It’s interesting that there is such resistance to the notion of privilege. Every human knows that privilege is a thing. I grew up in a very wealthy area, and we all knew whose parents could pull strings, get their kid a part-time job from which s/he couldn’t be fired, intimidate the principal, get rules bent. Let’s call that kid That Guy (although he wasn’t always a guy). People who grew up around rich people (even if they were rich) should be the first to acknowledge the power of privilege, since they must have had direct experience of it, but often they’re the last. And it isn’t because they secretly put hoods on at night and attend white supremacist marches.
I think there are several reasons: the stories that privileged people tell themselves about That Guy, a tendency to think in binaries, a commitment to naïve realism (and the often-connected notion that good people have good judgment), imagining self-worth and achievement in a zero-sum relation, and the impulse to hear “check your privilege” as something other than “time to listen.”
As to the first, That Guy got away with everything–he was completely tanked, totaled his car, and yet didn’t get arrested—and that obviously doesn’t apply to us. He never earned anything, and never faced consequences. And he was an asshole. People hear the observation of privilege as an accusation that we are That Guy. People think they’re being called an asshole. Self-identity is comparative—rich people can feel “poor” if they hang out with richer people, attractive people can feel unattractive, and so on. As long as there is someone with more privilege than what we have, then we can feel that we aren’t That Guy, and therefore, don’t have privilege (or none worth considering).
That impulse to consider our privilege trivial because of how it compares to someone else is connected to the tendency to think in binaries, especially a binary central to American political discourse: makers or takers (producers or parasites). You either work hard and make/produce wealth, or else you are a lazy person who takes from those who make wealth. William Jennings Bryan’s rhetoric described bankers (and people in the city) as parasitical on the real wealth production of the farmers; Father Coughlin positioned “international finance” (his dog whistle for “Jews”) as against the real producers of wealth; Paul Ryan and current toxic populist rhetoric makes public servants and anyone on assistance (unless they are Republican) as takers, with the top 1% as the makers.
People who think that you are either a maker or a taker can point to the ways they make wealth and therefore are enraged at being accused of being a taker. That Guy is a taker, but we aren’t him, so we are makers. The mistake here is the maker/taker binary. Privilege has nothing to do with whether you’re a maker or a taker, and it isn’t an accusation of anything. It certainly isn’t an accusation that the person hasn’t worked at all, nor is it an accusation of being an asshole.
The maker/taker binary is attractive because of the dominance in American culture of the “just world model” (or “just world hypothesis”): the notion that good people get good things and bad people get bad things. That model means that we can reason backwards from outcomes to identities: a person has good outcomes (makes a lot of money, is healthy, is successful) has caused those outcomes to happen by their good choices, good faith, and good identity; a person who has bad outcomes (is financially struggling, unhealthy, unsuccessful, or has been the object of crime) has caused those outcomes through their poor choices, bad attitude, or lack of faith.
To tell someone that outcomes might be influenced by conditions outside a person’s choice (such as accidents of birth) is tremendously threatening to someone who believes strongly in the just world model. It threatens their sense of justice and belief in a controllable universe. And research suggests that being faced with uncertainty means that people will resort more firmly to their sense that their group is inherently good, so a privileged person, faced with evidence that the world is unjust, is likely to want to cling more fiercely to the notion that they are part of a good group.
And, if that person has a tendency to think in binaries then to say that outcomes might be influenced by conditions of privilege will be heard as saying that outcomes are purely the consequence of privilege—no choices involved. Thinking in binaries means that a person will tend to believe “monocausal” narratives (any outcome has one and only one cause). If the milk spilled, there was one action that caused it, and we can argue about whether it was yours or mine, but it can’t have been both, let alone the consequence of various factors. So, privilege either determines everything or nothing; if a person who believes in monocausal narratives can find a single thing done by agency, then their life wasn’t purely the consequence of privilege, and therefore it wasn’t at all. For someone like that, individual agency is the single cause or has no impact at all.
When people ask that we consider privilege, it isn’t substituting one monocausal narrative (everything I have achieved is purely the consequence of things I have done) with another (everything you have achieved is purely the consequence of your privilege). It’s an observation about relative advantages. A person raised speaking a language has an advantage over someone who had to learn the language as an adult. Because of our tendency to assume that fluency with language necessarily means fluency of thought, we tend to think of people who come across as native speakers as more intelligent. So, a person who learned a language as an adult has to work harder than the native speaker to get taken seriously and be heard. That isn’t to say that the native speaker didn’t work at all—it isn’t a binary. It’s about relative advantage or disadvantage.
John Scalzi has an article I like a lot for explaining privilege, and it’s interesting to see how people in the comments misunderstand his point. His argument is that being a straight white male is like rolling high in the character-establishing point in a role-playing game. You have an advantage over someone else who rolled low, in every situation, all other things being equal.
What that means is that a person who has no disabilities and grows up in a wealthy family in a stable environment and is a straight white male necessarily has advantages over a gay black female in exactly the same situation. That’s a comparison that keeps everything other than gender, sexuality, and race the same. But a large number of the critical comments changed other variables, insisting that Scalzi was wrong because a rich (variable of wealth) gay black female would have advantages over a poor (changed variable of wealth) het white male.
That’s clearly not engaging Scalzi’s argument.
He says “all other things being equal” and a large number of examples ignore that part of his argument. And, really, the two of the three most common ways I see arguments about privilege go wrong is that they introduce other variables (especially class) or they think the observation of privilege is a claim that the privileged person has done nothing at all (the maker/taker binary).
Since so much cultural and political discourse has the maker/taker binary, it’s understandable that people would force the observation about relative advantage into the maker/taker binary, but let’s be clear: that’s a misunderstanding that’s on the hearer. Saying you have privilege isn’t saying you’re That Guy. It’s saying that, in this situation, you have relative advantage.
One of my favorite studies is one you can do in any classroom. Ask students to write the letter ‘E’ on a small piece of paper in such a way that, when they put it on their forehead, it will be correct for someone looking at them. In one version of this study, half the group was given a small amount of money, and they promptly did worse on being able to imagine the perspective of anyone else. Thus, giving relatively small signals of privilege to some students can make perspective-shifting harder for them.
That task, perspective-shifting, is crucial to democracy. Communities in which people only look out for their group (or for themselves) inevitably end up in highly-factional squabbling, in which people will cheerfully hurt the overall community just in order to make sure the other side doesn’t win. Democracies thrive when everyone involved believes that our best world is the best world for people whom we dislike. Democracy depends on people looking at more than what is best for them or their group to whether we are establishing processes by which we’re willing to live. And that requires not just looking at whether this policy benefits me, as the person I am, but whether I would believe it was a good policy were I a completely different kind of person.
Privilege makes perspective-shifting less necessary, and makes it easier for us to think of our perspective as the “normal” one. If we are naïve realists (that is, if we believe that reality is absolutely apparent to us and we just have to ask ourselves if something is true in order to determine it is) then we are likely to think there is never any other perspective, or, if there is, that there is never any benefit to looking at things from that perspective since our perspective is right.
And our perspective is likely to be that we worked hard for what we have, that we earned every inch of our way, so it is likely to seem ridiculous to have someone say that we have privilege.
It’s a natural human tendency to attribute our successes to our work (and worth) and our failures to externalities. Even That Guy thinks he worked hard, and so doesn’t recognize his own privilege. Privilege isn’t a binary—it’s on a continuum; it isn’t an accusation of being a worthless taker, but an observation about relative advantage. It shouldn’t be the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.
 It’s striking to me that people who tend toward monocausal narratives also tend to think of cause purely in terms of blame, but they aren’t the same. Perhaps, just as I was getting a glass of milk my husband requested, I was startled by the mayor having chosen to sound the tornado siren. The causes of the spilled milk might include my having an active startle reflex, the tornado, the mayor, my husband requesting a glass of milk, my decision to get him one while I’m up, perhaps whatever it is (genetics? experience?) that caused my startle reflex, but none of those factors is one it makes any sense to blame.