Merriam-Webster, Privilege, noun:
1) A right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others
I’d imagine it’s fairly hard, at this point, to exist on the internet in such a way as you would find yourself reading this post, and not have at least run across the concept of privilege. I’m talking about the concept as it’s used in the context of social sciences and political analysis. The definition of privilege (and, by counterpoint, oppression and/or marginalization) isn’t what this essay is about. It’s an important concept, and I doubt I could do anything particularly original as far as definitions go, with dozens, hundreds, thousands of explainers out there. Instead, partly as a foundation for other things I need to write, this is an attempt to explain a couple ways privilege can manifest. A lot of this will involve talking about what privilege is not, because in a lot of ways it’s not a presence of a separate phenomenon so much as the absence of marginalization.
Describing “[X] privilege” is a static definition of something that in practice is conditional and variable. Being privileged on one axis doesn’t cancel out, invalidate, or preclude being marginalized on another. It doesn’t make you a bad person or make suffering you have experienced meaningless, no matter how often abusive people may take advantage of the language of sociological analysis to try to validate that idea. The pursuit of the perfect single privileged person, or their counterpart the most oppressed person in the world, is pointless and irrelevant. Things aren’t that easy.
“I don’t need labels”
Have you ever seen someone comment, “I don’t understand why we need all these labels, we’re all just human”? It’s fairly easy to fall into the idea that the only people who require labels are those who are attempting to distance themselves from the norm, and assign to this behavior a certain willfulness. If they didn’t want to be singled out, why would they make such an effort not to be normal?
It’s also easy to never question this. This brings you to pronouncements that counterpart labels for privileged identities are unnecessary. I grew up seeing this with “straight”, and to my great relief it’s largely subsided, to be replaced on the queer issues docket with people insisting “cis” is an unnecessary term. Similarly, descriptions of people in person and in prose largely bring up race to point out that a person isn’t White; think of when you see characters in a novel’s skin color commented on, or the difference in mental image between “the guy in front of me at the supermarket” and “the Asian guy in front of me at the supermarket”.
Privileged identities get to be a largely unquestioned norm, deviations from which are commented on and labeled. When counterpart labels are introduced, there’s a pushback: “Why do I need a label? I’m just normal”. When people from marginalized groups try to rally around their common identity, too, there’s a pushback: “Why does it have to be about differences? We’re all human”.
This is also the path through which we arrive at respectability politics–the enforcement of the idea that members of marginalized groups should aspire to being as “normal” as possible in order to make their identities acceptable. It’s also where we get flawed ideas like “colorblindness”.
The problem with this idea is that it continues to position privileged identities as the norm while faking progressive inclusivity. Not commenting on the existence of distinct identities and experiences doesn’t in any way alleviate inequality, it just makes it harder to talk about. And preventing people who have an identity in common that their society punishes them for from associating based on that only reinforces the inflicted abject loneliness of being told a facet of your existence is wrong.
(This is, for the record, the difference between–to choose an example that I’m qualified to comment on–”gay pride” and “straight pride”. People pushing “straight pride” are not doing so against the grain of the culture they have to live in. The demonstration is superfluous, and serves to further marginalize people who aren’t straight [and, in this context, straight trans/* people more likely than not]. Issues of assimilationism and Gay Inc. aside, gay and queer people finding joy and pride in something they are constantly told is wrong, abnormal, and less than is miles away from a reaffirmation of the respected status of [cis-by-default] heteroromanticism+heterosexuality that’s cemented daily.)
Which leads us to…
“I’m an individual”
A while back, a woman was elected as governor of my home state, to my knowledge for the first time. As expected for Mexico’s institutional corruption, she was summarily pegged for taking advantage of nepotism and pocketing state money. As we drove by an old campaign poster of hers, a man I was talking to commented that he’d voted for her and now regretted it. “I gave women a chance, guess I was wrong.” Just counting the time we spent as an effective single-party state, Mexico had over ninety years of male politicians executing fascinating levels of corruption, theft, and general failure. The governor before her was corrupt; so was the one after. People swearing off male politicians for that would’ve been a fascinating boon to nonbinary people. It also didn’t happen. But one female governor meant that women couldn’t be trusted, that they’d been “given a chance” and blown it.
While people may deny their membership in a privileged group at all (see above), their presence in it is what lets them get away with doing that. Privilege is not having to say “I’m not like those other people” or hear “If only they were all like you”. In a culture that praises and aspires to meritocracy, it’s implied that everyone’s achievements and failures are evaluated individually and on a level playing field. This is a sadly convenient fiction. In practice, people’s membership in privileged groups lets them be considered individuals, without the weight of whatever is associated with a particular identity–a need to prove themselves worthy of being evaluated at the “normal” baseline–modifying how people see their achievements. This is why the results of systems that are presumed meritocratic (without getting into the failure of meritocracies) echo preexisting lines of prejudice when it’s not explicitly accounted for.
“I’m not dealing with this today”
For people who are marginalized on some axis [Y], dealing with this is a daily factor. By deviating from the established, un-commented-upon norm, you get the guarantee of constantly having this fact pointed out to you. Maybe more than anything, privilege is the ability to ignore these power dynamics. It’s being able to go through a day ignoring issues of–whatever: race, class, gender, ability. It’s “I’m not going to deal with this today” meaning “I’m just not going to think about it”, not “I’m going to try to protect myself from it and I’m probably going to fail”. This is the crux of why it’s so hard to perceive your own: the list of privileges a person holds is literally that of the things they can afford to ignore without consequence.
This is what gives us the idea of the ally. (Which I find needs some pretty extreme deconstruction, but that’s another post.) The ally is a person from privileged population [X], who chooses to concern themselves with the issues of an oppressed population they are not a member of. Which highlights why it’s so easy for attempts at allyship to fail, especially when the person in question takes on their allyship as an identity–the issues they’re trying to pay attention to are the ones they’ve been trained to ignore, and their voice is more likely to be considered over the people they are attempting to be in an alliance with. This is also why members of marginalized populations can’t be allies to themselves; it’s a nonsensical statement.
I’ve seen a really disappointing amount of people take intersectionality (an oversimplified summary: the idea that a single person will experience multiple types of privilege and marginalization, which can shift in different contexts) to mean that privileges and oppressions can cancel each other out. Examples have come at me from all corners: White trans women insisting they have no advantages compared to people of color and nonbinary people; cis Black people saying they can’t be transphobic or experience cis privilege (and trans people backing them up); the curious contingent of cis feminists who insist that because women are victims of sexism their gender identities do not exist and so they’re incapable of being cis at all.
This idea is attractive because it’s easy. And like many easy ways out, it’s wrong. Simplifying privilege and oppression to a single-variable system isn’t just inaccurate, it’s actively harmful. It allows people to deny themselves accountability, stating they couldn’t be exercising privilege over someone who has an advantage over them in another sector.
The dreadful counterpart of how easy it can be to tell that something’s wrong in the power dynamics between you and another person–even when that awareness is stifled by having been taught it must just be your fault–is that it’s very hard to identify your own exercises of privilege. I’m not going to lie and say this post was not pointed; ever since I got actively involved in feminist/social justice discourse I’ve been noticing a trend of people turning around and repeating the oppressive behaviors they were critiquing two hours ago towards another group. Saying “You should know better” to that elides the problem. What privilege does is deny people the opportunity to realize they have something there to learn.
tl;dr Summary: Aside from defining privilege, I think explaining some ways it manifests passively would be useful. Here are the three I found most apparent/pertinent: The ability to ignore an issue at will without it popping up in your life anyway; being a default that doesn’t need an adjective attached; existing as an individual who doesn’t have to serve as an example of a given group. As an addendum, I’d like to point out that axes of privilege and marginalization intersect, but they do not cancel, and the fallacy that they do harms discussion and gives people an easy way out to avoid confronting their own privilege. This post is largely written for me to refer to in other writings about these dynamics within social justice/feminist communities, but hopefully can have wider utility.