"Privilege" doesn’t mean "easy"
Of all the words that get used in discussions about marginalization, prejudice, and so on, none seem to meet with the sort of instant resistance evoked by the term “privilege.”
It’s unfortunate that that’s the term we, as a culture, came up with as shorthand for a very important concept in these discussions, because its connotations make the resistance inevitable, I think. As usual, I’m going to talk about this in terms of gender discussions, because it’s the conversation with which I’m most familiar, but it’s also true of discussions about race, orientation, gender presentation, disability, and marginalization in general.
The most common objections I hear from men (at least, those I believe to sincerely disagree, rather than misogynists or trolls) when the subject of male privilege comes up are variations on “I don’t have privilege because my life has been hard. I grew up on welfare/disabled/etc. If I have so much male privilege, shouldn’t it have been easy?”
As much as I love John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting" piece, and find it a useful metaphor, I think it perpetuates this misconception. Being a straight white male doesn’t mean you always play through life on easy mode (a point Scalzi acknowledges, but that gets lost), but that’s what the title and the metaphor seem to suggest.
WHY DOES THE TERM GET THIS REACTION?
To anyone who’s seen male privilege in action when they themselves don’t have it, the resistance can be unsettling.
But outside of discussions of marginalized groups, “privilege” has a different connotation: generally one of wealth. To say that one was a child of privilege, or had a privileged upbringing, usually means that one grew up with affluent parents, and attendant benefits like good schools, private lessons in areas of interest, cars of one’s own, etc. For most people, the archetype of the Rich Kid is likely a figure of envy or resentment more than identification; the same applies to the term.
There’s also the (legitimate) sense that privilege is unearned (obviously, most types of it are), and the resulting fear that admitting to it or acknowledging it invalidates everything you’ve earned. If I have white privilege, does that mean that a black person deserved my job more than I did? That I only got the job because I was white? That none of my experience or qualifications or talent counted for anything?
Most insidious is the sense that it’s a zero sum game. If I have privilege, and that privilege has helped me get the things I have, and it’s bad that I have privilege, does that mean that people are going to try to take it away from me so they can have it? Are they going to try to take away the things I know I earned but they seem to be claiming I didn’t? Are they going to try to switch things so that they are privileged and I am treated as an outsider?
PRIVILEGE DOESN’T MEAN YOUR LIFE IS EASY
Let’s talk about what privilege isn’t, or rather, what having it doesn’t say about you.
- It doesn’t mean you’re rich.
- It doesn’t mean your life is easy.
- It doesn’t mean you didn’t earn what you have.
- It doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for what you want.
- It doesn’t mean you are bad person.
- It doesn’t mean you are a sexist (racist/homophobe).
PRIVILEGE ISN’T A BINARY
You know what else privilege isn’t? Something that’s exclusive to you and your group. The world isn’t divided into people who have privilege and people who are oppressed by them.
Privilege is often situational; that is, you can benefit from privilege in one situation while operating at a disadvantage in another. (People’s eyes often glaze over if you trot out the word “intersectionality,” but it’s worth learning about — the interplay of privilege and its lack can operate even in the same situation, for the same person.)
We all have privilege of some sort.
As a woman, my lack of privilege has hurt me in numerous situations, but the privilege I have because I am white has benefitted me in many others. You can be disadvantaged as a black lesbian, but still enjoy the privilege of those who are able-bodied or neurotypical.
PRIVILEGE AS AN ABSENCE
Part of the effect of having privilege of one type or another is often lack of awareness of what not having it feels like. After all, one of the most common aspects of privilege is having your group assumed to be the default humans, treating your experience as normal and that of others as abnormal.
The famous 1990 essay about white privilege, “The Invisible Knapsack,” (still worth reading, although the culture has shifted in 20+ years, and some examples are less relevant than others now) opens with a quote about that invisibility:
I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.
It’s a great essay, but what strikes me as I reread it, or any of the lists on this handy List of Privilege Lists post (note: this is not a wholehearted endorsement of all of these lists — I disagree with some of them, more in how they present concepts than in the actual gist of what they’re saying), is how often the effects of privilege they list are either phrased in the negative, or could be more concisely framed as negatives.
In my own experience, as well, in trying to convey to male friends and colleagues the effects of the privilege they enjoy, it’s more often about assumptions that don’t get made about them, or crap they don’t have to put up with.
Part of the reason privilege is often invisible to its beneficiaries is that it’s often harder to recognize the absence of something than its presence.
And that’s how I prefer to conceptualize and explain privilege:
Privilege means that, because of your membership in a non-marginalized group, there are things you don’t have to deal with. And because you don’t have to deal with them, you don’t have to think about them, and may not be aware of them.
For example, a man generally doesn’t have to worry that if he continues to work after he has kids, he’ll be seen as insufficiently devoted to his family, and/or unmasculine. He also doesn’t have to worry, when interviewing for a job, that if he expresses an interest in someday having a family, it will cast doubt on his commitment to his career and make him less likely to be hired.
I can’t imagine that if you’re a man, reading this evokes something you’ve long felt as an extra advantage you have. It’s an absence that is likely invisible to you until someone points it out — just something that you don’t have to worry about. It doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get hired, it doesn’t mean you didn’t have to compete for your job, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for not thinking about it.
It just means it’s a challenge or obstacle that you didn’t have to overcome, or even think about.
It doesn’t even mean that you didn’t have other challenges or obstacles to overcome that someone without male privilege may not have faced.
That’s most of the privilege I see, both in myself and in others: not a background of wealth and advantages, not a cheat code, not a life of easy, unearned accomplishments: just an absence of certain challenges that other people face.
None of this is to say that privilege doesn’t occur in positive forms as well, or in blatant ones. It’s just that I think the invisible absence of certain types of obstacles is both the more common form, and obviously the form that’s hardest for beneficiaries to recognize.