Check Your Privilege: An Important Self-Assessment

How to examine the impact of your social and cultural identities.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

White privilege” has become a widely discussed topic in our current social and political climate. White privilege refers to advantages White people experience that people of color do not experience. White privilege doesn’t mean that a White person hasn’t faced challenges or had terrible things happen to them—it simply means that the color of their skin was not the reason those things happened and that being confronted with racial oppression in its many forms on a daily basis was not one of those challenges (to learn more, see this and this).

As a White person, I often don’t notice my White privilege because I’m primarily surrounded by other White people. I also don’t notice my White privilege because it is maintained by inherently biased structures and systems that I was never taught about in school. However, when I listen to the experiences of people of color, I see that my reality is utterly dependent upon my sociocultural identities and how structures and policies interact with my identities.

For example, I never worry about a salesperson suspecting I might shoplift when I enter a store. I never worry about representing all White people when speaking in meetings. I never worry about someone calling the police because I look “suspicious.” I never worry that I will be denied a loan or apartment because of my name. I never worry that I could be shot while going for a jog. All these worries from which I am shielded are the result of structural privileges given to White people. Police brutality (see this), mass incarceration, voter suppression, and housing discrimination are the result of structural policies that then interact with individuals’ identities.

This moment in time is a good opportunity to check your privilege—and, spoiler alert, there is far more than just White privilege. We are all made up of numerous intersecting sociocultural identities that substantially impact our reality, well-being, and functioning.

I was introduced to a helpful framework for understanding sociocultural identity and intersectionality by a fellow psychologist, Jeff Winer. At the time, Jeff worked with me at the partial hospital program at McLean Hospital. Jeff wanted to develop a group therapy protocol focused on self-assessment of sociocultural identities and how they impact mental health and well-being.

We created a group therapy protocol based on the ADDRESSING framework developed by Pamela Hays (Hays, 2016). In the “ADDRESSING Identities” group at our partial hospital program, people complete a self-assessment of their identities and how identity impacts their mental health (see Winer et al., 2018 for a description). To further this work, the McLean Hospital Multicultural Psychology Consultation Team has developed worksheets and resources for clinicians and educators interested in directly incorporating sociocultural identity into their work (multiculturalpsychology.com).

We adapted the ADDRESSING acronym by Pamela Hays to highlight mental health diagnosis as an identity. In our work ADDRESSING stands for:

  • Age and generational influences
  • Disability status (e.g., physical, cognitive, sensory, intellectual, etc.)
  • Diagnosis status (e.g., mental health) 
  • Religion and spirituality
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Sexual orientation and expression
  • Socioeconomic status (SES)
  • Indigenous heritage
  • National origin and current national status
  • Gender identity and expression

To engage in the self-assessment, go through each domain of identity in the ADDRESSING acronym and answer the following questions (use this worksheet):

  • How do you identify?
  • Is your identity one that has historically experienced more privilege/power or barriers/stigma?
  • Is this identity visible, hidden, or concealable?
  • If this identity is associated with barriers and stigma, do you experience this identity as a            source of strength, stress, or both?
  • How much do you think about this identity? (1 = never, 5 = very often)
  • Does this identity impact your mood or mental health (how you think, feel, behave)? (1 = not at  all, 5 = completely).
  • Does this identity interact with other identities, causing more or less stress?

When people attending our partial hospital complete this self-assessment, they often notice how much they think about their mental health diagnosis and how much stigma affects their well-being and daily life. For some people, the interaction between their mental health diagnosis identity and other aspects of their identity (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, SES) causes further stress. For example, someone from a lower SES background may experience more stress due to their mental health needs because there are more barriers to accessing mental health care.

People also notice that concealable identities, such as some mental health diagnoses or sexual identity, have unique stressors. Concealment has been associated with worse mental health outcomes, likely due to the psychological effects of suppressing part of oneself, increased internalized stigma, and constantly having to weigh the pros and cons of disclosure in every new social setting (see Pachankis et al. 2007).

On the other hand, some people experience their marginalized identities as a source of strength. Some people feel a strong sense of community with others who identify similarly, and this social support positively affects their mental health.  

Using myself as an example, here is what I discovered in the ADDRESSING self-assessment exercise:

  • I identify as middle-aged, able-bodied, mentally healthy, atheist, European American, White, straight, upper-middle-class, U.S.-born citizen, cisgender, and female. Almost all my identities are the dominant identity and historically privileged in U.S. culture.
  • I rarely think about most of my identities. In truth, the identities I think about at all are the ones associated with more potential marginalization or stigma (female in male-dominated academia and atheist raised in the South). If like me, you rarely think about your sociocultural identities, chances are you are in the dominant groups for your culture and that is part of your privilege—to not have to think about or experience stress related to your identity on individual, community, and structural levels on a daily basis.
  • I noticed that context matters—what is privileged in one context is stigmatized in another. For example, my atheism felt stigmatized in the South where I grew up, but is a more common, dominant identity in my current academic career. I sometimes concealed my beliefs in social situations in the South to avoid being judged or having difficult conversations.
  • I noticed that many identities can change over time. The most obvious example is age. But other identities may change too. I am currently able-bodied and physically healthy, but this privileged status could change in an instant. Similarly, SES, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status can fluctuate.

I encourage you to complete this self-assessment—really reflect on how your sociocultural identities shape your reality. If you are new to thinking about your privileges, start listening and learning from people with different experiences. Identify ways you can use your privilege to remove barriers for others (see Anti-racism resources). Like most topics, the more I learn—the more I realize how much I don’t know. I worry that I’m constantly making mistakes—I probably made some in this blog. But that is part of the life-long journey—make mistakes, learn, do better, repeat.

Jeff Winer, PhD contributed to this post. Jeff is is an Attending Psychologist at the Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children's Hospital and an Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

References

Hays, P. A. (2016). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy (3rd ed.). Washington, Dc: American Psychological Association.

Pachankis, J. E. (2007). The psychological implications of concealing a stigma: A cognitive-affective-behavioral model. Psychological bulletin, 133(2), 328.

Winer, J.P., Wadsworth, L.P., Forgeard, M., Pinder-Amaker, S., Björgvinsson, T., & Beard, C. (2018). Development and implementation of a single-session diversity and multicultural psychology group intervention within an academic psychiatric hospital. The Behavior Therapist; 41, 327-334.