Apparently anyone who writes on feminism and intersectional politics eventually writes about privilege. I suppose one reason for this is that privilege is often a central part of our structure for analysis of various situations. Perhaps more important is because it seems to be so often misunderstood. And occasionally deliberately misunderstood.
I think the most important thing to understand about privilege is how difficult it is to see unless you are directly and adversely affected by it, and sometimes not even then.
My father was a lifelong smoker (yes I know this seems like a sudden acceleration away from the topic, bear with me), and at the time I was born the idea that smokers should not smoke in their homes, or around babies, had no real traction in society at large. Like many smokers of his generation, my father saw smoking as something of a sacred right granted by the gods themselves and anyone who suggested that he would do better to smoke outside the house would have been met with all the scorn that he could muster; and he could muster a *lot* of scorn. The result was that from my first few days of life until the day he died when I was in my early 20's, I was constantly surrounded by smoke and the odour of cigarettes.
We humans have a remarkable way of normalizing things. I had never lived without the smell of cigarettes and so I had no idea that they particularly did smell. When my father actually had a lit cigarette in his hand, if I was nearby and in the visible haze of smoke he produced, then I could smell the cigarette, but otherwise I can honestly say I did not.
Other people claimed they could. They sometimes complained about the stench of cigarettes, a complaint my father (and later I) met with disbelief, and when talking to such people my father generated an almost visible field of wounded defensiveness. Like many smokers in the late 1980's and early 1990's my father grew to be incredibly defensive about his smoking, convinced that a granola munching bunch of control freaks wanted to deprive him of what he saw as a gods given right to smoke anywhere and everywhere. To him claims that cigarettes smelled bad were merely part of the nefarious scheme to deny him his right to smoke anywhere and everywhere.
To the younger people this may seem bizarre, but there was a time not too long ago when smoking was permitted in virtually all businesses and semi-public places. Grocery stores, libraries, office buildings, all had ashtrays scattered around and people would walk in with a lit cigarette and continue smoking their entire time in such places. When this changed and an increasing number of places began banning smoking, many smokers (my father among them) were outraged and went out of their way to violate those policies. My father was especially proud of frequently forcing some poor schmuck paid minimum wage to ask him to please not smoke in the store, and then storming out while giving said schmuck a lecture on the rights of man and the horrible way they were being violated.
Attitudes are contageous, and while I never did smoke I did acquire the idea that objections to smoking, and especially objections to the smell of cigarettes were the work of nefarious people who had nothing better to do with their lives than harass innocent smokers, presumably out of some deeply rooted desire to control others for the sake of controlling others.
And then, when I was 22, my father died of a cancer caused stroke. Ironically, I suppose, the cancer was not lung cancer but bone cancer. Had he survived I'm sure he would have used that fact as the centerpiece of his many speeches defending smoking.
We cleaned the house, finally discarding his ashtrays and cigarettes, and about six months later something completely unexpected happened: I smelled a cigarette for the very first time in my life.
At first I honestly had no idea what I was smelling. It was a foul, pungent and penetrating odour. I guessed at first that it was a chemical spill or leak of some sort. Then, finally, I realized that it was a cigarette.
We get used to smells, and after being exposed to them continuously for months eventually don't notice even the strongest of odours. It takes time for our noses to adjust to the absence of a familiar smell and notice them again. Which is why I was 22 before I first actually smelled a cigarette and realized that my whole life I had not only been wrong but had been horribly maligning the people who objected to cigarette smoke. Far from being meddlesome busybodies who sought control for the sake of control, they were as they claimed: people who just plain didn't like having the foul stench of cigarettes everywhere.
Now that I can smell cigarettes, I have noticed that tobacco is an almost uniquely penetrating smell. I have, no exaggeration, smelled the cigarette a person lit in their car (windows up), through the rolled up windows of my own car, only seconds after they lit up. I now know that the idea of smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants is a cruel joke and the only real way to keep your nostrils from being assaulted by the vile smell of smouldering tobacco while you eat is to ban smoking in the building entirely.
Which finally brings us back to Privilege. In many ways privilege is much the same as the smell of tobacco. When you are privileged you don't notice it. To you it is invisible, the situation is merely normal, and those who try to point out, or worse complain about, your privilege seem like malicious busybodies with some hidden agenda because self evidently their claimed agenda can't be true. If you were privileged you'd notice, right?
Wrong. Like a smell you have become accoustomed to, privilege is often not noticible to those who have it. And often not even very noticible to those who don't have it, but have grown up with its presence being normative.
Unlike smoking, privilege is not (or at least not usually) something we do deliberately. And that I think is the other important thing to remember if you think you are being attacked when people discuss privilege. We, they, are not discussing a personal failing you have, or a malicious way you are acting. Privilege is simply the product of the society in which we live, it is not (usually) something people deliberately do and your privilege is not a sin, or a flaw in yourself.
Privilege is also not a guarantee of success or power. I have often heard those who object to the idea of privilege claiming that they know for a fact it is a myth because they personally are said to be privileged but they had hard lives and are not successful.
Rather than seeing privilege as a sort of automatic win token in the game of life, imagine it more as the difficulty setting. You can still lose a game even if it is set to the lowest difficulty setting. You can still lose a game if your opponent gives you a handicap. You can still be unsuccessful in life despite having privilege. All privilege means is that you are playing at an easier difficulty setting.
Being born in the USA or Western Europe is a privilege of location, infrastructure, etc, even for the poorest and otherwise least advantaged of us. This first world nation privilege is rarely discussed because mostly when we talk about privilege we are people from first world nations talking about relative privilege within our nation. But from a global context everyone born in a first world nation has a significant privilege over those born in the third world. We first worlders can still wind up homeless and starving, and a third worlder can wind up rich and powerful, privilege is no guarantee of anything. But we have an easier time than a third worlder does.
Further, privilege is not binary. It is not something you either have, or lack. Rather there are dozens of sorts of privilege, some more important some less so, which are present to a greater or lesser extent in us.
A black man may have male privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, able privilege, and possibly even educational privilege. But he won't have white privilege, and in our society that's one of the biggest sorts of privilege to have. No matter how male, straight, cisgendered, ablebodied, and educated he is, our hypothetical black man will still encounter difficulty that white men don't. Sometimes this difficulty will be sufficient to prevent him from succeeding where a white person would have.
When privilege is discussed it is useful for those of us who aren't in the group in question to listen and not to dismiss the experiences of the people in that group. I am man, I have never experienced street harassment, and until my sister told me otherwise part of my privilege was assuming that the small town in which I live didn't have a problem with street harassment. Like the smell of cigarette smoke, I simply never noticed it despite it being around me all the time.
To those who have a privilege, hearing those who don't describe their experiences is often a jarring experience. There can be an urge to disbelieve their experiences, an urge to suppose that they must be exaggerating or even lying, and often an urge to believe that they are lying or exaggerating specifically to hurt or insult you. Stifle those urges, remember that you don't notice things you're used to, and listen. You'll learn a lot, and as you do the blinders will fall away and you too will start noticing things.