I’m a feminist writer, but I don’t like to use the word “privilege” in my writing. Here’s why not:
1) It’s antagonistic.
I know, I know, it’s not supposed to be. Everyone is supposed to recognize their privilege and go “oh, okay, I checked my privilege, I’m good now.” Privilege, as generally defined in feminist circles, is something you’re born with, and therefore something you can’t be blamed for.
But frequently, “privileged” is used as an insult. Or it feels that way when it lands–and as we’re fond of saying in feminist circles, “intent is not fucking magic.” Telling someone that they’re privileged sounds a lot like “shut up, rich boy,” and the fact that it wasn’t intended to mean this doesn’t make it sting any less.
Of course oppressed people (or any people!) are under no obligation to make nicey-nice to others, especially in spaces they consider their own, but if your goal is to Make Friends And Influence People, then a little bit of self-tone-policing is in order. And that includes not using a phrase that sounds like a rude dismissal to anybody who doesn’t speak Feministese.
2) It’s misleading.
About that “shut up, rich boy.” Very often, someone who’s been called “privileged” in a feminist discussion will retort that they’re shit poor, they work a shit job and live in a shit house eating shit food, and they sure don’t feel like they have a lot of privileges. And besides, they don’t hate or discriminate against this group they’re supposedly “privileged” over.
At this point in the conversation, the feminists are obliged to explain that “privileged” doesn’t mean your life is guaranteed awesome, just that there are certain things that a white male doesn’t have to worry about that other groups can, and it doesn’t mean that you’re deliberately causing oppression, but you’re sort of a participant in oppression, or you’re sort of benefiting from oppression, and you just didn’t understand exactly what “privilege” means.
Any word that requires this much explaining to not be insulting and untrue is not an awesome word. It shouldn’t take three pages and a bibliography to explain why you didn’t just say “shut up, rich boy” to someone who’s actually quite poor.
3) It silences people.
This one is often intentional. “Your opinion is coming from a place of privilege” really does mean “shut up.” It means “shut up” on the basis of the speaker’s ethnicity and sexuality and other things beyond their control. I’m not okay with that.
It’s okay to tell someone “your opinion is wrong because you aren’t accounting for how difficult it is to face [oppression], possibly because you don’t encounter it in your daily life the way [oppressed group] do.” This is a sensible statement. But it cannot be shortened to “you think that because of your privilege.”
4) It ignores oppressions against “privileged” groups.
This is where things get relevant to Teh Menz.
Where the word “privilege” is used, it’s generally assumed that a rich, straight, white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, educated, full citizen of the country they live in is the most privileged person out there, and all other people are less privileged on the basis of how far they are from this model. So a rich straight white female cisgendered able-bodied citizen is still pretty privileged, and a rich straight black female cisgendered able-bodied citizen is a bit less privileged, and so on.
The problem with this little hierarchy of oppression is that there are certain problems–society-wide, deeply ingrained problems, and not trivial ones–that “more privileged” groups have and “less privileged” groups don’t.
When I was a little girl, I could hug and kiss my friends, hold their hands and share a bed with them. Because I was female, I didn’t have to worry that I would be bullied or physically attacked for showing nonsexual affection to kids of the same gender. Little boys are not so lucky–by middle school at the oldest, boys are socially forbidden any physical closeness more intimate than a backslappy bro-hug.
According to “privilege” doctrine, there can be no such thing as “female privilege”–men are always more privileged. And in fact I am uncomfortable calling this “female privilege,” because there are other problems that little girls have and boys don’t. (As a child, I was constantly in trouble for not being “ladylike.”) But it’s not right to just gloss over it either.
I think the only language solution is to write out long-form what you mean–“girls get to do some things boys can’t, and that sucks, and boys get to do some things girls can’t, and that sucks.”
In our society both men and women deal with unfair shit, and characterizing this all as unidirectional “privilege” oversimplifies the problem, antagonizes potential allies, and marginalizes nominally “privileged” people who still experience oppression.