The word “privilege” has become a popular and dirty word. A quick look at #WhitePrivilege will show you how frequently this popular hashtag is used on social media. It also ranks within the top 6,000 words in the English language, beating out common words like “nowadays,” “endless” and “unfortunate.”
Despite its booming popularity, the long feed of tweets under #WhitePrivilege will show you that its associated connotation isn’t really a good one. “Privilege” not only implies some sort of advantage, but also the abuse or ignorance of that advantage.
For example, Kylie Waters (KyDizzle) tweeted a picture under #whiteprivilege of a smiling white man with the caption “I have the privilege of being totally unaware of my privilege.” Or, in a more dramatic case: Mamakajiwin, under the same hashtag, tweeted that an article was “one sided, just like you people that think black life is worth nothing.”
Associating these kinds of ignorant and hateful comments with the word “privilege” gives it a tone of maliciousness, arrogance, selfishness and ignorance that it doesn’t always deserve.
Privilege is certainly something to be conscious of. Having an advantage means putting someone else at a disadvantage. We have to be sensitive to that inequality and make an effort to level the playing field.
However, being privileged is not necessarily synonymous with being evil. There are so many different types of privilege and so many ways to use that privilege. Most of us live in the grey area between extremes.
We might be financially disadvantaged but have the privilege of social stability, or be privileged in physical stature but lack privilege in ability.
The reality is that “privileged” and “underprivileged” aren’t cut and dry opposites, but a scale with lots of different factors.
As feminist theorist Judith Butler suggests, our privilege can change depending on the context. Someone who has the privilege of authority and power in one setting, for example a police officer in his uniform, may lose that privilege in his street clothes at night.
Someone who has the privilege of speaking freely in their women’s studies class may feel restricted and muted in their conversations at the dinner table. In this way, privilege is a flexible concept. It’s not as cut and dry as it might appear on the Internet.
Beyond the flexibility of privilege itself, the way people use their privilege is flexible too. Under the umbrella of privilege, people can act assertively or passively, advocate for unity or advocate for exclusion, help others or deny others. Each of these actions reflect different ideologies, personalities and people. In the end, it’s not the size of the privilege; it’s how you use it.
The point is, we all have privilege in some form and use it in different ways. So why do we use this word as an insult against people when it applies to all of us? The negative connotations don’t come from privilege itself, but from instances where people have used privilege to cause harm. After all, words are easiest to define in their extremes.
We can best distinguish “light” from “dark” when we show someone a blinding flash in pitch black. Similarly, words like “privilege” and “feminism” are often described in their most radical form and are therefore pictured in extreme terms that people vividly remember.
The negative words we use to describe the concept of prvilege seem to be stunting progress more than encouraging it. We are so busy criticizing each other’s privilege and guiltily hiding our own that we’ve shut down possibilities for positive conversation about it.
This shame culture prevents us from openly expressing our gratitude for our privilege, counting our blessings, and discussing how we could use them to help others.
If we could replace our shame with an appreciation for privilege, we could open discussion about how to close the gap between privilege and disadvantage, and how to give those less privileged a leg up.
So instead of ordering others to “check their privilege,” as we tend to do, it might be more useful for us to evaluate and appreciate our own privileges.
By embracing the many kinds of privilege we each have, we can be more open to discussing their effects, reducing inequalities and applying them in positive ways.