What Exactly IS Privilege?

A cursory Internet search turns up a number of definitions of privilege:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor”

The Free Dictionary:
1.a. A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.

  1. Such an advantage, immunity, or right held as a prerogative of status or rank, and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others.
    2. The principle of granting and maintaining a special right or immunity: a society based on privilege.

Dictionary.com:
“A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.”

Upon being told they have privilege, some people will respond indignantly, “I’ve worked hard for everything I have. Nothing was given to me. So how dare anyone say I have privilege? Show me how I’m privileged!”

They are right – they have worked hard. And – no literal thing was given to them. The definitions of privilege are a bit misleading in this regard. Privilege isn’t about something being given to a particular person or group of people. Privilege is a process. Privilege is a tailwind. Those who have bicycled any distance can appreciate this analogy from personal experience. If you are biking with a headwind, you are aware of the increased difficulty of your journey. You never lose that awareness – until you turn around to go back home again and have a tailwind. You are not aware of the tailwind; you are going with the flow of the breeze and there is nothing to bring into awareness that you have an assist behind you, a power boost.

No literal thing was given to those with privilege without any effort on their part – and they had a cultural tailwind at their back, allowing them to reap the fullest benefit of their hard work. Those without privilege have a cultural headwind, forcing them to work harder to reap the benefit of their hard work.

I had a conversation with my brother-in-law on this topic once. He was incensed at being told that being white and male and straight had made his rise to police chief of a major city possible. He did work hard. He came from a poor family, so had no financial aid from his parents. I saw him start as a beat cop, going to college part-time to get the degree that would make it possible for him to rise to sergeant, then lieutenant, then captain and finally police chief. And as I pointed out to him, could he honestly say that he would have risen as smoothly (or at all) through the ranks if he was African-American, or a woman, or openly gay?

At that point, my brother-in-law understood that I wasn’t saying he hadn’t worked for what he had, but that he had cultural advantages that meant his progress was unimpeded. His own innate intelligence, hard work and dedication to his job were all he needed to succeed — because he was white, and male, and straight. As he said to me, “I got my first cop job when I was 24, a beat cop. This was 1962 – there were no African-Americans beyond the rank of beat cop. And no women. And no one who I knew was gay.” Once he saw privilege as a tailwind, he understood what I was saying to him: even with a tailwind, he still had to pedal. And, his pedaling got him much further than he would have been able to go with a headwind.

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