Examining and expanding on the concept of  ‘privilege’ through the lens of the Hydra model

Posted on: February 16, 2023 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Examining and expanding on the concept of  ‘privilege’ through the lens of the Hydra model
An essay cum learning exercise

[Note: This essay is a useful companion to my discussions of status array and positionality.]

[Trigger warning: Inherent in the nature of the material covered in this post are topics and exercises which may be triggering.]

A basic premise of critical Hydra theory (CHT) is this: included among the myriad social forces that impact all human life are the eight privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra. Using CHT one can gain a greater awareness of how these social forces impact their lives and the lives of others not only locally but universally around the globe. Simply put, social forces, especially privileging forces, impact one’s life chances, in many cases dramatically so.

Around the heads of the Hydra: my white (and other) privilege in action
Let me start this section with a personal anecdote. A few months ago my wife pointed out to me that the registration sticker on the back of my car’s license plate was months out of date. Here in North Carolina we have small stickers issued each year we are required to affix to our license plates indicating our registration status is current and taxes paid. Mine was out of date by several months, but I shrugged and said “Yeah I’ll take care of it soon.” I was not terribly concerned that I might get pulled over, flagged by police for a late registration. Not a big deal.

Reflecting later on this situation, I realized that I was enjoying what is perhaps a classic example of white privilege. What did I have to worry about if a policeman pulled me over in traffic? What is the worst that could happen? I might be delayed for a few minutes and have to pay a small fine; not a big deal.

That said, we all know too well what could happen if I were either Black, Latinx, or Middle Eastern (or otherwise BIPOC) and were pulled over. There are too many stories around the United States where this exact situation has turned fatal. See here, here, and here for just some recent examples of the consequences of being picked up for DWB, ‘driving while black’.

And so, yes, I enjoyed white privilege. I did not have to worry about an expired registration sticker or the consequences of being pulled over.

Taking a deeper look at the situation though, I realize now I was also enjoying class privilege. I live a comfortable life and have no real financial worries. A small fine would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Were I to be like the typical person in my home county in North Carolina, I might not be so lucky. Here 13% of the population is below the poverty line and a the mean income is only $55,000 per family, even a small fine could be devastating to the monthly budget. I didn’t have to worry about being pulled over because of my class privilege.

I am also male. White male privilege means not having to worry about being sexually harassed by a police officer, either overtly or through any kind of micro-aggressions. I did not have too worry if I was dressed ‘too provocatively’. Sexual harassment is simply not something as a male I have to ever worry about, unlike most of the females that I know. So, yes, I am enjoying male privilege as well as class privilege as well as white privilege.

And also, I am a cisgendered, heterosexual, and am legally married. I have had the privilege of having a life-long mate that reminds me of things like an expired registration (among other things, just saying). I have gender identity and sexual orientation privilege that has positioned my life so that I am cushioned from a range of social challenges.

That I am well enough to drive -physically able to operate the vehicle, in adequate control of my mental illnesses, and intelligent enough to pass a driver’s test- means that I am able and enjoy not only the privilege of driving a car but a vast raft of privileges deeply taken for granted by most fully able people.

That I am at an age where a traffic officer could legitimately question my abilities, my overall status array protects me from any targeting along this one specific line. Though I do not fully enjoy age privilege, I am able to avoid or tolerate most micro aggressions.

Going a bit further with this example, the fact that I own a car and have a government issued driver’s license means that I am privileged to have a legal citizenship status and live in a nation where car ownership is common and expected for most people. These privileges of being and living in the Global North are something that I just take for granted, as most of us do. I was enjoying Global North privilege.

Finally, and now completing my use of the Hydra as my guide, the pollutants being put into the air by my vehicle as I drive are slowly adding gasses and chemicals into our environment which are toxic to the natural world. I am enjoying the privilege of being a human where we have the audacity to believe that we are apart from, and dominant over, all other living things on the planet. I am enjoying speciesism or anthropocentrism.

I now have a current sticker on my license plate. Good for me and my privileges. Having read the above can you think of any similar examples of privileges you enjoy?

White fragility and other questions
Talking about white (and other) privilege means we must address the reactions of some who deny the existence of these privileges and/or ‘apologize’ for having the same. As users of CHT, just as we did with white privilege we must interrogate and address white (and other) fragilities.

Though this concept had existed previously, it was noted scholar Robin DiAngelo in 2011 who wrote the now canonical academic article about white fragility, turning her research into widely read -and recommended- books. After watching this satirical video, and now through the lens of the Hydra model, let’s explore these other fragilities.

Could you make a re-do of this video using the other heads of the Hydra? For example, is there such a thing as ‘male fragility’? Do women sometimes feel a need to buttress the frail male ego by offering compliments and/or by minimizing their own skills or competencies? As an exercise you could image a series of scenes parallel to the white fragility video, making the same points this time about male fragility.

I offer this example aware of the fact that likely 50% or more of the people reading this are female and will easily be able to connect with this example and immediately provide their own examples. By using CHT and, like my personal example above of white privilege, it will be useful to go through each of the Hydra heads describing all other ‘fragilities’. Indeed, is there such a thing as ‘able fragility’, hetero fragility, or ‘global north fragility’? What would those videos look like?

Microaggressions and (lack of) privilege
Fully understanding both the privileges and fragilities discussed above demands embracing the concept ‘micro-aggressions’. Those not having one or more of the Hydra’s privileging statuses tend to endure small (and oft times not-so-small) affronts to their personhood and dignity. Though popularized and arguably trivialized the by American entertainment icon Taylor Swift,  the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” describes an ancient form of torture called ‘Lingchi practiced in China. Each micro-aggression takes a small toll, but a thousand of these psychological cuts over time can have profound, even fatal consequences. In recent decades there have been many medical studies examining the connection between racial micro-aggressions and compromised health among BIPOC.

Just the opposite of microaggressions, those having privileges may be constantly enjoying micro-affirmations. As an exercise it will be useful to reflect on the following questions:

  • Do you enjoy micro-affirmations based on your privileged statuses?
  • For those multi-privileged, which specific privileges seems to garner the most mirco-affirmations and in what settings do these occur?
  • What micro-aggressions do you endure on account of a lack of privileged statuses?
  • For those with multiple marginalized statuses, which particular marginalized status seems to generate the most micro-aggressions and in what settings?
  • To what extent are you aware that you are on the receiving end of micro-aggressions?
  • To what extent are you aware that you are on the receiving end of micro-affirmations?
  • For my sociology students, how can you use your understanding of the ‘looking-glass self’ concept to probe more deeply into the impact of both micro-affirmations and micro-aggressions?

What makes answering these questions so hard is first that we go through most of our day only vaguely aware of these phenomena, hence the prefix ‘micro’. Given our complex status arrays, a second factor blurring our perception is that we are frequently simultaneously giving off and receiving both micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations.

Here’s one example: a young, attractive female may be receiving micro-affirmations from those around her due to ‘pretty privilege’ while at the same time being diminished by patronizing and misogynistic micro-aggressions from the same people and committing (albeit perhaps ‘unintentionally’) micro-aggressions directed at BICOP, differently abled, etc. individuals around them.

Long established research in behavioral psychology tell us that all organisms -including humans- seek to avoid punishment and are attracted to whatever for them constitutes pleasure or reward. Perhaps obvious to point out, all humans tend to navigate toward social situations where they can expect minimum micro-aggressions and maximum micro-affirmations and avoid those situations where just the opposite occurs and they may encounter maximum micro-aggressions and minimum micro-affirmations. Think unofficial seating arrangements in a university cafeteria as an example. Coming up with additional examples, though perhaps difficult, will move you further along in mastering CHT and hence your understanding of privileging forces. Phrased in terms of behavioral psychology, how is your behavior operantly conditioned by avoiding micro-aggressions and seeking micro-affirmations based on your status array?

The Hydra and ‘white privilege’
This essay began with a personal example, and I have invited the reader to join me in this self-discovery by coming up with examples of their own. Understanding social interaction vis-a-vis CHT is indeed complicated. Once we make the effort to become more self-aware and fully employ our critical thinking skills using CHT, one’s grasp of their positionality is immediately enhanced, and steps toward living the principles embodied in the phrase ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ (DEI) become actions rather than mere words. See here for some examples of denormalizing the marginalization of others.

A global excursus
The treatment above concerning the topic of privileges was culture-bound, assuming a Global North and even more specifically US readership. The intent of CHT is that it be universally useful around the world, and that exercises like the ones

Azizul Hoque, research associate at Brac University’s Centre for Peace and Justice

above can be used in a variety of cultural contexts. I have been working with a colleague in Bangladesh for nearly three years, and with him have presented basic sociology and CHT ideas to multiple cohorts of learners, most living in refugee camps.

As I write this a class of learners living in refugee camps in Kenya are exploring the connections between statuses and privilege in their refugee camp communities. Specifically, in my colleague Azizul’s words,

“This week they are going to talk to their community people to understand their identity, status, and its impacts on their life. Here I assume, they will identify how identities sometimes bring some privileges and discriminations. Now the question is, why do people discriminate based on a person’s status/identity?

Though not specifically using terms ‘status array’ or ‘positionality’ these refugee learners are exploring both of these terms and are using critical thinking skills, becoming more aware of the various privileging forces at play in their social environment. The ultimate goal of CHT is to provide flexible tools which can be employed to deepen agency, to help people recognize and confront toxic othering in their lives.

See here for an update on Aziziul’s pedagogy and my contribution.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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