What It Is
If you know what privilege is as it pertains to social justice already, read this post anyway. If you are educated enough to know what ‘privilege’ is, you already have privilege and it’s likely that you are privileged in other ways as well. Privilege is a nuanced yet vital concept to understand because it affects everybody. Understanding how privilege works will help you understand your place in society.
To put it in the most general terms possible, privilege is a set of personal attributes, from birth or gained/lost over time, that determine how others perceive you, depending on the society that you live in. By personal attributes, I mean features of one’s identity, including but not limited to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, body type, economic class, etc. How others will perceive personal attributes will depend on the stereotypes that they are most familiar with.
Privilege and disadvantage are not absolute. Even the most privileged among us are disadvantaged in some ways and some of the most disadvantaged are privileged in some ways. As much as I speak out about the position of autistic people in society, I must acknowledge that I am privileged in virtually every other way. I’m male, straight, white (actually half-white but I pass for white so that counts), cissexual, not physically disabled, middle class, educated, young, and taller than average. Other than being autistic, I actually have it pretty easy. And the fact that I pass for normal helps (sometimes it doesn’t but that’s another story).
It’s not easy to learn about the ways in which you are privileged. After all, if you don’t experience the microaggressions (small acts that feel hostile to the recipient) that come with being part of a disadvantaged group, it’s hard to imagine how certain actions can make public spaces feel more hostile for the disadvantaged. If you rarely get questioned about your personal attributes or lifestyle choices, it’s hard to imagine how others could be questioned and that makes it hard to see how doing so could be considered rude and not necessarily seen as just a matter of curiosity. Call it an unintentional failure of empathy.
Other than being autistic, I’m fat and enjoy eating (and I eat fast). My bodily proportions are more ‘acceptable’ now than they used to be; in high school, I was really fat. One day, during that time, I went out to the pizza place near my school and got three pepperoni slices (I was really hungry) and I scarfed them down. An older gentleman was watching me eat and he started interrogating me about my weight. I was offended and didn’t want to answer his question so I pretended that I didn’t hear him. He became confused about why I wouldn’t answer his question and got upset with me. Clearly, he did not understand why asking a total stranger about his or her weight is not cool. This was a manifestation of his privilege and an example of how one could be blinded by their privilege to how unacceptable their behavior can be. In addition, this gentleman was black so it further illustrates how even people who belong to disadvantaged groups could also be privileged in ways that they may not realize.
What You Can Do With (Not About) It
Privilege may blind one to grave injustice and even compel one to justify various instances of injustice but I want to stress that privilege is not the enemy. In fact, privilege can be very helpful in promoting understanding. Since your privilege makes your voice seem more important than those who lack privilege, you could use it to defend those who lack privilege. Privilege gives you the power to criticize someone for making a sexist joke. Privilege gives you the power to call out a restaurant for refusing to serve your gay friend. At my job as a support worker, privilege gives me the power to call out people for not accommodating the people I support (as far as I’m concerned, it’s a part of the job description).
Privilege is not and should not be an insult. Privilege is a fact. As I said, privilege is a collection of attributes that a person has, which influences the way that others perceive him or her. You cannot get any more factual than that.
In various branches of social justice (feminism, black studies, etc), there is a common misconception that there is an enemy. For feminism, it’s men. For black studies, it’s white people. And so on and so forth. There is no enemy. All instances of injustice throughout history are instances of people believing that they are the hero of their own story and doing what they think or were brought up to believe is right. These people for the most part come from a place of ignorance, not malice.
“But whenever I try to talk to someone about this sort of thing, they accuse me of being privileged!”
Occasionally, people of disadvantaged groups who are aware of the concept of privilege will use their ‘disadvantage cred’ (for a lack of a better term) as an excuse to bully and exclude. It doesn’t happen often and this accusation usually comes from someone who is new to the concept; it provides a very convenient scapegoat. People have done this to me and once I started self-advocating, I’ve done my fair share of excluding and there is a lot of intellectual cowardice inherent in excluding people, even privileged people, from any conversation.
However, keep in mind that while it doesn’t help to play the ‘you’re-too-privileged-to-understand’ card with the intention of silencing, it doesn’t hurt to reflect on whether or not there was a legitimate reason that you were silenced, even if the person could have been nicer about it.
“Okay! I think I’m ready to use my privilege for good! What kinds of privilege should I look out for?”
Well, there is a lot. This Wikipedia page on privilege, which lists the most common forms of privilege, should help get you started. After that, it’s a matter of educating yourself, seeing more of the world, building your empathy muscle, and generally being less of a jerk to other people. To give a few examples, there is discrimination against sex workers, social spaces can be hostile to male virgins and women with a lot of sexual experience (‘sluts’), and in other countries, there’s discrimination against ethnicities that you may not have even heard of. You may be surprised to learn that there is discrimination against cyclists in America (especially here in New York City); I didn’t realize this until I made friends with some cyclists and took up cycling myself.
A good rule of thumb – and this should ideally go without saying, anyway – is to refrain from asking highly personal questions unless you know the person really well (i.e. asking a trans person what their birth name is), or questions that prematurely presume values that the person doesn’t actually hold (i.e. asking a woman when she wants to get married). If you are curious about someone’s ethnicity, you could try asking the more general ‘where are you from’ and be satisfied with whatever answer they give you, rather than ‘what black/Asian/Hispanic/Arab person are you’.
Just remember that no one is perfect. There will be times when you say thoughtlessly jerkish things and not realize it. Examining your own privilege is critical to understanding the experiences of people who may not be as privileged as you and making social spaces more safe for them. Despite what some people may have you believe, ‘political correctness,’ as it may be pejoratively referred to, is not for meek. Merely saying what you want without regards to the experiences of others around you is for the meek.
 In retrospect, I would’ve told him that I weigh 100 pounds and would jokingly ask him if he ever tried lifting 100 pounds at the gym.