When most people think of sexism or racism (or any of the other bigoted "ism"s out there), they tend to imagine concentrated acts of hate or violence or blatant attitudes of superiority. And in the absence of such obvious acts and attitudes, they assume that discrimination just doesn't exist. It is easy to assume that because we have some legal protections against the most overt types of discrimination and because vociferous hate of others is generally frowned upon in our society that oppression is a thing of the past. But laws and "politically correct" attitudes can not and do not change that fact that the groups of humans with (a)more power, (b)more money, (c) more numbers or more visibility, or (d)a history of more power, money, and visibility still have a lengthy list of automatic privileges that affect nearly every aspect of their lives.
My frist experience with learning about privilege came from the wonderful article by Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (which is excerpted from a larger work and reprinted in full here). Another good source is the book White Like Me, by Tim Rice, an American white male who breaks down aspects of his life to explain how many of the comforts and the security he has enjoyed in his life are (directly or indirectly) a result of his being white.
There is white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, heterosexual privilege, American privilege, able-bodied privilege, weight privilege, etc. etc., and the most interesting thing about privilege is how invisible it can be to those who possess it. The web's most popular checklist of male privileges can be found here, and it includes a great introduction, but I put the list in full below for the link-phobic.
Now, before you proceed to read the list, I must warn you. Some of these are, of course, subject to debate, but merely presenting a few exceptions is not enough to discount the items as privileges. And (especially if you are male and/or new to the idea of privilege) the list might cause an extreme feeling of defensiveness. Perhaps not all of the items on the list apply to you personally, but they still exist. The object of bringing privilege to light is not to personally attack members of a dominant group, but to promote awareness of what it is like to be a member of a marginalized group - to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see that things may not be quite as fair and egalitarian as they sometimes seem. The brilliant Twisty Faster over at I Blame the Patriarchy put it beautifully when she said that,
"...(a) all men excercise - and benefit from - male privilege whether they want to or not, and (b) that any exercise of male privilege is misogyny. The Twistolution understands that there are lots of men who don't actively choose this, but the involuntary nature of their participation in women's oppression doesn't make them any less oppressed by them."
1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
2. I can be confident that my co-workers won't think I got my job because of my sex - even though that might be true.
3. If I am never promoted, it's not because of my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won't be seen as a black mark against my entire sex's capabilities.
5. The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
7. If I'm a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
8. I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.
12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I'm selfish for not staying at home.
13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
14. Chances are my elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more likely this is to be true.
15. I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see "the person in charge," I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.
17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children's media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male heroes were the default.
18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.
19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.
20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented, every day, without exception. 21. If I'm careless with my financial affairs it won't be attributed to my sex.
22. If I'm careless with my driving it won't be attributed to my sex.
23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.
24. If I have sex with a lot of people, it won't make me an object of contempt or derision.
25. There are value-neutral clothing choices available to me; it is possible for me to choose clothing that doesn't send any particular message to the world.
26. My wardrobe and grooming are relatively cheap and consume little time.
27. If I buy a new car, chances are I'll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.
28. If I'm not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.
29. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.
30. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called "crime" and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called "domestic violence" or "acquaintance rape," and is seen as a special interest issue.)
31. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. "All men are created equal…," mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
32. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
33. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if i don't change my name.
34. The decision to hire me will never be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
35. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is usually pictured as being male.
36. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
37. If I have a wife or 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.
38. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, chances are she'll do most of the childrearing, and in particular the most dirty, repetitive and unrewarding parts of childrearing.
39. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we'll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
40. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are much rarer.
41. I am not expected to spend my entire life 20-40 pounds underweight.
42. If I am heterosexual, it's incredibly unlikely that I'll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.
43. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.
Privilege is a touchy subject. Failure to recognize it keeps systems of oppression in place, because it is so freely (and often unknowingly) exercised by even the most well-meaning and least hateful people. Only when we are open-minded enough to become aware of it are we able to take steps to dismantle it or work to extend privileges to those who lack them. No one can presume to know what it is like to be someone else until they open their ears and listen, and we should all take some wisdom from Ms. Audre Lorde, who said:
"If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister's oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman's voice delineate an agony I do not share, or one to which I may have contributed."
--from Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, keynote presentation at the National Women's Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June, 1981 -- printed in (Sister Outsider)
(Visit here and scroll down for a list of participants in Blog Against Sexism Day.)