Making Peace with the P-Word Part I: What is the “P-word”?

It is hard to have a discussion on politics, the economy, or society in general without someone making an accusation of “privilege.” White Privilege, Male Privilege, Privilege of the Rich, etc., all seem to work their way in the conversation eventually. Often times, the conversation will often die there, with parties leaving frustrated, insulted and unheard. Many get frustrated because they don’t accept the privileges granted to them, and the accusation of privilege feel like slander. For those making the privilege claim, there is a legitimate list of grievances that has now been ignored. For people the people who are the legitimate targets of the complaint, they are outraged that their privilege could be challenged. It’s as if there is no win condition on this point.

One of the biggest difficulties discussing Privilege is that we aren’t often on the same page. For many, the topic Privilege invoke the idea that we are being asked to give something up, to make a sacrifice for no other reason than we are being told we are “bad.” But that assumption has nothing to do with what Privilege actually means or entails. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll start with a basic definition: “Privilege exists when one group has automatic access to a right or resource that another group either has to work harder to access, or has no access at all.” The claim of Privilege is really not about asking the privileged group to give up a right or resource, it is meant to ask for equal access be given to all.

The best example is the one the first caused me to admit to the existence of privilege: sexual assault. When a woman gets raped , she is often told socially and legally that the assault was her fault because because of what she wears, what she drinks, how she flirts, etc. We make it her responsibility to protect herself from the assault by requiring her to take self defense courses, carry devices to test drinks, travel in groups, etc. If they don’t then they didn’t do enough to protect themselves (even though most of those strategies often fail anyway). As a male, I have an automatic protection from being raped that women don’t have. I can go to a bar or party alone, dress however I want, drink what I want, and not have to worry about getting raped. I can wear tight clothing and be as flirtatious as I want (actually, socially, I am supposed to be the aggressor) and not have to worry about being pinned down or slipped a drug.  I can walk around topless, go commando in a kilt and introduce myself as slut, and I don’t have to worry that I will wake up in a strange place with my clothing off. I can be confident that I can be safe in these situations. Women can’t just by virtue of them being female and they are 5x more likely to be the victims of assault just because they are women. I have a freedom of activity women don’t have in this context. I have Privilege.

Now here is the key: Recognizing this privilege does not require me to give up my safety. No woman in this conversation is asking me to submit myself to sexual assault. The women pointing out privilege are just asking that they be granted that safety as well. I don’t live under constant threat of rape, and they don’t want to live under that threat either. Instead, recognizing this privilege recognizes there is something very wrong about things as they are, and motivate me to try to make a change instead of sweeping them under a carpet.

That is more than reasonable. It is a request for a just and fair world.

That is the understanding of claims of “Privilege”. The conversation should end here. I would hope that this should be enough to help people understand privilege when it is claimed, and to maybe help the voices of those claiming privilege. If this is all you needed, then read no more.

However, this conversation can be a lot more complex, and there are a lot of social myths that exist to support the existence of privilege. My follow up posts will explore these with discussions of issues of Privilege relating to race, sexuality, religion, politics, and economics, and will finish with a discussion about why people are motivated to accept privilege instead of fight it.

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