Power and privilege

The structure of society creates advantages and disadvantages for different groups of people. When you have advantages that come with your sex, race or class - you have privilege that you didn't have to earn.  

What is the pecking order?

Unfortunately we live (still!) in a society that values some people more than others and for different reasons. It starts with the patriarchal ‘pecking order’ of the world that is essentially a two class system. Men are the dominant class and women are the servant class. Half the population has privilege just by being born male, half faces disadvantages because they are born female or intersex. You can see this in the wage gap.[See CBC report on Stats Can wage gap]

An intersectional lens shows that privilege comes with different amounts of power depending on a person's various identities (race, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, sexual orientation etc.). These are some of the social markers that make up your social location - and determine your place in the pecking order.

Knowing where you have more and less power and privilege in any situation, and also where you face oppression and disadvantage is basic education for anyone who wants to live in a society that is inclusive and celebrates diversity. When you understand how power and privilege works to oppress people, you can use your advantages to act as a respectful ally and to work for social justice.

A word about privilege

Privilege can be hard to see. Especially if you grew up with violence and abuse. Privilege doesn't protect you from that. But as you go along in life, the more social markers of privilege that you have, the more choices and opportunities will be available to you.  The less privilege you have, the more you are vulnerable to discrimination and other forms of violence and abuse  - through no fault of your own.

There are reasons why the people who are most vulnerable to sexual violence are also the social groups that have the least privilege and power. That's why sexual violence is not just an individual issue. The fact that it happens more to whole groups of people reveals the structure of  injustice that is built into our society. 

Learning about privilege and power can be liberating. 


Age also makes you vulnerable

Youth are one of the groups who are at greater risk of sexual violence. Being young is actually a risk factor for sexual violence! Besides having less power than adults, there are other things that combine to make young people more or less vulnerable.[Stats Canada reports that 60% of sexual abuse/assault victims are under the age of 17]

Being in care makes you vulnerable too

Being in the care of the child welfare system means by definition that a young person has needed protection. The stigma of being in the child welfare system adds to social disadvantage. Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. The message is that there is something ‘wrong’ with you. The stigma of child welfare says that you are a ‘bad’ kid from a ‘bad’ family. When children and youth believe it is their fault they are in care, they have internalized the stigma.

It is always painful when people make up their minds about your identity without taking time to find out who you are as a human being.

Social markers - the categories that advantage-disadvantage us

In North America being male, white-skinned, under 65ish and over 25ish, Canadian born citizen, heterosexual, attractive, able-bodied, formally educated and employed in a good job with benefits and pension brings the most social advantage.

Sex: If you were born male and are perceived as male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying that you’ll be raped and then have to deal with a defense attorney blaming it on what you were wearing. 

Race: If you appear as white –skinned,  you have grown up seeing yourself reflected as the hero in movies, on television, and in politics. 

Gender: If you are perceived as female, you can expect to earn less than males in Canada.

Gender identity: If you are a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with your birth sex, you can expect to experience more bullying, harassment and violence than people who identify with their birth sex.  If you were born male and present to the world as male, you will not be 'allowed' to be emotional in public without hearing adjectives to describe your behaviour  such as 'pussy or whipped'.  If you were born female and present to the world as female, you will hear adjectives like 'bitch or femi-nazi' to describe you if you speak out publicly on issues. 

Sexual orientation: If you are straight, you have privilege that non-straight folks have had to fight hard for, like the right to express affection in public and the right to get married.

Citizenship: If you are a Canadian citizen, you enjoy legal protections and the rights that those who don’t have citizenship are denied.

Indigenous: Being born in Canada as an Indigenous person means that your people were colonized and have had to fight to maintain their traditions and identity. Family members may have experienced the trauma of residential schools or the 60s scoop and may be experiencing the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Class: Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities.

Ability: If you were born able-bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around accessibility such as whether you can climb stairs, hear the speaker, see the words.

Body type: If you are born with a thin body type you will have no difficulty finding clothes that fit or seats on planes that you can comfortably sit in.

English-speaking: If your family’s first language is English you will have greater access to information and education.

Age: As you go through life, there are periods when you are considered ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to be treated with the same dignity and respect as others.

Belonging to categories of privilege is like winning a lottery you didn’t even know you were playing. Recognizing privilege doesn’t mean that you should feel guilty or ashamed for your lot in life.

Recognizing privilege means:

  • being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the same things advantaged people take for granted and feel entitled to
  • you understand social advantage just doesn’t come with hard work and individual effort[See: The Huffington Post: Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person]
  • there is a pecking order to the world that gives groups of people unearned and unfair advantages
  • you have more choices

Take action. Use your social advantage to work for social justice!

Further Reading & Resources