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Running head: PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES

Peeling Back My Privileges


Janelle Barton
Western Washington University

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


Dont get me wrong, Ive always felt fortunate. Ive felt fortunate to live in this country,
to go to college, to have a place to live, clothes on my back, and enough food to eat. But
privileged? Growing up in a working-class family and earning everything I have through
minimum wage jobs has never given me the impression that I possess any privileges. Not to
mention the fact that being female in a still male-dominated society certainly leaves something to
be desired. However, when I step back and look at my life as if it were a painting, I realize that
Ive painted these challenges on in thick layers with long, dark strokes and they stand out starkly
against the background that makes up all the others aspects of my life. If I were to begin to peel
back these layers to look at the true details hiding beneath the dark picture Ive painted my life to
be, I would realize that Ive had privileges all along; the privileges that I do have were just
minimized and hidden behind the non-privileges I put on full-display. Its shameful to admit, but
I have unearned advantages in my society simply because I am white, because I am heterosexual,
because I identify with the gender I was born with, and because I have ability. Even if I didnt
want to admit my privileges, it would be impossible to extricate any of these things from who I
am. They are like different colors layered and blended that make the picture of my life what it is.
Just because I cant change the colors on the canvas, doesnt mean I shouldnt work to change
how they are perceived. If I am going to step up to be an ally to the oppressed and an advocate
for justice, I cant ignore these things any longer. I need to peel back and examine each of these
privileges in order to confront the injustice done to others through promoting change within my
privilege groups and our society as a whole.
Now that I see the privileges I have, I wonder, how is it that Ive never noticed them
before? Stephanie M. Wildman and Adrienne D. Davis (2012) write that privilege is systemic,
not the occasional occurrence (p. 107). Because privilege in America is so pervasive that it is

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


built into the systemsthe institutions, media, and cultureof our society, it isnt something
that is easy to see unless you are outside of a privilege group (Wildman & Davis). As Marilyn
Frye (2010) writes, It seems sometimes that people fill their eyes with things seen
microscopically in order not to see macroscopically (p. 153). The greatest challenge I have
faced in recognizing my privilege was actually taking the time to understand that by accepting
these privileges, I was simultaneously allowing the oppression of those who fall outside of these
privileged groups. In order to fight the injustices done through oppression, we need to make
privileges more visible by acknowledging and recognizing them in our own lives and in our
society (Frye). I think the easiest way for me to recognize my own areas of privilege is through
examining my life in relationship to the lives of people that are close to me, who arent
privileged in that ways that I am. For instance, the greatest way Ive come to see my own
privilege in regard to gender identity and sexual-orientation is when I compare my life to my
sisters, who is not privileged in these ways.
My sister is one of the most fun, spunky, popular and intelligent women that I know, but
what most people dont know from looking at her confident exterior is that she has had to grow
up with the challenge of identifying as a male, and currently does not belong to the dominant
sexual-orientation of our society. Her first challenge started when we were both quite young
when at an early age, she started defying gender norms in our society. Judith Lorber (2012)
writes that gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes (p.
54). I know it was easy for me to grow up under the assumption that my gender is something
that I was born with, rather than something that Ive adapted out of socialization. Growing up,
Ive always identified as a girl and Ive always been proud that Im a girl. My little sister on the
other hand, well, she used to be a boy. While she was biologically female, she identified with the

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


male gender. Why would she want to be a boy?, I wondered time and time again as, from the
ages of five to twelve, she insisted on wearing boys clothes, cut her hair short, renounced her
name and started going by TJ. Yes, my little sister turned into a boy before my eyes. And I was
appalled. We attended the same elementary school and every day I went around until I was blue
in the face telling all the kids that TJ was my SISTER, not my brother. To my dismay, none of
the kids believed me. Girls cant play sports as well as TJ does, they would tell me. TJ wears
boys clothes. A girl would never cut her hair short like TJs hair. And a girl would never, EVER
use the boys bathroom like TJ did every day. I was defeated. From a very young age, we are
trained to see gender signals and gender roles as they in our society, which are so ubiquitous
that we usually fail to note themunless they are missing or ambiguous, which they were in
my sisters case (Lorber, p.54 ). From my privileged position of identifying with the gender that I
was born with, it was incomprehensible to me why somebody would want to change their
gender, simply because I would never want to change mine. Its when this viewpoint is promoted
through our institutions and in the workplace, however, that people like my sister are prevented
from being who they are. Luckily, my sister was strong enough to ignore any of us who opposed
her adopting a male identity. In the end, I had to come to terms with my sisters transformation
because I loved her and I decided that it wouldnt be a huge deal to have two brothers. I think my
parents clung to the hope that she would just grow out of it one day. At their relief, my sister did
eventually start dressing in girls clothes again and grew her hair out and has done so to this day.
Unfortunately, my moms greatest fear wasnt that my sister would identify as male. It was that
my sister would turn out gay.
Ken Smith (2004) writes, heterosexism is anti-gay prejudice plus the power of
institutions to enforce that prejudice (p. 2). I think that heterosexism, from an institutional level

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


of the church, had a large effect on my parents views of homosexuality. For example, my dad
currently believes that same-sex marriage isnt right (E. Barton, personal communication,
November 20, 2013). I remember how my mom used to refer to homosexual men as fags. I
also remember hearing about a cousin that turned lesbian and how the knowledge of it brought
immense pain to our family. Like the Christian families portrayed in the documentary For the
Bible Tells Me So (Karslate, 2007), we were raised in a church that condemned homosexuality
as a sin. Because I am heterosexual and have never had to worry about my sexual orientation
being acceptable, it took me a long time to question the teachings of my church. In this way,
when heterosexism as a concept or policy is spread through the institutions of the church and
government, it often goes unquestioned (Karslate). Looking back, I can see how much
heterosexim must have hurt my sister. I can see how much it must hurt her now, as she currently
dreads telling my mom that she has a girlfriend. So, my sister continues to assume the faade of a
straight woman. As Rocco and Gallagher (2006) write, The concept of choosing to pass as
straight may not be a choice at all if the persons family relationships are based on keeping
ones sexual identity secret (p. 32). Ive never had to go through that and I never will. Being so
lucky to identify with the gender that has been attributed to my physical sex, and being of the
sexual orientation that my society and parents have always embraced, I am privileged.
Though identifying as a heterosexual woman has brought me certain privileges in regards
to my gender identity, being a female on a larger scale has not. Despite growing up surrounded
by images of male and female stereotypes, I did not clearly see evidence of male-privilege until I
was first made aware of the topic of sex and the importance our culture places on a womans
sexuality. I remember that one of my first impressions of sex was that it was this thing that guys
always wanted. I then learned thanks to my evangelical youth group that I wasnt allowed to

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


have sex, think about sex, or (god forbid) explore my own body until the day that I would be
married to my husband. I was taught to be pure and I was taught that my virginity was my
worth as a woman. Though the males in my youth group were taught this as well, it was also
taught that men have an insatiable sex-craving nonetheless and its up to good, modest Christian
girls to keep them in line. Feminist author Jessica Valenti (2009) writes that making women the
sexual gatekeepers and telling men they just can't help themselves not only drives home the point
that women's sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are
expected to be responsible for men's sexual behavior (p. 173). Though I wasnt aware of this
dynamic that Valenti talks about growing up, I was certainly made aware of it as I got older along
with many other ways which male-privilege manifests in my everyday life.
As an adult, I notice the male privilege in my society every day. I notice it whenever a
man speaks over my voice in a conversation. I notice it when men still outnumber women in
positions of power in our country (Valenti). I notice it when women are still paid less for the
same work (Nadler & Stockdale). I notice it when I hear a male bragging about how many
women hes slept with. I notice it when I hear the words slut and whore. I notice it when I
read that 96-98% of sexual assailants are hetero-sexual men (OBrian, 2011). I notice it when
two of my female friends have been raped. And I have noticed it on the three separate occasions I
have been sexually assaulted by men. Male-privilege is everywhere. The attitude in our culture
only continues to affirm it. For example, while on Facebook the other day, I came across a blog
entry my friend had posted from a website called returnofkings.com which was titled, 5
Reasons to Date a Girl With an Eating Disorder (2013) which argues that women with eating
disorders are much more likely to care about their appearance and stay thin, theyre less
expensive because they eat less and theyre more vulnerable because they lack confidence (5

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Reasons, 2013). This is a blog that has almost 3,000 Facebook fans and 2,500 twitter followers
(Return of Kings, 2012). I was even more furious when I happened upon the blogs badlyworded yet altogether inflammatory mission statement, which I quote: ROK aims to usher the
return of the masculine man in a world where masculinity is being increasingly punished and
shamed in favor of creating an androgynous and politically-correct society that allows women to
assert superiority and control over men (Return of Kings, 2012). I was so offended when I
read their list of values, that I wondered if the writers of this website were kidding (theyre
not). Though this may seem like an extreme example of male-supremacy, the statements theyre
making are not unique. These views seem to be derived from the more delicately-put, yet
equally-damaging messages about masculinity and femininity that are perpetuated in our society.
As Valenti writes, when one of the conditions of masculinity is that men dissociate from
women and prove their manliness through aggression, we're encouraging a culture of violence
and sexuality that's detrimental to both men and women (p. 152). In this way, male-privilege in
our society oppresses women by forcing them to fit the standards of male-prescribed gender
roles. I think that the reason male-privilege continues is the reason that I think all privilege
continues in our society: we dont see it most of the time. I think that the privilege that Ive had
the most trouble seeing has been my race.
When I was in first grade, I had a half-white, half-African American friend who lived
next-door to me. My friend lived with her grandma at the time. I remember seeing her grandma
and being extremely puzzled because her grandma was white. At that age, I didnt know that
people of color could have a white parent or grandparent. In my 7 your old head, I knew that
there were white people and there were people of color, but I thought that if you were a person of
color, it was because nobody in your family was white. It goes to show, that from a very early

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age, Ive been trained to see the world around me from the within the view of my white
privilege. Peggy McIntosh (2010) quotes her colleague, Elizabeth Minnich in saying how
whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also
ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow them to be
more like us (p. 173). With our unacknowledged privilege, we can only see others from one
perspective and we implicitly think our perspective is best and that people ought to be more like
us (McIntosh). Another effect of unacknowledged white privilege that Ive noticed is racism.
Im not just talking about racial discrimination and hate crimes, but about our tendency to define
a person by their race rather than their individual merits or personality. For example, my friend
said to me the other day, I am so grateful that we finally have an African American President,
even if I don't agree with his politics and ideals (M. Wadkins, personal communication,
November 21, 2013). Maybe its just me, but I know that when I dont agree with the policies or
ideals of a president, Im typically not very grateful that they were elected. Its interesting to me
that everybody white person that I know who disagrees with Obamas politics must punctuate
their disagreeing statements with another saying how great it is that we have a black president. I
realize that weve made progress as a country electing an African American person to the office
of president, but reducing the presidents only merits his race is a little bit beyond me. I think
through our white privilege and the maintenance of the white norm in our society, the concept of
race will continue to be perpetuated and it will go on to serve as the means by which we define
people who do not fit into our privilege group.
Another means by which people are defined within our culture is by their socio-economic
status. In our society where, like white-privilege, class privilege is denied to exist, those that do
not belong to the dominant privilege group see the impact that socio-economic status has on their

PEELING BACK MY PRIVILEGES


lives. Despite the fact that the United States has one of the highest GDPs in the world, there
remain incredibly large gaps between the rich and the poor (Johnson, 2010). As Americans
were told to strive for the ideals presented in the American Dream, which tell us that if we
only work hard enough, then we can have enough money, a house and a retirement (Grans,
2010). But in reality, if youre already outside of the socio-economic norm of the middle class
and above, its very hard to escape the cycle of poverty (Grans). Being form a working class
family, I understand what it is like to be outside of the socio-economic norm. Growing up, my
family faced the mounting challenges of the crime and violence of our surrounding low-income
neighborhood. I remember seeing houses being burnt down because they were previously methlabs. I remember that neighborhood theft and vandalism of public property were also very
common. I think the scariest thing that happened was when our apartment building was lit on fire
by arsonists. My family was unable to move from this neighborhood for 8 years although my
parents wanted to desperately. Another large challenge we had to face being of a lower socialeconomic status was having enough food. Luckily, we have always been able to get food
assistance from the food bank and my siblings and I got free lunches in our school. I think the
greatest hardship my socio-economic status brought to me was the stigma attached to being poor.
From a young age I was teased about my hand-me-down clothes and where I lived. As I got
older, I tried to hide my socio-economic status by dressing very simply and refusing to show
anybody where I lived. I even went so far as skipping lunch everyday just so nobody would
know that I got free lunches at school. In this way, socio-economic statuses can be stigmatizing
and isolating and they prevent people from having the faith in themselves that they need to work
towards a better life (Grans). I think that my socio-economic status, like being female, has given
me some perspective as to how it feels to be outside of a privileged group and this in turn has

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helped to highlight some of the privileges I hadnt seen before. One last privilege in particular
that I have learned to recognize has been my privilege in regards to ability.
Something Id never realized before was that disability is socially constructed like race
and gender (Bayton, 2010). We attribute the term disability to anything that falls outside of
what we perceive to be normal, and, as Douglas Baynton (2010) writes, we tacitly [accept] the
idea that disability is a legitimate reason for inequality (p.100). If attributing disability to
certain conditions that are seen as undesirable in society is how we come to define what
disability is, how do we define ability? Cant our notions of ability change over time? I find that,
like with socio-economic status, the most devastating effect of dubbing something adisability is
the stigma that comes attached to it. As Scotch writes, Americans with disabilities continue to
have lower incomes, to have lower educational attainment, to be disproportionately unemployed
and underemployed, to reside in residential facilities against their will, and to be the subject of
stigma and exclusion in many spheres of public life (p. 21). The people who I am close to in my
life who have disabilities often express their frustration in the fact that they feel that people do
not look past whatever their perceived disability might be to see them for who they are. For
example, one of my best friends has a very severe speech impediment. For most of high school, I
was one of his only close friends because many people avoided talking to him because they were
afraid of not understanding the way he spoke. In getting to know him, I discovered hes the most
brilliantly intelligent people I have ever known. What frustrates me about disability is that it acts
as a barrier between the disabled person and the outside world. Hopefully, I can find a way to use
my privileges in the area of ability to advocate for a different way of viewing people with
disability. I think the best way to start to process of doing this and advocating within my other
areas of privilege, is first examining how these privileges are interrelated.

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In high school, I read an essay by Zora Neale Hurston (1928) titled, How It Feels to Be
Colored Me. Theres a certain illustration that Hurston provides in this essay that Ive never
forgotten. She writes that she is like a brown paper bag, on a shelf with other bags that are
different colors: red, yellow and white. Dump out the bags however, and out pours a jumble of
different miscellaneous things: an empty spool, bits of broken glass a rusty knife blade, old
shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things
too heavy for any nail (Hurston, 1928, para.17). When all of these trinkets and relics are piled in
a heap together, it is impossible to know which bag each item belongs to (Hurston). I think this
serves as an excellent illustration of the intersectionality of all people. Although we all have
different exteriors, were all made of multiple unique elements, and when were in society
together, these elements pour out of us and almost become indistinguishable among everything
else that we are and that other people are. In order to become good allies, I believe we have to
look at our areas of overlap with each other and find our areas of privilege, to advocate for
change within these areas. As Andrea Ayvazian (2010) writes, Allied behavior is clear action
aimed at dismantling the oppression of others in areas where you yourself benefitit is
proactive, intentional and often involves taking a risk (p. 685). In this way, I will take it upon
myself to not remain silent when I hear words of oppression, to not remain inactive when I see
injustice and to listen carefully to where the changes are needed in my society. I will peel back
my privileges to reveal an agent of transformation and an ally to the oppressed.

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References
Ayvazian, A. (2010). Interrupting the cycle of oppression: The role of allies as agents of change.
In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (pp. 684690). New York: Worth Publishers.
Baynton, D. C. (2010). Disability and the justification of inequality in American history. In P. S.
Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (pp. 92-102). New York:
Worth Publishers.
Frye, M. (2010). Oppression. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United
States (pp. 149-153). New York: Worth Publishers.
Gans, H. (2010). Deconstructing the underclass. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class and
gender in the United States (pp. 102-108). New York: Worth Publishers.
Hurston, Z. N. How it feels to be colored me. (1928). World Tomorrow, 11, 215-216.
Johnson, D. C. (2010). Income gap is widening, data shows. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race,
class and gender in the United States (pp. 317-318). New York: Worth Publishers.
Karslate, D. G. (Director). (2007). For the bible tells me so [Documentary Movie]. United States:
Atticus Group & VisionQuest Productions.
Lorber, J. (2010). Night to his day The social construction of gender. In P. S. Rothenberg
(Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (pp. 54-64). New York: Worth
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McIntosh, P. (2010). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P. S. Rothenberg
(Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (pp. 172-177). New York: Worth
Publishers.
Nadler, J. T., & Stockdale, M. S. (2012). Workplace gender bias: Not just between
strangers. North American Journal Of Psychology, 14(2), 281-291.
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Return of kings: About. (2012). Retrieved November 22, 2013 from
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development. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 112, 29-39.
Scotch, R. K. (2009). Nothing about us without us: Disability rights in America. OAH
Magazine of History, 23(3), 17-22).
Smith, K. (2004). Facing up to our privilege: White heterosexual privilege, that is. Network
News, 24(4), 2-3.
Spencer, M. S. (2008). A social workers reflections on power, privilege, and oppression. Social
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Valenti, Jessica. (2009). The purity myth: How Americas obsession with virginity is hurting
young women. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

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Wildman, S. M., & Davis, A. D. (2012). Making systems of privilege visible. In P. S. Rothenberg
(Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (pp. 107-113). New
York: Worth Publishers.
5 reasons to date a girl with an eating disorder. (2013). Retrieved November 22, 2013 from
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