Checking Your Privilege 101
What is privilege?
Privilege is any right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person or group beyond the advantages
of most. At TJLP, we think of privilege as an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over
marginalized groups. For example, since transgender people are not included in the dominant group,
non-transgender people often have many privileges – rights, benefits, immunities – that transgender
people don’t have including legal rights, social acceptance and understanding, gender-affirming
medical treatment, bathroom access, family support, etc. A key aspect of privilege is that, due to its
unearned nature, those who have privilege often do not realize they have it. In other words, they
don’t see the access and opportunity being a member of a dominant group affords them. This is why,
as organizers and activists fighting for liberation, it is essential that we learn how to recognize our
privileges and check how our unearned advantages play into the work we do.
Who has privilege?
Most of us have some privileges that we may not realize. Being a citizen of the United States
affords extreme global political and economic privilege, as well as privilege domestically (compared
to undocumented and other types of immigrants to the United States). We call this citizenship
privilege. At TJLP, we strive to actively engage with, be accountable for, and discuss many types
of privilege as a part of our organizing work:
The privilege of being a person raised with financial stability and access to financial safety nets through
family or other assets. Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time. In
our society, class privilege often dictates “opportunities,” “freedom,” access to “legal rights” and the
power to influence political systems and the media. In our experience, class privilege has been one of the
privileges most devastating to radical organizing when gone unchecked by those who have it.
TJLP strongly believes that the United States operates within a system of institutionalized racism. Unlike
prejudice, which may include racist statements, slurs, or acts induced by personal dislike of members of
other races, institutional racism is structured into our politics, our economic system, our geography, our
educational systems, our social institutions, etc. We call institutional racism in the U.S. white supremacy,
where the “norm” is whiteness and the society is structured to privilege white people.
The privilege of a person who has been able to access higher education, which is sometimes, but not
always, a result of other privileges such as race and class privilege. At TJLP we think of educational
privilege as not only affording access to job opportunities, but also using language and communication
that is alienating and fundamentally rooted in higher education learning institutions, which many clients
have little or no access to.
The privilege of being a masculine-appearing, male-identified person living in the United States, which
both historically and currently functions in a system of patriarchy. Some women may not feel that sexism
or discrimination based on their gender is still a constant reality. At TJLP we recognize internalized
oppression and how it functions within a broader system of institutionalized oppression. For every woman
who has hated her body, been on a diet to look thinner, has experienced gender-based sexual violence, or
has simply felt scared being on the street alone – patriarchy persists.
Gender Identity Privilege
The privilege of having a gender presentation that correlates with the dominant group’s expected gender
“norms.” This means being a person who is male-assigned at birth and identifies as a man, or femaleassigned
at birth and identifies as a woman. Privileges include having identification that reflects your
gender, bathroom access, freedom from police targeting on the basis of gender non-conformity, genderaffirming
medical care, etc.
This is the access afforded to people who are considered “adults” in our systems and institutions and
conversely the disadvantage of being considered “youth.” We also recognize that elders are often
stripped of meaningful participation in many systems and institutions as well due to age.
Body Size Privilege
This is the privilege to be born with a body type that is celebrated and considered “beautiful” by the
dominant group as reflected in the media, advertisements, social norms, etc. Oftentimes this body is thin
for women and muscular for men, in addition to reflecting other dominant norms such as whiteness and
able-bodiedness. We call the fear this privilege stems from fat-phobia.
Much like other privileges, able-bodied privilege is the ability to physically participate in society because
society was made to accommodate only the “dominant” group – people who are perceived to be ablebodied
and not physically disabled. This effectively cuts disabled people out of society. In addition, this
privilege invisibilizes and stigmatizes mental disability, which ostracizes and shames folks with mental
disabilities and cuts support services from them. TJLP sees this ableism leading directly to the
criminalization of mental disability as evidenced by an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of
people incarcerated who have mental disabilities.
Life on the Outside Privilege
Being incarcerated clearly leads to the loss of many privileges. Not only are you confined against your
will, but often inmates are unable to read, write, go outside, wear the clothing of their choice, practice
their religion, communicate with people on the outside, access the legal system, exercise, eat foods of their
choice, have access to medical care, have autonomy over their sexuality, etc.
The privilege to be able to “pass” as a more privileged group, such as a light-skinned person of color
passing as white, a transperson passing as non-trans, a disabled person passing as able-bodied, etc.
While passing may be a goal for some because of the privileges it brings, it can often be a disadvantage.
All transpeople should have the same rights and privileges regardless of whether they are seen as
transgender or not. All people with disabilities should have access regardless of whether their disability
is visible to a non-disabled person. Our races should not be assumed to be white unless otherwise
This is the privilege to be a member of the dominant religion in the United States – Christianity. Both
traditionally and currently, other religions have been stigmatized, ostracized, and criminalized - most
notably Judaism, Islamic religions, Buddhism, and Indigenous practices and beliefs.
The privilege of being a heterosexual and/or of not being a labeled a sexual deviant. Traditionally sexual
deviants often include non-straight people, people who have sex for pleasure outside of marriage, people
who practice polyamory or have more than one sexual partner at a time, kinky people, etc.
Why do we feel privilege must be recognized in activist work?
We feel that privilege must be recognized and checked as a commitment to our values and our
process. We are working towards building a long-term movement and a movement that is in
solidarity with groups that we are not a part of as a collective. We have seen closely the dangers of
not checking privilege even as members of oppressed groups (women, transpeople, people of color,
poor people, etc). Not checking privilege ultimately doesn’t foster fundamental change but rather
repeats dynamics that already exist in our oppressive society within organizing circles such as
classism, racism, homophobia, ageism, etc. By constantly checking our privilege, we create a process
for change that reflects how we want the world to be while fostering deep-rooted solidarity work and
allyship to communities we are not a part of.
How do we check our privilege?
Action steps to checking privilege! 1) Acknowledge that the privilege exists, 2) move away from
immobilizing guilt, 3) understand that your privilege will not go away until the root systems that
give you privilege are abolished, 4) be an ally to communities you are not a part of, 5) recognize
how and why your privilege can destruct community empowerment, 6) use your privilege to benefit
groups you are not a part of, 7) educate others with your privilege to check themselves, and 8) call
people out and embrace being called out about privilege.
Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois
2040 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60647 www.tjlp.org