There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to this phrase. I’m here, as a straight white man, to address the situation. I honestly think I am uniquely qualified to address this situation. So here it goes…
Privilege is an opaque bubble, almost like the Matrix. It shields you and me from reality. It exists in many forms, and it definitely doesn’t just affect white people. Imagine a Venn diagram of intersecting circles. Each one represents a type of privilege. Most people will find themselves in at least a few of those circles.
Whether it is via genetics, skin color, gender, parent’s financial status, education, geography, sexual orientation, etc., privilege isn’t necessarily bad, though. It’s often a result of things you can’t control.
To that end, privilege has nothing to do with how hard you work as an individual. It also has nothing to with how much money or lack of money you currently have in the bank. People often like to compare the black NBA player to the white coal miner. Poor people of all types exist. Rich people of all types exist.
Privilege operates on a group by group basis and it often manifests itself to those outside the bubble and not to those inside. It’s all those little things that are taken for granted along the way. It’s realizing that people like you and me tend to do better overall, whether it’s in a monetary, societal, or personal way.
I like to think of privilege as having a basis in opportunity. It provides more opportunities on average to people who have a certain type of privilege. Specific opportunities vary based on the type of privilege in reference. I use “opportunity” in a liberal sense meaning not just opportunities in being successful career-wise but the opportunity to function in the knowledge that the society or culture you are a part of values you and actively ensures your safety.
So what’s expected of you?
The first step is to admit to yourself that you have benefitted from at least some form of privilege. I know the proud ego in you will revolt against this idea, but just breathe. Take a step back, and realize that you have been helped in some way by forces beyond your immediate control. Once you realize you have privilege, it’ll make the next steps a lot easier.
Next, go tell someone else about this realization that you’ve had. In fact, tell a few people. The more we talk about this; the better everyone will be because awareness, in this case, is 90% of the battle.
I must preface this last bit by saying that I believe in a culture of lifting people up instead of pushing people down. If you have privilege, that’s okay. No one blames you, but in the words of Uncle Ben, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
So finally, you and I must lift people up and welcome them into our respective bubbles, whatever those bubbles look like. We must work to expand the boundaries of our privileged lives to include as many people as we can.
If we do that, then privilege will finally disappear, and humanity will have vanquished its trickiest foe yet.