Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Defining the Terms Gender, Power and Privilege

So, as we begin the course and set out to define terms, it is important we have a common understanding of core concepts.  Below are definitions of the most basic terms of this course: gender, power and privilege.  In addition, some specific types of privileges, and examples of each, are also presented. This information if compiled from various websites, my own writing, and from Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.  Please read over carefully and work to understand the definitions of these terms, as well as the different types of privilege. Start thinking about the ways you are privileged in this society, as well as the ways you are targeted or oppressed.

Gender:  A complicated set of socio-cultural practices whereby human bodies are transformed into “boys” and “girls” and “men” and “women.”  Gender refers to that which a society deems “masculine” or “feminine.” Gender identity refers an individual’s self-identification as a man, woman, transgender or other identity category.  Many tomes have been written on gender, and there are countless definitions.  But most contemporary definitions stress how gender is socially and culturally produced and constructed, as opposed to being a fixed, static, coherent essence.  Gender is a social construct that artificially divides people into an absolute binary, usually based on their appearance, i.e. conformity to dominant notions of masculinity or femininity. 

Contrast gender to sex, which refers to the cluster of biological, chromosomal, and anatomical features associated with maleness and femaleness in the human body. Sexual dimorphism is often thought to be a concrete reality, whereas in reality the existence of many different intersex conditions point to a diversity of sexed embodiments in the human population. Sex is often used synonymously with gender in this culture. Although the two terms are related, they should be defined separately to differentiate the biological (“sex”) from the socio-cultural (“gender”). Some transpeople note that while sex is between your legs, gender is between your ears.

Power: Access to resources that enhance one’s chances of getting what one needs in order to lead a comfortable, productive, and safe life. Power also refers to the ability of individuals or groups to induce or influence the beliefs or actions of other persons or groups.  One’s level of power or access to power is heavily dependent on one’s social status or social location, i.e. their membership in various social categorizations including race, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, age, religion, nationality, immigrant status, ability, weight etc.

Privilege: A resource or state of being that is only readily available to some people because of their social group membership. Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status.  It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.

Examples of Privilege:

Class Privilege: One of the many tangible or intangible unearned advantages of higher-class status, such as personal contacts with employers, good childhood health care, inherited money, speaking the same dialect and accent as people with institutional power.

White Privilege: The concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society which Whites receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a racist society.  Examples include the ability to be unaware of race, the ability to live and work among people of the same racial group as their own, the security of not being pulled over by the police for being a suspicious person, the expectation that they speak for themselves and not for their entire race, the ability to have a job hire or promotion attributed to their skills and background and not affirmative action.

Male Privilege: Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male in society, benefits from male privilege.  Some examples:

    •    I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are.
    •    My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful  the elected position, the more this is true. 
    •    If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household
chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.

Cisgender Privilege: Cisgender Privilege refers to a set of unearned benefits that are given to non-trans people due to their institutional power over transsexual, transgender, genderqueer and gender-variant people.  Examples: It is unlikely that I will be ostracized by my family and friends, fired from my job, evicted from my home, given substandard medical care, suffer violent or sexual abuse, ridiculed by the media, or preached against by religious organizations simply because of my professed identity or perceived incongruent gendered behaviors or characteristics.

Thin Privilege: The cluster of privileges granted to thin or average-sized people due to the systemic discrimination against People of Size.  Some examples: If I walk slowly or choose to take the elevator/escalator people assume I might be tired/have had a bad day and not that it’s because I am unfit and unhealthy. Doctors don’t chalk up every symptom I have to my size and present weight loss as a panacea.  I won’t pay more for health insurance because of my size, etc.

1 comment:

  1. This was helpful.

    I am glad you sent the email. I checked in with your blog on the first day but since starting to follow all the blogs, yours fell to page 2 in the blogger digest and I never saw it.