When I try to define the concept of privilege I end up saying quite a mouthful and it sounds a bit convoluted. I would say something like, “privilege is the better opportunities and resources that you have access to, while others around you don’t. It could also be not being subject to discrimination and prejudice. Sometimes you have privilege because of something you accomplished and many times you have it regardless of what you did. It can be unearned, and you can have privileges and not be aware of it. It’s not always up to you whether you have privilege or not.”
Right, it’s a mouthful, and maybe it’s kind of a confusing explanation.
But I can point to examples in my own life to demonstrate how privileges work.
So context: I am an Asian-American man who is fluent in English. Just those few facts about myself means that throughout my life I have a lot of privileges many other people are not privy to. Here are some of my examples:
– The amount of time I spent applying on makeup and skin care products this entire year has been 0 minutes. For women, depending on the age group, the average amount of time a woman spends putting on makeup in a year can range from 30 hours to over 200 hours. This is a type of privilege that I as a man wouldn’t even be aware of unless I actually thought about it in this manner.
– the amount of times I’ve been sexually harassed and catcall-ed in the 27 years I’ve been alive = 4 times. Out of those 4 times, only once was on the streets, and the people who harassed me were all men. Practically every female friend/colleague I know will tell me that they can be sexually harassed more than 4 times in a single day. Nationally 1 in 4 women are survivors of rape.
– a few times in my life I have been really drunk and quite belligerent and rude to police officers. None of those times was I arrested. In fact, police officers usually referred to me as “sir” and one time a group of cops hailed a cab for me and made sure I got home safe, despite me yelling at them and telling them to fuck off. Can you imagine how my experiences may have been different if I was a black man?
– When I was interviewed for my U.S citizenship naturalization, I had a friendly small chat with the immigrations officer before she started asking me questions. I was done with the interview in less than fifteen minutes. My mom, who has difficulties speaking English and she has a thick Asian accent when she speaks English, had a very different experience with the immigration officer when she went in for her citizenship interview.
– when I visited my family in Korea, my aunt forbid me from helping her in the kitchen or otherwise assisting her with house duties. After a few days, I asked her, “If I was your niece and not your nephew, would you let me wash the dishes for you?” Her response: “I would make you do it if you were a girl. But you are my nephew. Go to the room and eat the food I prepared for you and watch TV.”
– the amount of money I spend for haircuts is about $25 per two months, and that’s including the tips I give to the barber. And when I get a haircut, it only takes about 30 minutes. The amount of time and money I save on haircuts just by being a man is ridiculously lower to the amount my female friends/colleagues will spend.
– when people say racially insensitive remarks to me, those remarks usually don’t characterize me as a thief, murderer, rapist, lazy, adulterous, violent, drug addict, or anything like that. It’s usually to tell me that I don’t belong here, or to say “Ching Chong” to me, or curious to know if I’m into martial arts. I could count on my one hand I was called the derogatory terms used to insult Asians (“chink”, “gook”). Everyone I know who is identified as black, Hispanic, Arabic, Jewish, Indian and American Indian, Gay, female… will need hundred more hands to recall the amount of times a derogatory slang was hurled at them. Shoot, a football team in this country has a mascot that is a derogatory term. Also note that there aren’t really any derogatory terms directed specifically to men. I guess “dick” and “bastard” can qualify, but contrast that with terms like “bitch,” “slut,” “cunt.” Even with derogatory insults, men have more privilege.
Okay, so I could go on and on. But this is one way of how I try to remind myself everyday what privilege means, and what privileges I have that’s so easy to take for granted. And these examples were only looking at three factors: gender, race, and fluency in the language of the dominant culture. There are so many more privileges to mention if I included factors like socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, family composition and dynamics, identity factors of peers, health and mental health condition, etc.
When people say life is not fair, it’s true, because privileges exist and vary depending on who are. The very fact that I have unearned privileges others don’t have makes life unfair. I think the problem though is not that life is unfair, but we tend to pretend that it is fair. This means that instead of working together and finding ways to live in a fairer more equitable way, we end up blaming and judging others for failing to earn their privileges. How we treat each other could be very different when we realize that the simple fact of life is currently unfair and that we could work together as a society that aims to be fairer to each other.