Toxic Culture: Unearned Privilege 

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin

Unearned Privilege: Benefits accrued to a person, or groups of people by virtue of birth, social status, race, class, gender, married status, in fact any privilege not based on hard work or extra effort to deserve it.

Have you ever thought about the things you can do (or not do), the benefits you receive just because…well just because of who you happen to be and the social groups to which you belong? These are unearned privileges, advantages we haven’t had to work for or do anything to earn.  

Consider a recent incident where a parent called police while on a campus tour with her children. After driving 7 hours for the tour, two Native American brothers arrived about 45 minutes late and joined the tour that was already in progress. The parent told police that the two young men were “definitely” not part of the tour group; she believed their clothing and general demeanor made them suspicious.

Would the parent have reacted the same way had the students been white? Probably not. It is likely that, under the same set of circumstance, young white men would not have caused alarm. Being given the “benefit of the doubt” based on outward appearance is an unearned privilege frequently enjoyed by members of dominant groups and rarely experienced by individuals outside the group.

While we may recognize unearned privilege as it relates to race, we all are members of both “in-groups” and “out-groups” and, as such, we all have unearned privileges. For example,

  • If you have never had to worry about being physically harmed because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you have an unearned privilege.
  • If you always knew you would be able to go to college if you wanted, you have an unearned privilege.
  • If you’re right-handed, you have an unearned privilege. Most of society is right hand oriented: using can openers, cutting with scissors. (If you’re right-handed, try using only your left hand and see how challenging it is).
  • If you can easily find symbols that represent your religious beliefs and holidays (decorations, greeting card, food, etc.), you have an unearned privilege. Or you can easily finding a place to worship.
  • If you’ve never been asked “where are you really from,” you have an unearned privilege.

These few examples show that there are many areas where we enjoy advantages that we have not had to do anything in order to receive them. We don’t seek out these advantages and we usually don’t even recognize that we have them. The idea that we could have advantages that we did not earn can make us uncomfortable – after all, we are taught from a young age that success in life depends on our own efforts and hard work; if we work hard we can achieve anything. And we often feel that a disadvantage – say gender – wipes out any advantage we may have – such as race or physical abilities.

To have unearned privilege does not mean that you are not a hard worker. It does not mean that you can’t also have disadvantages. It does mean that life is often more challenging for those who don’t have the same systemic privileges.

Remember, we are all members of both in-groups and out-groups; it is the in-group, the privileged group, that generally defines what is normal and, therefore, it is the standard against which other groups are judged. For example, a tall person would have an advantage over shorter people when reaching for something on the uppermost shelf in a grocery store; however, that same person would have a disadvantage sitting in most seats on an airplane. The point is that in both circumstances – being able to reach tall shelves or being cramped on a flight – the advantage or disadvantage is based on design choices over which we have no control. (They are systemic.)

When we become aware of our unearned advantages, the response should not be guilt; instead it should spur us to action. By acknowledging our privileges – we are better able to recognize when others are being treated unfairly and tapping into the feelings of marginalization that often accompany our own disadvantages, we can become better allies for others who are marginalized and work toward greater equality of opportunity for all.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation which is the key to understanding and culture change.

Please send them to WATExplorer@gmail.com and we will publish them. Thanks!

NewPoint Strategies is a nationally recognized consulting firm assisting companies and organizations manage High Risk EEO issues.

Gwen Crider, an internationally recognized Diversity expert, has been writing about, teaching and implementing successful diversity initiatives for more than twenty years.Follows are her thoughts about the importance of understanding Diversity and Inclusion both personally and in the workplace.

Top photo: Bigstock

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen CKilmartin GCrider (19 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, and Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations.