Privilege theory

The limits of privilege

In recent years, the notion of privilege has transgressed the boundaries of academic and cultural critique, and has entered everyday discussions of power and the dynamics between people in our society. As someone who teaches Gender Studies at university (among other things), I have noticed that each year my first-year students are becoming more and more adept at identifying privilege. They come to class already able to describe where and when institutionalised or systemic power structures might be limiting the participation of certain kinds of people and the identities who are affected. This is wonderful to see. However, like most simple or clear answers, the identification of privilege – whether it be white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, neurological or class-based, or a combination of the above – is not enough.

The identification of privilege is useful to highlight expressions of power that might otherwise be invisible to a dominant group, and to express where they may appear, but this identification – particularly in popular discussion – seems to carry with it the assumption that it is always expressed the same way, regardless of context.

Obviously, this is not the case. In her 1988 essay that outlined the concept of privilege as we now know it, Peggy McIntosh provides a list of everyday encounters and circumstances in which she benefits from white privilege. The point here, is not only that she benefits, but that she benefits in different ways, depending on the context in which she finds herself. What she doesn’t elaborate on is where experiences that confer our understanding of who is privileged when compared with another group is shifted entirely.

For example: as a queer woman, I experience forms of discrimination, exclusion and hostility that straight women do not. If I walk down the street with my girlfriend, and we are visibly affectionate towards one another, there is a possibility that we will be harassed in some capacity. The likelihood of that occurring is socially and geographically dependent. For instance, we are far less likely to be harassed in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne than basically anywhere else, while there are areas where we know – like most queer people – that it is safer for us to stand apart from each other. Nevertheless, being visible in public comes with a daily tension that is invisible to heterosexual women and therefore, in those circumstances, we can describe heterosexual women as having privilege. There are numerous other examples, of course.

However, particularly in our contemporary private lives, queer women in primary sexual relationships with other women are far less likely to be subject to the kinds of reproductive and sexual violence and abuse that women in relationships with men (and particularly cis-men) are likely to experience. I am not concerned, or at least not to the same extent, about my capacity to access reproductive healthcare (including the pill, the morning after pill or safe abortions and so on) all of which constitute significant financial and psychological burdens for cis-women in heterosexual relationships. If we chose to have children, the assumptions, family expectations and negotiations we might have about who would perform childcare are not fixed or predicated on normative heterosexual institutionalisation to the same extent that those in opposite sex relationships might experience. These are examples of significant freedoms from oppression and encounters with power that women in relationships with men do not have the same access to.

It is also statistically unlikely that I will be attacked by my intimate partner, and even less likely that such an attack would result in death or serious injury. This is not to say that violence and abuse doesn’t happen in same-sex relationships between women but rather that the statistical likelihood of it occurring is greatly diminished, simply because the socially conditioned expectation of power that trains men to express their desire for domination through violence is not institutionally supported in the same way. So again, in the context of these examples – referring to circumstances that we could loosely consider to belong to the private sphere – women in same-sex relationships do have a kind of privilege, if only through an avoidance of everyday intimate encounters with heteropatriarchy.

Each of these examples also demonstrate the complexity of tracing how privilege works. It’s always in context, always in relation to other people we encounter, and how those people understand and interact with us. Access to and the expression of institutional power is not universally applied to bodies through a simple, hierarchical structure of privilege and disadvantage. The experience of institutional power (or lack thereof) is highly contingent upon context and dependent on the individual experiences and biases of those who express it.

Power is not a blunt instrument. It doesn’t get applied evenly, and it doesn’t operate uniformly, in accordance with clearly identifiable categories and factors that each person fits into. Power traces invisible and barely conscious networks of bias built around prior knowledge, unexamined or underexamined assumptions, desires and practices.

This approach is much more difficult to navigate than simply identifying where privilege might be, but it’s important for us to recognise this kind of detail and complexity in order to do the work of changing it.


Image: Flickr

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Erin K Stapleton teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, philosophy and visual cultures.

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  1. Great article. Identity politics and privilege theory at their worst result in examples like reification of Obama and workers colluding with management (who preside over insecure working conditions) to create “diversity” committees…

  2. to think analytically about these issues is to acknowledge the existence of different levels at which analysis can focus, in order to see. Look at the kinds of individual power relations, or look at patterns of social, economic and cultural conditions that define groups, or look at the institutionally powerful edifices that structure the society, advantaging some and disadvantaging others. Each of these levels of analysis gives a set of different lenses, through which we can see, but understanding requires we use all 3 instead of relying on just one.
    eg. Power relations between people are informed by the social, economic and cultural drivers of collective conditions, and by the institutional structures of power, and although those 2 different levels need to be considered, especially in regard to positioning in context, there are plenty of other significant influencers at the individual level eg physical size and strength and age.
    eg. The social, economic and cultural conditions of some groupings are their drivers of power, maintaining their positioning role, but there are some individuals who can cut through these patterns of conditions because some individuals just get opportunities and have the agency to do that.
    eg. The institutional power of heteronormativity has been shaken to its core in just a few decades by groups of people whose distinctive and defining experiences have given them the power to remain a driving force for change.
    All 3 levels of social relations have some insights to offer and all 3 levels require more than that level in order to understand.
    Theory provides us with the tools of analysis if we care to use them. Choosing to be analytic rather than taking a position that requires constant defence, generates better understanding and in the long run, provides opportunities for change.

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