About a month ago, I saw an Internet comment from a self-described, 80-year-old, White man from the South who claimed to have never benefitted from White privilege. He claimed that he could not have benefitted from White privilege because he had had to work his way through college and had suffered lay offs several times during his career. Never mind that if indeed he had grown up in the South, he most probably grew up attending segregated, all-White schools while his Black peers had been victims of Jim Crow. Like many, he confused White privilege with economic privilege.
In order to make the concept of White privilege more comprehensible to those who struggle with the idea that there are multiple types of privilege, last week, we talked about White immunity. White immunity is the idea that being White in a racist society provides a type of social inoculation against racial discrimination. However, while the idea of White immunity is helpful in leading people to comprehend what we mean by White privilege, it is limited in scope. White privilege cannot be isolated anymore than language privilege, economic privilege, or male privilege, and it is only by understanding the intersection of different types of privileges that we can fully understand racial injustice.
Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power
To help people understand the concept of privilege, I use what I call the Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power. The Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power is based on the idea that the more “normal” one is considered to be, the more power and/or privilege one has. Those who are considered more “normal” are closer to the center of the concentric circles. Those who are considered less “normal” are further away from the circle.
“Normal” in American society is defined primarily by one’s identity groups. For instance, race heavily influences one’s level of “normalcy.” Being White is considered more “normal” than being of color. Being “Christian” is considered more “normal” than being from a non-Christian religious background. Other signs of “normalcy” include being heterosexual, cisgendered, able bodied, economically well off, English speaking without a foreign accent, and having (or being eligible for) a US passport. Of course, “normalcy” when it comes to any identity group is not a simple binary. While being White is considered “normal,” being White passing (or looking White even if you are in reality of a different racial heritage) brings you closer to the center of the circle than being visibly of color. Similarly, being higher on the racial hierarchy confers one with greater power than being lower on the hierarchy even when one is not White. Religion is another example of how “normalcy” is not binary. For example, being Jewish in our Judeo-Christian society does not confer the same level of power as being Christian, but it does confer more power than say someone who is Muslim or who practices an Eastern religion. Comparably, when it comes to language identity, speaking French as a first language brings one closer to the center of the circle than speaking Spanish as a first language. And of course, it is the intersection of these identities that brings about one’s exact position on the Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power, an intersection where those identity traits that are more visible have a greater influence on one’s privilege and power than those characteristics that one can more easily hide.
Practice Identifying Power and Privilege
To fully understand the Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power, one must practice using the tool. Below are three people who belong to different combinations of identity groups. Where would you place each person on the diagram? Which characteristics most influence your placement? Who is closest to the center of the circle? Who is the farthest from the center? How far are the three people from one another? Try doing this exercise with a group of friends or colleagues. The resulting conversations will really push you to understand this tool at a deeper level.
Person 1: White male, heterosexual, well educated, Jewish, able-bodied, American born
Person 2: Black and South Asian female (looks Black), well educated, Christian (half Christian, half Hindu by heritage), heterosexual, able-bodied, American born
Person 3: South Asian, White passing, American born, heterosexual, Christian-convert but Sikh by birth, able-bodied female
What is Social Justice?
Why is it important to understand and be able to use the Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power? By understanding how the intersection of one’s identity groups influences power and privilege, one can begin to call out and ultimately, remedy injustices. It is when those on the outermost rim of the Concentric Circle of Normalcy and Power have the same power and privilege as those in the center that we will have finally achieved social justice.