Does “Invisible Privilege” Travel?: Looking Beyond the Geographies of White Privilege

Sharon Ong's picture
Call for Papers
May 2, 2019 to May 3, 2019
Subject Fields: 
Nationalism History / Studies, Political History / Studies, Political Science, Race Studies, Southeast Asian History / Studies


Does “Invisible Privilege” Travel?: Looking Beyond the Geographies of White Privilege


Saroja Dorairajoo
National University of Singapore

Laavanya Kathiravelu
Nanyang Technological University, Singaopre

Ted Hopf
National University of Singapore

The politics of identity is becoming increasingly salient. Being an undocumented immigrant in the United States, a Muslim in India or an asylum seeker in Australia today has a considerably disproportionate impact not just on quality of life indicators, but also for access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Within this context of rising conservatism and racialised modes of nationalism in the US, Europe and parts of Asia, the concept of racialised privilege has been reinvoked as a useful means to understand how collective resentment, and structural as well as everyday inequalities manifest.

Much recent research interrogates the implications of white privilege in the United States (Khan 2011, Sullivan 2017) as well as the UK (Bhopal 2018) and compellingly demonstrates unequal outcomes in education, incomes and job opportunities. These studies take the established notion of ‘white privilege’ (McIntosh 1988), to demonstrate that despite enabling institutions of social mobility such as meritocracy and affirmative action, race, together with socio-economic status and gender, can become a static and stubborn structural impediment that requires more severe actions to dismantle.

The concept of privilege, which has been described as an “invisible package of unearned assets”, however, unlike related notions of (new) racism, discrimination, xenophobia or social capital, has not travelled or been translated readily across geographical contexts that don't have a white majority. Barring a few studies on gender privilege in South and Southeast Asia (Sen & Stivens 1998; McKay 2011; Sharafi 2014), there are remarkably few studies on privilege in Asia. The invisibility of this concept in scholarly research on Asian societies is jarring especially since Asia, including and especially Southeast Asia, has been a popular site for inter-ethnic strife and violence. While social tensions and inequalities are attributed to class privilege (Pinches 1999, Teo 2018), it is striking that there is little academic research and literature on intersecting racialised forms of privilege.

One of the key strands of this conference is devoted to exploring whether the concept of "invisible privilege," developed to explain how white America understands itself as blameless in the oppression of its own racial minorities, and even understands itself as the victim, can travel to Singapore to better understand the position of the local Chinese community in relation to ethnic minority groups. Much of the research on multiracialism in Singapore fosters the image of a peaceful and harmonious society where living in close proximity in a land scarce country has increased understandings of cultural diversity (Benjamin 1976; Clammer 1998; Hefner 2001; Ong, Tong & Tan 1997; Lai 1995; Quah 1990; Vasil 2000). On the other hand, many scholarly works on Singapore also touch on social and racial inequality (Trocki 2006) or focus on outright discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities in the city-state (Rahim 1998; Tremewan 1994; Velayutham 2017; 2016; 2014; 2009). It is in relation to this existing body of work that we consider the possible intellectual contributions of adopting ‘privilege’ as an analytical framework.

In this conference, we hope to bring together scholars who interrogate how racialised privilege intersects with other vectors of difference such as immigration status, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic class. In understanding how race operates relationally, we want to move past subjective and idiosyncratic understandings of invisible privilege and interrogate the cumulative everyday as well as institutional nature of inequality and its consequences. 

The conference looks to explore, but is not limited to the following questions:

  • How can we theorize privilege in an Asian context (ie. one that does not have a history of slavery or segregation)?
  • How does racialised privilege intersect with others forms of advantage or disadvantage, particularly gendered and classed identities?
  • Does Chinese privilege exist in Singapore? How can we measure it?
  • Does the concept of ‘privilege’ have analytical purchase? Does it add to our understandings of social and political phenomena in ways that related concepts like racism and advantage don’t encompass?
  • How do institutions such as schools, language policies and housing practices serve to institute or reify privilege and advantage?
  • How can privilege be understood from a social networks perspective? How is social mobility and advancement experienced by ethnic groups with different amounts of social capital?
  • How do measurements of implicit bias contribute to interrogations of privilege?
  • How can we methodologically and conceptually avoid the analytical pitfalls of reifying identity groups in discussions of privilege?


Paper abstracts should be submitted by 15 December 2018 to Sharon at Submissions should include a title, an abstract of 250 words, short biography (maximum 100 words) using the paper proposal form found in this listing. Draft papers of 5000 words will be expected by beginning of April 2019.The organisers will provide hotel accommodation for three nights and/or a contribution towards airfare for accepted paper participants (one author per paper). Notifications of acceptance will be sent by 7 January 2019.

Contact Info: 
Venue: AS8 Level 4, Seminar Room 04-04, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
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