Privilege is when you get conscious or unconscious benefits from a demographic trait about yourself that you cannot control. These benefits may be overt (getting paid more as a man) or they may be covert (being able to walk down a street alone at night without fear of violence). I want to stress the last type of privilege. A privilege does not have to be something positive; it can simply be the lack of something negative.
Checking your privilege doesn't mean anyone is asking you to say "I only have things because I am part of privileged groups." It does mean someone is asking you to say "By position of a characteristic I was born with, I have been helped, or at least not hurt, more than others without this characteristic." It does not mean anyone wants you to apologize for it; it does mean someone is asking for an acknowledgement of the implications of it, for how it has impacted where you are now, how it might be skewing your perspective or level of knowledge in discussing a subject, or how the lack of that same privilege may have made things different for someone else.
excerpt from the recent Jezebel post To The Princeton Privileged Kid
My experiences with immigration have been, in a word, privileged: I have applied for five visas since December 2007, and I have never once truly doubted that my petitions would be approved. Of course I worried about setbacks due to improperly filled out forms and I felt helpless while waiting for faceless officials to administrate my paperwork, but I have been eligible for every visa for which I applied and, perhaps most tellingly, I have always considered myself an expatriate rather than an immigrant.
Over the past few years, as I moved back from London to DC because of the impending expiration of my unrenewable (under recently enacted legislation) Tier 1 visa, as Jon and I stressed out about our marriage visa so that we could wed in the UK, and as we've struggled through the process for Jon's green card allowing him to live and work in the US, I've heard variations on the same sentiment from even my most liberal friends:
I don't understand why this is so complicated - the restrictive rules aren't meant for people like you!
I'm Caucasian and Judeo-Christian with two advanced degrees, optimistic job prospects almost regardless of where I live, and a decent savings account, as is Jon. However, our privilege doesn't help us in our immigration process. It simply doesn't hurt us as it hurts those who don't check the "right" demographic and socio-economic boxes.
There are doors open to Jon and me that aren't accessible to others because we have chosen to immigrate/expatriate and we've had the freedom to follow every rule to the letter along the way. There's no legal reason for us to not end up together in the same country, and we know it will work out eventually. Regardless, we've been on a two-year rollercoaster. We have felt completely impotent, at the mercy of bureaucracy and laws that, honestly, the staff of the government agencies with whom we correspond seem to not completely understand. I can't even imagine the nightmare experienced by immigrants who aren't on firm legal footing.
The funny thing in all of this is, of course, that I know very few illegal immigrants, if we're using that term the way our elected officials and media outlets do. Over the past four years, I've met nearly a dozen people who are living in - or were/are hoping to live in - a country of which they are not native who exploited loopholes, skirted rules, and, in some cases, knowingly embarked on illegal enterprises. Of all of those people, only two were not born in the United States, Canada, or western Europe. The majority of people I know who are taking advantage of the process enjoy the same privileges that Jon and I do, and, for the most part, they have fewer consequences to face should they get caught than if they lacked privilege.
Unsurprisingly, my thoughts on immigration have evolved dramatically since I submitted my first visa petition, but the root I come back to over and over again is that our system is broken. (I think the UK's system is broken, too, but I'm specifically referring here to the situation in the United States.) If the process is so overwhelmingly complicated and inconsistent, is it any wonder that people flout the rules when they think they can get away with it and even when, lacking privilege, they know they probably won't? If there aren't real penalties for people who break the law, including for those with privilege, where's the punitive incentive to follow it? And if we hold people who have are forced to identify as "immigrants" rather than "expats" due to a lack of privilege to a different standard, is it any wonder that I'm told that the laws aren't meant for people like me?
I leave you with no well-researched suggestions for reforms, dear readers; obviously the issue is nuanced and global. But I do think we have to take privilege out of conversations about and policies on immigration. As long as we think about it and legislate on it in terms of "people like me," the system will remain broken.