The concept of privilege can be a challenging one to get across, but it’s one of the key factors that has shaped the inequalities, imbalances, and prejudices of society today. In order to fix the problem, the first step is acknowledging it.
Too often, when a person is informed of their privilege, they are likely to respond “Hey, I worked hard for what I have.” However, what this person isn’t realizing is that acknowledging the fact that they are privileged doesn’t invalidate any hard work they might have put into their career, social life, and so on: it simply contextualizes it. To be privileged doesn’t mean that a person had everything handed to them on a silver platter—though it can, if they did!—but rather, in many cases, privilege means that a person was born with the right set of circumstances that allowed them to achieve success through hard work. Not everyone is so lucky.
This really isn’t a complicated concept to understand: whereas a person born in a luckier set of circumstances (for example, a family that can afford to send them to a private school) can achieve success through hard work, another person born in more difficult circumstances could work just as hard, yet not achieve the same results, due to the unfairness of their birth conditions in relation to society. The widespread deception that “everyone starts on the same level playing field” is a dangerous falsehood that has festered in the American psyche for generations, and it accounts for a huge amount of the anger, racism, xenophobia, class warfare, and so on today.
Imagine an Olympic race where one person gets to begin running at the starting line, whereas another person—against their will—is forced to start ten feet back and wait twenty seconds, for no good reason. Sure, both runners might have given it their all. But one of those runners had a huge advantage at the starting point, and that’s fundamentally unjust.
Many factors play into privilege. Class is the most obvious one: it’s much harder for a person born in the working class to move upward than it is for someone born in the upper class. That’s pretty basic. However, race is arguably an even bigger factor: people with more melanin in their skin face irrational prejudices against them at every corner, combined with the horrors of systemic racism, and surveys have shown that far too many companies still are less likely to call back resumes with less-white sounding names. Sex is also an enormous factor, as women today still face the constant realities of sexual harassment in the workplace, and surveys show that, on average, women still earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. Disability, neurodiversity, nationality, gender, religious background, and so on are also factors.
Privilege is the invisible benefit one receives when one doesn’t have to worry about their race, sex, class, religious background, or so on: privilege is when a person gets to go into a job interview, and to know that they’ll be seen for their decided traits/experience/individuality, rather than the labels that others have applied to them.
Again, the first step toward fixing the privilege problem is acknowledging that it exists, and spreading that awareness to others. One of the best explanations I’ve ever read of the subject was actually featured in a web comic titled On a Plate, by Toby Morris. Give it a read on this link to TheWireless.co.nz, and next time you’re looking to explain privilege to someone, consider sending it along to them.