As an aspect of systematic social inequality, privilege is a difficult topic to discuss. To admit that one has privilege (white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, straight privilege, etc.) is to acknowledge that one benefits from social inequality.
Privilege is the outcome of being socially valued and consists of access to socially valued goods, experiences and opportunities, especially when those are denied to members of socially devalued groups. At least as important, privilege is freedom from unpleasant, negative, or dangerous experiences or situations, which devalued groups face all the time in the way of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and neglect. To be privileged is to be trusted, considered normal, respected, and wished well. To be devalued is to be mistrusted, considered problematic, disrespected, and wished ill. As a white person, I don’t face the stigma and danger of being pulled over for “driving while black or brown,” but as a woman, I face a much higher risk of sexual violence than men do. My economic class allows me to buy things I want without (for the most part) worrying too much about how much they cost; my sexuality means that I can’t legally marry my partner of almost 16 years and obtain the more than 1000 federal benefits federal marriage would bring.
As my example suggests, many of us are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others, and the genius of multicultural feminism is to insist that we understand different types of social inequality in relation to each other without prioritizing one form of inequality over the others.
Privilege may be only one element of social inequality, but it is an extremely important one, not least because being privileged means not having to think about the fact that one is privileged. Privilege is taken for granted most of the time, and being willing and able to acknowledge and address one’s privilege is an important starting place for pushing back against the ease of being on the powerful side of inequality.
Since privilege derives from and brings respect, those of us with privileged social identities can use them to work for social justice more broadly. While my whiteness should not give me any more status, clout, or prestige than a person of color when talking about racial issues (in fact it should give me less), the sad fact is that in a racist society whites will generally listen to me more than to people of color. One responsibility of privilege, then, is to put our privilege to work in education and activism for the well-being of everyone in our society, regardless of our particular combination of privilege and disadvantage. Our individual situations will look different but I remain convinced that all of us have gifts to bring to the many struggles against injustice, and our acknowledgement of the privilege most of us do have is an important starting point.