Privilege has the following invisible internal and attitudinal effects:
The belief that your group has the right to its position The internalization of messages of your group’s superiority The lack of humility that results from your limited knowledge of the minoritized group The invisibility of your privilege to you
Many educators use Peggy McIntosh’s (1989) seminal “invisible knapsack” article to explain privilege. In this article, McIntosh lists 46 privileges she takes for granted on a daily basis because she is White. McIntosh’s privilege inventory is useful for revealing the invisibility of White privilege for many White people and captures some of the important layers of internal and attitudinal effects of privilege. In the story of the three-eyed people above, we can see the following internal and attitudinal elements of privilege playing out:
The privileged group feels comfortable invading the space of minoritized persons. The privileged group feels qualified to represent the experiences of minoritized persons. Members of the privileged group see themselves as superior and believe that the minoritized person could and should be “fixed” or otherwise assimilate to be like them. The privileged group prefers to live segregated from the minoritized group.
The belief that your group has the right to its position. Ideology is a powerful way to support the dominant group’s position. There are several key interrelated ideologies that rationalize the concentration of dominant group members at the top of society and their right to rule.
One is the ideology of meritocracy. Meritocracy is the belief that people’s achievements are based solely on their own efforts, abilities, or merits. Meritocracy posits that social positionality doesn’t matter and that the son of a day-laborer has as much chance of “making it” as the son of Bill Gates or the daughter of Donald Trump, as long as they work hard. Canada and the United States are presented in dominant culture as meritocratic systems. From this perspective, those who do not succeed are simply not as capable or don’t try as hard as those who do.
A second related ideology is that of equal opportunity. This is the idea
that in today’s world, people are no longer prejudiced, social injustice is in the past, and everyone has the same opportunities. In fact, many dominant group members believe that society has swung the needle past center to the opposite end and now unfairly privileges minoritized groups through “special” rights and programs that are denied dominant group members. From this perspective, there may occasionally be isolated cases of injustices, but these are explained away with the “bootstraps” myth—that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps or improve their lot in life by working harder and having the right attitude.
A third related ideology supporting the dominant group’s right to its position is individualism—the belief that we are each unique and outside the forces of socialization. Under individualism, group memberships are irrelevant and the social groups to which we belong don’t provide us with any more or fewer benefits. The ideology of individualism explains gaps between dominant and minoritized groups (in education, health, income, and net worth) as the result of individual strength or weakness. Therefore, those at the top are there because they are the best, brightest, and hardest working.
A fourth related ideology is the ideology of human nature. This ideology rationalizes privilege as natural—“it’s just human nature; someone has to be on top …”—and underpins ideas about civilized versus uncivilized societies. Through this ideology, some societies are seen as more “advanced” due to genetic superiority, cultural superiority (holding values and characteristics such as innovation and tenacity), and/or divine forces (such as Manifest Destiny or the Protestant work ethic). Because they are “advanced” societies, they often “help” less advanced societies. Concepts such as “First World versus Third World” illustrate how human societies are ranked and how these rankings are rationalized. Science and religion have historically been used to support this ideology. For example, science has been used to argue that it is biologically natural for women to be second to men, while religion has been used to argue that it is “God’s will.”
Ideologies such as “Someone has to be on top” further support these hierarchies—consider who is more likely to believe that someone has to be on top: those on the bottom or those on the top? Thus for scholars of critical social justice, because it is so difficult to separate ideas about nature from culture, the question moves from “Is this true?” to “Whom does this belief serve?”
With privilege rationalized through ideology, it follows that dominant groups are socialized to see their dominance as normal and/or earned.
The internalization of messages of superiority. In the story, it was clear that the three-eyed people believed that their bodies were better, more attractive, and more normal than yours. As was evident in the interactions, they set every aspect of what was considered normal in that society. These norms not only included the layout and organization of physical space, but also included values such as which kind of bodies were beautiful and preferable.
As members of the dominant group—in this case people defined as able-bodied—seeing how our privileges manifest can be extremely challenging because everything in our environment is constructed to enable us to take our privileges for granted. The story illustrates the following manifestations of internalized superiority:
There is no value in the experiences of people with disabilities and nothing to gain or learn from their experiences. (The three-eyed people believed that it was better to be three-eyed, and wanted to “fix” you as a two-eyed person. Even though you told them you liked yourself the way you were, they felt entitled to tell you that it was better to be like them.) Able-bodied people are capable of understanding the experiences, representing, and speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. (The play’s writers and producers were the ones to represent two-eyed people and believed that all a three-eyed person had to do was “pretend” to be two-eyed in order to understand and represent their experiences. This was reinforced through the award granted to the actor by other three-eyed people, even though the script reinforced negative stereotypes.)
In ways such as these, those in dominant positions tend to see themselves as superior and tell stories that affirm and support that superiority. They tend to lack interest in the perspectives of the minoritized group except in limited and controlled situations such as writing and producing inspirational stories from the dominant perspective.
In an attempt to draw attention to the narrow “inspirational” stories that are often told by nondisabled people, essayist and blogger Haddayr Copley-Woods (2010) created “disability bingo” (Figure 6.2). This bingo card holds up a mirror for dominant culture to gain a rare glimpse of these stories through the eyes of people with disabilities.
An example of the “inspiration story” about people with disabilities was repeatedly told during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Canadian gold medal mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau and
his brother Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy, were prominently featured in stories about how Alexandre gets his “inspiration” from his big brother Frédéric. This story worked to make Alexandre appear heroic and even more talented and special than he already was as an Olympic-level athlete. The story also served to invest the crowd in his success; to root for Alexandre was to indirectly root for his brother Frédéric and in so doing demonstrate our sympathy for people with disabilities. The brother with cerebral palsy is only mentioned in order to further the story of the heroic Olympian brother. The “inspiration” we draw from this story reinforces the notion of the superiority of the able-bodied while denying Frédéric personhood; Frédéric becomes a prop to advance the story and privilege of Alexandre. This story of course does not stand alone; inspirational stories about people with disabilities are told and retold in mainstream culture in ways that uphold the superiority of those defined as normal.
Consider the idea of inspiration itself. Why are stories about people with disabilities so inspirational to able-bodied people? Notice how they can only be inspirational if the person is presented as overcoming the tragedy and suffering that the able-bodied believe to be inherent to having a disability. If we are telling a story of someone who cannot overcome their disability, then we draw our inspiration from their determination and courage to simply live. These narratives communicate and reinforce the idea that body diversity (anything beyond what is socially constructed as normal) is undesirable; a terrible and tragic medical condition that no one would ever choose and that, if possible, must at all costs be fixed. If the condition cannot be fixed, then it is perceived as a terrible waste of life. Thus the only way to “overcome” the condition is to “put a positive face on it” and struggle to be pleasant. If you have ever thought (or been reminded by others) how “fortunate” you were not to have a disability, consider what ideas about disabilities are being conveyed.