External and Structural Dimensions of Privilege

External and Structural Dimensions of Privilege


Are you left-handed? If so, you may notice how left-handed people are marginalized by social norms: the desks in classrooms, the shape of scissors, the locations of buttons on carry-on handles, a camera’s shutter release button, and even the standard way one is taught to strum a guitar or swing a hockey stick. It is possible that you may not have noticed these things, or perhaps they don’t seem significant to you, even if you are left- handed. It may even be the case that left-handed people prefer to use these “normal” tools, having become used to doing things “backwards.” And perhaps there are some right-handed folks who, just for fun, like to use lefty tools to see how it feels for a while. Yet it is still the case that only right-handed people have automatic structural privilege (i.e. unearned advantages)—because they were born right-handed in a social world that was designed for people like them.

Moving on from left-handedness to consider a case with higher stakes, think about how ableism operates (ableism: the oppression of peoples with disabilities). Those of us whose bodies fit the fluid social category called “normal” can go through entire days, weeks, and months never having to consider (for example the physical) barriers that limit access to our environment. How we will get to a certain event, whether we can enter a building, or how we will be seated at the coffee shop, can all be taken for granted. Even if a building is considered accessible, there is often only a single entrance providing access to a limited part of the space, such as the top of a large lecture hall. Such limits segregate people who use wheelchairs or other tools for mobility. They would likely have the worst view and difficulty hearing the questions posed to the speaker, and would have difficulty being heard or seen were they to pose questions. Those of us who are able-bodied can take access for granted because the social and physical environment was set up to accommodate our bodies, giving us social privilege and enabling us to not have to think about life without such “rights.”

“But,” you may wonder, “aren’t there more people without disabilities than people with disabilities? Shouldn’t social institutions accommodate the majority?” While in some cases the privileged group is also the numerical majority, that is not the key criterion. For example, the following dominant groups do not constitute a numerical majority: Men, the upper classes, and White South Africans under apartheid. The key criterion is institutional power; a focus on numbers hides this reality.

As the example of ableism illustrates, privilege has the following external and structural dimensions:

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