What is Privilege?

I have been asking myself for a while now what it is about the term “white privilege” that causes such a visceral, negative reaction in me. This term—and others that are similar—get thrown at people like a slap in the face, in the hopes of getting them to wake up and shake themselves out of their own perspective, for the betterment of the common good. But that’s not the effect it has on me. I hear “white privilege” and something in me just shuts down, pushing me out of the conversation entirely. In short, it has exactly the opposite effect.

Why?

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. I’m not unfamiliar with the concept behind the term “white privilege”, and I have to believe that anybody whose head hasn’t been buried in the sand for the past few decades also understands the message that term is trying to convey. And yet, for me, there’s something in that term that affects me in a way few words do—like an insult on steroids, as if I’m too stupid to realize that not everybody has the same life experiences that I do, often for reasons beyond their control. I apparently need to be told time and time again how good I really have it, even on days when I struggle with my own issues. As if being “privileged” means I never have any problems, or if I do, they’re certainly not as important and insurmountable as other people’s problems are. The term “white privilege” is inherently dismissive. Maybe that’s what bugs me so much.

Or maybe it has more to do with the context around the word “privilege”. It’s such a simple word, really, meaning at its core: “something given to some people and not others”. While yes, there is inherent a degree of inequality (“Where’s miiiiine? Why can’t I have that tooooo?”), it has been my personal experience that certain privileges are truly gifts, given freely, accepted by few.

I had the privilege of knowing your grandfather.

It is an honor and a privilege to be celebrating with you tonight.

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

I guess it comes down to the fact that I choose to focus on the gift given, rather than the advantage taken, when it comes to the concept of privilege. So when someone—usually with a high degree of snark—demands to me that I “Check my privilege”, I have and will always steadfastly refuse. I insist that there is a way to be mindful of others and of the possibility of iniquity, without dismissing the gifts we have received. It is, in fact, a privilege to even be able to write about this and share it with you, both because it is technically possible for me to do so and also because I don’t fear for my life while making my thoughts and feelings known. I understand this, and I appreciate it—perhaps not as often as I should, but I do. Without acknowledging our gifts, is there anything we can even do to help make things better for others? I would answer, “No.”

I could write for days about modern language and about how distanced we often become when it comes to meanings and nuances of the words that we casually toss around every day. But few interpretations affect me the way this one does. I wish I had a decent suggestion for a suitable replacement. But in the meantime, I will continue to use the word “privilege” exclusively in the way that makes sense to me, with gratitude for gifts given to me, most of which I could not possibly have earned.