Words can be very precise things. Context, however, plays a very large part when it comes to a word’s meaning. If you refer to a young child as a “kid”, no one will assume you think said child is a baby goat. If you say angrily to a woman “You b***h,” it is fairly obvious you are not calling her a female dog.
Couple the word “privilege” with the word “white”, however, and the context for the word “privilege” seems to elude many people. The Collins English Dictionary, for example, gives one definition of privilege as “a special right or advantage that only one person or group has.” As a verb, it says of the word “To privilege someone or something means to treat them better or differently than other people or things rather than treat them all equally.”
That this is what “privilege” means in the context of “white privilege” seems obvious, and this is made clear when you look up the definition of the phrase white privilege itself. It means that by virtue of having been born white—something no white person earned by their own efforts—you have advantages that non-white people don’t.
Before anyone bridles, and starts writing an angry letter along the lines of “I’m white, and I haven’t had any advantages; I, and a lot of other white people I know, have in fact had difficult lives and worked hard for everything we have”: no one is arguing with your experience. Being white is not synonymous with “easy life”, and that is not what white privilege means.
What the phrase does mean is that there may well have been times in your life when—probably without you even knowing it—being white has been an advantage to you. It could have meant that when you sent off a job application, you were more likely to get an interview than a non-white person. A study conducted by Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, in which resumes were sent off to prospective employers, showed that those with English-sounding names were more likely to get called for an interview than those with Asian names, even if the qualifications of the Asian person were stronger (i.e. they had a Master’s degree and the English-sounding applicant did not: see http://bit.ly/2p9uHWf).
If you are white, you are more likely to find it easier to rent an apartment than someone who is not white; in 767 rental discrimination complaints over 10 years, the Quebec Human Rights Commission concluded that one-third were based on ethnic origin and skin colour: see http://bit.ly/2IpuCpV.
If you are white you can go shopping, or drive your car, and be pretty confident you will not be followed or harassed or stopped by security guards or law enforcement officials because of your skin colour. If you are white and show up late for a meeting, people will not generally attribute your lateness to your race.
White privilege is not a moral accusation, nor does it mean that white people do not struggle. It is not meant to try to make white people feel guilty, or promote some sort of reverse racism. What it is meant to do is start a conversation, similar to the ones we have about racism. Many people are obviously finding this difficult, but perhaps that is a good thing. The most important conversations are often the hardest ones to start.