We hear a lot these days about "white privilege" and "male privilege", and of course the concepts are frequently attacked by those who feel accused of enjoying them. This gets messy, because while their rejection of the ideas of privilege is itself an instance of privilege, pointing that out is an extremely unhelpful way of elucidating the concept, particularly when the concept itself is actually kind of obscure.
The probem, I think, is that the common, everyday use of the word "privilege" is misleading when we try to apply it here. In everyday usage, we think of privileges as special abilities or permissions which some people get to enjoy and others are denied. Think of how we contrast privileges with rights; we might say that driving is a privilege because you need a license, while everyone has the right to use the sidewalk.
It's easy to see how people think this is what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege, because there are all sorts of advantages that white people enjoy in this society by virtue of being seen as white. Likewise, there may be other (usually lesser) advantages enjoyed by people by virtue of not being white or male or heterosexual. But while all of these may be considered privilegeS in the ordinary concrete sense, they have very little to do with the concept of privilege in the abstract sense of white privilege.
The difference lies in what is privileged. In the above, ordinary concrete sense, individual human beings are privileged, in that they enjoy advantages denied to others, and while yes, that is a pretty fair description of what racism is and why it's unjust, the privileges enjoyed by white people are not what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege. In white privilege, it is not people but experiences that are privileged.
If you've ever watched a courtroom drama, you've probably encountered the phrase "attorney-client privilege". Usually this is invoked when someone asks a lawyer what her client told her: "I'm sorry, that's privileged communication." What this means is that communications between a lawyer and her client in the context of seeking legal advice are supposed to be completely private; a lawyer cannot be compelled by subpoena to disclose them. The communications are privileged in that they are exempted from the rules that other communications may be subject to.
Privilege, in this sense, means just that something is exempted from otherwise applicable rules, scrutiny, criticism, doubt. White privilege, then, is when we exempt our experiences as white people from the kind of healthy skepticism we bring to bear on other people's accounts of their experiences. And part of what makes it so hard to get our heads around this is that, to some extent, privilege is born from a perfectly sensible cognitive habit: we trust our own direct experiences more than we trust the reports of other people's experiences, which come to us filtered through layers of language and interpretation. We ought to trust our own senses more than those of other people, for the most part.
The problem, however, is when we assume that our experiences and our interpretations of them are objectively reliable, and treat everyone else's experience as influenced by their subjectivity. That is, we privilege our view as the standard against which to measure everyone else's. (I tried to talk about this phenomenon in a previous post.)
Here's how that plays out in conversations about race or gender. Me, I know the content of my own head, in that I know with something close to absolute certainty that I believe black people and white people and yellow and brown and red and blue people are all people deserving of fully individual rights and human dignity. In my heart, I'm thoroughly convinced that I'm not a racist, so anyone who suggests that I am is almost certainly mistaken. And so I will seek to explain how someone could misconstrue my actions as racist, and find all kinds of ways to show that what looks like racism isn't actually racism. For my part, that might even be true; all of the things I've done in the past that seemed racist might just have been misunderstood. But it turns out that it's actually really easy to explain away even genuinely racist acts and attitudes; you can pretty much aways come up with some non-racist justification for a traffic stop or a reluctance to hire someone. The net result is that, golly, from my perspective as a devoutly non-racist white person, it looks like there's reasonable doubt as to the existence of racism at all!
The point about privilege is that I take my experiences to be, not specifically a white person's experience, but a "normal" person's experience. When I get stopped by the police, it's always because of a legitimate issue like a burned out headlight, so it's hard for me to imagine or identify with driving while black. But of course I can't know what that's like, when my only experiences with being on the receiving end of racial stereotyping amount to the staff of a Chinese restaurant preemptively replacing my chopsticks with a fork.
The same sort of dynamic applies to male privilege, which comes across most dramatically in the hashtag #notallmen. I know perfectly well I'm not a rapist, and it hurts to be tarred with that brush. I feel a strong desire to distinguish myself from the kind of men who treat women that way, but here's the thing: it's not about me. However much I might feel insulted by the mean things people are saying about men as rapists, my view of myself as not-a-rapist is not entitled to special exemption from women who say they have no way of knowing: they really and legitimately have no way of knowing that I am not a rapist, no matter how earnestly and sincerely I might know they can trust me. No one else has access to my internal certainty, and it's silly for me to expect them to. Privilege, in this case, means that I expect what is obvious to me to be obvious to everyone else: I'm a good guy, I'm not a rapist.
So it's important to understand that when someone tells you to check your privilege, they're not asking you to surrender your advantages as a white person or a male or whatever. You can't give up most of those advantages, even if you wanted to, and it would be foolish to do so in any event. What' they're asking you to do is to try to see things from another point of view. Try to understand how your own view is not The One Correct view of how things really are, but just one of many subjective realities, shaped by a great many unconscious assumptions which, once recognized, lose their power over you. Privilege is actually a horrible cognitive handicap, because it blinds us to greater understanding of ourselves and the world, including a full appreciation of our advantages. That those advantages are not earned is irrelevant; we cannot make full use of them, for our benefit or for others, for good or for evil, if we refuse to see that we have them.