Noun: privilege; plural noun: privileges
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
Privilege is a word that’s been used a lot recently. But what exactly IS it?
By the sound of the definition above, it sounds like privilege is something special that society grants to people for a reason. But in reality, privilege is a default setting.
Or, rather, what society thinks is the default setting.
If you are a male being interviewed for a job in engineering alongside a woman with equal qualifications, your chances of getting the job are much higher. This is because ‘engineer’ is automatically assumed to be a male domain. Male is the default setting of this career, and whilst this doesn’t mean that women can’t enter, it does mean that people will be surprised to find a female engineer at the door.
If you are an Asian person and you are convicted of a serious crime on the same night that a white person was convicted of an identical crime, the media is more likely to put your story in the press. Comments will no doubt mention links to Islam and how it is [perceived by the ignorant to be] a violent religion. If the white criminal’s story IS published, comments will more often than not speculate that boys will be boys, or that the youth of today has nothing to do. Deliberate crime is assumed to be a non-white activity.
This goes all the way to the top and all the way to the bottom. If you are a slender person, you never have to worry about being forced to buy two seats on a plane. Society expects people to have your body. If you are a black girl, your school or job can say that your natural hair is too outrageous for the environment. Society expects that ‘neat’ hair is straight hair. If you are cis-gender, you don’t ever imagine that you could be turned away from a service you want to pay for, such as a manicure or bra fitting. Society expects that these services are reserved for the ‘correct’ gender.
Chances are, you have SOME privilege. This isn’t a bad thing. No one is asking you to be ashamed of the fact that you fit onto a bus without taking up more than your share of the seat, or to avoid going to football matches because you won’t get abuse from the crowd. The important thing is to recognise it.
Privilege doesn’t go away if you ignore it. It doesn’t go away if you argue with it. It doesn’t go away if you don’t have another kind of privilege. You don’t get to say ‘but I don’t have white privilege because I didn’t go to university’ or ‘I don’t have male privilege because I’m gay’. It is simply a fact. You get advantages (or don’t get disadvantages) based on something you never chose.
Now you know what privilege is, what do you do with it?
Firstly, don’t try and use it to batter the brains of people without it. Accept that there are some places where your opinions aren’t valuable. If you are a cis-gender person, the Trans* community won’t welcome you trying to headline a one-man show about YOUR take on THEIR struggles.
Never try and claim ‘reverse oppression’ because it just doesn’t match up. ‘Fat privilege’ is a term people are trying to bring into use regarding thin-shaming incidents such as Megan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’. Being insulted and made to feel ugly for this is unpleasant, and it’s the kind of knee-jerk reaction that mustn’t happen anymore, but it rarely carries the same intensity and volume as the hatred hurled in the other direction. By all means, pass on messages of universal love and body-pride in place of shame and offence.
Everyone has their issues, and those issues have their time and place. Don’t try to shoehorn men’s rights into conversations about women’s rights. Don’t complain that straight people don’t have the same opportunities to express their sexuality with colourful parades as LBGTQ+ do. Don’t casually dismiss bisexuals as confused, or people of colour as violent, or fat people as greedy.
Privilege is, in and of itself, a default setting. We can’t change it, or make it go away. All we can do it try and stop ourselves harming anyone else with it, and really, that’s all you can ask of a decent person.