I am a heterosexual, Asian-American, female college student from an upper-middle-class background. That is to say, I have privilege. I have straight privilege, economic privilege, and the privilege of attending a selective institution of higher learning. None of these facts means that I work less hard, or that my life is easy.
Privilege, all too often, is misconstrued. There’s a stigma that comes with the word, and no one wants that attached to them. To have privilege seems to mean that you’re getting a free ride based on factors over which you have no influence. It seems to mean that components of your identity, such as economic background, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, determine more about you than your actual character. It seems like an accusation. But to be frank, privilege has nothing to do with you as an individual.
It stems from structural injustices inherent in our society. The basis of these inequalities is not you, although you may benefit. They are based on histories of patriarchy, white dominance, and traditionally accepted values of sexuality. If you are male, you may benefit from the structures in place that value masculinity over femininity, traditionally male-dominated fields, or ingrained biases in our society. The same goes for being straight, white, or more well-off.
What it doesn’t mean is that you’re responsible for these inequalities, or that anyone is blaming you for them. There’s no need to be defensive when someone points out your privilege, because it is not a reflection on your character or you as a person. It’s a reflection of our world, which unfortunately creates inequalities.
The concept of privilege, therefore, isn’t one that should be thrown away to achieve equality. It isn’t a way to attack individuals for circumstances over which they had no personal control. It’s a way to recognize the systemic injustices in society. Acknowledging privilege doesn’t propagate it, but ignoring privilege can. When we don’t recognize that these injustices do, in fact, exist, how can we address them? Disregarding privilege for the sake of achieving equality is akin to the argument that talking about race creates racism because recognizing differences in racial identity is the foundation of racism. The obvious point here is that talking about race doesn’t cause racism; racists and a long history of a white-dominated society do. Likewise, talking about privilege doesn’t cause inequality. Talking about privilege is the first step in deconstructing the structures that do cause inequality.
It is an eye-opening experience when you recognize your privilege and realize having privilege does not devalue your achievements. You gain greater awareness about the society you live in and your place in it. This knowledge, in turn, is a step toward understanding why activist groups exist, the reasoning behind affirmative action, or why political organizations for minority groups are necessary.
Having a better grasp of what privilege really means is essential for an open dialogue about systematic injustices. It’s easy to fall into the trap of societally constructed meanings and assume having privilege is a personal attack, but that doesn’t allow for progress. Instead, realizing that privilege is a larger problem, that it is a product of our flawed society, may allow you to feel more comfortable discussing issues of inequality and create progress toward a more equal society.