There is perhaps not a single term more misused in politics or in social discussions about issues than 'privilege'. Everyone is out to prove that they don't have privilege, and that every privilege has an equal and opposite counterpoint on the scale. Terms like "reverse racism", "men's rights", "straight pride" - insofar as they are used as a counter to their obvious social justice targets - are mere instances of a very endemic misunderstanding of privilege.
Too many people seem to view the word 'privilege' and start thinking that it's a personal offense against them. "Oh you're saying I didn't work hard to get where I am because I'm white?" "You think I've never had safety concerns just because I'm a man?" "You're saying my relationship is easy because I'm straight?"
No, that's not what we're saying at all. That's the first and most common misunderstanding about privilege: it isn't about specific individuals never having tough luck; it's about a systemic advantage (or disadvantage) that has nothing to do with what one does, but what one is. The systemic advantages and disadvantages can be written into law, but they are most often deeply rooted into social behaviors we engage in without even thinking.
So white privilege isn't about whether one white person has worked for every penny he's got or has had to endure hardships. It's about the fact that being white in and of itself improved the chances that his hard work will pay off. It's about the fact that being white in and of itself reduced his chances to be shot and killed by a police officer or just shot and killed period when he was 17, or being stopped and frisked, or being convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
Is that privilege? After all, it seems that in civil society, one ought to be able to count on the basic protections against being shot while unarmed, against being stopped by law enforcement without suspicion of illegal activity or to not be convicted of crimes you didn't commit. That sounds like the basic rights of an individual along with the basic guarantee of fairness. Why should that be considered privilege?
Because not everyone has that luxury. Privilege is the result of an unequal system. The whole concept of privilege rises from the truth that even in a country like ours that values fairness and equal opportunity, the playing field is horrendously unequal.
The fact that I can walk down the street at night without much caring to look back or pray every moment is the result of two privileges I enjoy: one, I'm a man. As a non-feminine male, I don't have to worry about being raped. That is not to say rape never happens to a man, but systematically women are the primary victims. The second reason I can do so is because I live in a relatively safe neighborhood. Again, shootings happen in safe neighborhoods too, but we are not systematically at risk.
Now, neither of the above should be considered a luxury. Basic human dignity requires that one is able to live without the threat of physical or sexual violence or fear. Yet it's a privilege because whole groups of people do not have the benefit of these basic human dignities.
Some of that inequality is hopelessly embedded into the law. The most obvious example of this legal inequality is the sentencing disparities between crack and powdered cocaine, but a much more visible example exists in front of our very eyes: our failed "affordable housing" initiatives. By building housing "projects" rather than forcing landlords to offer affordable rent and accept housing vouchers in ALL communities, the law has built in a guarantee that the poor - predominantly minorities - would suffer from low-resource schools, low-resource communities, and high crime neighborhoods.
It isn't just the law, though. There are no legal sanctions of the sky-high rape statistics in our country. There are no legal acquiescence of school or cyberbullies who make the lives of gay teenagers unbearable. There are no obvious legal framework that says give the legos and the puzzles and the dirt bike to the boy and for the girl, tell her to play with Barbie and aspire to look like Barbie.
Yet, the social pervasiveness of privilege is so engrained that we hardly ever think before saying things like: "Boys will be boys", or "Toughen up!" or grab a toy socially considered fit for a given gender of children and instinctively think "Hey, I'll get the Legos for Tommy and this Tea Set for Lili."
This doesn't mean that if Tommy grows up to be an engineer that he didn't do it on his own. But it does mean that if Lili did too, she had to work not only to become that engineer but also to overcome the stereotypes that had been cast on her since she was born. We would be foolish not to give credit to Tommy for his accomplishments, but we would be even more foolish if we didn't realize that Lili had to overcome things Tommy never had to face to get where they both got, solely because of the genders they were born in.
And so, privilege isn't about whether something is fairly yours. It's about whether you can take things for granted - solely or primarily because you belong to a certain group - that members of other groups can't. That you can may be fair and that they can't unfair, but that does make it a privilege.
But it's a little more than that. The recognition of social inequities and resulting privileges necessitate that we view the accomplishments that overcome those inequities without the privilege of the... well, privilege... as something special, something more than the mere act of accomplishing a task.
This is why you saw tears running down the faces of the assembled crowd when Barack Obama was elected president on the election night of 2008. Being elected president is no easy task, and with the exception of those who stole it, everyone who got there deserves a lot of credit. So why is Barack Obama's assent to the presidency special? Because Barack Obama, simply because of his skin color, had to - and has since been having to - overcome adversities not only never faced by any other presidents or presidential candidates but unimaginable for them. It's the recognition of that overcoming act - and the hope that inspired in the hearts of all those proud Americans - that turned into flowing tears on their cheeks that night.
The election of Barack Obama did not prove that institutionalized racism, stereotyping and social racial inequities had vanished from America. On the contrary, his presidency has seen too many ugly faces of it come alive. What Barack Obama proved, however, is that those inequities can be overcome.
And that's the ultimate goal of the conversation about privilege: overcoming the systematic obstacles, social stereotypes and even legal barriers that make basic human dignity and citizenship a thing of privilege. But to get there, we have to start here: begin by recognizing your own privileges. Everyone (in America at least) has one and likely more. If you are white, if you are male, if you are Christian, if you are lucky enough to live in a safe neighborhood, if you are straight, if you have never been questioned whether you are an American, if you are fully able-bodied, if you have good health care, if you have a roof over your head, if you don't struggle with your weight, if you have healthy food, if your children go to school, it goes on and on.
What makes something a privilege is the lack of its universal accessibility (not just applicability). It's only by recognizing our own privileges that we can truly begin to serve the cause of social justice. Only by truly understanding what basic human dignity is to ourselves can we hope to fight to make it a reality for everyone. Awareness is the first step to change, so let's start that talk now.