My friend just asked me to define privilege, so I thought I’d share my response here:
Q: So I am wondering if you can explain “privilege” to me. At school it seems to be used to end conversations (“how can you know, you’re privileged…”) or in other negative ways. People almost fall over themselves to decry privilege, almost like a Maoist struggle session. I don’t get it.
A: I don’t know if there’s any one definition for it, nor do I think it should end a conversation. Generally, one might be considered privileged for enjoying qualities/identities that are valued and rewarded by society. In the U.S., such privileges include the cultural capital of being perceived as white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, attractive, intelligent, educated, etc. (Certainly not limited to the above.)
So, ‘privileged’ isn’t a monolithic state with a clear threshold of entry. Most people are privileged in some ways and not in others – checking some, but not all, boxes. The separate boxes don’t always represent equal cultural capital to one another. And one person’s intersection of privileges is hard to compare to another person’s. Given how way leads on to way, it’s also difficult to disentangle privilege from privilege, advantage from disadvantage. It’s not meant to be quantified. But it is meant to be discussed.
I generally consider myself privileged, because my socio-economic status, education and experiences intersect in ways that attract substantial rewards. Yes, I worked hard, but my parentage, primary schooling and ethnic narrative (‘model minority’) made me feel efficacious in school. No one treated me like a criminal, so I didn’t become one. Everyone thought I was going to succeed, so I believed I would. By my view, that’s pretty privileged. The rewards have been undeniably significant.
That being said, I perhaps wouldn’t be as privileged if we were speaking solely about gender, or even about race. In some ways, the perks of being a ‘model minority’ is simultaneously a hurdle to being many other things. So, you see, there are no clear definitions.
Still, as I said earlier: The introduction of ‘privilege’ should further dialogue, not shut it down. I’m sorry that others have wielded it to shut you out. To me, the point is to unpack it together (whenever possible).