What is…Privilege?

If you spend enough time reading social justice-themed content, you will have probably come across the word privilege a ton. You may have read about white privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, and so on. This is a term we hear even more in light of the death of George Floyd and the protests since then, and particularly in the context of white privilege.

But what is privilege?

In the social justice world, people with a certain kind of privilege are people with unearned advantages simply on the basis of their identity. Therefore, when you hear someone talk about “white privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being white; when someone talks about “straight privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being heterosexual; when someone talks about “male privilege,” that person is talking about unearned advantages from being male.

The most common misunderstanding I come across about privilege is that, if you’re described as having a particular type of privilege (example: white privilege), it’s an insult. To the contrary, it’s not an insult, but instead a statement that, since you’re white, you’re not as likely to experience certain negative things that many people of color experience, not because you actually did, expected, asked for, or earned anything, but simply because you’re white.

That being said, if you have a certain privilege based on your identity (regardless of what part of your identity involves privilege),[1] there may be times when you may hear a phrase such as “you’re showing your white privilege” or “not everyone has straight privilege.” You may’ve even heard of the phrase “check your privilege.” These sorts of phrases are variations of someone else telling you to, in the words of an Everyday Feminism piece, “reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage – even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it – while their social status might have given them a disadvantage.”[2] While a phrase like “check your privilege” is often viewed as an insult, even by many in the online world, I encourage those who are told to check their privilege (or some variation of that) to learn about how your privilege affects you (or how a lack of privilege for certain groups affects others) instead of getting defensive.

Instead of being an insult (which is how some people view it), privilege is more than anything else a shorthand explanation for how whites (without explanation) face less scrutiny from law enforcement than people of color, for how family rejection is much more likely to happen with gay and lesbian couples than straight couples, for how a man is much less likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman, and so on. Some groups have unearned advantages while others don’t (or have unearned disadvantages); for that reason, understanding privilege and how it affects certain groups of people is important.

This is part of the “what is” series.

[1] It’s worth noting that it’s possible for someone to have one kind of privilege but not another. For example, it’s possible to have straight privilege but not the privilege of being white, or the privilege of being white but not male privilege.

[2] https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-checking-privilege-means/