A Story of Privilege
What Privilege Really Is and How Misuse Leads to Disdain
The term “white privilege” in modern vernacular is younger than I am, but it’s a concept that has existed for almost a century (and privilege in general has no doubt been a reality since the beginning of humans). The basic definition of privilege in terms of sociology is anything a person recieves in a society which has not necessarily been earned, but by merit of characteristics outside of their control. It’s typically used to refer to racial privileges but also refers to gender, age, education, geographic location, occupation, sexuality, health, neurological and physical functioning, native language, and basically anything you can think of a person is born into.
But you wouldn’t get that impression based on the pop culture rhetoric surrounding it.
As it stands, “privilege” in this context is used almost exclusively in discussions of gender and race, and it seems to have lost a bit of nuance along the way. This comes not just from a basic misunderstanding of what privilege is from both sides of the discussion, but from a general denial of the fact that privilege is outside of an individuals control. It pains me to see it used to dismiss arguments or individuals, by claiming they speak from a place of “privilege”. Rather than a term to reframe a situation so it becomes more apparent to those outside of that scenario, it’s become a mechanism to shut down any positive discourse. And that’s not what it was supposed to be for. It’s not an excuse to ignore people who are “privileged”, it’s a way of understanding how society impacts all of us. In a way, the term privilege was designed to include privileged people in the discussion, not to disclude them.
Privilege is More than Race and Gender.
One of the biggest issues I see in how the mainstream uses privilege is they use it too narrowly. This is why so many white people hear “white privilege” and cringe. “How can I possibly be privileged, when I grew up in poverty, in an abusive household, with a disability, etc.” This stems partially from a misunderstanding of “white privilege” (which only refers to factors gained by skin color, and nothing else) but more and more it seems to stem from the fact that OTHER privileges are swept under the rug. Probably the biggest gap in our modern culture is wealth, and wealth privilege is absolutely a thing. Our material wealth has more impact on the life of an individual than any other status we possess. A person without racial privilege, but with wealth privilege, is going to hold more cards than a person with racial privilege, but without wealth privilege. The reason is pretty simple: wealth privilege is the only privilege with an actually tangible measure, where you can use the profits of your privilege explicitly. At the same time, people still have trouble wrapping their head around the fact that they possess abilities, resources, and opportunities as a person with wealth privilege that those who are middle-class or poor do not.
Gender is the same way — a wealthy woman is more privileged than a poor man. If you were to take a comprehensive list of privileges you recieve for being wealthy, and one for being male, the list for wealth would be miles longer. Yet it’s become a symptom of this discussion for incredibly wealthy or affluent women to dismiss the arguments of poor men, on the basis that they’re male. That isn’t to say that lacking privilege in one area means you understand what it’s like to lack privilege in other areas. It just leads to the problem of why you can’t use privilege to dismiss others by claiming they’re “privileged”. Because while they might have some privilege, they’ll be lacking in other areas. The mainstream discussion doesn’t account for that.
Everyone Has Privilege….EVERYONE.
You are sitting at a computer, or perhaps on a smartphone or tablet, while you read this. Most likely, you live in an industrialized nation. You have family, friends, most likely some kind of income. You are privileged. Except for the most unfortunate individual on earth, everyone has privilege of some kind, and for the most part, they will never understand exactly what it entails.
A woman in a multicultural class I’m taking commented on this the other day. She said up front she is Latina, and a woman. She doesn’t have male or white privilege, and up until that point, she was bitter about it. But she’d never been introduced to the concept of straight privilege, which our professor talked about. She thought about it, and had a hard time truly understanding it, and saying out loud she possesses it. At the end of her comment, she said “I have to hand it to white people who get the privilege thing, because it’s a lot more complicated than I thought”. It warmed my heart a little, because I had never heard that statement before. The issue is, we often equate not understanding privilege to being racist. This is ludicrous of course, but it seems to be the underlying belief by some. They’re entirely seperate ideas though. You don’t get a cookie for not being a racist — it’s expected that you be a decent human being. Understanding the privileges we have is an entirely different step. It’s much harder, especially when you don’t feel particularly privileged in your day to day life.
If a person can understand that they have privileges, that is something to be congratulated. It’s not easy. And the fact is, everyone has them, and again, most people won’t be able to identify it, let alone on their own.
It’s Tempting to Use as a Weapon, but Privilege is Not About Guilt
I have used privilege as a weapon. I am going to be upfront about that. It can be tiring and aggrivating, when you first learn about privilege, to see people who have all this “privilege” talk like they know real pain. I understand that viewpoint. But here’s the issue: the term privilege was made to help people understand the views of others. And yet, so many people, myself included, use it to ignore those views and where they come from.
I’m going to say something people may not like. If you are black, white privilege is not about you. If you are a woman, male privilege is not about you. If you are poor, wealth privilege is not about you. If you are gay or lesbian, straight privilege is not about you. And the list goes on. Privilege was not made for you to use against people, or for you to judge others on the basis of it. It was made for those groups to understand. It is based on their experiences. The idea itself was not made by underprivileged groups, they were made by privileged groups seeking to understand how a society that disadvantages some is advantageous to others. Yet for some reason, it’s the groups who don’t have the privileges who talk about them the most, usually negatively, and instead of a way for privileged people to go “I never thought about it, I thought everyone got that” it is now a way to make people feel guilty for who they are. If I don’t feel guilty for being a woman or for being gay, why should I feel guilty for being white or middle class? If I don’t feel guilty for being a parentless child, why should I feel guilty for living in a country where I can get an education?
These aren’t things I can necessarily help or have any influence over. It’s the situation I was born into. Understanding the privileges that accompany that is my own discovery, not the duty of anyone else to teach or force upon me. It’s a way to understand. If you feel guilty about having privilege, then you don’t understand privilege. I’ve learned recently that scholars say the healthiest outlook on race and diversity is when a person is comfortable with their own identity. Not a supremacist, but someone who can say “It is okay that I am white. It is okay that I am straight. It is okay that I am male. People like me may have done horrible things in the past, but I didn’t do those things, and I am better than those people.”
Privilege is a Testament to Allyship, Not “Stay in Your Lane”
There’s a lot of animosity towards allies recently. It may have existed in other groups, but I first noticed it in LGBTQ+ communities. There was this growing expectation that allies need to shut up and be quiet. Don’t speak at rallies, just hand out fliers. Don’t talk to journalists, just nod and approve. And deep down I could not help but feel disgusted by it. I loved my allies, the ones who stood by me when my rights were taken, the ones who spoke up when I was too afraid too, the ones who take positions that I may have never gotten to take because I’m gay, and used it to help me. Allies are incredibly important to the advancement of groups, and it is because of their privilege, not in spite of it. The end game of privilege is to say “You have these tools. What are you going to do with them?”
Yet for some reason, people use privilege to get these advantaged groups to stop talking. Typically because they disagree with them, often on matters completely unrelated. But I’ve also seen it used to try and silence those speaking up for them. I saw an unfortunate post on Tumblr from someone telling white protestors in Ferguson not to speak to newscasters, or ever get on stage. “This is a black cause. You can show up, but don’t dare speak up”. And I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The issues in Ferguson were on a severa racial gap in the police force, where they were more likely to target black individuals. To the point it was dangerous for black men and women to protest there. White people don’t have those issues in Ferguson, yet were being told to shut up. I have an opportunity to speak up, and help people, without facing the same dangers they face. I’m fully cognisant of that, or else I wouldn’t do it (likely because I wouldn’t realize there was an issue to protest in the first place).
Privilege Has a Lot to Do With Context
I am a woman. In some areas of life, I lack privileges men have. It’s assumed I’m not as strong, often that I’m not as capable. In school, I’m assumed to be worse at math. There’s a great deal of stereotypes I have to deal with. Of course, there’s issues of sexual assault and unwanted sexual attention. But, society also lends me a lot of privileges for being a woman too. I’m assumed to be a better parent, I’m given more credit in liberal fields of study like the arts, I’m given more lax treatment by police and the justice system. I may not be assumed to be a better engineer, but I’ll always be assumed to be a better teacher. This is because privilege depends a lot on the context of the situation.
In most of society, being lesbian is not a privilege. In LGBTQ+ circles? I get enormous privileges for being a lesbian. Even in the mainstream, lesbians get more privileges than gay men, bisexual men and women, and transgender individuals (not to mention every other letter in the alphabet that’s usually completely ignored). Privilege is not a black and white thing. Where I may be more privileged than others in some areas, I am less privileged in others.
Where you live, the people you hang out with, your family, your affluence — these all effect the context of your privilege. In the United States, I have white privilege. In Japan? I’m at best seen as a commodity. In Zimbabwe, there are laws restricting the ownership of land by white people. In the United States, I lack privileges because I’m gay. But in other parts of the world, that isn’t an issue. And still in other parts, I would lack significantly more privileges. Sometimes these privileges are compensatory — for instance, it could be argued that in California, receiving Medical when you’re disabled but not when you’re able-bodied is a privilege. Obviously everyone needs medical care, but those with disabilities tend to take first priority. This is to compensate for the fact that they typically have a greater need for health care and face more serious issues if they don’t receive it.
“But that’s different!” you say. Only if your understanding of privilege is that it’s something a person should be guilty for. When we associate privilege with guilt, it actually makes it harder to see the privileges we have. Remember, privileges are often things we take for granted, things we don’t even realize others struggle with. Often, groups see privileges and say “Well I deserve that. I’m a good person, I need that” and that’s often a correct assessment. Because privileges, in large part, are things everyone should have.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for having privilege. Your opinions and words shouldn’t be discounted just because you have privilege. Because we all have privileges, and we all get benefits because of who we are that others don’t. It’s not a weapon, it’s not something to use to make yourself feel better about your situation, but for those who have them to recognize where they benefit in society on the basis of things outside of their control. The idea of privilege is an incredibly useful tool for helping people understand disparities in their society, and if we continue to use it to isolate and shame others, we’re using it for the exact opposite reason it exists.