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Privilege is a sociological and social justice concept referring to the benefits and advantages held by a group in power, or in a majority, but are not formally codified as legal rights. Privilege, in this context, is used in arguments seeking to explain the ways in which minorities are disadvantaged or oppressed that are not instantly recognisable due to a related concept called privilege blindness.
Because of privilege and related blindness to it, people who ostensibly support equal rights for a group of people can still inadvertently marginalize them by being distanced from their concerns. It derives from the basic definition of "privilege", but is expanded upon as a specific term of art amongst social justice activists — and as a result can lead to it being misunderstood and dismissed immediately.
 A mile in their shoes
What exactly does "check your privilege" mean, then? Let us go back to the early days of the modern Internet. You know, the 80s.
The rule for Internet discussion groups going all the way back to the beginning of Usenet (and probably before) is pretty simple: if you are a newbie, you are a guest in someone else's house. Lurk first, learn the local rules, and behave in a manner expected of a guest. The locals will usually accept you as long as you do that; if you don't, you'll be called out as a troll and/or griefer and thrown out on your ass.
Similarly, when discussing or taking part in someone else's culture, remember: you do not know the rules going in. You may think you do, but don't assume you do. If you play by the rules, you will probably be accepted. If you play by the rules and aren't accepted, you probably don't want to be there in the first place. (And if you do know the rules and ignore them, well, that's grounds for ejecting even invited guests.)
 "Shut up and listen" and synonyms
"Shut up and listen." "Check your privilege." "Walk a mile in their shoes." "Do unto others." These are all commonly used by people as an attempt to get the privileged to take a skeptical look at their relative places in the world (and commonly -- and frequently willfully -- misinterpreted as thought-stopping cliches by people who don't want to confront their privilege). The idea is that you're supposed to shut up just long enough to hear and consider the other side.
It is very rare that these phrases are used as attempts to silence an opponent, despite what some (mostly anti-feminists) would have you believe; they're simply asking people to acknowledge that they can't make informed statements about society based solely on their own experiences. The abruptness of a phrase like "shut up and listen" is usually born of frustration, and is not intended as a blanket silencing; someone who claims otherwise is likely tone trolling and has no intention of arguing in good faith, or is simply just too intellectually lazy to, you know, shut up and listen.
Unfortunately, in the mostly-anonymous realm of internet forums, these arguments can be used as an escape hatch to dismiss the arguments of those who are assumed to be privilege-blind outright, without knowing any personal details of said individuals. In these rare instances, the escape artist is often employing same sort of prejudices and stereotypes that are affording the privileges in the first place. This would be a valid tactic, if it were assumed to be true that no wealthy individual has ever experienced poverty, no white person has ever grown up with non-white parents, no cisgendered male has ever been bullied/teased/called a "sissy" for growing his hair long or enjoying My Little Pony, no straight woman who enjoys playing sports has ever had her sexuality questioned, no healthy individual has ever cared for a chronically ill family member...well, you get the idea.
 "mansplaining" and bros
"Mansplaining" is when a man, usually but not always claiming to be an ally, tries to dictate what a woman "should" think or feel about something. Obviously, the term can be generalized into terms like "whitesplaining" and the like, although "mansplaining" is the one instance that's actually become a commonly used word.
 Worked examples
The concept of privilege can be applied to many different social justice areas, including class and wealth distribution, racism or sexism/misogyny. Privilege is essentially the immunity that some (usually majority, usually in-power) classes have against forms of discrimination. As well as these "hidden advantages", there is also the case of how society is set up to treat majority vs minority classes. It is best illustrated by a few examples of more clear and more subtle forms.
 Walking home at night
The majority of rape cases are male-on-female, a statistical asymmetry that is well-quantified. The result is that a fear of rape, or a threat of rape, is a real thing for women far more than for men. Generally speaking, men have fewer reasons (both statistical and tangible) to fear a sexual assault. This is what is being referred to by "privilege" in this sense. Men have a particular privilege not to experience this fear, or in other words women have a particular under-privilege (or lack of privilege) to experience it. There are those who would argue that feeling safe is by no means a privilege, but a right.
 Public displays of affection
Heterosexual imagery is used in the vast majority of advertising and media, despite the fact that as high as 10% of the population may be gay or bisexual. In short, heterosexual behaviour is on constant display, it's rarely ever challenged and is "normalised". So, consider the cases where people say that they're for LGBT equality, but disapprove of it being displayed prominently and "rammed down their throats". This is a classic case of privilege and privilege-blindness because ostensibly overt displays of affection from homosexuals are actually no more or less overt than those from heterosexuals. Boy-girl hand-holding is unlikely to even register for most people, while boy-boy or girl-girl combinations in the street — because of their relative rarity — are likely to produce a much stronger signal.
In short, those who ask homosexual couples to be less open and "in your face" about their gayness simply don't realise how open and "in your face" heterosexual couples are.
 Racial profiling
The Arizona bill "Arizona SB 1070" attracted significant controversy because it encouraged racial profiling of suspected illegal immigrants. This appeared to attract broad support from Americans, with 60% backing the idea of racial profiling. However, the majority of people voting were (and still are, presumably) white and therefore would never have been the victims of any racial profiling. Being victimized for their skin color was never a foreseeable consequence for those people, and so they lacked any personal salience towards the issue.
This lack of salience is exactly what the "privilege" argument addresses. People make the assumption that because something is not an issue for them, it should not be an issue for others. This is clearly not going to be the case.
 Car repair and other things that are seen as ungirly
The most common demonstrations of privilege that most people will see is the occasional demonstration by TV news shows of what happens when women take cars into repair garages. Quite simply, dishonest mechanics are more likely to cheat women on repair costs than men.
Similarly, websites like Not Always Right show stories of women being taken less seriously than men by customers in places like video game shops.
 Privilege blindness
What is so difficult about privilege, and is highlighted in the racial profiling case above, is that it is a concept that is very counter-intuitive to the privileged. Privilege is, by definition, the advantages people have that they don't think about because it is never raised. Understanding it requires an active effort to see things from the perspective of other people, namely the underprivileged. This can lead to problems both small-scale (a man's chronic inability to get women to talk to him) and large (imbalance in performance in math and science between the sexes and sexism in hiring in the hard sciences).
Some suggest that those who have the luxury of rarely thinking about privilege likely possess some form of it.
 Conflicting privileges
Except for the very tiny minority of people who happen to be simultaneously poor, transgendered, physically disabled, American Indian, atheist, lesbian, etc., it's very likely that you'll be privileged in some areas while being discriminated in others. This can, ironically, create some genuine problems within demographics that are normally seen as the victims of privilege. See: the virulent strain of transphobia that exists in dark corners of radical feminism or the undercurrent of black homophobia that contributed to Proposition 8 being passed or the racist backlash that occurred thereafter.
The bottom line is that privilege isn't just a 'thing' only WASPy, American, abled, straight males need to be concerned with. Almost everyone is on a socially dominant side of some demographic. And forgetting this can make you just as much of a jerk as anyone else.
 Privileged distress
Privileged distress is the knee-jerk hostile reaction often displayed by the privileged when their privilege is openly acknowledged or challenged. This typically involves denying the existence of privilege ("I didn't get any special advantages — I worked hard for what I have!") or rationalizing examples of privilege or lack thereof ("Well, you know how lazy those people are, no wonder nobody wants to hire them".). Those accustomed to privilege often regard steps toward equality as an assault on the privileged group: allowing homosexuals to marry is interpreted as an attack on "traditional marriage", Christians, or heterosexuals; the election of a black president brought fears of an "African anti-colonialist agenda" that would punish and disenfranchise white people.
Privileged distress can be particularly tricky to deal with, since most people with privilege aren't particularly bad people; they're just privilege-blind (q.v.) and afraid of losing a comfortable, familiar status quo.
 Further examples
Basic examples of privileges talked about in this sense include:
- The ability of men to walk alone at night without the fear of sexual assault that is often experienced by women.
- The fact that for a man to be in public without a top is socially acceptable, while it seldom is for a woman.
- The fact that sexual promiscuity is a socially desirable trait in men, but is often denigrated in women.
- The ability of whites to avoid racial profiling or to avoid greater prison sentences.
- The ability to use a gendered bathroom straightforwardly, when compared to the experiences of transgender or otherwise gender-nonconforming people.
- The ability to effectively manage the workload of day-to-day life, when compared to the experience of chronically ill people.
- The ability of the rich and powerful not to worry about the financial implications of an accident or unexpected illness, when compared to the poor.
- The ability of certain light-skinned people of colour, "straight-acting" gay/bisexual people, and the like to pass as part of the privileged classes even though they're not members of it.
- The ability of some transgender persons to be readily identified by others as the gender that they identify as. This is also called "passing privilege."
- The availability and affordability of education, including parental financial support.
 See also
- Privilege Checking Resource
- White Privilege Checklist
- Male Privilege Checklist
- Straight Privilege Checklist
- Cis Privilege Checklist
- Able-bodied Privilege Checklist
- Christian Privilege Checklist
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, John Scalzi