Privilege. It's a nasty word for those who have never had it applied to them before. If they even understand what you're talking about, most people told they have privilege of some kind will react as if you had made an attack on their character, as if you had made a judgment on who they are as a person based on, for example, whether they had been born cis and white or not.
In many ways, one of the most insidious expressions of exploitation of privilege comes from some of the people who claim to be fighting against exploitation of themselves. (take for example the way RadFems so often treat Trans women and people of color) They are fighting against discrimination, so how could they possibly be discriminating against someone else? They are on the Side of Right on their pet issue, so how could they possibly be on the wrong side on another front?
Also, the majority of people who get the short end of the privilege stick in one facet of their lives will fight you tooth and nail should you suggest that they are in fact privileged in some way. Privilege doesn't "balance out," it's not a checkbook or a balance sheet. However, it is possible to be privileged in some areas but not in others. (I, for example, have white privilege, but I'm a PWD*; I'm well off financially, but I'm a woman trying to make a career in a "male" field) Having some other privilege doesn't make you a bad activist, or a bad spokesperson for the disadvantages you have. Having one privilege doesn't invalidate your experiences with your other disadvantages.
Before anyone starts getting huffy and trying to start into Oppression Olympics, remember that everyone who has the ability to read this blog has a hell of a lot of privilege - literacy and access to the internet, to name just two. Done derailing? Awesome.
It's hard for people to understand or accept that aspects of life they take for granted are part of some facet of privilege. It's very uncomfortable to acknowledge that some of the nice things in their lives aren't standard, and that things they do may directly or indirectly take those nice things away from other people. It usually isn't intentional - hence why I said that most of privilege is stuff we simply take for granted. People don't think about it, they don't intend to cause harm... but that doesn't in any way prevent harm from being done. It's generally not someone's fault that they have some kind of privilege. Unfortunately, most people see statements of privilege as personal attacks (you have X privilege over me, so you are an evil scumbag who is deliberately repressing me) and react accordingly. Honestly, if you thought someone was trying to say something like that, it's a reasonable reaction.
The thing both sides need to understand is that you "get" the majority of the most powerful privileges the same way people "get" onto the receiving end of repression - birth. A person has no control over being born into a white, middle class family. A person has no control over whether they are born with testosterone or estrogen developmentally marked bodies, or over their sexual orientation. (obviously, this does not apply to privileged groups people can theoretically move in and out of, like thin privilege and socioeconomic status and others)
What people do have control over is what they do about that privilege. Do they pretend it doesn't exist and shout to the world that discrimination is dead? Do they exploit their privilege, consciously or unconsciously? Do they try not to cause harm with their privilege? Do they try to strike down privilege to build a more egalitarian society?
This is what marks the difference between someone who has privilege and doesn't know it, and someone who you can justifiably say is an evil scumbag who is deliberately oppressing you. This is what marks the difference between someone who has no idea they have privilege, and someone who knows but has no fucking clue what to do about it.
Many activists have said that the first step is acknowledging that privilege exists, and that you have it. To that end, I've tried to be as honest as possible with myself about the sources of my privilege. At this point in my lift, with the shit that's going on, I figure it's at least a start, and not one I deserve a damn cookie for. I'm going to keep working on this whole "being a decent human being when it comes to privilege" thing. Because it's the right thing to do.
* Person/People with Disabilities