Are you familiar with the idea of privilege? If not, there are tons of 101 resources out there to explain it fully, and I’m not going to reiterate what other people have said at any length, especially since no doubt other people have said it better. The gist is: privilege is an advantage you’re born with, which you haven’t earned, due to the weight of history, culture, etc. It can derive from nationality or gender or sexuality or your educational opportunities as a kid. It can be different depending on where you live in the world, who you’re interacting with, etc.
What it is not: a guarantee that your life is going to be easier. That barriers will be removed and doors will be open. It is, as John Scalzi put it, a difficulty setting, which in games never guarantees you won’t have trouble with a particular boss or area or whatever.
So when something bad happens to you, that is not your privilege going “on the fritz”. Nothing about privilege promises that you’re going to be okay. It just says that you’re going to have an easier time if you’re born to a rich family than a poor one, if you have good nutrition growing up rather than starving, if you live in a war-free country rather than one in which a civil war is raging. You know, the obvious.
And just because you’re — for the sake of argument — straight, white and male, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other modifiers that can make things easier or harder. If you have a mental illness, then you might have trouble getting support and your illness can hold you back. If you’re from a poor background, being straight, white and male isn’t going to magically overcome all those hurdles.
You’ll just most likely have an easier time than a straight white trans* person with mental health issues, or a straight brown male from a poor background, because you’re not discriminated against for those additional reasons. And there might be other factors that cause problems for you: privilege is a subtle thing and the categories we’re using are broad. You might also have other advantages. Nobody is disputing that on an individual level, everyone will have some bad luck, denied opportunities, unfortunate interactions, etc.
If you’re honestly using your own misfortunes as some kind of symbol that privilege isn’t real, you’re just putting up a straw man argument against the concept of privilege. Nobody said you personally would have everything handed to you on a silver platter because of an accident of birth. It’s all about likelihood, intersectionality, location location location.
Your privilege isn’t “on the fritz”. When we’re talking about privilege, we’re talking about on average and in general. It’s a background advantage, as shown in studies that display a bias against groups. Having a “black name”, for example, means your CV is discarded more often than that of a white person (in the US). And the thing is, you can say that you’ve “never noticed” any bias toward you, and I’ll believe you — but that’s because you (and the society you grew up in) treat it as normal. It is normal, to you. That doesn’t make it right if, on average, other people are losing out because you retain that privilege.
And even if you don’t know what to do to change this, you can listen. You can be aware. And when someday you find yourself in the position of, say, choosing who to employ, you can be aware of your kneejerk biases.
Note: I wrote about this here because my first experiences of being told I had privilege came from members of the book blogging community, eight years ago now. It’s something being addressed by #WeNeedDiverseBooks and such movements in the bookish community — and I don’t think I’m the only one who first came into this discussion thinking, “But I just love books. Why do we gotta have all these labels? Why should I pay attention to the ethnicity of the authors I read?” And there are people coming into this discussion for the first time all the time.
Ultimately, you have to figure out the answers for yourself; it doesn’t work to just be told, you have to understand, and that can take longer. But here’s my answer: because I love books, I want everyone to be able to find themselves in books, to feel like they are welcome and have a place and that their dreams line the walls of libraries the same as anyone else’s. The labels are there because a lot of people think that way, because it’s a convenient way to get an overview of the industry, because people with shared experiences stick together and that identity becomes a way to more easily communicate. The problem arises because some labels get marked as “special interest only”, while others are considered to be of universal interest because, historically, that group is used to being the default.
It’s a sucky problem. We can get access to a lot more awesome books by making sure we go beyond the default, and showing the market that demand is there. So instead of asking why we should do that — why not?