The idea of “privilege” in discussions about inequality, of any kind, is a prickly one, best handled delicately if at all.
In theory, it’s trying to describe a thing that does exist and is worth being aware of. There are issues which are of a direct and personal concern to some people more than others; there are things I don’t have to worry about but which are a big deal for you, and vice versa.
For instance, I’m a straight white guy, and this is not irrelevant to the way I live my life. It doesn’t generally occur to me, for instance, to be wary of who I’m honest with about my sexuality, or to worry that my capacity to do my job on any given day might be judged on how I got dressed that morning.
If I were not straight or male, then it’s more likely (though not certain) that these things would be more common concerns of mine. There are situations where other people have legitimate concerns that wouldn’t even occur to me if I were in their shoes, and this is what they’re generally talking about when pointing out that I have “privilege”.
But it’s one of those words which can be used to stifle any significantly deep discussion of a complex issue.
Say I’m talking to somebody female, about a time she felt uncomfortable – perhaps in an elevator – in which gender was a pertinent issue, and I, as a man, probably wouldn’t have had any similar problem. The correct thing for me to do here is to listen to what she’s saying with compassion and try to understand her feelings – but that’s not because I’m the privileged one in this conversation and she’s not. It’s because listening to other people and trying to understand them is a fairly basic part of interacting with other humans in general, if you have any interest in being a decent person.
Sure, it’s worth understanding the gender politics behind why I might not react the same way to the situation that this hypothetical woman did. (It’s also worth considering that individual differences might play a large role, and there might not be any conclusions to draw about gender after all.) But to put me in the role of “privileged male”, in this situation, doesn’t credit me with much capacity for empathy. I’m never likely to know what it’s like specifically to be a 5′ girl being openly leered at by a 6’3″ guy in an enclosed space, but the general concepts of fear, discomfort, and helplessness are not unfamiliar to me.
In fact, I might be more familiar with them than the label “privileged” can admit. Maybe I’ve got serious financial problems, and am struggling to keep up with the bills and not get thrown out of my one-bed studio flat, while my conversational partner is very comfortably off. I might not feel very privileged then, even if my own areas of disadvantage don’t seem immediately relevant to the matter at hand.
But maybe I do have problems or insecurities which relate to gender, or sexuality, or race, even though I’m a hetero white male. Again, assuming that I’m “privileged” implies closing off that whole avenue of possibility. Maybe I get called a fag because I’m not as interested in sports as the other boys at school. Maybe nobody takes me seriously when I complain that my boss is trying to bully me into having sex with her, because they say I should consider myself lucky.
In short, maybe I’m a straight white male with legitimate problems that don’t deserve to be dismissed just because my lot are assumed to be the privileged kind. There’s a fair few straight white males around, and everything’s not always rosy for us. It’s true that some of us can get whiny at times, and don’t always seem to care about the problems of those who generally are at a disadvantage to us, and can be distinctly insensitive about steamrolling other people’s problems with our own. I’m not saying that my problems are necessarily more important, or even as important, as those of someone I’m having this conversation with, like the totally hypothetical elevator woman from earlier.
But if I’m talking about a legitimate problem I’ve faced, it’d be nice if you tried to listen to what I’m saying with some compassion, and did your best to understand my feelings. You can do this without giving up the right to make legitimate complaints of your own.
And actually, as a post-script, there’s one part of the post that QRG quoted and highlighted which has become more niggling the more I’ve thought about it:
Being told you have privilege, or that you’re privileged, isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder!
If the “privilege” were reversed, and this were a man telling a woman, or a white guy telling a black guy, that something “wasn’t an insult” which has been taken as such, then I suspect the people fond of identifying and labelling privilege would find this an extreme case of privilege in action.
“What? I said you had nice tits! It’s not an insult! You should be flattered! Why are you so upset?”
“Pointing out that your racial background makes you statistically more likely to be involved in gang violence and drug dealing isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder! I just think you should be aware of what this means for you and the people around you.”
Maybe if other people find it insulting when you say things about them, you should try to find something else to say.