There are multiple aspects that can affect an individual throughout their life. An individual who is privileged, because of the characteristics that they were born with have an automatic advantage within society. Those who are oppressed are at a disadvantaged based on the same characteristics. A majority of people will experience a mixture of privilege and oppression due to the multiple characteristics that make up their life.
It can be difficult for those who are privileged to be aware of their advantages. Kirby (2016) stated privilege makes life easier and it is usually invisible to those who have it. It can be difficult to understand the differences between yourself and others based on race, sex, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, and disability. First, we need to recognize our own privileges and the effects it has throughout our life. These characteristics of being privileged are only accomplished by the dominant group and are assigned a positive value in society (Ridlen and Dane, 1992).
Examining the intersections of identity allows people to address how they experience privilege and oppression simultaneously (Kirby, 2016). An individual can identify their race as white and their sexual orientation as homosexual. Their race is part of the dominant group, but their sexual orientation is categorized as an oppressed group. Levine-Rasky (2011) stated that intersectionality may reinforce or contradict its effects depending on the context in which social relations are played out. If an individual experiences more privileges than their intersectionality would be reinforced. However, if an individual identifies as oppressed in a majority of the aspects, then their intersectionality would contradict social relations.
An individual is placed into a dominant or subordinate group easily when looked at based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, and disability. However, society may have a difficult time labeling an individual on a characterisic that is not apparent. We cannot look at someone and determine their sexual orientation. Gender scholars have found that people engage in displays of heterosexual status to appear gender conforming (Morgan and Davis-Delano, 2016). An individual can attempt to remain silent about being labeled in the oppressed group and through their silence be seen as privileged by society. This would take a huge burden on the individual to conform to the dominant group to avoid oppression.
White privilege is a concept that is discussed significantly throughout literature. Tatum (1997) discusses white privilege is the advantage of being white in society and that people of color cannot be racist since they do not systematically benefit from racism. This concept is difficult to discuss, because not everyone is aware of their biases. Also, it is difficult to overcome these biases if they are unconscious. McConnel and Nathan (2015) discussed how white college students identified themselves based on their knowledge of white privilege and that a majority of students were aware of their difference. However, being aware of differences and acting on those differences affects society.
Self-Awareness of being Privileged
It can be difficult to reflect on one’s life and determine societies impact due to aspects that cannot be controlled. As a white, female who was born into an upper-middle class family, there were privileges automatically assigned at birth. These aspects were unnoticed until I participated in a cultural competence awareness workshop. This workshop took place my junior year as an undergraduate student at James Madison University.
I was in a group of thirty, which included faculty and students of the social work program. We started as equals by standing in a straight line. The facilitator asked a series of questions that affected our everyday lives. We stepped forward if it was a positive impact or stepped back if it was a negative impact. At the end, I was able to see my privilege compared to my peers due to aspects that I was born with. These workshop allowed me to become aware of privileges that had been affecting me for twenty years without knowing.
Incidents of Being Treated Unfairly
There was an incident in my childhood that caused unfair treatment due to my gender and race. As a child I played numerous sports and would play with the neighborhood children. I went to a neighbor’s house to play basketball with a group of kids who resided in the neighborhood. It was predominantly African American boys who were playing basketball and we were all approximately twelve years old. My dad came to the neighbor’s house once he was home from work and demanded that I go home. When we were back home he stated that I was not allowed to go to the neighbor’s house and play with any of the children there. He stated that as a girl I was not allowed to be around that many boys, especially black boys.
Recently, there was an incident that caused unfair treatment due to my gender at my place of employment. I have a direct supervisor, a house supervisor, and a village supervisor where I am employed. I was placed in a group home that housed eight boys between the ages of eight to eleven. All of the boys were sexually abused and had aggressive tendencies. The protocol requires for employees to contact the village supervisor and nursing if the child is placed into a physical hold due to aggressive behavior, if they hit a peer, and if they expose themselves.
The village supervisor would arrive and criticize the employees working the house. He stated this is a man’s world and the children would listen to me. As he was leaving, I stepped outside and confronted him that his comment was sexist. After this incident, every time he would speak to me he would start the sentence off as ‘not to offend you or be sexist but . .’ This did not stop until I filed a report with human resources. Once, the report was filed he would speak briefly with me about the child’s action and take the incident report that I wrote.
Incidents that I treated Someone Unfairly
As I was walking through the East Village of New York City a large African American male approached. He was attempting to talk to me, but I was refusing to speak to him. I would not respond or I stated no to every question that he asked. He walked beside me for three minutes asking questions. Finally, he said I understand now you are racist. He proceeded to yell racist at me. At that moment, I stopped and could only say no. This incident had me reflect if this was a microaggression or if he took my actions in the wrong context. My behavior was distant, since a large male was following me through the streets. I cannot assess if my behavior and feelings would have differed if he was different race.
Comparison of Myself
I can draw on certain aspects of privilege better than others. I am more aware of my white privilege and being able-bodied compared to other aspects of privilege. I understand that I was awarded a set of privileges for being born with the characteristics that I inherited. I have become aware of these privileges through classes and cultural competency activities.
If I did not major is social work, then it would be difficult to be aware of these privileges. In comparison to the general population of the United States I am more aware of my privileges. I have read articles and texts that explain this concept, which allows me to be more aware than others.
In this particular political climate differences distinct. The president has remained privileged throughout his lifetime and it is apparent with his slurs toward subordinate groups. The president has made a lot of derogatory statements, which causes the oppressed group to make statements. Those who are part of the privilege group and see the wrong-doing in these statements have some awareness of the differences. It is important to recognize differences in all community aspects.
Historically, I was not aware of my privileges. I can compare myself to my parents and my siblings. I grew up in a conservative household and my dad had strong beliefs about people who did not have the dame characteristics as himself. As a child, these were the beliefs and the knowledge that I gained about privilege. As I speak to my dad about society it is apparent that he is racist and sexist. I am able to make that distinction, whereas in the past I never picked up on his overt racism or sexism.
I am more aware of the word choices used when speaking about people who differ from myself. I use the person first approach, but members of my family label people based on their differences. I become annoyed or irritated when my family members use this type of language, but I did the same before I attended higher education. I am able to compare how I have changed, once I received the knowledge of differences.
Perception of Oppressed or Privileged
I am perceived as predominantly privileged within society. At a glance it would be determined that I am a young white female, who is abled-bodied. I have an advantage by being privileged based on my race, age, and having no disability. I can walk into a store and not be followed around by an employee and it is easy to find products that compliment my skin color. I do not get scrutinized if I am short by a few cents paying for items. These are examples of advantages that I have based on being white that individuals from other races may not experience. As able-bodied I am able to enter buildings from any entrance and I do not need to seek out accommodations. If I share other aspects of myself that cannot be determined based on looks, then I would still be labeled as privileged within society.
I am heterosexual and I grew up in a Christian faith based household, which are characteristics of the dominant group. I do not have to answer questions about my sexuality or experience the fear of coming out. I do not have to experience backlash by identifying as heterosexual compared to others who identify LGBTQ+. Christianity is not scrutinized and churches are rarely vandalized for a hate crime. As I grew up my family was categorized as middle class and now we are categorized as upper-middle class. I am able to rely on my family for support, due to our strong family dynamics. This is a privilege because it is still seen as preferential to have a nuclear family within society.
As a female, I can experience oppression in society. The dominant group is male and throughout the history of the United States society females are categorized in the subordinate group. This is an aspect of my life that I will not be able to change, but I can advocate for equality. I am in my early twenties, but I look younger than my actual age. This can lead to scrutiny when I buy certain items at the store or when I go to certain businesses. Also, my driver’s license is examined longer than my peers.
Impact as a Social Worker
As a social worker, it is important to be aware of our differences when working with clients. We do not want to offend our client or have preconceived ideas of the client. We need to be aware that differences affect clients and how to navigate those differences. However, we cannot change the differences that the client is experiencing. Yee (2016) stated that changing the viewpoints of people in the privileged groups will not eliminate oppression. Oppression will always be play a pivotal role in the United States society. Social work practitioners are taught about anti-oppression and values, but they are limited by the reality of institutional structures that are discriminatory (Yee, 2016). It is our role to help a client navigate resources, so they can cope with these oppressions.
It is unprofessional to receive a case and determine the privileges that a client may or may not have before an initial contact with the client. According to Levine-Rasky (2011) social positioning explains how we articulate, understand, and interact with these positions. We may hear a case and form conceptions around it due to similar cases in the past. It is essential to treat each client differently, because these differences will affect everyone differently.
As a social worker we need to be aware of our own biases, so the client can receive the best services. If a client feels unwelcomed or is labeled, then they may not return for services. This can affect the relationship with the client, since rapport would not be established. Our goal is to help the client, not build on their systematic oppression.
There are differences that society has deemed dominant or subordinate. These differences include gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, class, and disability. An individual can be privileged in one of these categories and oppressed in another category. It is important to recognize our roles in these categories and if we are predominantly privileged or oppressed. As social workers, we should be aware of these differences when working with clients.