Michael Kimmel | Tikkun Magazine Nov/Dec 2002


To run or walk into a strong headwind is to understand the power of nature. You set your jaw in a squared grimace, your eyes are slits against the wind, and you breathe with a fierce determination. And still you make so little progress.

To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind; it feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. It is only when you turn around and face that wind that you realize its strength.

Being white, or male, or heterosexual in this culture is like running with the wind at your back. It feels like just plain running, and we rarely if ever get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled by that wind.

It is time to make that wind visible.

In recent years, the study of discrimination based on gender, race, class, and sexuality has mushroomed. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the research has explored the experiences of the victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class inequality. These are the "victims," the "others" who have begun to make these issues visible to contemporary scholars and lay people alike. This is, of course, politically as it should be: The marginalized always understand first the mechanisms of their marginalization; it remains for them to convince the center that the processes of marginalization are in fact both real and remediable.

When presented with evidence of systematic discrimination, many members of the "majority" are indifferent, sometimes defensive and resistant. "What does this have to do with me?" they ask. Some mention several "facts" that, they believe, will absolve them of inclusion into the superordinate category. "My family never owned slaves," "I have a gay friend," "I never raped anyone," are fairly typical responses. Virtually none seems able to discuss white people as a group. Some will assert that white people are dramatically different from other white people (ethnicity and religion is more important than race); others maintain that white people, as a group, are not at all privileged. And virtually all agree that racism is a problem of individual attitudes, prejudiced people, and not a social problem.

Such statements are as revealing as they are irrelevant. They tell us far more about the way we tend to individualize and personalize processes that are social and structural. And they also tell us that majority members resist discussions of inequality because it will require that they feel guilty for crimes someone else committed.

Even those who are willing to engage with these questions also tend to personalize and individualize them. They may grudgingly grant the systematic nature of inequality, but to them, racism, sexism, and heterosexism are still bad attitudes held by bad people. They are eager to help those bad people see the error of their ways and change their attitudes to good attitudes. This usually will come about through "better education."

Those of us who are white, heterosexual, male, and/or middle class need to go further; we need to see how we are stakeholders in the understanding of structural inequality, how the dynamics that create inequality for some also benefit others. Privilege needs to be made visible.


To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You're everywhere you look, you're the standard against which everyone else is measured. You're like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a "woman doctor," or they will say they went to see "the doctor." People will tell you they have a "gay colleague" or they'll tell you about a "colleague." A white person will be happy to tell you about a "black friend," but when that same person simply mentions a "friend," everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn't have the word "woman" or "gay" or "minority" in the title is, de facto, a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses "literature," "history," or "political science."

This invisibility is political. This was first made visible to me in the early 1980s, when I participated in a small discussion group on feminism. A white woman and a black woman were discussing whether all women were, by definition, "Sisters," because they all had essentially the same experiences and because all women faced a common oppression by men. The white woman asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, in spite of racial differences. The black woman disagreed.

"When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?" she asked.

"I see a woman," replied the white woman.

"That's precisely the problem," responded the black woman. "I see a black woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it's how you are privileged. It's why there will always be differences in our experience."

As I witnessed this exchange, I was startled, and groaned - more audibly, perhaps, than I had intended. Being the only man in the room, someone asked what my response had meant.

"Well," I said, "when I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, and no gender. I'm the generic person!"

Sometimes, I like to think that it was on that day that I became a middle-class white man. Sure, I had been all those before, but they had not meant much to me. I enjoyed the privilege of invisibility. The very processes that confer privilege to one group and not another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred. What makes us marginal or powerless are the processes we see, partly because others keep reminding us of them. Invisibility is also a privilege in another sense - it is a luxury that only white people have in our society not to think about race every minute of their lives. It is a luxury that only men have in our society to pretend that gender does not matter.

While this story took place over twenty years ago, I was reminded of it recently when I went to give a guest lecture for a female colleague at my university. (We teach the same course on alternate semesters, so she always gives a guest lecture for me, and I do one for her.) As I walked in to the auditorium, one student looked up at me and said "Oh, finally, an objective opinion!"

All that semester, whenever my female colleague opened her mouth, what this student saw was "a woman." Biased. But when I walked in, I was, in this student's eyes, unbiased, on objective opinion. Disembodied Western rationality - standing right in front of the class! This notion that middle-class white men are "objective" and everyone else is "biased" is the way that inequalities are reproduced.

Let me give you another example of how power is so often invisible to those who have it. Most of you have email addresses, and you write email messages to people all over the world. You've probably noticed that there is one big difference between email addresses in the United States and email addresses of people in other countries: Their addresses have "country codes" at the end of the address. So, for example, if you were writing to someone in South Africa, you'd put "za" at the end, or "jp" for Japan, or "uk" for England (United Kingdom) or "de" for Germany (Deutschland). Even if you write to someone at a university in another country, you have to use to country code, so, for example, it would be "" for an academic institution in Britain, or "" for an educational institution in Australia. But when you write to people in the United States, the email address ends with "edu" for an educational institution, "org" for an organization, "gov" for a federal government office, or "com" or "net" for commercial internet providers. Why is it that the United States doesn't have a country code?

It is because when you are the dominant power in the world, everyone else needs to be named. When you are "in power," you needn't draw attention to yourself as a specific entity, but rather, you can pretend to be the generic, the universal, the generalizable. From the point of view of the United States, all other countries are "other" and thus need to be named, marked, noted. Once again, privilege is invisible. In the world of the Internet, as Michael Jackson sang, "we are the world."

I was reminded of reaction from the privileged recently when I appeared on a television talk show opposite three "angry white males" - three men who felt that they had been the victims of workplace discrimination. The show's title, no doubt to entice a large potential audience, was "A Black Woman Took My Job." In my comments to these angry men, I invited them to consider what the word "my" meant in that title, that they felt that the jobs were originally "theirs," that they were entitled to them, and that when some "other" person - black, female - got the job, that person was really taking "their" job. But by what right is that job theirs? By convention, by a historical legacy of such profound levels of discrimination that we have needed decades of affirmative action to even begin to make slightly more level a playing field that has tilted so decidedly in one direction.


One way to understand how privilege works - and how it is kept invisible - is to look at the way we think about inequality. We always think about inequality from the perspective of the one who is hurt by the inequality, not the one who is helped. Take, for example, wage inequality based on gender. We're used to hearing that women make about seventy-one cents for every dollar made by a man. In that statistic women's wages are calculated as a function of men's wages; men's wages are the standard (the $1) against which women's wages are calculated. In this way, the discrimination against women is visible - doing the same job, they earn less, just because they are women.

But what if we changed the statistics? What if we expressed men's wages as a function of women's wages? What if we said that for every dollar earned by a woman, men make $1.34? Then it wouldn't be the discrimination that was visible - it would be the privilege. Just for being a male, a male worker received an additional thirty-four cents. This is what sociologist R. W. Connell calls the "masculinity dividend" - the unearned benefits that accrue to men, just for being men.

One could easily apply this to race, class, and sexuality. Perhaps no one has done that more successfully than Peggy McIntosh, in her celebrated essay on what she calls the "invisible knapsack." The invisible knapsack contains all the little benefits that come to us simply because we are white, or straight, or middle class, or male. We have to open up that knapsack, dump its contents out and take a look at all the very different ways that these ascribed characteristics (those we were born with) have become so obscured that we have come to believe that the events of our lives are the results of achieved characteristics. Making gender, race, class, sexuality visible - both as the foundations of individual identity and as the social dynamics of inequality - also means that we pay some attention to the differences among them as well. Just as all forms of inequality are not the same, all forms of privilege are not the same.

For example, race and gender appear, at least on the surface, to be based on characteristics present at birth: one's sex or race. That means that they are always visible to an observer. (Well, at least nearly always. There are, of course, people who change their biological sex, or who dress differently from established norms, and those who try and pass as members of another race.) Thus the privileges based on gender or race may feel even more invisible because those privileged by race and gender did nothing to earn their privilege.

Two other dimensions of identity - sexuality and class - are not immediately visible. One can more easily pass as a member of a privileged group. But sexual minorities also may feel that their identity is not a social construction but the fulfillment of an inner essence - i.e., it is more like race and gender than it is like class. While race and biological sex may be evidently inborn, biologically based and/or "God-given," sexuality also feels like that, to both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Class, however, does not. In fact, class seems to feel exactly the opposite - as a status that one was not born with but that one has earned. Class is less visible than the other dimensions because while our objective position in an economic order depends on empirically measurable criteria (income, occupation, education), class as an everyday experience rests on other people's evaluation of our presentation of self. It is far easier to pass as something we are not - both for people of modest means to affect the lifestyle of the rich and famous and for very wealthy people to affect the styles of the poor. While most of us would like to have everyone think we are wealthier than we actually are, it is often the case that the truly wealthy want everyone to think they are less wealthy than they are. We may dress "up" while they dress "down."

Class can be concealed and class feels like something we have earned all by ourselves. Therefore, class privilege may be the one set of privileges we are least interested in examining because they feel like they are ours by right, not by birth.


It's difficult and often unpleasant to acknowledge that all the good things that have happened to you are not simply the result of your hard work and talent and motivation but the result of something over which you had no power.

This realization, in turn, often leaves us feeling powerless, impotent. We can become mired in guilt. Some people argue that guilt is a negative emotion, and that we shouldn't have to feel guilty for the things that happened generations - even centuries - ago.

Yet guilt may be an appropriate, even necessary feeling - for a while. Guilt isn't always a "bad" emotion after all. How would you feel about hearing Germans say that they "really don't want to feel guilty" about what happened there? "After all, I never personally sent a Jew to the gas chambers." If our guilt does not freeze us in abjection, it can motivate us to transform the circumstances that made us feel guilty in the first place, to make connections between our experiences and others' and to become and remain accountable to the struggles for equality and justice around the world. Guilt can politicize us. (Perhaps that's why we often resist it?)

While noble in intention, however, this posture of guilty self-negation cannot be our final destination as we come to understand how we are privileged by race, class, gender, and sexuality. Refusing to be men, white, or straight does neither the privileged nor the unprivileged much good. Renouncing privilege ultimately substitutes an individual solution for a structural and social problem. Inequality is structural and systematic, as well as individual and attitudinal. Eliminating inequalities involves more than changing everyone's attitudes.

Trying to rid oneself of bad attitudes, renouncing one's unearned privilege, also, finally, brings us no further than the feelings of impotent despair that we often feel in the face of such overwhelming systemic problems. We feel lonely. We feel isolated from our friends, our families, or our classmates. It's the loneliness of the long distance runner against the wind.

The struggles against inequality are, however, collective struggles, enormous social movements that unite people across geography, race, religion, class, sexuality, and gender. Participating in these struggles to end inequality brings one into a long history of those who have stood alongside the victims of oppression, those who have added their voices to the voices of those who had been earlier silenced. Examining our privilege may be uncomfortable at first, but it can also be energizing, motivating, and engaging.

Even more energizing, if exhausting, can be to explore the ways in which race, class, gender and sexuality intersect and interact. "Where does the black person stop and the woman begin?" ask some writers. How can one analyze the totality of one's experience without examining the ways in which all these categories coincide, collide, contradict? Do we dare explore the ways in which race, gender, class, and sexuality interact in the lives of those who are privileged by one or more of these identities? Examining those arenas in which we are privileged as well as those arenas in which we are not privileged will enable us to understand our society more fully, and engage us in the long historical process of change.

Michael Kimmel teaches sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook. This is an early version of the introduction to Privilege, edited by Michael Kimmel and Andy Ferber, to be published by Westview Press in March 2003. © 2002 Michael Kimmel.
Copyright 2002-2003 Tikkun Magazine. All rights reserved.


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