I've never liked that phrase. Something about it has always rubbed me the wrong way but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I could get close, but I could never identify exactly what it was that I didn't like about it.
Today a couple thousand of us in my school district attended a "culturally responsive schools" professional development day entitled Getting Ready For The New Dance: Reducing The Predictability Of Who Succeeds And Who Fails. On its face, that doesn't sound horrible. But most of the "breakout sessions" involved race, and to be honest, I'm tired of discussing race. Ardent race hustlers will say that I'm tired of it because it challenges my unearned white privilege, but I'm tired of it because I'm of the Thurgood Marshall/Dr. King mold of race and they're of the newer "I can't raise myself up without bringing down whitey" mold--and I'm tired of talking about that. We had to choose one presentation for each of three 90 minute breakout sessions, and there were dozens to choose from; I chose two about GLBT students ("homosexual" is an outdated, derogatory word) and one about having a "growth mindset", figuring those were safe.
One of the presentations I attended was conducted by two self-identified lesbian teachers. One of them told a story about being unable to be on the same rental car agreement as her partner (they couldn't be married at the time) because only a spouse could share a rental car agreement with this particular company. Then she said, and I'll paraphrase here, "That's an unearned privilege that heterosexuals have."
It was at that moment that I understood why I don't like the phrase "unearned privilege". When you say something is unearned, you're implying that it's not deserved. It sounds like this "unearned privilege" is something you should give up since you didn't earn it. But she didn't want people to give up that privilege--heck no, it's a "privilege" that she wanted, too! So now that she can marry, is the car rental/spouse thing still "unearned"?
I've also heard "unearned privilege" described as being able to do things without thinking about them, but others have to think about them--e.g., I'm white, so I'm not assumed to be a thief when I go into a store (these people have never been in Fry's Electronics, obviously), and neither is my interaction with police officers thought to be the same as it might be for a black individual. The thinking is that since blacks in this country are cognizant of being treated differently, and I don't have to worry about differential treatment, this gives me "unearned privilege". Again, that makes it sound like something I should feel guilty for, something I don't deserve--yet these others want exactly what I have! Some will say that's not what they mean by the phrase, that they only want me to "be aware" of it, but if that's true, why the pejorative "unearned"?
As this was going through my mind, I saw a woman sitting in front of me. We were in a classroom, and she was a "woman of size" who really had to squeeze herself into that desk. Is it "unearned privilege" that average sized people don't have to think about fitting in or on furniture, but larger people do? It certainly fits the definitions of "unearned privilege" that I gave above, but I can't imagine any sane person saying that being of average size is some sort of unearned privilege. Yes, being overweight can suck, no doubt about it, but fitting in a desk isn't a "privilege" that an average sized person should feel bad about.
That's what I got out of the LGBT training--an understanding of why "unearned privilege" is such a pernicious term.
Update, 8/21/16: Just encountered this post today. I want to point out: "If you don't have to think about it, it's a privilege." Their words, not mine. Also, privilege is defined as "unearned access", as if people don't deserve whatever it is someone else wants to complain about.
As you can see, this "privilege" talk isn't designed to foster discussion, it's designed to stomp on someone and halt discussion.