Take a good, hard look at your privilege

Since it shot through the stratosphere of social media into everyday speech, the expression "check your privilege" has carried various shades of meaning.

The obvious interpretation, "take a good hard look at your privilege" is how most people take it.

However, I also like the interpretation that you might check in your privilege in the manner of a coat check; in other words, leave it at the door so that we can all interact on the same level without privileged assumptions (of course, you have to be aware your privilege exists to start with).

Whatever the best way of heeding its message, I've been thinking a lot about this expression lately. Because I seem, mysteriously, to have reached Peak Privilege.

What is 'peak privilege'?

It's hard to explain what this is, because it's actually, Zen-like, the absence of something.

I'm now a tall, white man in his early fifties ... and this seems to have changed everything.

Let me try to explain. I've slowly, recently, become aware of the absence of hassle. Not hassle in the sense of everyday problems; over the past year I've had some health niggles and my cat passed away, so life has had plenty of bad days.

It's more that the people I encounter – strangers, rather than friends – have become unaccountably easier to deal with. People respond to what I'm asking, they listen attentively when I speak, they subtly defer to my opinions.

Age of experience

No, I haven't come into the sort of wealth that dramatically alters the world around you, smoothing your path with dollars and turning life into (as the poet Charles Kingsley once described it) "one grand sweet song". I'm a freelance writer with the frantic schedule and cash-flow issues faced by any small businessperson.

What I have done, though, is get slightly older. I'm now a tall, white man in his early fifties, with a slight but visible amount of silver hair, and this seems to have changed everything in a manner I find bemusing.

I only notice it, as I alluded earlier, because of the absence of the hassle I'd irregularly encounter when younger.

Complex inferiority

Human beings being what they are, sadly, there's always someone ready to make themselves feel more important by belittling a perceived social inferior who can't fight back.

So as a younger person my tastes or opinions would be sneered at by those older; and as a larger person I received snideness from those slimmer.

My tastes in reading or dining or drinking seemed open for criticism; as a science fiction fan, I usually felt outside the mainstream as I was growing up.

Now I seem to have entered a different, calmer world. It'd be nice to think it's because we've matured as a society into one that is more respectful of others and more accepting of differences in age, gender and general tastes. But I think I know what's really happened: I've achieved Peak Privilege.

Ticking the boxes

Through no intention of my own, I now tick all the privilege boxes. Male? Tick. White? Tick. Tall? Tick. On top of that, I look the age at which corporate men are often at their most influential, that kind of early-silver-haired authoritative CEO-in-training era. And I don't even wear a suit!

It'd be tempting to conclude this surplus of respect is my own doing; that I carry myself so confidently and successfully through the world that strangers naturally defer.

But as a writer, I'm too analytical to believe that for a moment. What this subtle change has underlined is how we as a society are still deeply coded in matters of gender and appearance.

To suddenly understand privilege beyond an abstract intellectual concept, as something I can feel working in my favour, is disturbing. Though I benefit from the phenomenon, it also calls into doubt my achievements and actual worth.

White noise

Are people being polite to me because of who I am, or because of who I appear to be? Would they treat a woman my age the same way, or someone from a different ethnic background?

More troubling is the thought that I've merely shifted into the eye of the storm, and that in due course I'll pass through to the other side. If strangers felt confident hassling me when young, presumably they'll feel the same when I'm perceived as old.

It's a sobering thought, and one that should provoke empathy. Talking about privilege isn't a personal criticism of individuals, as so many affronted individuals take it to be. Instead, it's an acknowledgement that the scales are weighted, a fact that shouldn't be ignored.