The 21 Circles of Privilege

I recently came across this comprehensive image of various sources of privilege on LinkedIn. It was created by Dr. Poornima Luthra, Teaching Associate Professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and author of Diversifying Diversity: Your guide to being an active ally of inclusion in the workplace and The Art of Active Allyship. To get an idea of what Dr. Luthra’s books are about, I highly recommend her 11-22 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article 7 Ways to Practice Active Allyship.

Have a look at the diagram below. How many boxes can you check? After a quick look and placing my life in a global context (I’ve lived in Vietnam since 2005 and have spent nearly half of my adult life living outside of my home country), I realized I could check all 21 of them, most with a high degree of certainty. That’s privilege on steroids, folks. I am a super WASP who grew up in a society in which white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men once called all of the shots worth calling.

Clearly, some items are more important and influential than others, but they are all pieces of a complex puzzle that determine one’s life chances, opportunities, and average level of stress, which relates to health and well-being. This discussion should include the impact of personal tragedies that create their own unique long-term stress, including the death of loved ones and serious illness. (Obviously, it helps if you have access to good quality healthcare and mental health support, two of the circles of privilege.)

Thanks to Dr. Luthra for creating this useful graphic. (Her description: A diagram of some of the many sources of privilege.)

In an August 2020 post entitled Working for the Man, I wrote, Once I came of age, thanks to a series of formative experiences and a lack of brainwashing as a child, I realized that I had inherited and benefited from white privilege. If I have been successful in my professional life, it is not only because of hard work and luck; race, gender, and social class have all played a key role. I have never had any illusions about that. They have opened doors at pivotal moments and allowed me to go through life without harassment and hatred. To believe otherwise is to live in a world of cultural mythology. Of course, race, listed here as “skin colour,” gender, and social class are only three of the 21 circles of privilege.

I’ve been aware of much of this since I was a university student in the mid- to late 1970s. My genealogical research has offered more insights into some of the origins of this privilege dating back to various British and Scottish aristocratic and royal families in the 16th century and before, as well as the early days of what became British Colonial America and later the United States of America. “Privilege” is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” The operative word is granted. I did nothing to earn it; I was born with it.

This UK Research Integrity Office offers another intriguing look at privilege in its “academic wheel of privilege.”

In a 2021 HBR essay entitled How to Use Your Privilege to Even the Playing Field Gorick Ng points out that privilege can (and should) be shared. He discusses five examples from the world of work:

Broker introductions

Be a mentor (or sponsor)

Ensure the everyone can participate equally in conversations

Help others be seen and heard

Rotate the non-glamorous work

This take from a 2021 Inc. article about what do to with your privilege sums it up.

While you didn’t choose many of the privileges that were afforded to you in life, you do get to choose how you will use them. You can use them to level the playing field for others. Or you can keep it to yourself, and let others deal with the cards they’ve been dealt on their own.

Your privilege has power. And that power is being put to work whether you are intentional about how to use your privilege or not. Use your privilege for the greater good, rather than just to advance your own good.

Thanks to my upbringing, life experiences, and temperament, I am acutely and sometimes painfully aware of this reality. I have tried to use my privilege(s) “for the greater good.’ I have no other choice. I’m a great believer in not letting others “deal with the cards they’ve been dealt on their own” for the simple reason that I know the game is rigged.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

4 thoughts on “The 21 Circles of Privilege

  1. If you’re a person of color, you’ll find this amusing on some level. One of my only encounters with the police was when I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. I was driving on campus when some police cars suddenly appeared and guided me into the parking lot of a university building. I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed that one had a gun drawn. Why did they stop me? Because I fit the description of a murder suspect, apparently another handsome, bearded young man who, unlike me, chose evil over good. After running my plates and checking my license, they apologized, as I recall, and sent me on my way.

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