I posted this in soc.singles.moderated and I'm putting it here for comments and future reference.
There are a lot of other people working on defining privilege and giving examples of how privilege affects people. I don't have time right now but at some point I'll come back and add links to some of those essays/web sites. (And please list some in the comments if you are so inclined.)
Privilege is the condition of being part of a group that is usually treated well by others, in the context of a culture that encourages people to systematically treat some groups of people well and other groups poorly.
This especially applies to groups that are defined by their appearance or some other superficial trait, rather than by the behavior of the individuals in the group.
The definition assumes the following:
When a person is treated well most of their life in most contexts, it is very hard for that person to understand what life is like for people who are systematically treated poorly.
Being occasionally treated poorly has different effects than being systematically treated poorly, so someone who is occasionally treated poorly still probably doesn't understand what it's like to be systematically treated poorly.
People who are treated well most of their lives have resources that people who are treated poorly do not. They are more likely to have more money or readier access to money and work. They are more likely to have psychological resilience to hardship because they haven't been ground down by poor treatment. They are more likely to believe in themselves because they learn their whole lives that they are important and worthwhile. They probably spend less time and effort hassling with people or bureaucracies who don't trust them or who try to treat them poorly.
Some people believe that all these extra resources give such people - privileged people - a moral responsibility to spend some of their resources to try to improve their limited understanding of how the system systematically treats others poorly, to try to change the system so that more people are treated well, and to try to understand and treat well more people who are in groups systematically treated poorly.
It's important to emphasize that the system works its effects on groups of people. This is important for two reasons:
- In order to understand or try to dismantle it, you need to address this aspect. It's not good enough to simply focus on one individual at a time. Once the system is dismantled that will be good enough but not now.
- This means being privileged is not your "fault" or something to feel guilty about. You didn't do anything to get treated well, any more than a person who is a member of an ill-treated group asked to be treated badly. It's an artifact of the system.
ETA: Good resource on how white people can understand and fight racism, via kightp: http://damaliayo.com/pdfs/I%20CAN%20FIX%20IT_racism.pdf