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What Is 'Privilege?'

Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons

When Princeton student Tal Fortgang recently complained on Time magazine's blog that, as a white male, he had been repeatedly “reprimanded” to “check his privilege,” the Internet exploded in somewhat predictable ways.

I'll let you and Facebook explore what all is being said about Fortgang's piece, but the word privilege deserves some scrutiny.

Privilege is generally used to describe the other guy—the one with nicer stuff or less obvious struggle. We’re all somewhat prone to see the bad things that have happened to us as proof that we don’t have privilege.

The problem with privilege, though, is that it’s generally invisible. We compare our lives to what we think life ought to be. That “ought” is based on our own social and cultural perspective. Tal Fortgang saw the sacrifices and struggles of his predecessors as valid proof of his lack of privilege because he could point to other people within his social setting whose ancestors did not suffer. What he couldn't see, though, are the struggles and sacrifices of those with less money, with a different gender or a different shade of skin.

Privilege is as much about what we don't have to put up with as it is about what we get, and it's hard to get your head around the lack of a barrier unless you have a clear picture of the barriers others face.

The current debate about privilege, then, reveals more about how little we understand each other than about the merits or demerits of being a well-to-do white guy. The relativity of privilege, the fact that we're largely unable to think about it in terms of the bigger experience of being American, is a measure of how deeply entrenched our differences truly are.