Invisible privilege theory is an extremely dense and wide topic where different intellectual stances meet and clash. Because of its different components, it spreads across areas like gender, race, social and economic inequality, religion, and others. However, it’s important to highlight what these areas have in common. At their core, what they share is what they represent: a mark of difference.
When preparing for this piece, I decided to refrain from abstract academic definitions. This is an everyday issue and to me, it requires contextualization. So, I started thinking of metal detectors. Now, bear with me.
Imagine that society, our sidewalks etc. are a big security check you go through every day and sadly, you’re not going on holiday. You’re just trying to get on with life. We all go through it but some of us can pass right through, as if they didn’t even exist. What privilege theory unveils is that the people who can just waltz their way through a metal detector are often white, male, and straight. And it’s so easy, that many of them don’t even think about it, that’s all they’ve ever known. I know what you’re thinking: “lucky them.” Well, you’re right. It’s all about luck, they’ve done nothing to deserve it. But it’s not the same for everyone.
For many others, the metal detector starts beeping. Maybe they’re black, Middle Eastern, gay, female, gay and female, or a disabled Muslim black gay female from a country under Sharia law, through which homosexuality is punishable with stoning and death penalty, who decided to migrate to another country where she’s not liked much either. You get the gist – and congratulations, you’ve broken the metal detector. Essentially, because of one or many traits that diverge from normalised standards and how they’re perceived by others, the metal detector goes off. Just like an accent might reveal where you’re from, marks of difference trigger alerts due to the stigmas that afflict certain groups due to centuries of prejudice that precede them.
Your mark of difference is the belt that got you stuck at security. Except you can’t take it off. And more importantly, you didn’t choose to wear it in the first place. One of the aims here is to make invisible privilege visible. That necessarily calls for an historical analysis of how we got to this point to find out how invisible privilege stems from the unawareness of how it was achieved and conquered. Considering the difficulty of such an undertaking, here’s one thing everyone can do if they don’t want to go through that. If you’re a holder of invisible privilege or you hold some privilege compared to other groups, put yourself in the position of someone who lives at odds with the world. If you’re thinking that those issues don’t concern you and therefore you shouldn’t get involved, that might also be a sign of privilege. Abstraction from these realities and the ability to remove oneself from uncomfortable situations is potentially the ultimate privilege.
Removing oneself from narratives of oppression and filtering out others’ issues can very quickly result with the removal of others. Being unable to relate to others’ problems, starts with a process of self-segregation and sheltering of oneself. It begins with our thoughts and prejudices and before we know it, it takes tangible forms with walls to keep people out in the name of security.
This phenomenon has inevitable political repercussions which often see privilege protected and the triumph of certain groups over others. Extreme lack of empathy, knowledge and interest in people different from us got us here. Because of fear and prejudice towards things that people had little to no choice over, we’re stuck with a stale political environment where there’s very little creativity or empathy to legislate in multi-representative ways. Human experience is often centred on how to deal with the world, but when that task is the responsibility of many, it’s essential to ask oneself: “how does the world deal with me and the people around me?”
Whether you pass the metal detector test without a sound or you’re constantly making it beep, it’s really a matter of lending an ear to both silences and ubiquitous “dings.” The louder they are, the better. Eventually, they will meet and their resonance will be so loud it will break barriers, so powerful that ear plugs will be useless.
Words: Claudia Manca
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu