I had two immediate reactions in college when another student brought up and explained the essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" By Peggy McIntosh.
The first was that no one could come up with a subtitle that awful without a lot of effort. The second was that it was a complete surprise that the article actually made some really good points.
White privilege is a series of things I don't have to think about but a person of another race does. Privilege examples are always compiled in lists. I don't find some of the examples compelling, but others are undeniable. Here are some of the better ones:
*I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
*I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
*If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
*I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
*I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
*If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
This really opened my eyes to the idea that a black person has no choice but to "be black" all the time, whether they like it or not. There are situations that can be troublesome for other people that I am completely oblivious to. The essay title is still awful, but there is real wisdom here and privilege is an entirely legitimate concept.
Unfortunately, that valid point has nothing to do with the way privilege is typically used in modern discussions.
Claims of white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege or some other variety has become a way of silencing dissent on discussions about identify politics not by refuting arguments, but by attempting to disqualify the speakers based on accidents of birth.
Say I were to criticize a policy supported by some feminists that would give money to mothers who leave their husbands, saying it creates a financial incentive that would break families up. A supporter could respond by defending the policy and attempting to show it will help more families than it hurts. That's the old-fashioned, legitimate way to discuss an issue.
Using the "vulgar privilege" tactic, the supporter would simply say that I have male privilege I am unaware of and declare the discussion over. What's worse, in that person's mind, that's a compelling argument. They would walk away believing that was a perfectly reasonable way to defend their view.
Only a person who can't fathom that their beliefs could be wrong can use this tactic. What's more, they are suggesting that personal experience is more important than logic, reason or research.
The type of privilege being invoked is often completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Brandon K. Thorpe wrote a great essay about the politicization of the Trayvon Martin shooting within the gay community, calling out writer Akiba Solomon on her wandering criticism of Kevin Naff. Naff said gay groups were jumping on the Trayvon bandwagon and Solomon wrote:
Essentially what Naff has done is cast the struggle for LGBT human rights and equality as window dressing for his own demands for white male privilege...
I don’t know Kevin Naff so I’m not going to accuse him of pandering to angry white males. But I know this much is true: LGBT organizations belong in the conversation about racial profiling. No amount of his seething white male privilege masquerading as gun control advocacy can change that fact.
Thorpe didn't miss those wild shots about "male privilege" in the Trayvon Martin case. He wrote:
Note the last line, with its telling use of the word “masquerade” and the out-of-nowhere use of the word “male.” Unless Solomon mis-typed, she is accusing Kevin Naff of masquerading as a citizen concerned about firearm proliferation and the stand-your-ground law so that he may surreptitiously go about his real work — venting anger toward black people and women.
Yes, women. Otherwise, the word “male” in Solomon’s paragraph is meaningless. Note that Naff never mentioned sex or gender in his article. The presence of the word “male” in Solomon’s says less about Naff’s opinions than it does about a common pitfall of identity politics: Get too far in, and you start piling cant atop cant until the accumulated weight crushes whatever good point you began with.
The legitimate point about the concept of privilege is being unfairly tainted by the simpletons mucking up the word. The unfortunate association between these two different uses harms the reputation of the valid version. Cries of "privilege" has become the thoughtless bleating of sheep, an automated reply for people too lazy or too slow to draft a serious argument.