier to the participation of refugees, who are seldom white or upper class.  

Additional introductory readings:

Peggy McKintosh – “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, 1989, pp. 10-12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA.  and “Some Notes for Facilitators”(2010)   https://www.nationalseedproject.org/key-seed-texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack 

Restorative Resolutions, 2016, Excerpt from “Understanding Race and Privilege”, National Association of School Psychologists: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity-and-social-justice/social-justice/understanding-race-and-privilege 

K. Hubbard, L. Revo-Cohen, G. Crider, Chris Kilmartin, Maria Morukian in Living Around Toxic Culture: Unearned Privilege 2018 https://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/toxic-culture-unearned-privilege/ 

C. Tools to assist us to acknowledge the privileges we enjoy and to use them wisely  

Ci Part one.  In our Personal Lives  

NB.  We are not asking you to share things which may be private or uncomfortable for you to discuss.  If you do not want to refer your personal circumstances,  think of someone you know, or a group of peers, and apply it to them.

a. What inherited privileges do you/they enjoy?

b. What advantages do these give you/them in life? 

And the other side of the coin 

c. What discrimination do you/they suffer ? 

d. How do these impact you/them?  

Cii Part two. In our Professional Lives 

  1. What privileges do UN staff, NGOs and academics have? 
  2. What privileges do refugee leaders have? 
  3. What is the major discrimination endured by refugees, in particular refugee women?       

4. List how these privileges and discrimination affect the ability of refugees to participate in decision making?

5. How will they impact on forming partnerships? 

6. How can we use our privileges to increase opportunities for others to participate? 

We must use our privileges to help others, not to abuse them 

D. Exercises to gain insights from community groups and service provider networks

Depending on the groups with whom you are working you can use just part one of the exercises, or both sections.  It can be very empowering for refugee communities to hear those with many privileges and power over them acknowledge that this is the case. 

It is also important that refuge communities acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of power and privilege within all communities, and that they also need to be willing to share power. 

Take you findings from this exercise forward into your strategic planning