Tami provides an excellent example of situational privilege in her piece:
Being a black woman is certainly not a privilege in our society. But, for instance, when dealing with law enforcement, I am privileged in comparison to my brother or husband or son. (Even as I lose that privilege in comparison to white men and women.)The ongoing discussion of which Tami's post is a part is about white female privilege, which is an example of relative privilege: I am marginalized on the basis that I'm female, but, among all female people, I am privileged because I am white and straight and cisgender and have an invisible disability.
All of us have intersectional identities, and many of us have both marginalized aspects and privileged aspects in the same body. Part of auditing our privilege is identifying all of its aspects, and identifying the situations in which our typically marginalized aspects become a privilege. There are, for example, certain situations, especially around childcare, in which I would be privileged over a man simply by virtue of my femaleness.
The most important distinction between situational and relative privilege is that situational privilege is typically an anomaly, an exceptional quirk of some other institutional privilege, while relative privilege merely reflects the familiar hierarchies of institutional privilege within a marginalized group.
In simpler language, situational privilege is basically an exception to the rule, and relative privilege is the rule.
(Being privileged for my femaleness around children [situational] is an exception to male privilege; being privileged for my whiteness among other women [relational] reflects the rule of institutional racism.)
So, those are the definitions. What's the big deal?
Well, as with any privilege, it's really tough to not express and trade on one's privilege if one isn't even aware of it, so there's that. But there's also the issue of how unexamined relative privilege in particular destroys social justice movements by subverting solidarity.
This goes back to what I mentioned earlier today, and about which I've written in more detail here, regarding practicing a feminism that never obliges a woman to wrench apart pieces of her identity in exchange for my alliance.
Those of us with privilege who participate in any social justice movement must be conscious of the reality that we have relative privilege to other members of our community—that even though a straight, cis, able-bodied, typically-statured, thin, wealthy, white, Western woman still lacks male privilege, is still marginalized on the basis of her femaleness, still has cultural narratives and stereotypes and prejudices working against her in visible and invisible ways all the time, is still denied a fuckload of rights and opportunities on the basis of being a woman, a poor fat disabled trans lesbian of color (for example) has SIX fuckloads of the same.
The concept of "equality"—or, to be more precise, the denial of equality—is way more complicated the more marginalizing characteristics one has. Which means that achieving full equality for a straight, cis, able-bodied, typically-statured, thin, wealthy, white, Western woman, is a less complex process than achieving full equality for a poor fat disabled trans lesbian of color—because achieving equality in those areas denied her on the basis of her femaleness doesn't mean that she has achieved equality as a lesbian. Or a fat woman. Or a disabled woman. Or a trans woman.
Which ultimately means she has not achieved equality as a woman. As a whole person.
And when "progress for women" comes at the expense of, say, the gay community, that's not actually progress for women at all. That's just progress for straight women. When it comes at the expense of women of color, that's just progress for white women. When it comes at the expense of trans women, that's just progress for cis women. And so on.
That's why an inclusive feminism is the only feminism that ultimately makes any sense—and an inclusive feminism is only possible when privileged women (white women, straight women, cis women, thin women, able-bodied women, Western women, wealthy women, employed women, etc.) acknowledge their relative privilege to other women.
Which is, of course, only the starting point. Examining that privilege, and learning to trade on it only as an ally, is a lifelong process.
But it's a process that begins with owning our situational and relative privilege.