Thursday, September 23, 2010

Privilege - Devon Carbado

Carbado defines privilege as "those of us who unquestionably accept the racial, gender and heterosexual privileges we have - those who fail to acknowledge our victimless status with respect to racism, sexism, and homophobia are also perpetrators of discrimination.” The privileges that Carbado focuses on are Heterosexual, Male, and White, privilege. He first identifies the highest form of privilege, that of the White heterosexual male. Carbado then divides the remainder of his essay into two discussions: male privilege and heterosexual privilege (race is taken into account as a subtopic in each section).

The White heterosexual male is the template for mankind. "He is in a sense, the norm. (...) we are all defined with him in mind." (192)If one does not fit into the category of the white heterosexual male, they are then "othered" and began to lose privilege. White heterosexual women have less privilege than the white heterosexual male and a black heterosexual male has even less privilege. Whites are privileged because their race is the norm so much so that as Barbra Flagg states a "white person has an everyday option not to think about [them self] in racial terms at all." (193) the concept of not thinking about daily positioning or actions is called normatively. Normatively is created by the societies in which we live.

White Privilege

Carbado draws from the writings of Peggy MacIntosh who reflects on the unearned advantages she experiences as white women. "For example, precisely because she is white McIntosh did not have to educate her children to be aware of the systematic racism for their own daily physical protection." Carbado lists 40 ways in which white males experience privilege which include “Prospective employers will never ask me if I plan on having children. (…) I can walk in public alone, without the fear of being sexually violated.” Carbado uses the writings of Flagg and MacIntosh because they suggest that heterosexual white males could reflect on their own privilege. The ultimate goal is for both sides those who experience privilege and those who do not to understand that the discrimination they cause with their privileges.

Heterosexual Privilege

“Like maleness, heterosexuality operates as an identity norm, the “what is” or “what is supposed to be” of sexuality. (…) Scientists aren’t searching for a gay, not heterosexual or sexual orientation gene.” (198) Carbado argues that heterosexuals should fight this normativity and then discusses the struggles that arise when this is attempted. The challenging of heteronormativity by heterosexuals may result in being judged by society. This is because there is a stigma attached to people who support causes in social change; they are assumed to have a personal stake in the matter. So if a straight man starts to talk about the discrimination of homosexuals many people assume that he is in fact a homosexual himself.

Carbado then presents the new ways “coming out” has been tailored for heterosexuals. People are “coming out” as republicans, star trek fans, or stamp collectors. The term has begun to devalue the “economic, psychological, and physical harms that potentially [occur in] the gay and lesbian coming out (or outing) process.” Heterosexuals are also “coming out” as heterosexuals.
This can affect the homosexual “coming out” process in positively by undoing the assumption that one is heterosexual and thus does not need to establish their sexual orientation. However, this can also negatively affect the homosexual “coming out” process because it can be used as a tool to reestablish heteronormativity. For example, as heterosexuals who want to be advocates of homosexuality community may choose to “out” themselves as heterosexual allies first.

In this discussion on heterosexual privilege, Carbado also discusses race. When the notion of race is added to homosexuality it is at times harder to do away with the norms. This is because when people of color who are already “othered” by their race, try and stray from other forms in which they can be marginalized. Thus the stigma arises that a black man cannot be Gay because that would pull him even further from the norm of the white straight man.

Conclusion: Resisting Privileges

Carbado concludes his essay attempting to determine if the heterosexual men in fact become more aware of their privilege by listing “their social experiences on the privileged side of gender and sexual orientation.” He also speaks of the possible devaluing of the experienced of disadvantaged people by over valuing the experiences of those with privilege in which they are aware of their privilege.


  1. First of all I'd like to say that I think your privilege exercise in class was brilliant. It really caused me to think about and experience privilege in a new way. I only had one piece of paper, and I ended up not speaking at all. I was saving that paper for a moment when I had something brilliant to say and that just never came. I think that is because I had a harder time engaging in class today. I was so concerned about not having the right to talk that I ended up with nothing to say. I wonder how that reflects on traditional experiences of being underprivileged.

    Now that I’m not thinking about that there are a few things I’d like to bring up. First, when I started reading the article the first thing I thought of was “The Five Faces of Oppression” by Iris Young. In the article she proposes a new way of thinking about oppression. She frames it in terms of marginalization, violence, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and exploitation. She rejects categories like racism, sexism, classism, ageism, etc. Carbado seems frustrated by the common understanding of oppression and I wonder how he feels about Young’s framework. Young makes a huge argument about the institutional oppression that people perpetuate in daily life without realizing. Carbado is frustrated by people who are unaware of their privilege. I think that there is a definite correlation between Young and Carbado there.

    One thing that really bothered me in Carbado’s essay was the use of “we.” There are several instances of when Carbado would use “we” when describing the perpetuation of oppression. This was frustrating to me because it seemed to presume that everyone who read the article was unaware of their privilege (or lack thereof) and their position in the system of oppression. I felt alienated by his use of language in those situations. However I feel that overall this is one of the most accessible article’s we’ve read in class so far. The lists of privileges were very real and would be easy for me to explain to someone unfamiliar with queer theory.

  2. @Marianne your disconnect from the author's use of "we" is interesting as I often feel disconnected from scholarship written by white people that invokes a "we" that is clearly exclusive of my perspective as a reader. I appreciate the parallels you draw between Carbado and Young; it does seem like they would have a lot to talk about!

    @Blaxican Great summary. Please check how you've spelled the author's name as I believe its Carbado. Can you define privilege? I think i get it through context but maybe a sentence definition might be helpful in addition to the example from the text.

  3. I thought @Blaxican presented this topic very well!! She demonstrated with an exercise that defined privilege to the class. I really appreciated that she stood up, made it energetic and passed out markers that marked how many time each student is allowed to speak. It made it interesting and easier to understand.

    This article reminded me of an activity the office of Intercultural Affairs "plays". It's called a privilege walk. Everyone starts on one side of the room holding hands. The leader reads statements like, "I have never been racially profiled by the police" or "I don't have to worry about band-aids that match my skin tone". If you agree with the statement you step forward. By the end of the game, it is not surprising to see that some White students moved across the room, Black students barely stepped forwards and other participants of color are somewhere in between.

    What stuck out to me in this article is the importance of being accountable of being a person with privilege, rather than simply feeling sympathy or guilty. If one wishes to change how white, heterosexual, males are privilege, one should do active work to CHANGE it.

    Privilege is like an invisible backpack, McIntosh says. It's weightless and those who are wearing it do not acknowledge it. In the backpack are maps, tools, and other advantages people with this backpack can use without thinking. Privilege of race, economy, ability, sexual orientation, etc. Don't ignore the privilege but use it to help pull others up or change the ideas of what counts as privilege. That's what I see Carbado is saying.

  4. I completely agreed with you when you said that "normativity is created by the societies in which we live." However, I personally disagree with normativity being defined as "the concept of not thinking about daily positioning or actions". Is this to say that for anyone who takes their race or gender into consideration along with their current situation is abnormal? I feel like yes, there is a privilege ladder but even though women for example is on a lower step of the hierarchal ladder of privilege and power, women are still essentially viewed as normal. Normativity from what we have discussed with other articles, is more complicated than this definition. For a woman, it is possible for her to constantly think "I have to remember I am a woman" this type of thinking would be completely normal for her. It appears to me when taking in concepts such as heteronormativity, homonormativity and the act of "othering" people, the concept and definition of normativity will change and depends on what you are talking about. In this case the definition of normativity being based on whether or not one thinks about their "daily positioning or actions" fits and is completely understandable for privilege. I feel also that this normativity is a privilege in and of itself.

    This reminded me of Reverend Pussycat's blog on Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence when she stated that "compulsory heterosexuality creates queerness... even though society likes to pretend that it's the other way around." These default privileges of white skin and/or gender othering other people based on race, sexuality and gender appears to do exactly the same. But to those who do inevitably think about themselves on racial terms end up viewing this default privilege kind of queer in a way. Also this is not to say that people of mixed identities are constantly thinking about themselves in racial or queer terms.

    Now back to your blog. I really appreciated the structural breakdown of the different kinds of privileges. It helped me better understand the different types of default privileges.

    I also personally disagree with the ultimate goal of understanding "the discrimination they cause with their privileges" It almost makes me feel that many people are at fault for having these privileges. But these automatic privileges are not asked for rather they are given to us at birth because they are social constructs of society. From a racial or queer minority when you recognize something that is automatic are you supposed to give up the only privileges that you have in order to combat this unwritten privilege ladder?

    The idea of queer by association was mentioned under the guise of societal judgment. My question is why care about what other strangers think of you? I understand when it comes to employment and housing because those two are absolutely necessary in life but there are other areas in your life such as friend circles where one who is heterosexual and/or male can challenge this heteronomativity.

    The American process of "coming out" as an obligation is really starting to annoy me. This process in my opinion needs to be undone because "coming out" is not a necessary part of some "queer process" nor is it necessary in order to fully be gay or accept yourself.

    "Undoing the assumption that one is heterosexual and thus does not need to establish their sexual orientation" is a definite positive of heterosexuals "coming out" but my question is since when is confessing random things like "I LOVE STAR TREK!!" coming out of a closet? Sounds like the whole concept of "coming out" is being re-defined which as a queer person I don't mind. To "come out" is like saying "Hey, I'm abnormal."

    Final thoughts: I also agree with Marianne on how you privilege exercise was amazing. Great job!!

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