The term privilege has been bandied about quite a bit over the last few years, with the assumption that people know what’s being talked about. However, their response indicates otherwise. We all experience some manner of privilege, although most will argue with you once you point it out. They assume you mean that life has been easy for them, that they don’t know any level of hardship. That’s not the definition of the word at all:
privilege: a special advantage or authority possessed by a particular person or group
In a social justice context, privilege simply means there are certain things you never have to worry about or even consider as member of the dominant group. You have blind spots to some problems which are everyday realities to other individuals. Let’s start with the most obvious example: Thanks to imperialism, whiteness is the dominant culture globally. Because white people are the dominant group, they don’t realize how every system is set up to benefit them and leave people of color at a disadvantage. They will argue that all black people need to do is “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” and we too can live the American dream, but where are these bootstraps by which we are to pull ourselves up? We’re supposed to somehow acquire well-paying jobs with the inferior education given to children in many black communities? Most white people will never fully know what it is to be profiled simply for being black/brown in a “white space.” They will never understand why black people don’t feel safe with the police. They’ve never had to.
But privilege isn’t limited to race. Men are a dominant group that experiences privilege. They don’t have to consider pay inequity in the workplace. They don’t innately understand the very real threat sexual harassment and catcalling is to women. They don’t have anyone attempting to legislate their reproductive health rights.
Heterosexual people have privilege in that they don’t live in fear of hate crimes because of their sexuality. They don’t innately understand the need for gay marriage rights, because they’ve never been told they can’t see their partner in the hospital because they aren’t family. They don’t know the very real threat of losing everything that they and their partner built together to their partner’s family after his/her death.
Cisgender people enjoy a privilege transgender people will never know. They don’t have to understand the threat that looms over most transgender lives. They don’t innately understand how forcing a trans person to use a bathroom for a gender they don’t identify with actually places them in harm’s way, should they encounter a transphobic person in that space.
Able-bodied individuals enjoy privilege. They don’t naturally consider the need for ramps and handicap-accessible parking, entrances and bathrooms.
When someone says, “check your privilege,” they mean recognize that you don’t see all the aspects of the situation because they aren’t obvious to you. It’s ridiculous to try to tell a person what they should be doing or how they should be thinking when you haven’t experienced life as they have. If you haven’t faced the disadvantages they have, your first action should be attempting to learn about them. And it’s not their responsibility to teach you. Too many resources are available to via the internet. Do your homework. Check your privilege.
1: privilege as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary.
2: cisgender: a person who identifies with their biological sex.
3: transgender: a person who doesn’t identify with their biological sex, and chooses to live as the gender they do identify as or androgynously.