Examining Privilege and Understanding Intersectionality

Examining Privilege and Understanding Intersectionality


September/October Monthly Mosaic


Each Monthly Mosaic is edited by Elise Szabo and Kat Murti. This issue also features contributions by Alex Akin, Robert Hofmann, Arturo Lua Castillo, and Dr. Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch.


Do an SSDP DARE and add your points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker!

  • Share this Monthly Mosaic on Facebook or Twitter using #MonthlyMosaic. (10 points)
  • Focus an SSDP chapter meeting on examining privilege and intersectionality. Challenge your chapter with discussion questions — who is hurt most by drug prohibition? Who is represented in the room? What kinds of barriers limit oppressed communities’ ability to organize? You might consider using this toolkit* as a resource. Note some of your chapter’s key takeaways from the experience and email them to Elise. (15 points)
    • *This toolkit created by the online msw program from the University of Southern California is meant for anyone who feels there is a lack of productive discourse around issues of diversity and the role of identity in social relationships, both on a micro (individual) and macro (communal) level…The included activities are intended for groups as small as 10 to groups as big as 60.


As much as we might like it to be the case, our society is not built on an even playing field. People from different walks of life face very different hardships, and, as a result, often have very different perspectives as well. Understanding privilege and oppression is not just vital for navigating activist and social justice circles, but is also key to comprehending the state of modern politics. As an activist community working in this space, it is important that SSDPers  recognize the privilege of the resources we have to do this work. It is imperative that we seek to empower marginalized individuals to share their life experiences and expertise rather than finding privileged others to speak for them.

In this Monthly Mosaic, we’ll discuss what privilege means and how intersectionality comes into play. We’ll also examine privilege more deeply through the example of U.S. citizenship.


What Is Privilege?

We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. When one doesn’t experience a certain form of oppression, they have a privilege that the oppressed group does not.

Privilege amounts to issues, road blocks, glass ceilings, and slights that the privileged party doesn’t experience allowing them to move through life more easily and safely than those facing more obstacles along the same path.  This can be hard to see since the privileged person likely still has to work very hard to achieve success in their chosen endeavors. However, over time, a person who experiences oppression instead of privilege can end up with significantly different life circumstances than they would have if they were a member of the privileged party.

The privileged party may even be completely unaware of certain problems experienced by the oppressed party. For example, many White Americans were unaware of the violence that Black Americans often face at the hands of the police before the murder of Michael Brown; many able-bodied people fail to recognize how difficult the modern world can be to navigate for those with physical differences or disabilities; and, until the #MeToo campaign and similar efforts, many cis-men did not realize how pervasive sexual assault and sexual harassment against cis-women and trans people can be.

It’s important to note that a person can be marginalized by one form of discrimination while still experiencing privilege in another aspect of their identity. In fact, most people experience some form of privilege due to their race, gender, level of ability, sexuality, class, religion, or any number of other aspects of their identity — no matter how marginalized they may otherwise be.

For example, a  white, gay man might experience homophobia, but is privileged as far as not experiencing the same kind of sexism or racism that non-cis men and people of color frequently face.

When dealing with social problems like the War on Drugs, it’s important to recognize that other people’s experiences may differ from your own  due to how various groups are affected by either privilege or oppression due to different aspects of their identities.


What Does Intersectionality Mean?

Within this framework of societal privileges and oppressions, cumulative forms of discrimination overlap, as people identify with several social categories that intersect to form their personal identity. Intersectionality, coined by civil rights advocate and professor of law Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to this intersection of several identities as an identity unique and different than the sum of its parts.

Crenshaw highlights the importance of intersectionality and how it affects our lens of social justice in this TED talk. Early on in her speech, she asks every audience member to stand up, asking them to sit down if they were unfamiliar with names of individuals she lists off. After saying the names of several black boys and men that have been victims of police violence, most of the audience remains standing. When Crenshaw begins to say the names of black women that have been victims of police violence, however, the numbers of those left standing quickly drop. Crenshaw posits that oppression which occurs to individuals with several disprivileged characteristics is seen less frequently because these intersections do not fit with more common frames of discrimination (discrimination of one social class at a time).

The utilization of intersectionality as a social justice frame directly affects discrimination law itself. The origin of the term “intersectionality” was to create a focusing point from which to see overlapping injustices, as explained by Crenshaw in her speech. How can a gender discrimination or race discrimination case be taken up by a black woman, as in Crenshaw’s example, when a company hires both black men and white women? Seen as separate discriminations, these views of social justice as separate parts create a “trickle down of social justice”, benefitting those who have more privilege to begin with. For more on Crenshaw and intersectionality, read her Truthout interview here.


The Privilege of Citizenship

Activism can be much more risky for non-American citizens — whether or not they are undocumented — than it is for those born here or naturalized as citizens.

The narrative many undocumented immigrants carry with them as to why they chose to leave their countries are tied to narco-violence or a general lack of opportunities due to low economic development caused by regional instabilities resulting from the War on Drugs. These are powerful narratives that add an entirely new dimension to the fight against prohibition. However, these narratives may be kept away from the public eye because of fear for one’s personal safety. This is the dilemma of the undocumented activist; to be where one’s voice could be most effective while being forced to remain silent. While some do choose to be active and involved in order to speak for others, they do so at their own peril.

A clear example of the personal damages of undocumented activism is the case of Claudia Rueda, an undocumented immigrant rights activist who was under the DACA program. Claudia and her family were detained and deported. Claudia’s case is not the only one, an excerpt from the LA Times reported:

“In March, undercover ICE agents in Vermont arrested three prominent undocumented activists associated with the group Migrant Justice, all of them under 25. In that same month, ICE agents in Mississippi detained 22-year-old DACA recipient Daniela Vargas after she spoke at a rally calling on the Trump administration to establish a path to citizenship for immigrants.”

In these cases we see that while a citizen is always in their right to protest and advocate, the undocumented members of our society do not have these same rights. Instead, they are faced with difficult choices. They can choose to stay quiet and hope for relative safety, or fight for one’s rights but risk throwing away years of sacrifice to be sent to a place where protesting comes with a whole new set of dangerous consequences.

The privilege of citizenship extends beyond the borders of the United States. Three years ago, the events Ayotzinapa left many activists rattled. Although protests in the United States can reach levels of violence and civil disorder, they do not involve a direct collusion with government officials and organized crime. Forty-three Mexican student activists lost their lives in a simple protest in Mexico at the hands of the very same government they were protesting against. Simply put,  democratic process in many of our home countries has been corrupted and broken by centuries of colonialism and decades of prohibition. As a result, many of the things Americans are able to protest and express freely in the United States become matters of life or death for those seeking their rights abroad. Additionally, while both undocumented students and students in foreign countries face subversion, the methods are drastically different. Students abroad, like the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, risk their own lives to simply have their voices heard.

The privilege of an American citizenship manifests itself to the undocumented activist as a sense of safety. It is the idea that your home country is a place where you can be both free and heard. The reality that many undocumented student activists live in is one where their home country is not safe, and their country of residence is one where they cannot be heard. In essence, nowhere is truly safe for  expression and protest.

It is important to note, however, that the same privilege that silences one section of the population can be used to help dismantle itself. Those of us who can speak and be heard safely and without fear could harness our privilege to fight for those of us who cannot. In fighting for immigrant rights we are fighting for families who have been victims of the War on Drugs. To truly be allies we cannot just help each other speak we must help each other be heard. So remember the next time you protest, lobby, or simply educate, you are doing so on behalf of millions of others who cannot. By carrying our voices and narratives with you, you can help us in our fight for our rights so that we may one day be able to speak safely.


Interested in learning more about these issues? These links are great resources to get you started…


Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege

“This toolkit is meant for anyone who feels there is a lack of productive discourse around issues of diversity and the role of identity in social relationships, both on a micro (individual) and macro (communal) level…The following activities are intended for groups as small as 10 to groups as big as 60.”


VIDEO: Intersectionality 101

“Intersectionality is a BIG topic. Learn the basics with this student-friendly video!”


No Single-Issue Politics, Only Intersectionality: An Interview With Kimberlé Crenshaw

“Intersectionality is not a cult, a new-fangled campus craze, or even a distraction from the so-called “real issues.” The term was coined by Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw as a tool of insight: a flashlight, not a distraction.”


Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide
“Think of privilege not as a single lesson, but as a field of study. To truly understand privilege, we must keep reading, learning, and thinking critically.”


Get a sneak peek at SSDP’s  new Just Say Know training curriculum lesson on Diversity Awareness Reflection and Education, developed with help from our very own DARE committee! This lesson will be included as a 13th mandatory lesson in the 2nd Edition of the training curriculum (coming soon!). For more information about Just Say Know peer education training, check out ssdp.org/justsayknow or email Vilmarie.


The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This section of the Monthly Mosaic, co-sponsored by SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, will highlight some of the  top drug policy reform news from around the world.

*Note: The 31st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit will be taking place in the Philippines the week of November 10-14. Leaders from nearly every Southeast Asian country will be received by President Rodrigo Duterte amidst a bloody, deadly state crackdown on drug trafficking that has left more than 10,000 people dead in the least 15 months. Many civil society & activist groups from SE Asia are planning a global call to action to protest the selected location of the submit and call upon the global community to condemn Duterte’s regime. We will be passing along info on how SSDPers can get involved in these efforts in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.*



Our Clients Are Our Mission – Harm Reduction in Bosnia

“Our movie gives you an overview of the crisis of harm reduction programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where harm reducers don’t receive support from the government but they keep doing their work and saving lives.”


Canada First Nations Declare Drugs State of Emergency

The chiefs say they are working with local police to keep drugs out of the community, and will exile anyone caught selling drugs from the community. They are also trying to prevent drug use through intervention and education, but say they need the government’s help to treat people who are already addicted.


China-US Cooperation and the New Opium War

“‘The DEA has been working hard behind the scenes there for the past several years to convince the Chinese that they have a serious illegal fentanyl production problem that is entering the illegal market, and to assist with sharing intelligence and working closely with the DEA’s counterparts throughout the various provinces,’ a former senior DEA official who had helped supervise agreements with China told The Diplomat.”

Costa Rica

Costa Rica Hosts 1st Bi-Regional Meeting for the Exchange of Best Practices on Alternatives to Prison for Drug-Related Offences

“During the three-day meeting, participants will share common trends in the drug-related criminal laws for both regions, EU and CELAC, and some existing and possible alternative options to imprisonment, before and during the criminal proceedings and for the prison population as well.”

Cote D’Ivoire

PODCAST: National Dialogue on Drug Policy Reform in Cote D’Ivoire (French language)

“The West Africa Drug Policy Network – Cote d’Ivoire Chapter in collaboration with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) and with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) held a national dialogue on ISTC Radio – Cote d’Ivoire from 28 to 30 August, 2017 to engage community citizens on the necessity to have drug policies grounded on human rights, public health and harm reduction.”


Ghana in the Process of Reforming its Drug Law

“By holding such a meeting, Ghana provides an excellent example to other African countries, demonstrating best practices in the law reform process. The stakeholder meeting gathered a wide range of participants made up of representatives from the police, the judiciary service, psychiatrists, civil society groups, the international partners (USAID, Rep of US Embassy, The German Embassy, UNODC, etc), the national law enforcement agencies, students associations, West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN – Ghana Chapter), International Drug Policy Consortium African Consultant in Ghana, Recovery Ghana Consortium, and Ghana Education Service.”


Amnesty Sounds Alarm as Indonesia Slays Drug Suspects

“Amnesty International has condemned what it described as an alarming number of police killings of suspected drug dealers in Indonesia. The rights group said…that police had killed at least 60 suspects this year, compared to 18 in all of 2016.”


Iran Eases Death Penalty Laws for Drug Traffickers

“Under the new bill, Iranian judges will be able to sentence a suspect to death if the crime involves two kilos (4.41 pounds) or more of hard drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, or amphetamines. This marks a significant change compared to the old legislation, where the legal limit was only 30 grams.”


Malaysia’s Planned Drug Reform Highlights Divide in SE Asia’s Drug War Approach

“Malaysia is set to repeal legislation that imposes a mandatory death penalty for people who sell drugs, despite most of its neighbouring countries implementing increasingly brutal drug policies.”


“Draconian,” “Unjust” Punishments Continue Under Malta’s “Treatment Not Imprisonment” Drug Law

“In April 2015, the Maltese Government passed…the Drug Dependence Act, nicknamed the ‘Treatment Not Imprisonment Act,’ into law. The Act removed the possibility of criminal prosecution for someone found in possession of ‘small quantities of prohibited drugs for personal use,’ and mandated that they receive a fine instead.”


Will Myanmar Lead Drug Policy Reform in Southeast Asia?

“This changing approach to tackling drug issues is reflected in a draft bill that was approved by the upper house of the Parliament (‘Amyothar Hluttaw’) on the 16th of August. The text proposes to introduce several amendments to 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law and, most notably, to eliminate prison penalties for drug use.”


Philippines Cuts its Human Rights Budget to £15

“The drastic cut to the Commission on Human Rights’ (CHR) budget was supported by 119 politicians to just 32 in the country’s congress. But critics say the move is punishment for the body’s staunch criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and the public body’s efforts to investigate thousands of killings over the past 15 months.”


Families Allowed to Grow Kratom Trees for Cultural Reasons

“‘We have assigned the institute to conduct the study as the Public Health Ministry has recommended that Thais should be able to grow kratom (Mitragyna speciose) for personal use in line with their culture,’ Narcotics Control Board’s secretary general Sirinya Sittichai said.”



Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as  domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war.

The DARE Committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues. Don’t forget to join our Facebook group to keep up with regular DARE-related news and discussions.

If you have any questions, please contact Elise at elise@ssdp.org. We look forward to reading your submissions!


Kat Murti ’09
Vice Chair, Board of Trustees
Director, Board of Directors
Co-Chair, SSDP-DARE Committee
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Elise Szabo
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