The word “privilege” gets a lot of use these days… most of it helpful, but sometimes not… Personally, I find the term “check your privilege” to be unhelpful and antagonistic, in that it doesn’t really mean anything and the effect is to shut down someone instead of actually helping them to see how their privilege is relevant to the situation at hand.
So — the question is, what IS ‘privilege’?
The quick answer is that having privilege means your life is easier in some ways than it is for folks without that kind of privilege. It does NOT mean that you directly get extra stuff because of your privilege, but rather earning the things you DO have is easier for you than it is for someone else — because of the way both of you were born / raised ( generally..).
So, I’ll take myself as an example… I have white privilege and ‘cishet’ privilege. FYI– “cishet” is short-hand for cisgender, heterosexual — so, I was born female and my gender is also female (i.e. I’m not transgender)… and I’m heterosexual, so my main romantic interest is in men.
Being cishet makes things easier for me in a variety of ways… it’s never been my experience that, because of the way I’m born, I would question as to whether or not I would be able to marry the person I love (and, of course, the person who loves me…)… that’s the “het” privilege part. Much of that changed when same-sex marriage became legal in the US — but, it still remains that I’m not likely to be fired or denied housing because I’m a woman and my spouse is a man.
I’ve also never had the experience of society presuming I’m a woman when I feel, inside, that I’m not a woman. For the most part, people read me as female and treat me as such. I’ve never had to “come out” as female, I’ve never had to decide if I want to alter my body to match my gender (sex is more or less biological, gender is what you feel inside).
I will say that, because of my gender expression (the way I choose to present myself) — I have had to ‘come out’ as heterosexual… but, that coming out wasn’t something I worried about. I didn’t have to have a challenging conversation with my friends and family, I’ve never faced social isolation because the person I love isn’t what my friends expected etc.
As a white person, I see other white people in the media, classroom, government etc.. on a regular basis. It isn’t some kind of unusual achievement for a white person to, for example, be President of the United States. I’ve never had someone say “you’re pretty, for a white girl” — and think it’s a compliment. When I — or another white person — does something horrifically bad, I don’t have to worry that strangers will assume I’m about to do something similar because of my race.
My privilege gives me a lot of wiggle room to make mistakes and recover. I know that, statistically speaking, a white person with a partial college degree and a relatively minor criminal record will still earn more than a black person with a degree and no record. I know that young white girls in school are much less likely to be suspended from class for breaking a rule than a young black girl would be for breaking the same rule. I know that my white step-son is much safer hanging around in public — goofing around with his white pals than a similarly behaving black boy with his pals.
There are a variety of ways I don’t have privilege as well. For one, I’m a woman — I live in a culture that has shown me that women are in danger of sexual assault and other kinds of violence. I belong to an academic discipline in which it is significantly less likely that a woman will earn a PhD and get a full-time academic job.
I’m also fat — so I’ve certainly experienced people giving me the ‘look’, young kids telling their moms that I’m pregnant, and don’t even get me started on buying clothes. On a regular basis, the media tells me that my body isn’t socially acceptable BUT — if I’ll only participate in ___________ new weight loss fad, I’ll meet their expectations.
‘Intersectionality’ is an important concept that goes with the concept of privilege. The idea of intersectionality is a means of indicting that privilege isn’t an all or nothing concept. So — people can have privilege in more than one way, but lack it in another. So — a black man has male privilege, but lacks white privilege. A black woman lacks both gender privilege and white privilege, or a poor white woman lacks economic and gender privilege, but has racial privilege.