August 19, 2013 Leave a comment
You’ve probably seen the term “male privilege” or “white privilege” or “straight privilege”. What the hell are they talking about? It’s fairly simple, though it took a while to get it through my skull just what they were talking about and that it is actually a thing that exists.
Privilege in a social justice context simply means that one group of people has some advantages over another group. For an extreme example, in Saudi Arabia, Muslims are the privileged religious group. You might speak of “Muslim Privilege”, but rarely of “Christian Privilege”, because in a big picture view, Muslims have many more advantages than Christians do in that country.
An important thing to note is that a privileged group doesn’t necessarily have advantages over all other groups in all situations. In the United States, for instance, men, overall, have more advantages than women. We get paid more, we aren’t under the same threat of domestic or sexual abuse, we get taken more seriously more readily. But this isn’t absolute- while on the balance, men have more privilege than women, in areas of child custody and not being forced into the military, women have some privilege over men. This is something that should be evened out, of course, but it in no way eliminates the fact that overall, men have more advantages.
There is also this thing called intersectionality- essentially, you can divide humans into groups on multiple criteria. Sex, race, religion, social class, economic class, etc. These different criteria can interact in interesting ways. You might be underprivileged from one group you are thrown in with, overprivileged from another. They intersect and can result in privilege greater than or less than might be expected from a simplistic, single factor analysis.
Let’s look at the United Kingdom. Overall, the society has an issue of male privilege. Men hold most of the powerful positions, and in fact, succession to the throne prefers male heirs over female. So Elizabeth, being female, was still facing an uphill climb of male privilege. But because of who her dad was, she landed herself in one of the most privileged positions in British society. If she had a little brother? She’d have been smacked in the face with male privilege and remained a princess. Her family privilege overwhelmed her lack of male privilege, but it could have easily gone the other way.
So there it is- it’s an overall trend of relative advantages, that are not necessarily an across the board thing. Individual women can be more privileged than any man and male privilege can still be the rule- what matters is the overall average case, and how much harder that woman had to work to get there than a man would have.
The details of how privilege works in a given situation can sometimes be complicated, but it’s a simple concept once you think about it.
And no- it’s not evil that you have it. You aren’t sexist or racist or some other -ist because you have privilege. That comes from how you use your privilege. Use it to reinforce your position and push others down, you’re an ass. Use it to help lift people up to the same level, then you’re probably good(be careful of white knighting though).
Now, there’s a great deal of room to debate the best way we should handle privilege as a society- both in general and in specific instances. But it’s existence? It takes willful blindness to deny that if you’ve spent any real effort thinking about it. Or to refuse to think about it in the first place. Genuine ignorance only excuses you for so long before people stop buying the “genuine” part.