Particularly in discussions of race and gender (but also almost always), people often confuse privilege with freedom—the two ideas, although often related or overlapping, are quite different, actually.
Whites (especially White men) and men (particularly White men) tend to get incredibly defensive when seemingly “accused” of being privileged in any way. They can be quick to bring up “double standards” or “reverse racism” in which affirmative action or feminism somehow has left them with all of life’s burdens.
Their frustration is real, no doubt about it. They cannot really deny, though, that they are privileged. Their frustration stems not from a lack of privileged but from a lack of freedom.
We see privilege and freedom most often at odds in films like Aladdin, The Prince and Me, and Coming to America, in which a member of royalty does not have the right to choose whom she (or he) can marry. Coming to America brings forth even other “freedom” issues that come from privilege—the prince cannot brush his own teeth, bathe his own body, or tie his own shoes. Clearly, though, he is in a privileged position, as he has a number of subjects who are at his beck and call, and who spend much of their time devoted to his well-being. They all must refer to him, as “your majesty.” He does not have freedom, though; he certainly does not.
People like me (Asian-American het men) are in an interesting position because as Asian-Americans, we do not experience White privilege, but as heterosexual men, we experience much hetero male privilege.
I’ve often felt frustrated myself at how constricting it is to have male privilege, how in many ways society puts me in a privileged status “above” even vis a vis my own wife. My wife has always made less money than I have. If she doesn’t do all the household chores, others will sometimes reprimand her for being a “bad wife.” She’s constantly pestered by her parents to change her name.
I tried to change my name. I thought my parents, being the political progressives they usually are, would be supportive of that change. They knew, after all, that I’m a feminist. They were outraged, though, and use every manipulative parent guilt trip in the book to get me not to change my last name to my wife’s. Eventually, with my wife’s parents in on the pressure, my wife urged me not to change my name because she didn’t want the wedding to have a bad vibe.
On the one hand, you can say my wife is “free” to change her name or keep her name. However, as far as changing names goes, men are definitely in a position of privilege. No matter how traditional or progressive folk are, they rarely will harass or question a man about his “decision” to keep his name after marrying. Women, however—whether they decide to keep their names or change them—are placed in a position where they must make that choice.
Likewise, with salaries, men may feel it a burden or a lack of freedom to have to be “the breadwinner” in the relationship, but it’s definitely a privilege to earn more money.
Ideally, everyone would have the most freedom and privilege that’s out there, but we mustn’t confuse the two, lest we all end up angry, frustrated, and misunderstood. Progress begins when we can point out injustice without being accused of whining or claiming a “victim” status. We must all work together—however privileged or free we each feel—to undo the constraints of an unbalanced society.