The starting point is that the good in life is autonomy. Therefore, being privileged means having more autonomy than others. But there are different ways of having more autonomy:
1) We can have more autonomy as men or as whites. Liberals claim that these are artificial categories set up in order to get an unearned privilege (more autonomy) at the expense of those designated as the "other" (non-whites, women). So whites and men are thought to be upholding a gendered or raced identity in order to keep for themselves advantages over others.
2) We can have more autonomy by escaping a gendered or raced identity in favour of a human one. Our sex and our race are unchosen, predetermined qualities. Therefore, they get in the way of being self-defined. So it is a privilege according to the liberal world view to be unsexed and deracinated. So if whites and men get to live the default "human" position, rather than a sexed or raced one, they are privileged.
3) We can have more autonomy if we do not need to be defined in terms of anyone else but ourselves, i.e. if we can ignore the influence of the "other" and have things our own way. Therefore, whites or men are privileged if they are unaffected by the views or the power of others and can choose to live on their own terms.
So these three positions flow logically from the liberal starting point. But unfortunately for liberals, the end result isn't easily made consistent. There are two major tensions in the liberal account of privilege.
First, men and whites are damned for upholding categories of race and gender, but at the same time they are damned for the privilege of transcending categories of race or gender, of existing above these. There is a contortion of the male/white psyche here. We are held to desperately uphold categories of being male or white in order to keep grasping onto advantages denied to others, but then we are criticised for the privilege of living unaware of gender or race and occupying the default "human" position instead.
Second, men and whites are thought to maintain privilege by actively "othering" those we want to dominate, but at the same time we are held to be privileged by being able to live in our own little bubble, unaware and unaffected by the lives of others, being purely self-defined. But which is it? If we are guilty of having the privilege of leaving others alone, of not needing to have relations with them, then how are we setting up relations of domination via an active process of othering?
I'll run through some examples further on. I think it's useful to look first at where this liberal account of privilege came from. I think it's likely that the culprit was Simone de Beauvoir, particularly the introduction to her book The Second Sex (1949). Consider these excerpts from the chapter in question:
there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature ...
Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.
... And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her ... He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.
... The native travelling abroad is shocked to find himself in turn regarded as a ‘stranger’ by the natives of neighbouring countries. As a matter of fact, wars, festivals, trading, treaties, and contests among tribes, nations, and classes tend to deprive the concept Other of its absolute sense and to make manifest its relativity; willy-nilly, individuals and groups are forced to realize the reciprocity of their relations. How is it, then, that this reciprocity has not been recognised between the sexes, that one of the contrasting terms is set up as the sole essential, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative and defining the latter as pure otherness?
How does Simone de Beauvoir portray men as privileged? Clearly, she believes that men get to be more autonomous in the second sense I described above: she thinks that women are sexed, whereas men get to be human (non-sexed).
She also believes that men get to be autonomous in the third sense: men don't have to be defined in reference to women, they get to escape reciprocity by being the "sole essential".
De Beauvoir also thinks men are privileged in the first, most basic sense described above; she believes that femininity is an artificial category:
The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman ... If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed.
Having dismissed the idea of natural distinctions between the sexes, De Beauvoir argues that these distinctions are explained by men wanting to keep women subordinate (i.e. men sought to uphold the artificial categories of gender for their own class interests):
But why should man have won from the start? It seems possible that women could have won the victory; or that the outcome of the conflict might never have been decided. How is it that this world has always belonged to the men ....?
... the very fact that woman is the Other tends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications that men have ever been able to provide for it. These have all too evidently been dictated by men’s interest.
Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth. The religions invented by men reflect this wish for domination ...
In proving woman’s inferiority, the anti-feminists then began to draw not only upon religion, philosophy, and theology, as before, but also upon science – biology, experimental psychology, etc. At most they were willing to grant ‘equality in difference’ to the other sex ...
So already in The Second Sex, way back in 1949, we have the three pronged liberal theory of male privilege.
De Beauvoir's theory has been taken up by modern feminists. Consider these quotes from one feminist website:
...in a patriarchy, all women belong to the sex class, and are defined in terms of men. Men, on the other hand, belong to the default human class, and get to define themselves (and everything else).
...the concept of femininity extends to the full set of unique behaviors performed by the sex class to appease its oppressor ... My position is that the construct recognized as “femininity” represents the dominant social order’s successful attempt to otherize an entire class of people for the purpose of oppressing them.
Another example of De Beauvoir's influence is the work of Peggy McIntosh on white privilege. She has drawn up a list of 50 ways in which whites are privileged over others in daily life.
The 50 items don't make much sense outside of De Beauvoir's theoretical framework. Some are based on the idea (privilege 1) that whites are "raced" for the purposes of denying opportunities to others. So Peggy McIntosh's list often sounds paranoid about how whites treat others:
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
McIntosh is suggesting that whites in everyday life will only help each other and wouldn't help non-whites with career advice, or legal or medical services. This sounds delusional but it is what the theory predicts: that whites exist as a class of people to keep unearned privileges for themselves.
Some of McIntosh's items are based on privilege 2, the idea that whites get to live not as whites but as the non-raced human default. Here are some examples of items in which whites are privileged because, unlike non-whites, they get to be non-raced:
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
So whites are thought to be acutely ethnocentric in the first group of items, but then to be privileged by living outside the prism of race in the second. It doesn't fit well together. Furthermore, McIntosh then also includes privilege 3: the idea that whites get to live in their own self-defining, self-referencing bubble. So she has items like this:
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
The dominant group gets to be normative and therefore to live within their own race as the "sole essential". But if there is a privilege in living within your own race (to have things "testify to the existence of your race"), how can it also be a privilege to occupy the human, non-raced category?
Again, some of the items make little sense except that they fit the Beauvoirian theory that the dominant, oppressor group can self-define and ignore reciprocal relationships:
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
So whether we whites are defined in terms of the other, or whether we are self-defining; and whether we live as part of a racial category, or whether we live outside of race in a "human" category - we are in all these circumstances considered guilty of an unbearable privilege.
As I wrote earlier, the starting point to all this was a logical one under the terms of liberalism. If autonomy is the key good then we are privileged by having more autonomy, whether it's through a dominant racial relationship, through transcending race or through a capacity to self-define racially. But this framework, for the reasons I've outlined in this post, ends up lacking coherence.