privi: private
lege: law

Privilege means, literally, "private law". Operating from a position of privilege means that the rules are applied differently - or are just not applied at all - for you.

There are many kinds of privilege. Some are earned, at least partially. Many are gained through luck or circumstance. Some are assumed even when not held.

The key, though, is that in all cases of privilege, the privileged person is acting from a position of strength or advantage over others who aren't privileged. The person with privilege doesn't have to be doing this deliberately or maliciously, or even be aware that s/he is doing it at all; often, one advantage of privilege is being unaware that a state of privilege even exists: those who have privilege may not be aware of it, while those who do not have it generally don't have a choice but to be aware of it. Furthermore, exercising a privilege generally (though not always) involves detriment to someone not privileged.

There are many privileges that are granted through general culture, so something that provides privilege in one culture may not (or may deny it) in another.

An example of a privilege that most people wouldn't think about: my parents are both great at finances, and have taught me from a young age about them. That's a privilege - it's an advantage most kids don't have. I didn't "earn" it in any way, and in this case my having it doesn't necessarily detract from others. But the knowledge I have gained because of my parents' fiscal ability is something that most of the people I know don't have.

An example of a privilege that is easy to spot is that I'm male. Being a male, even (or especially) in modern US culture, provides a plethora of advantages that most men aren't really aware of. We all know about things like wage differences, but even things like "not having to be vigilant about rape prevention" are privileges that men have and women don't.

An example of a privilege I lack is that I'm not straight. This goes far beyond issues like same-sex marriage and discrimination at work: the assumption of heterosexuality is so prevalent in culture that there is quite often a feeling that I have to hide my sexuality in everyday conversation or make other people angry/upset/flustered. Straight people don't have that stress: a straight man talking about his wife/lover/girlfriend does not cause any kind of disruption, but a gay man talking about his boyfriend/husband or a lesbian talking about her girlfriend/wife does. Thus, straight individuals are operating from a position of privilege.

We often can't avoid privilege - I can't stop being a guy, or at least not in ways that anyone would find reasonable, and I can't change who my parents are - but we can do our best to make sure that, in the exercising of privilege, we do not hurt or disadvantage others who are not privileged. This is often easier done that it seems, but first we have to be aware of the advantages we have that others lack. Also, we have to realize that, sometimes, levelling the field again isn't enough: to counteract privilege we, the privileged, must sometimes go out of our way to actively disadvantage ourselves in order to help someone who is unprivileged - especially if that privilege is indemic to culture and widespread.


So close... and yet, so far

Always remember: we're looking out, not up.