Intersectionality and Privilege

At the University, we know that students from less privileged backgrounds, black students, Trans and non-Binary students, amongst others, have not always been made to feel welcome by their peers.  

It affects their mental and emotional wellbeing, confidence and ability to study.  This is not only sad but unacceptable.  Taking responsibility for your own part in the experience of others can be uncomfortable, but also enlightening.  By thinking about your own privileges and how those intersect with others you can overcome some of the barriers to building a welcoming community and prepare yourself for living and working successfully in an increasingly globalised and international world.

What is ‘privilege’? 



You’ve probably heard the term ‘white privilege’, which has been talked about recently in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests.  It refers to the idea that skin colour can affect your lived experience such that it can either give you an advantage or be a barrier to almost all areas of life.  Therefore, if you are ‘white’, whatever situation you are in, it is almost always the case that the outcome has not been affected by your skin colour.  ‘Privilege’, in this case, doesn’t mean that you have special advantages, it simply means that don’t have the disadvantages associated with having a darker skin tone.  If you are white, it also means you may not even be aware of the disadvantages that black and minority ethnic people experience.  


What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American academic, in the late 1980’s.  It describes how race, class, gender and other personal characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.  She wanted to remind people that when thinking about equality, we need to think beyond unique attributes like skin colour and gender and recognise that humans often have more than one characteristic that is subject to discrimination or hostility.  While a woman may experience sexism, a black lesbian will be at risk of experiencing sexism, racism and homophobia.  For this reason, it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that you can fully understand the lived experience of someone else.  However, what you can do is to listen to and respect people when they share their lives with you. 



Why does this matter?

Sometimes people complain that this is all about ‘identity politics’ and that these ideas are about creating hierarchies of victimisation and demonising (in particular) young, white men.  This is absolutely not the intention of engaging with ideas of privilege and intersectionality.  However, it does mean that before you voice your opinion on another person, you should stop to think about whether you have the right to speak about them from a position of no direct expertise, and you could stop before acting and consider whether your behaviour is contributing to or alleviating their existing disadvantage. 


Privilege isn’t limited to skin colour.  There are many other attributes that can confer privilege like class, gender and sexuality.  But where does this privilege come from?  Unlike your accomplishments and achievements which can give you an advantage, privilege is not really something personal.  Instead, it’s the way that the wider society has developed through time to create advantage for certain groups of people – usually those in power and their allies and friends.  Some of these structures have existed for so long that we don’t even notice them.  That’s the case for sexuality, for example.  Unless we are queer, we probably don’t realise how strong the idea that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ is and how most of the messages and structures of society are aimed at heterosexual people.  Same-sex marriage and other changes in the law have raised our awareness in recent times, of course. 


There are two main ways you can engage with the idea of ‘privilege’.  The first is to become aware of the ways that you might be advantaged through the way society is set up, essentially, the things that make life a little easier for you like skin colour (being paler), gender (being male) or being able-bodied.  The second is to become sensitive to the fact that other people may not have these advantages, especially when you share a space with them.  Once you do this, then you can take personal responsibility for reducing the disadvantage they may face, through no fault of their own.  This might be simple things like holding back so a black student can answer a question or act as spokesperson rather than you or more difficult things like challenging another student who has made a homophobic remark.  In this way you are using your privilege for the good of others.  


Find out more

Professor Ann Phoenix, professor of Education at the University of London blog for The British Academy  5 min read

NUS Resources on Intersectionality

On intersectionality: essential writings, Crenshaw, Kimberlé, New York: The New Press; 2017   

ISBN : 9781620972700 (pbk.) 

Find the book On intersectionality in the University library

Kalwant Bhopal (2020) Confronting White privilege: the importance of intersectionality in the sociology of education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41:6, 807-816, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2020.1755224 

Online article copy from British Journal of Sociology of Education

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs, 30(3), 1771-1800. 

Online version on The Complexity of Intersectionality