Privilege in the Media - Overview

What is privilege?

Privilege is the relative benefit that a group enjoys as a result of the discrimination or oppression of other groups. When we think about racism and discrimination, we often envision acts of deliberate meanness or quantifiable oppression of a disadvantaged group – hurtful words, tasteless jokes, deliberate exclusion from work or school, acts of violence, and so on – but it can just as easily take the form of privileges given to members of a more advantaged group. Unlike other forms of discrimination, these advantages may go unquestioned and even unnoticed for a variety of reasons:

  1. The benefits of privilege are, for those who enjoy them, the ordinary conditions of daily life, and are likely to be seen as "normal" rather than the result of an imbalance of power.
  2. Criticizing privilege requires that we look at our own situation. Recognizing that we benefit from privilege makes us accountable for it. To accept that we benefit from privilege is to accept that our successes are not 100 per cent the product of our hard work, but may be due in part to the advantages we received that were denied to others. As well, recognizing privilege requires a high level of self-awareness because nearly all of us benefit from some kind of privilege, whether it is being white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and so on. These can be very uncomfortable realizations to grapple with.
  3. Because privilege is taken for granted, many individuals who are otherwise supportive of equal rights may feel themselves attacked when confronted with discussions of privilege. In order to spare feelings or save face, people often deny that privilege exists.
  4. Privilege is systemic – it is built into the fabric of our society. Rather than being obvious entitlements, privilege often takes the form of opportunities that are not available to those who are not members of the privileged group. As a result, the benefits of privilege may seem small, but missing out on them can cause serious setbacks and significantly narrow one's horizons.

Silence and denial are the primary ways that privilege goes unchecked in our society. In her now famous 1988 essay, Peggy McIntosh likens privilege to “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” [1] In the following section we have applied McIntosh’s list of the benefits of privilege to being a media consumer. We have also broadened the scope of her original criticism to apply more generally to members of any privileged group. McIntosh’s original text applies the notion of privilege to every day life and offers a great deal of insight into how discrimination operates in a way that is often unseen.

[1] McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, pp. 10-12: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia. 1989