I’ve been to some pretty rough places. I’ve seldom been afraid. This isn’t because I’m a tough guy. It’s because I’m a guy; a white guy, six-foot-tall, two hundred pounds, maybe more muscular and athletic than most. Nothing bad has ever happened to me. That’s my privilege.
If you are not six-foot-tall, two hundred pounds, muscular and athletic; if you’re not a guy; if you’re not white; if something bad has happened to you; if you carry around any one of many possible targets on your back; you may be afraid when you’re in a rough place. That isn’t because you’re a coward. It’s because you don’t have those privileges.
Privileges, or the lack of them, are not characteristics that follow a person wherever they go. Privileges that I have in one setting disappear in another. I would rather walk down a dark city street than sit in coach on an airplane for hours. In airplane seats, small people are privileged.
If you don’t have privilege, you should not feel ashamed, but maybe you do. If you do have privilege, you should not feel guilty, but maybe you do. Whether you have privilege or not is not your doing. Privileges are not the same as racism, sexism, or any other -cism; you possess them without asking for them. A privilege, if you have one, is to you as water is to a fish: it may be the most significant thing others say about you; but, you hardly know it’s there.
It was good for me to learn that not everyone feels the way I do. I’ve learned that they have different perceptions. Many see a city street as a dangerous place. They may see me as a dangerous person. I need to know these things. Why would I not want to know them? This is valuable information that explains their behavior which I wouldn’t have figured out on my own.
There are some people who are resistant to acknowledging their privilege.
That’s because, privilege comes with a sense of what the French call, noblesse oblige, or the responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.
In other words, if I’m tall, I’m going to be asked to reach things that short people can’t get.
There’s no law that says I must; it’s just a nice thing to do. I would reach things for a short person because I would want others to show such kindnesses to me.
When I’m sitting in that airplane seat, as miserable as can be, and a small person is sitting in front of me, I’m going to ask her to not recline her seat. In that setting, she’s privileged and has noblesse oblige. As soon as we land and she needs to get her bag out of the overhead bin, then I’m the privileged one and the one with noblesse oblige.
When the privilege is easy to identify, these social transactions can be made with a minimum of fuss. People are usually eager to do things for you when they understand why they are being asked. When the privileged person does not recognize their privilege, they’re is going to think you’re inventing privileges so you can ask for favors.
That’s why it’s a good thing to know about your privilege. This way you can understand the claims that people make on you.
Unfortunately, it’s not an exhaustive list.