Common Dominant Group Misconceptions About Privilege

Common Dominant Group Misconceptions About Privilege

As you read through these common misconceptions, it might be helpful to identify a group that you are dominant in and through which you experience privilege. Apply the dynamics discussed here to your experience as a member of that group.

“If we haven’t personally discriminated, we are not benefitting.”

Some dominant group members can admit that the minoritized group is oppressed, but still have a limited view of oppression. We don’t realize that we are looking at the minoritized group from a specific position—one that is elevated. Instead, we see ourselves as neutral, perhaps recognizing that they are below us, but seeing ourselves as on level ground. It follows that if we could just pull them up to where we are, their lot would improve. What we don’t recognize is that their oppression lifts us up; because the minoritized group has less, we necessarily have more. The concept of privilege challenges this perceived-neutral reference point by revealing that the dominant group is actually elevated by virtue of the oppression of the minoritized group. Language helps illustrate this point: While we refer to the minoritized group as underprivileged or disadvantaged, we rarely talk about the dominant group as overprivileged or overadvantaged.

“If we can’t feel our social and institutional power, we don’t have

it.” Dominant group members do not have to feel powerful in order to have privilege. The social and institutional power and privilege of


dominant groups is so normalized that it is outside of conscious awareness. Yet we often expect that power is something that one can feel, rather than something one takes for granted. For example, in the case of race privilege, a struggle in one aspect of a White person’s life often becomes confused with a lack of racial privilege. In discussions on race we often hear White working-class men protest that they don’t have any social power. They work long and grueling hours, often in jobs in which they have no long-term security, and come home feeling beaten and quite disempowered. These men often cannot relate to the concept of holding social power. The key to recognizing group-level power is recognizing normalcy—what can be taken for granted. These men are indeed struggling against classism, but they are not struggling against racism. A man of Color in the same job would be dealing with both classism and racism. Indeed, men (and women) of Color have traditionally been kept out of these jobs. Thus, our own sense of power is not necessarily aligned with how others perceive or respond to us, nor our relationship to social and institutional networks.

“If a minoritized person is in charge, there is no oppression.” In our

work we are often asked questions such as, “But our dean is a woman so how can there be sexism in our department?” In thinking about numbers, there is an important distinction between rank and status (Nieto et al., 2010). Rank refers to social membership (such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age), and thus rank is not temporary and impacts all aspects of one’s life. Status refers to a temporary position/job and is contextual (e.g., the infamous story of Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world, unable to hail a cab once outside her workplace). Your dean may be a woman but she will have to enact male norms and values to keep her position and will still deal with unaware sexism from the men she supervises.

A Latino manager, while holding status over a White person he supervises, will still have to deal with the racism of his employees. Research shows that women and peoples of Color in positions of leadership are scrutinized more closely and judged more harshly than White men (Elsass & Graves, 1997). Peoples of Color are often assumed to be the recipients of special programs rather than to have earned their positions, and are often perceived as being biased, having special interests, and being “troublemakers” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Calliste, 1996; Duncan, 2014). Conversely, one of the privileges of being in the dominant group is that you are perceived to be “just human” and thus neutral and unbiased in your viewpoint.


“If we are oppressed in one social group membership, we can’t be

privileged in another.” Remember that we occupy multiple social groups. One may be oppressed as a female but elevated as White; oppressed as a person with a disability but elevated as male; and so on. Consider the oppression of sexism. While all women experience sexism, they experience it differently based on its interaction with their other social group identities.

The experiences of a woman will vary greatly if she is heterosexual or a lesbian. Further, imagine this woman is heterosexual and has a disability. Perhaps she is living with a disability and is Muslim; or living with a disability and is Asian, Muslim, and a nonnative English speaker. In these ways, her experiences are determined not simply by her gender, but also by her ability status and racial, religious, and sexual identity. Thus we can be oppressed in one axis of life and still experience privilege in another. Intersectional analysis requires that we consider how these various social group identities interact with one another.

Forms of oppression can overlap and compound the experience of minoritized groups. Notice how in the examples below, adapted from the work of Zeus Leonardo (2004, 2009), racism intersects with ableism to produce the following manifestations of oppression:

Women of Color, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities have been forcibly sterilized, denying them agency over their own bodies. Intelligence testing and eugenics (selective breeding of humans) construct the idea of the genetic inferiority of Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous peoples. Beliefs that Asian-heritage people are smarter than other groups of Color sets up a competitive hierarchy and reinforces racist concepts of intelligence as genetic.

The life and work of Leroy Moore (Figure 6.3) illustrate these intersections of oppression.

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