The word privileged – as in "white privilege" and "male privilege" – is becoming so commonplace it is losing its potency.
The term has become so synonymous with Twitter outrage and millennial liberalism that those who hear it are starting to glaze their eyes over. Rather than being used to try and explain a person's experience, it now feels accusatory. As if we're berating others for having certain privilege (that they didn't ask for nor can control) and trying to make them feel guilty for it.
I realise I'm starting to sound like a white male privilege apologist here. Nevertheless, I come at this from a position of non-privilege (as part of the LGBT community I don't have straight privilege). I am trying to find a better way to talk about incumbent societal advantages with people who enjoy them, and actually get taken seriously.
In doing so, the target audience – those with privilege who don't yet understand it – might actually listen to what we have to say, rather than closing off their ears as soon as that loaded word comes out of our mouths.
Privilege can effectively be described as the absence of a certain societally-imposed oppression. It's a privilege not to be cat-called on the street. It's a privilege not to worry about your safety on a train at night. It's a privilege to speak and not be spoken over. It's a privilege to kiss your partner in public and not think about onlookers' opinions.
With all of these cases, I think we're better off explaining "privilege" with words such as "freedom" and "liberty". When you're a man and you can walk the street without sexually-suggestive comments targeting you, you have a type of freedom. Not everybody has that experience. Likewise, when you're heterosexual and can show affection to somebody you love in public without worrying if bigoted strangers are watching you, that's a certain liberty you have. Not everybody has it.
The actual word privilege, however, is unhelpful in such explanations. "Privilege" assumes a person's life is easy. It connotes wealth and silver spoons – images of things being handed everything to you without any hard work.
I find it hardest to use this word around a particular friend who grew up with financial hardship, in a single-parent family, and had to deal with other difficulties at home. It's very challenging to explain to a straight white male that he is privileged when he comes from a poor background and whose father has never been in his life.
When having conversations about privilege, it's thus more palatable to talk about the freedoms and liberties they have in their adult lives. It's a less charged way to make your point – one not so likely to elicit blind emotion.
I like to explain the freedoms I have when getting people on board with understanding their own. Playing the victim is a difficult way to make one's point. The goal in discussing societal privilege is not so you get others' pity; it is to give people a more nuanced view into their own life.
For example, I often explain a freedom that I regularly experience: that of a white appearance. An oddity since I'm only actually half-white. I notice this freedom most when I go to somewhere like The Warehouse, Kmart, or use the self-checkout counter at the supermarket. My bags are never checked at these places; presumably because of my white skin, yet I notice staff routinely checking the bags of people of colour. It's assumed I'm not a potential thief because I look white – that's a privilege I have. I didn't ask for it, and it bothers me others don't have the same experience. But I still recognise it.
When I open a conversation explaining this freedom, which has nothing to do with my upbringing or whether I'm rich or poor, I find it easier to then discuss, say, straight privilege. Something I don't have but most do. My words are taken more seriously because I'm acknowledging how privilege is not binary.
Dialogue about privilege is important in chipping away at issues surrounding gender, race, sexuality, and other issues. Rather than alienate those who'll benefit most from these discussions, I'd prefer to find better language to get more people on board. As "freedoms" or "liberties" are assumed natural for everyone – unless you don't have them – these words may be a better way to push the conversation forward.