How to Talk About Privilege So People Get It

There’s lots of discourse about privilege these days—white privilege, male privilege, privilege related to wealth and class and sexuality and religion.

Privilege is the way some people talk about the inherent benefit you get by belonging to dominant groups in society. It’s the result of centuries of racial, gender and economic inequality, and it’s how those inequities play out to this day. For example, while a white woman doesn’t have male privilege, she has white privilege. And while a white, gay man doesn’t have straight privilege, he has white privilege and male privilege.

Because we all have more than one identity, how our privileges play out depends on the space, the situation and who else is there.

Young women having fun in the street. Privilege pbs rewire
Discussions about privilege often aren’t easy, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.

But, as is the case when people’s identities are at stake, privilege can be hard to talk about. It often gets conflated with lived experience—”because I grew up poor and worked hard, I don’t have privilege”—and it’s easy to feel personally attacked when it’s brought up.

The thing is—having privilege doesn’t automatically make you a bad person, nor is it something you can control. It means you should be paying attention to how your privilege impacts others, and making sure you’re listening to and allowing space for others who might not be afforded the same benefits you are.

Putting an emphasis on disadvantage

Because it’s a notoriously difficult topic to talk about, researchers have tried to figure out the most productive ways we can broach it.

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, professor of management and organization at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, discovered that people’s concern for income, education and employment inequalities can depend on how those inequalities are presented. People who benefit from inequality handle situations differently based on how they’re described, she found in her new research with Christy Zhou Koval of Hong Kong University.

By framing a situation as unfairly disadvantaging someone, rather than unfairly giving someone an advantage, people of privilege are more empathetic, the study showed.

In it, about 200 white adults were asked if they’d give part of a hypothetical bonus to a black colleague. Some of the study participants were told they had had a greater advantage to get the bonus because they were white. The other group was told their colleague had been unfairly disadvantaged because they were black.

Diverse group of people at a book club meeting. Privilege pbs rewire
New research shows that putting the emphasis on unfair disadvantage when talking about inequality is the best way to reach people who benefit from inequality.

This second group was willing to give up more of their bonus, even more so than other groups who were told all white employees had an advantage and all black employees had a disadvantage. Personalizing the problem was the way to get the message to hit home.

“When we frame inequity as a person’s undeserved privilege, that person tends to justify their status by talking down the other party, describing the colleague as lazy or incompetent,” Rosette said to Duke University about the research. “This disparagement then justifies their decision not to share their rewards even though they were unfairly distributed in the first place.

“Simply by changing the framing and presenting inequity as another person’s undeserved disadvantage, we find people are more interested in addressing it and are less likely to blame the other person.”

While both sides of the issue are important, Rosette believes approaching conversations around privilege in this way could be a more effective catalyst for change.

“It’s two sides of the same coin,” she said. “How you look at it determines whether you are willing to address inequity. Our findings suggest the focus should be on the disadvantages bestowed upon the other person, rather than the unearned privileges that accumulate to the self.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.