What does privilege mean?

Two young white men are having a conversation about privilege. The speech bubble above them says, "Privilege isn’t just wealth or opportunity. It’s living in a society that was created by people like you, for people like you."

Hey, I’m Mike – Senior Community Officer at The Mix. I’m a huge nerd and have a keen interest in communication and social issues like masculinity, gender more broadly, and taboo topics like sex.

Understanding privilege

When a lot of people talk about privilege, they become defensive. And… honestly, I get it. Full disclosure: I’m white, I spent a lot of my life identifying as a straight male, and I come from a very small rural town. 

Privilege wasn’t really a concept I knew when I was younger, but I grew up in a working-class family in one of the poorest parts of the UK. If someone had told me then that I was privileged, I would have scoffed. Being told you’re privileged when you only have £20 a week for shopping just doesn’t compute. How can I possibly be privileged? Are these people trying to be funny? They realise I can’t afford the internet, right? 

When you’re living in a world of financial insecurity and lack of opportunity – and you’re stuck inside a system that makes it virtually impossible to change those things – it doesn’t feel like you have privilege. It feels like you’re constantly being screwed by the people in power, and it’s made worse when nobody shows an interest in fixing the problems that seem to be defining your life. 

Redefining privilege 

But here’s the thing. Privilege isn’t just wealth or opportunity. It’s living in a society that was created by people like you, for people like you. And that grants you freedoms you probably don’t even know you have. 

You can apply for a job and (consciously or unconsciously) be given favours because of your name. You’re free to walk down the street without being harassed. You’re able to safely hold your partner’s hand in public without checking who’s watching you. You can use any train station you want because you don’t need to worry about whether it has a lift. You’re able to eat or work anywhere without considering whether it’s sensorially comfortable for you. 

These are privileges not everyone has, and you got them by sheer luck. And that’s all privilege is. It’s not a moral judgement and it’s not something you need to feel defensive about; it’s just luck.  

How to recognise your privilege

It’s about recognising the freedoms you take for granted and the limited perspective that gives you. If you’re cisgender, for example, you’re going to underestimate issues of transphobia. If you’re able-bodied, you’re going to underestimate issues of ableism (and so on). Because those things aren’t woven through your life in the same way they are for other people, this creates massive gaps in your understanding of those issues. 

That’s the insidious nature of privilege – it makes huge social issues appear lesser or invisible from your perspective, and sometimes you won’t realise that’s happening. You can become part of the problems in society purely through lack of understanding and exposure to those problems, even if you’re fundamentally a good person. 

Privilege isn’t absolute 

Having X privilege doesn’t mean that thing is universally good. For example, if you’re male, you were likely taught from a young age that emotional vulnerability is the worst possible thing you can show. And there are people (likely women) who will never understand what severe lifelong emotional repression does to someone, so they’re likely to underestimate that problem. That’s an example of privilege too. 

But when you fit societal ‘defaults’ (e.g. if you’re able-bodied, cis, white, straight, or male), it’s important to recognise that certain parts of the system are geared in your favour. It doesn’t mean your life is easy; just that there are life-defining challenges being faced by other people that you will never have to experience. 

The power of listening 

One of the most important things you can do is listen. Go into challenging conversations with the understanding that your perspective is your truth, not the truth. Be ready to accept that other people have their own truths – equally as real for them as yours are for you. Sometimes you need to concede that other people have a better understanding of certain social issues than you, and you can use their experience as a resource to inform your own views. 

A good example of this for me was understanding mansplaining. I just didn’t get it. Sure, I’d experienced men being condescending and arrogant, but it certainly wasn’t common or a particularly male thing. But when I spoke to women about it, they universally said they experienced that condescension regularly and almost always from men. That reality is so different from mine, but it’s still real. I realised I didn’t ‘get’ mansplaining because I’m not exposed to it in the same way women are; not because it isn’t a legitimate issue. 

Enlighten yourself 

If you want to understand the problems faced by other communities (and you should want to), don’t leave it up to those communities to explain these issues to you. Do your own research and go to spaces where these issues are already being discussed and learn about them that way.  

For example, if you want to learn more about issues of homophobia, don’t ask your one gay friend. All that does is demand even more labour from them to fix your ignorance. Join an LGBTQIA+ subreddit and listen to the discussions or look at some of the existing resources and testimonies from the queer community online. 

The way you use your privilege is up to you. By using your powers for good, you can help make spaces more accessible and inclusive for others. And by showing vulnerability and openness to change, you can model to others that defensiveness is unnecessary. Taking off our armour and being willing to listen and learn is the first step to creating a more inclusive and accepting society. 

Next Steps

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By Mike Stuart

Updated on 07-Jan-2022

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