Privilege, Religion, and Identity Markers

Benefits on Ring Binder. Blured, Toned Image.Last semester I taught two sections of a course on the topic of religion and violence. A key theme in the course is that violence is not simply a set of actions or the application of force. Rather, violent acts are related to social structures (systemic violence). As a way into that theme, we began by looking at Robert McAfee Brown’s well-known discussion of structural violence in the opening of his Religion and Violence (2nd edition; Westminster Press, 1987). All societies have and are perpetuated by social inequality. But I wanted my students to look beyond just acts and structures. I wanted them to study worldviews, ideologies, and conceptual frameworks. I told my students at the beginning of our course that nobody kills or is willing to be killed for an idea, but rather they are willing to die or kill for a conviction. This led us into a discussion of affect theory, socialization processes, the interrelationship between belief, structure, and action.

Over the past few months, given the political and social upheavals that we have seen and experienced in the United States in connection to the general election, this approach in our course inevitably began to explore hate crimes, racial injustices, and the power relations played out through social scripting and counter-scripting. We had already been dealing with many of these concerns, especially with an emphasis being placed on intersectional identity and how intersectionality plays out in narrative social interaction.

Privileged status became a hot topic in November. In response to my students’ interests and the challenges facing campuses across the country that my students and colleagues were struggling with, I decided to put together some of my thoughts on privilege and present those (very basic) insights to my students in an ad hoc lecture. I wanted to encourage my students to not simply react to the conflicts around them, but to theorize those conflicts, to better explain the discursive processes at work within and through the current American identity crises (and there are numerous crises at play at present, each vying for normative status as to what constitutes “authentic America”).

What follows is a bit of what I presented (and later summarized for one student when ask for clarification of my ideas) on privilege. In reflecting on that exchange, I thought it might be of value to share my ideas with a broader audience. Thus, this blog post.

What I’ve noticed is that most people treat privilege in a very simple way, without recognizing the role of intersectional identity. Typically, we think of privilege as unearned advantages over other people (e.g., hiring practices due to race or gender). This is certainly an important part of privilege, but it fails to note (1) that not everyone with such an advantage benefits from that advantage, and (2) that people have multiple identity markers (too often discussion of privilege falls on a flattened identity, rather than recognizing the range or layering of identity markers in the establishment of privilege for one set of social actors over another). This disconnect is what has led to accusations of reverse racism in public debates, for example.

So what I proposed is that we break privilege down into three components or steps.

First, there is advantage (or disadvantage). These are unearned. We are just born with them: body shape, race, age, gender, orientation, disability, language group, etc. They may also work in tandem with other advantages that are earned, such as education, though even the ability to obtain certain earned advantages may be affected (enhanced or negated) by unearned advantages.

Second, there is benefit—the “cashing in” on the advantage. This is “getting the job”, not being sexually harassed or assaulted, not being racially profiled, receiving a promotion, being assessed better grades, being treated better within the judicial system, etc. The benefit arises from the advantage.

Third, there is the context of activation—not everyone with an advantage will “cash in” on that advantage; or, perhaps more accurately, they will “cash in” within one set of circumstances, but might not in another set of circumstances. The context of the job interview, the promotion, border crossing, walking down the street, etc. is what has the potential for “triggering” an advantage to result in a benefit.

As an example, I have never been racially profiled at the border, though I’ve seen others profiled, detained, and treated with suspect and disrespect. I’m a white, English-speaking male. I have unearned advantages and, in that given context, my privilege is “activated” with the potential of gaining benefit. These unearned benefits on occasion being enhanced by the earned benefit of being a scholar and professor. The same is true for when I’m walking down the street at night. I am less likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than a woman (only once have I had someone try to mug me at knife-point, though the incident did not go well for them, but I have never been sexually attacked). The context of being on the street sets the stage for privilege activation and potential benefit acquisition. Note that a white woman in the first scenario may have the same potential for benefit that I have, whereas the second scenario she is at greater risk due to being female. The advantage/disadvantage plays out differently under different contexts of activation. Similarly, an African-American or Arab-American male may have a greater likelihood of facing discrimination at the border, at a job interview, or on a flight than I would face, but we may both have the same benefit potential walking home late at night.

In class, I added another aspect to this three-fold breakdown in order to address this polyvalent social dynamic, that is intersectionality. We are more than just a racial group, a gendered or sexed identification, a linguistic group, a body type, an age bracket, a social class, etc. We are all of these and much more. Human beings are complicated collections of identity markers that overlap, intersect, and affect each other. In a sense, our very “self” is nothing more than a contingent layering of identity markers within diverse social interactions.

In some cases a person has an advantage that could be activated, depending on context, whereas in other ways that same marker could be a disadvantage. I remember a friend and colleague, at a conference session I organized on the topic of marginality and the public intellectual, indicate that in one sense she is “marginal” in that she is a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, and studies religion and Queer theory (potential “marginal” academic fields of study), but, she went on to clarify, she is also privileged in that she is white, highly educated (Ph.D. from one of the top universities in the world), upper middle class, and a university dean. This complexity was a learning moment for me back in the early 2000s. The layering or select identity markers—and the obscuring or repression of other identity markers—can have a profound effect on privilege. I also noticed that intersection of not only identity markers of unearned advantages, but also identity markers of earned advantage.

So let’s bring this back to our three-fold breakdown. Under certain conditions (e.g., a border crossing or receiving a speeding ticket or a job interview), and certain social settings, some identity markers will serve as an advantage that is activated giving the person a higher chance of gaining benefit (the “cashing in” on privileged status), whereas in other contexts those identity markers may lie dormant/not come to the foreground or they could even be a disadvantage (i.e., not “cashing in” or even “going in debt” on privileged/not-privileged status). Thus, a black male may be discriminated against while driving through a particular county (and yes I’m recalling an incident from the 1990s when I lived in the Midwest), but have an advantage over a woman at a job interview. More than one identity marker can also be at work (remember that intersectionality is the layering of identity to create unique experiences). Therefore, people may have privilege in some general, but don’t have benefit from that privilege due to not being in a context where that privilege—or combination of identity markers—triggers potential benefit, yet they might gain benefit (even with those same identity markers) in another context that activates a different set of identity markers in a different way leading to potential benefit. An important point here, however, is my qualification “potential”. Even when in a context of activation, a person or group may not receive benefits. They still have privilege, however, in that they have a potential for benefit that another person or group lacks simply due to having a given set of advantages within a given context.

Now to add to this whole discussion of privilege, let me share something that we did not cover in class, though I did share it with some students after class. Specifically, when discussing benefit, we can break it down with greater nuance by looking at sociological studies of inequality. As I mentioned, all societies have inequalities and, I would argue, depend on those inequalities to survive. This is true not only of societies with slavery (variously constructed, sometimes along racial lines, sometimes not), but also feudal systems and capitalist economies of wealth production/consumption. There are those who are the means of production and those who acquire/consume wealth. This process need not be a sharp dichotomy, of course. The rise of a middle class (or the burgesses) adds a level of fluidity to the dichotomy, yet inequalities of varying levels still exist and, indeed, are necessary.

It is within such inequalities that different kinds of benefits can be acquired (all culturally frame, of course). I was reminded of this point recently while re-reading an older, yet standard introductory sociology book by Tony Bilton et al. (Introductory Sociology, Contemporary Social Theory; Macmillan Press, 1983, especially p. 44ff). Bilton notes three types of benefit arising from inequality:

(1) Enhanced life benefit (material benefits that extend or enhance one’s life, such as food, shelter, safety, etc.),

(2) Social benefits (prestige, how others view us within our social hierarchies and relations), and

(3) Political benefits (who gets to have decision-making power within the community, be that on a national level or a local level).

One type of benefit will usually dominate and the other two follow along, arising from and/or enhancing the primary benefit. As we explored hate crimes and racist reactions to the American general election (in class we spent half an hour analyzing the religious elements in a three-minute pro-Trump hate speech delivered to a white supremacist audience in Washington D.C.), it is helpful for us to recognize different benefits that are being sought after—be that primary benefit or secondary/supportive benefit. Even when looking at privilege beyond hate groups, we need to consider the kinds of benefit potential that advantages may allow under a given context of activation.

As I reflect on these musing over privilege, I am wondering about the role of “religion”, including perhaps the very construction, definition, and utilization of the taxon itself. In one sense, religion can be an identity marker, a marker that one can evoke (for benefit potential) or have imposed on them (to undermine benefit potential). Yet, religion can also serve as a social setting for activating one set of identity markers over against other sets of identity markers. The power dynamics at play within religious identity construction have served to establish (or negate) social prestige—at least for particular social groups—, while in other instances (or in combination) have resulted in political benefits. The rise of the Religious Right in American politics since the late 1970s is a case in point.

There is another side to this discussion of benefit, of course, and that is to use a given political context for the sake of claiming benefit through affiliation. I think this kind of benefit acquisition is what we are seeing with, for example, the pro-Trump white supremacist movement both before and especially after the election. Such Christian groups may not have been endorsed by or embrace by the Republican nominee or party, though we could argue that these groups were not placed at much of a distance during the election, but these groups have claimed an affiliation or identification with a specific political figure that they see exemplifying of their own values and vision for the nation. In this sense, these groups are striving for political benefit by aligning themselves with the social benefit they assume is held by Trump so as to attain or protect what they perceive as threatened life enhancing benefit. This is one, perhaps extreme example of religion as a component of privilege.

Anyway, those are my basic ideas on privilege. It’s not overly complicated, but I think it helps us move beyond simple a correspondence of advantage with benefit. Privilege is a process of social engagement, power alignments, identity politics, and social conflict. It is centered on the crux of identity markers layering, intersecting, obscuring, highlighting social actors as they contend through networks of inequality and benefit competition. Indeed, this very process of social interaction is a factor in the very creation of social actors, perhaps in part due to establishing mutually identifying “individuals” (the individual, of course, being a product of modernity) with fluid aligning survival units (and here I have in mind Stephen Mennell’s excellent discussion in his “The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory,” in Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, ed. By C. Calhoun [Blackwell, 1994]).

It is my hope that my students will have walked away with not just a better grasp of “religion and violence” (as a topic), but will now try to theorize violence by exploring and thus explaining the links between action, structure, and concept or belief. And in looking at privilege, such an approach is needed in order to fully understand and explain the power dynamics at play within identity politics.

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