Another one inspired by the comment thread of doom.
The hardest thing about explaining privilege to members of dominant groups is that, usually, the fact that you’re advantaged in certain ways doesn’t mean you’re not disadvantaged in many other ways. So when we’re talking about gender and a man is told that he’s privileged–or when we’re talking about race and a white person is told that they’re privileged, or whatever–their immediate response is often, “What privilege? Look at all the ways my life has been unfair!”
To be clear, this argument is not always made in good faith*. However, for the sake of this post, I’m going to pretend that it is, because there are important points to be made about this.
Privilege is best understood as a system of interacting benefits (or disadvantages). When people in a feminist space talk about “privilege,” they often just mean male privilege. All other things being equal–this is the important part–if you are a man, you are at an advantage relative to a woman.
Of course, that’s only useful theoretically. In practice, gender isn’t the only thing that matters. Race, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, (dis)ability, religion, skin color (within race), class, weight, attractiveness, immigration status–all these things make a difference. (This is what feminists refer to as “intersectionality.”)
Say you’re a man but you lack privilege in another area–say you’re a man of color. Are you more privileged than a white, upper-class, straight, able-bodied, Christian woman? Probably not. Are you more privileged than a lower-middle-class, queer Latina woman? Probably. And your being male is only one of many ways in which you are more privileged than this hypothetical woman.
Many men have trouble understanding or accepting the concept of privilege because they do not feel that they have much of it. On one hand, this is true–men can be poor, men can be disabled, men can be non-white, men can be queer. On the other hand, privilege often remains unchallenged because it is invisible. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you never (or almost never) get stopped by the cops for absolutely no reason, searched, and subjected to harsh questions. If you are a man of color, this is something that’s almost certainly happened to you, and a problem of which you are very much aware. Likewise, if you’re a man–unless you’re very visibly gender-nonconforming–you don’t have to worry every time you go out alone at night that someone will harass you, that someone will rub up against you on the subway platform and make disgusting sounds, that someone will follow you down the street yelling at you to come back to him. All of these things have happened to me and most other women.
But this probably isn’t something you think about all the time. It’s natural that you’d think more about the ways your life can be challenging, not about how lucky you are to not get followed down the street by strange men all the time. The injustices in your life are probably more salient to you than all the myriad ways in which things work as they should. So it would make sense that, overall, you feel like you lack privilege rather than feeling like you have it.
Another way of looking at it is that a man can very much have a really difficult life that’s almost devoid of any privileges. But if, hypothetically, this same man with these same circumstances had instead been born a woman, her life would be even more difficult and even more devoid of privilege.
This is why privilege is best used as a theoretical concept and not taken too literally. It’s impossible to “measure” it. It’s impossible to know, for instance, whether a hypothetical man necessarily has more total privilege than me, or whether I have more than him.
This is also why, when discussing privilege with folks who aren’t very familiar with intersectionality, it’s best to be as specific as possible. “You just don’t get this because you’re privileged” or “Check your privilege” is never going to work if the person you’re talking to actually lacks privilege along every axis other than the one you’re talking about (well, or if they don’t know what the hell privilege even means). If I–a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman–yell at a poor, queer man of color to “check his privilege” because he said something sexist, he would (and should) laugh in my face. Because he’ll probably immediately think of his class, race, and sexual orientation and wonder how, exactly, he’s so privileged.
When this comes up, it’s vital to remind people that the disadvantages they face in life are not a product of the fact that they’re male (or white, or whatever). If I tell you that being a woman means I have to worry about people harassing me on the street and you tell me that, well, being a queer man means you get harassed on the street too, you’re missing the point a little. It’s not being a man that gets you harassed. It’s being queer, because we have a society that’s unjust toward queer people.
Some have tried to get around this hurdle when educating about privilege by creating metaphors in which you get a certain number of “points” in different domains. If you’re white, you get more “points” than if you’re not white. If you’re male, you get more points than if you’re not male. If you’re straight…you get the idea. Then the total points you have is your privilege, and you can see that getting few points in one category doesn’t mean you can’t get many points in another category. (John Scalzi made a similar metaphor brilliantly here.)
Such metaphors are fraught with complications (should being male give you more points than being white?), they’re useful for showing that you can’t just look at one axis. It’s not just about being male. It’s not just about being white. It’s everything.
Privilege is a theory, a framework that can be used to explain how our social world works. Like all theories, it has weaknesses and blind spots. Some try to make up for these by continually inventing new forms of privilege–vanilla privilege and couple privilege are a few that I’ve heard relatively recently–but in reality, the problem with taking privilege too literally is that there are just too damn many variables that shape our circumstances and what we are able to achieve. It is completely possible to be a straight white cis able-bodied middle-class Christian mentally/physically healthy English-speaking American plain-ol-vanilla-white-bread man and still have your life completely destroyed and fucked over by circumstances beyond your control.
That does not mean that you do not have privilege.
All it means is that privilege is just a theory, useful for explaining many but not all things, and that you, my friend, were really unlucky and that legitimately sucks.
*Examples: “Male privilege? But women never answer my OkCupid messages!” and “White privilege? But [insert story about how you got rejected from a job/college because some Totally Unqualified Black Person got it instead].”