There seems to be a little tiff on my twitter feed at the moment on the subject of privilege. I shan’t bore anybody by linking to it, but inevitably it seems to involve people who don’t understand what “privilege” is moaning about how they’re NOT privileged because they aren’t aristocrats.
Here’s what it isn’t: privilege is not being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. It’s not Eton and Oxford and the Bullingdon Club; it’s not the Freemasons; it’s not servants or received pronunciation or double-barrelled surnames or Downton Abbey. It’s not your bank balance or your parents’ bank balance or the size of your telly or the brand name on your clothes.
No, it’s sneakier than that: privilege is about how you are perceived, not about what you have. Privilege is the name that theorists give to the way that society makes assumptions about who is the default person, and how society works to make that default person’s life the ‘norm’. It is the original Man on the Clapham Omnibus.
The default in the UK tends to be white, male, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual and middle-class. If you are any one of those things, you have privilege in that area: you can be born in a barn and still have privilege. That’s not to say that you have privilege in all areas, or that all privilege is equal – and where the different areas collide, this is intersectionality. When people start arguing over whose privilege is best / worst, that’s what we call Oppression Olympics, and it’s not cool.
Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. Having white privilege doesn’t make you a racist, and having male privilege doesn’t make you a sexist. If you have able-bodied privilege that just means you’re not disabled, and heterosexual privilege is afforded to heterosexuals. You’ve probably got the idea by now, but here are some good links for cis privilege and class privilege.
This is traditionally the point at which someone (let’s call them Bob) asks huffily whether you therefore have to be a disabled, working class black trans* lesbian in order to have any credibility in a discussion, which is a beautiful illustration of how privilege works, because disabled working class black trans* lesbians’ voices in reality would be marginalised, but Bob’s perception is that (s)he would be ignored in favour of them.
Privilege is important because it defines the tussocks and rabbit-holes in the lumpy playing field we’re all on, and where we are on the tilt of it. (Not very curiously, the people who are most insistent that the playing field is level are the most privileged.) If there is to be levelling of it, then those of us on the tussocks of privilege need to be leaning over to those falling down the rabbit holes and hauling them up, and likewise when we realise we’re on the way down a rabbit hole, we want to extend a hand and have someone grab it and help us. And that could be something as major as equalities legislation or something as minor as changing your repertoire of insults to try to remove the ablist ones.
When the word ‘privilege’ crops up people often react as though they’re being asked to translate Marx from the original into Xhosa, or alternatively as though they’re being accused of some sort of feudal overlord existence, whipping peasants while feeding off the fat of their babies. Recognising privilege is not a hardship, or an attack on freedoms. It’s just a grown up, theorist’s way of saying just what you were told in primary school: be nice to other people. Think about the effect your words or actions have on others. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
It’s not a new idea and it’s hardly outlandish.