Whiteness, middle-class status, able bodied-ness, heterosexuality, and maleness are privileged and normalized by Western society. The intersections of my identity as a heterosexual, former working class, abled bodied, cisgender white woman are simultaneously a challenge of white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, capitalist society and in support of it.
According to Patricia Hill Collins in the article “Toward a New Vision,” “Once we realize that there are few pure victims or oppressors, and that each one of us derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression that frame our lives, then we will be in a position to see the need for new ways of thought and action,” (60). The relationship among aspects of one’s identity needs to be understood with the complexity of its reality as they support and reinforce one’s experience of oppression and/or privilege. Focusing on gender or race in isolation from other aspects of identity can obscure the effects race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, gender, etc. have on one another and it can problematically suggest that identity works in an additive analysis to explain experiences of oppression and privilege rather than examining the intersectionality of identity as simultaneously reinforcing and complicating oppression and privilege.
Whereas my socially constructed identity as a working class woman has structurally subordinated me and shaped my social location and perception of the world, my identity as a white and heterosexual human have given me advantages in society to access opportunities and unearned privileges; while it is easier for me to recognize my oppressions rather than my advantages because my privileges are invisible and normalized in dominant society, it is important to take accountability for my privileges and how I directly and indirectly participate in the system of institutionalized domination.
My identity as an abled-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender white woman also has provided certain privileges in my life. The color of my skin has afforded me unearned privileges like seeing people who look like me positively portrayed in news and media, and finding products, like make-up, happy birthday cards, and children’s toys, tailored for, or represented by, people who look like me. The color of my family’s skin also was the driving force behind our social mobility into the lower-middle class. As a heterosexual white woman, I will never feel in danger or vilified for my sexuality. I will be welcomed to go out into public with my significant other, I can freely talk about my home-life at work without fearing punishment, I can see my significant other if they are in the hospital, and I can marry my significant other if I should so choose at any place on the planet. As an abled-bodied person, my access to buildings on campus, at work, and in public is not limited. I am able to easily use public transportation and attend public events without feeling uncomfortable and stared at by strangers. The intersection of my whiteness, abled-bodied-ness, and heterosexuality reinforces my societal dominance and supports the subordination of people who do not identify in this way.
As a white, abled-bodied heterosexual, my presence is normalized, meaning that people will always assume that I am white, abled-bodied, and heterosexual prior to meeting me and meaning that dominant society is structured for my success. Because of this normalization, academia, law, and science are tailored for me and the continuation of my presence and dominance in society. As a heterosexual, abled-bodied, white person, my expression of sexuality will never be perceived as queer or inappropriate as a non-heterosexual and/or person of color and/or person with (dis)abilities would experience. My sexuality is encouraged (to a certain degree) to procreate white, heterosexual, abled-bodied children and reproduce the dominance of the nuclear family in white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, capitalist, Western society. Therefore, my privilege is an essential part to who I am and where I will be in the coming years. I am given access to particular areas of leadership in my career and opportunity in my education solely because I can “check the box” for heterosexual, abled-bodied, and white. While these identities are socially constructed and subject to change the system of structural privilege and inequality is historically embedded in Western society, and the first step in dismantling this institution is to recognize and take account of one’s privilege.
It is important to recognize that each of us contributes to the system of institutionalized privilege and oppression. The ableist, economic, homophobic, and racist ideologies that structurally subordinate people who identify in an “undesirable” way are the same homophobic, ableist, and white supremacist factors that reproduce and support my privilege, for which I must be accountable. We need to consider how those of us with privilege are both direct and indirect actors in the subordination of others.
However, privilege is difficult for many to recognize in one’s own life in contrast to the ease in seeing one’s limits or restraints in society. Whites, males, heterosexuals, etc. are taught not to recognize their white privilege, male privilege, or heterosexual privilege, because it is normalized by dominant society and accepted as the status quo. As Peggy McIntosh stresses in the article “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” “privilege is an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions,” (78). Privilege is invisible to those who carry it, and it is taken for granted as natural and universally applicable to everyone. We want to think that access and opportunity is available to everyone as long as they work hard enough; therefore, institutionalization of the “American Dream” and the myth of meritocracy play a large role in the idea that everyone has equal access to success. However, whereas “we” were able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, “they” are too lazy. This thinking reinforces the structural subordination of people with “undesirable” identities that restricts their access to opportunity. Thus male-, heterosexual-, and/or white-focused academia, law, and science is assumed as a neutral account that can speak for everyone universally, but this ideology arises out of institutionalized inequality and dominance.
As a relatively privileged woman, I recognize my social location is biased in the interest of reinforcing the persistence of the dominance of my group’s presence. I do not have to worry about where my next meal will come from, I do not have to plan my access to buildings when I go somewhere, and I do not need to think about my safety when going out with my significant other. These experiences from my everyday life form my social reality and my perception of the world. The complexity of my intersecting identity is continually shaping my perception of self and the reality of the world, while also reinforcing my structural subordination and my structural privilege. My recognition of my privilege is just the first step of resistance against the unequal distribution of power to dismantle the system of institutionalized privilege and oppression.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Toward a New Vision.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. 5 Ed. Susan M. Shaw, Janet Lee. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 60-67. Print.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. 5 Ed. Susan M. Shaw, Janet Lee. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 75-82. Print.