There are some arguments that are just unedifying. Recent discussions of “privilege” fall in that category, for the same reason that so many of our public debates generate so much more heat than light: we’re mostly talking past each other.
It would be so helpful if people would just begin by defining their terms.
Privilege–at least in the sense being debated– isn’t an individual attribute. Some individuals can certainly be more privileged than others–we can be well-educated, wealthy, healthy, etc. But that isn’t what “white privilege” or “male privilege” is about. That latter kind of privilege is a cultural attribute; it is a description of systemic social attitudes and assumptions that favor white heterosexual males and make their lives, on balance, easier than the lives of women and minorities.
What are some of those privileges?
The odds of a white male being hired over equally-qualified women or minorities is demonstrably higher–and when a black male or woman does get the job, co-workers are far more likely to assume the hire was based upon affirmative action rather than merit. When a white guy fails to perform, the odds are that his failure won’t be attributed to– or reflect on others of– his sex or race.
A white guy who is loud or obnoxious in public is just an obnoxious white guy–not a representative of “those people.”
White males are unlikely to be followed in stores by clerks who suspect they’ll pocket merchandise, and far less likely to be stopped and frisked by police. There’s a good list of similar examples here.
People who deny the existence of privilege tend to ignore such systemic attitudes, and to argue from individual experience: I didn’t have it so easy, I was poor, I’ve been mistreated, I overcame obstacles in my life. Such arguments entirely miss the point.
Are there women and African-Americans and members of other minority groups who are demonstrably better-off than many white males? Of course. Are there many white men who have overcome crushing adversity? Of course. But even they benefit from social privilege, whether they recognize that fact or not.
There are also a whole lot of angry white guys who refuse to recognize or acknowledge the multiple ways in which social attitudes advantage them, who cling to and defend the status quo and who resent any and all challenges to the “traditions” that protect their privileged status.
Just turn your TV to Fox, or listen to talk radio if you don’t believe me.