Posted by: Rev Andy Little | February 5, 2009

Privilege – Bias with Power

Privilege is one of those very strange things. Those who lack it generally recognize it as either something to envy or something to despise. Those who know they have it and are inclined to have more, manipulate it to their own advantage. Then there is the great, largely clueless majority who, if asked, will tell you they don’t have privilege – they are just as downtrodden as women, people of color, GLBT or whatever other group they may name. Sometimes I think that the invisible unflective privilege is the most heinous and insidious.

To fully understand privilege, we have to first unpack its two close relatives – bias and prejudice. While we tend to use these words interchangeably, they are quite different. Bias is an ingrained preference for or against particular things, and it ranges from the mundane to the notorious. Preferring strawberries over apples is a bias, as is having a preference for white people or against people of color. One is relatively harmless and mild, while the other may be hurtful to both persons involved. Prejudice is pre-judgment based on some criteria or bias. It is one thing to be biased towards whites, but another to prejudge the characteristic of white as better than all other possibilities. Prejudice elevates bias to an action or belief system that is illogical and not just hurtful, but potentially truly harmful.

Each and every one of us have biases. We cannot live without them, essentially. Bias, however, is an initial thought that can generally be easily examined and set aside if it is of no use, or retained if it is positive. Prejudice is a decision made based on bias without benefit of reflection. Prejudice is more visceral and is more likely to be rationalized and justified by generalizing that the bias is legitimate. This is many times done by insinuating a very specific incident into a general “truth”, which in reality would likely contain very little real truth. Prejudice elevates our own bias to an idol, if you will, and usually has negative consequences for the recipient of the prejudgment.

If prejudice is bias with action, then privilege is the result of giving bias power and authority. Privilege is the benefit that accrues to the person or group that has to endure the least bias and/or prejudice. In this sense, privilege can be invisible. Since people of color are a common target of bias and prejudice, and since I am not a person of color, then I benefit, perhaps quite indirectly, from my privileged position that I did nothing to earn. Since women experience bias and prejudice frequently, I have privilege because I am not a woman.


Fig 1.

There are any number of criteria that can generate privilege. An interesting exercise is an old tool called the Power Flower. When it most interesting is before and during an immersion trip into a completely different culture. The results become fascinating. Anyway, the Power Flower, which as far as I can tell is freely available in the public domain, is shown in Fig 1. (Please let me know if I am wrong about being in the public domain.)

I’ve already filled in the outer ring, just for illustration purposes. These categories are the most common used when I do this exercise in groups. I ask participants to talk about and write in some of the most common characteristics that give privilege or that are a source of prejudice. You will rarely reach total consensus on all the categories if the group has more than 6 participants. In this case, it is interesting as a presenter to watch how decisions are made and then to use this as an illustration later on.

 Next, we fill in the second ring with the characteristic that is most commonly associated with positions of power, prestige, authority or privilege. People will want to use specific examples against a common trait being dominant, and it will usually be someone who possesses that characteristic. When “male” is put in the gender category, it is not uncommon for a man to say something like, “yeah, but I know of plenty of women in positions of power,” and then possibly be able to name one or two. The normal response, when the spotlight is trained on privilege, is to deny being a recipient of its benefit.

Fig 2
Fig 2

Fig 2 shows a relatively normal second circle for a group of US residents. It would obviously look different if you filling it out in Equitorial Guinea or Ethiopia – maybe. The next step is the easiest and the most telling. You simply fill in the center circle with 1’s and 0’s – 1 if you are male, 0 if you are not, etc – and then add up your score. In a decent sized group the conversation can become quite lively from here on in.

I, for instance, have a privilege/power rating of 10, possibly 11 since I can pass for upper class when I need to. I have innate privilege because I am a white, English-speaking, married, 54-year old, fully abled, Christian, heterosexual male with a graduate degree living in New York. How would a black lesbian from Alabama fare on the scale? How about if she had a high school diploma and hearing difficulties?

Play with it and think about it for a short while. I will be back to finish this.

[Imagine music playing softly in the background.]

Okay, I’m back.

Privilege, then, is the mirror of institutionalized bias – the result for those who are not the object of the bias. The best definition of racism I have heard is “the exercise of bias and prejudice against a race in concert with the inherent power afforded by society to institutionalize or normalize that prejudice.” In essence, whenever you have a situation where laws are passed by a legislature that reflects a majority and enforced by systems that also reflect that majority, institutionalized bias is unavoidably inherent in the system and grants privilege to those in the majority. This is not just true for matters of race, but also of gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, religion and virtually all the other characteristics found in the outer circle of the Power Flower.

In the US, the balance of power in government was set up to try to minimize this inequity. Basically, that is the role of the court system. Forgetting, for a minute, that the court system also reflects the majority population, it is designed to equalize the system of laws to make sure that benefit is not granted to the majority on the backs of those who are not equally represented. In short, the courts are, to the best of their ability, to prevent unconscious or intentional “tyranny of the majority”. Exactly when courts are accused of superceding the “will of the people” they are fulfilling their role effectively. The “will of the people” (translate “majority”) is not the basis of democracy, but rather the basis of fascism. (Interestingly, I had to return to correct what may have been a Freudian slip – I type demoncracy instead of democracy.)

It is important to keep in mind that, just because a constitutional amendment is passed by popular vote, the amendment is not necessarily constitutional. Determining consistency with the overriding provisions of the constitution falls on the backs of the courts, which makes it a highly contentious and potentially unpopular part of the US system of justice. You might say that, when the courts get the most heat from the public, they may have come the closest to doing what they were created to do.

As this is a thought process in progress, I will return yet again to add more.



  1. I will be back also, to read this yet again. Fascinating, and so accurate, in terms of bias v. prejudice v. privilege. I really like this activity also, have never seen it before, but would like to use it in the future………

    Great writing Andy; thanks for your thoughts on this.

  2. Very insightful and a necessary conversation. A few things stood out for me:

    “Exactly when courts are accused of superceding the “will of the people” they are fulfilling their role effectively.”

    It recently occurred to me within this past year as to why Dobson and “family” groups are so dead-set on getting these constitutional amendments to require that marriage be between a man and a woman only — to usurp the very power of the courts. Once it’s in the constitution, the courts are then bound to refer to this bias in their decision making.

    “Privilege is the benefit that accrues to the person or group that has to endure the least bias and/or prejudice.”

    In the past few years, I’ve really been trying to recognize this in myself, and I agree that “the invisible unflective privilege is the most heinous and insidious.”

    I’m pretty introspective as it is, so as I’ve been seeing my own prejudices — whether it be race, ethnicity or accent, etc. — I also recognize how few people must actually take a look at this in themselves. Furthermore, I realize that even I can never fully appreciate the prejudice so many others experience, and more so, feel on a regular basis.

    For all the social anxiety I feel being in public, I still have the “benefit” of feeling invisible when I walk into a store. I am a white male and can pass for straight, no one is going to notice me or suspect me because of my skin color or accent, etc. – no matter how grungy I may look.

    But for others, and I notice this in myself when it comes to people of color, ethnicity or the aged, there is an immediate almost gut feeling that they are “alien” and separate from me, or that I am more intelligent than them.

    Fortunately, the more I recognize it, the more I am able to set it aside as a valid criteria for judging them. Interestingly, I have found that language has a lot to do with it. I used to work at a video store in Chicago, and there was one customer who was Mideastern and wore a turban, and as soon as he spoke perfect English, the turban and his dark skin washed away. Margaret Cho is another example. But that doesn’t excuse my initial feelings about people with accents.

    Again, fortunately for me, the more I see my own prejudice, the more I’m able to see through it. But I can’t agree with you more in thinking that it’s the invisible and unreflective sense of privilege that’s the most insidious and dangerous.

    This past election really reminded me of just how segregated we still are as a nation – my own family reminded me of that.

    As proud and relieved as I am to have Obama as president, it’s still ‘odd’ to see him in that position. And I’m looking forward to that novelty wearing off…

  3. Thanks, Vanessa & Emproph,

    I feel like cutting and pasting Emproph’s comments right into the essay. You’ll certainly see them reflected in future iterations, maybe copied and used as a launching pad for a Part 2.

    The interesting thing is that I have experienced those moments – based on purely on looks – when I have been surprised that someone spoke without an accent or came across as highly intelligent. I hate those moments. They remind me about how far I have to go to rid myself of the ingrained bias I was raised with and acquired in my time on this planet.

    It’s actually uplifting to know that I am not alone in this – it means there may be far more people waking up than staying oblivious.

    Good conversation – I will cogitate and return to this.

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