It seems like I spend a lot of time talking about privilege. Describing it, discussing it, debating whether a situation is due to privilege, or just coincidence. But what really strikes me is how polarizing a concept it is, and how negatively people react to it. I'm not sure the negative reaction is warranted, and I think the fault for that is multi-sourced.
Privilege, once you've stripped away all the politics and all the trappings and all the accusations, is the basic idea that some element of who you are can make your place in the world a little softer or a little harder than it might have been otherwise. It doesn't mean some people are guaranteed a hard or an easy experience at all.
Take, for example, one of the most common privileges: race. You cannot escape the advantage of being part of the dominant racial power structure. People see my white face and they make certain assumptions about me, and don't make others. It is less likely that I'll be followed in a store as a suspected shoplifter, and less likely that I'll be assumed to be on welfare, than if I were black or Latina. I can put a scarf on to cover a bad hair day without being assumed a terrorist, which might happen if I were Middle Eastern. I am not fetishized as 'exotic' because of the shape of my eyes or the color of my skin -- a daily reality for most non-white women, but especially for those of Asian descent. If I am chosen over an equally qualified applicant for a job, I don't hear the whispers that I only got the job because the company 'needed more color diversity'.
Finally, it's more likely that I'll be expected to have disposable income, AND I am closer to the 'beauty norm' my society embraces, so advertising is targeted to me, with models that match my own skin tone and vocal intonations. This means that I'm surrounded by idealized beauty, and that idealized beauty (save the obligatory 'multicultural' token models) looks like the people in my own family. I get the constant, subtle reinforcement of the message that I am of the dominant paradigm.
On the other hand, I fall to the opposite side of one of the other common privileges: gender. I can expect to be paid less than an equally qualified male applicant for the same job. My medical care is a matter of national public debate. What I escape in assumptions that what I've earned is based on 'ethnic diversity' I reap in whispers that I slept my way up the ladder or only got a position because the company 'needed more gender diversity'. I am more likely to be a victim of rape or domestic violence, which colors my interactions with men, my relationship model, and my personal habits. I have never voluntarily lived in a first-floor apartment, have even paid more or chosen a less-desirable location to avoid it, because of the possibility of peeping toms, or intruders coming through a window. When I began college, I received messages from every direction, telling me how to avoid rape, an overwhelming chorus of voices: Don't relax. Don't trust. Above all, remember that you are never safe.
More people, my first year of college, told me how to avoid being raped by a friend or a stranger than told me how to choose classes, develop study habits, find an internship, and work with my professors for my own success. I am told, daily, to spend an incredible amount of time, money, and energy on the fact that I have no right to expect to be respected or even safe and must work harder to secure these things for myself.
Are these examples universal? No, absolutely not. Am I guaranteed higher wages based on my skin and lower ones based on my gender, regardless of what I do? No, of course not. I can do things to change my lot. I can become aggressive about pursuing compensation, work harder and longer hours, and prove my worth. If I look or dress a certain way, I'll reap the same assumptions about welfare or shoplifting. But the essence of privilege is that, all else being equal, certain things provide an advantage. Two people of different skin colors, born in the same city to parents of equal socioeconomic status, educated in the same schools, wearing the same clothes, achieving the same grades and working equally hard, SHOULD expect the world to treat them the same way, and receive the same rewards. But they can't expect that, because it doesn't happen. A man and a woman who put equal work into school and their professional lives, who are equally qualified and competent, should expect equal respect and compensation. But they can't expect that, because it doesn't happen.
And the next part is important: the fact that it doesn't happen doesn't mean anything about them personally. Having privilege doesn't make you a racist. It doesn't make you a sexist. It doesn't make you homophobic, classist, ableist, or any other form of bigot. It says absolutely nothing about YOU except your demographics. Privilege is about where you fall when it comes to institutionalized barriers to success, not how you treat other people, whether you've worked for what you've got, whether you've ever consciously discriminated against another person. It means that the system tilted towards you in certain circumstances, and whether you chose to or not, you received certain advantages with that tilt. Most of those advantages boil down to not having had to put extra time, money, and energy into things other people spend a lot to overcome.
To check your own privilege is not admitting you had it easy. It's admitting that you could have had it harder, and that some people did. It's admitting that your perspective is informed by a system that's spent your entire life (and decades before you were born) affirming that the center of the 'normal' bell curve is arranged around an ideal that shares certain traits with you. Most of all, it's admitting that you acknowledge the barriers you never had to scale, and saying you want to tear those down, so that those who work as hard as you do can earn the same rewards.
And almost no one falls on the 'privileged' side of the equation universally. I am a white, straight, able-bodied college-educated middle-class thirty-something overweight pagan woman who suffers from chronic depression. Sometimes the world isn't fair to me. Sometimes it's fairer than I've earned. The privilege that affects my perspective is layered and nuanced, and I don't always pick it out, but like most people I'm pretty quick to see my own disadvantages.
Of course, this brings me to the final question: what do you DO about it? You learn to acknowledge it gracefully, you learn to listen when someone points out an advantage to you, and you stop to consider whether your perspective is based on institutional advantages. When you find yourself without privilege, you learn to call it out without necessarily attacking the people who have it -- instead remembering that its *existence* is the enemy, not its *beneficiaries*.
Most of all, when you find yourself *with* privilege, you work to end it, not by dragging yourself down or placing artificial barriers but by working to remove those barriers for others. My clearest example of this is that two groups of people worked to give women the vote: Women who stood up fearlessly and demanded it, and men who stood beside them and used their own voting privilege to extend it. No one thought to say that men shouldn't have the vote; removing privilege should not disenfranchise or harm those born to it. My life shouldn't get harder as barriers for others are removed, but the resulting fair competition should make us ALL stronger and faster.