Let’s start with a definition. Lexico.com defines privilege as, “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
So what does that mean? It means that a privilege doesn’t automatically mean you are better off. It could though. A privilege could be something like a close friend offering you the use of their sports car instead of your regular car. It’s a privilege because sets you apart from others who are driving. But that’s not the only way to look at privilege. As with most things in life, there’s a range. And it’s not concrete with only two options.
Another way of looking at privilege is to say that you benefitted by the mere fact that you didn’t suffer the same things as someone else. So for instance, it would be a privilege to live on a street where there was a snow storm and your neighbor used their snow blower on their property and yours, but not on your other neighbor’s property. You benefited because you didn’t have to shovel, even though your neighbor did. You would have had to had it not been for your other neighbor helping you out, even without asking you.
Maybe that’s not the best example, but I hope you get the point I’m trying to make.
Many of us have privileges in various areas of life. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s just a part of life. It’s ok to recognize this. In many cases privileges aren’t related to anything ethical that we have to worry about. In some cases privileges don’t have any impact beyond the personal relationship you have with someone else, and they don’t have a negative impact on others.
But having said that, we should recognize that there is privilege that is detrimental to people. Again, that’s just dealing with reality.
It is a privilege to not have to talk about or deal with something. While I can enjoy that privilege, not dealing with a problem doesn’t help the people who do have to deal with it and can’t ignore it.
It is a privilege to be able to ignore something and pretend that it doesn’t exist. It is a privilege believe that your own way must be the “normal” way of doing things and that others should obviously adopt your way. It is a privilege to assume that everyone starts with the same experiences as yourself. It is a privilege to have things in place (laws, security, politicians, religious figures, culture, language, etc) that support you but not others. It is a privilege to scapegoat others as a danger to your way of life when you aren’t in danger. It is a privilege to not see those oppressed or exploited or treated unjustly for generations, to not see that their experience is real, and to not hear the pleas for justice. It is a privilege to demand that the status quo be maintained when a person benefits from it while others suffer from it and not concern yourself with those who suffer. It is a privilege when you can demand that all comply with your way of life, praise it as the standard, and shut down anyone who offers criticism of it. It is a privilege to be able to label someone else even when they don’t agree with the label.
These privileges hurt people. And while these privileges may seem to support the privileged person, they also are harmful to the that person too. Because that person is just as trapped in an unjust system as the direct victims of those systems.
Many of us have privileges in life. The real question is this – what are you going to do with them?