This is an offering from the Power Flower discussion at the last national meeting in October. I hope it gives further food for thought and, at least, keep the issue of -isms in the forefront of dialogue.

Privilege is one of those very strange things. Those who lack it generally recognize it as either something to envy or something to despise. Those who know they have it and are inclined to have more, manipulate it to their own advantage. Then there is the great, largely clueless majority who, if asked, will tell you they don’t have privilege – they are just as downtrodden as women, people of color, GLBT or whatever other group they may name. Sometimes I think that the invisible unflective privilege is the most heinous and insidious.

To fully understand privilege, we have to first unpack its two close relatives – bias and prejudice. While we tend to use these words interchangeably, they are quite different. Bias is an ingrained preference for or against particular things, and it ranges from the mundane to the notorious. Preferring strawberries over apples is a bias, as is having a preference for white people or against people of color. One is relatively harmless and mild, while the other may be hurtful to both persons involved. Prejudice is pre-judgment based on some criteria or bias. It is one thing to be biased towards whites, but another to prejudge the characteristic of white as better than all other possibilities. Prejudice elevates bias to an action or belief system that is illogical and not just hurtful, but potentially truly harmful.

Each and every one of us have biases. We cannot live without them, essentially. Bias, however, is an initial thought that can generally be easily examined and set aside if it is of no use, or retained if it is positive. Prejudice is a decision made based on bias without benefit of reflection. Prejudice is more visceral and is more likely to be rationalized and justified by generalizing that the bias is legitimate. This is many times done by insinuating a very specific incident into a general “truth”, which in reality would likely contain very little real truth. Prejudice elevates our own bias to an idol, if you will, and usually has negative consequences for the recipient of the prejudgment.

If prejudice is bias with action, then privilege is the result of giving bias power and authority. Privilege is the benefit that accrues to the person or group that has to endure the least bias and/or prejudice. In this sense, privilege can be invisible. Since people of color are a common target of bias and prejudice, and since I am not a person of color, then I benefit, perhaps quite indirectly, from my privileged position that I did nothing to earn. Since women experience bias and prejudice frequently, I have privilege because I am not a woman.


Fig 1.

There are any number of criteria that can generate privilege. An interesting exercise is an old tool called the Power Flower. When it most interesting is before and during an immersion trip into a completely different culture. The results become fascinating. Anyway, the Power Flower, which as far as I can tell is freely available in the public domain, is shown in Fig 1. (Please let me know if I am wrong about being in the public domain.)

I’ve already filled in the outer ring, just for illustration purposes. These categories are the most common used when I do this exercise in groups. I ask participants to talk about and write in some of the most common characteristics that give privilege or that are a source of prejudice. You will rarely reach total consensus on all the categories if the group has more than 6 participants. In this case, it is interesting as a presenter to watch how decisions are made and then to use this as an illustration later on.

 Next, we fill in the second ring with the characteristic that is most commonly associated with positions of power, prestige, authority or privilege. People will want to use specific examples against a common trait being dominant, and it will usually be someone who possesses that characteristic. When “male” is put in the gender category, it is not uncommon for a man to say something like, “yeah, but I know of plenty of women in positions of power,” and then possibly be able to name one or two. The normal response, when the spotlight is trained on privilege, is to deny being a recipient of its benefit.


Fig 2
Fig 2

Fig 2 shows a relatively normal second circle for a group of US residents. It would obviously look different if you filling it out in Equitorial Guinea or Ethiopia – maybe. The next step is the easiest and the most telling. You simply fill in the center circle with 1’s and 0’s – 1 if you are male, 0 if you are not, etc – and then add up your score. In a decent sized group the conversation can become quite lively from here on in.

I, for instance, have a privilege/power rating of 10, possibly 11 since I can pass for upper class when I need to. I have innate privilege because I am a white, English-speaking, married, 54-year old, fully abled, Christian, heterosexual male with a graduate degree living in New York. How would a black lesbian from Alabama fare on the scale? How about if she had a high school diploma and hearing difficulties?

Play with it and think about it for a short while. I will be back to finish this.

[Imagine music playing softly in the background.]

Okay, I’m back.

Privilege, then, is the mirror of institutionalized bias – the result for those who are not the object of the bias. The best definition of racism I have heard is “the exercise of bias and prejudice against a race in concert with the inherent power afforded by society to institutionalize or normalize that prejudice.” In essence, whenever you have a situation where laws are passed by a legislature that reflects a majority and enforced by systems that also reflect that majority, institutionalized bias is unavoidably inherent in the system and grants privilege to those in the majority. This is not just true for matters of race, but also of gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, religion and virtually all the other characteristics found in the outer circle of the Power Flower.

In the US, the balance of power in government was set up to try to minimize this inequity. Basically, that is the role of the court system. Forgetting, for a minute, that the court system also reflects the majority population, it is designed to equalize the system of laws to make sure that benefit is not granted to the majority on the backs of those who are not equally represented. In short, the courts are, to the best of their ability, to prevent unconscious or intentional “tyranny of the majority”. Exactly when courts are accused of superceding the “will of the people” they are fulfilling their role effectively. The “will of the people” (translate “majority”) is not the basis of democracy, but rather the basis of fascism. (Interestingly, I had to return to correct what may have been a Freudian slip – I type demoncracy instead of democracy.)

It is important to keep in mind that, just because a constitutional amendment is passed by popular vote, the amendment is not necessarily constitutional. Determining consistency with the overriding provisions of the constitution falls on the backs of the courts, which makes it a highly contentious and potentially unpopular part of the US system of justice. You might say that, when the courts get the most heat from the public, they may have come the closest to doing what they were created to do.

As this is a thought process in progress, I will return yet again to add more.

Authored by Rev Andy Little.