The clearest way to understand white privilege is as a set of hardships that white Americans are less likely to experience than those of other races (other factors like income being equal).
Everyone, regardless of race, experiences a range of hardship in their lives, but minorities face an additional set of challenges specifically because of their race.
The absence of those race-specific challenges for white Americans is white privilege (no matter how much "normal" hardship they have or haven't faced in their lives).
And of course, if you don't experience something, then it takes some special effort to see and recognize that others do. This negative framing is why this conversation can be so difficult, and why so many people deny that "white privilege" even exists.
Rather than list a lot of different examples (like some other answers do), let me dive deeper into a single illustrative example that should hopefully make this clear:
I grew up white in an American suburb, and my parents never explicitly taught me how to conduct myself during a traffic stop, just said to be polite and follow instructions. I've never in my life had a bad experience with police officers, even the one I rear-ended on the freeway! I've never been pulled over when I didn't clearly deserve it, and more than once I've been given the "benefit of the doubt" and not gotten a citation I could have. I've never been put in handcuffs, never had to "spread 'em" on the hood of the car, and never been in fear for my safety or my life from a police officer.
As an adult I was pretty shocked to learn that many black parents (even middle-class suburban black parents) give their teenagers very explicit "how not to get shot by police during a traffic stop" instructions. Black men of all ages and economic status can tell you story after story of being pulled over for "Driving While Black", and we've all heard more and more about the brutality that black Americans have received at the hands of police.
As someone with zero direct experience with any of that, I'm faced with two choices:
- Deny or discount the stories of black Americans. This was definitely my first reaction. That can't really be true, can it? Surely they were all doing something suspicious? Of course we do need more than a random handful of stories, but research does seem to support the claims that there is an actual racial disparity in traffic stops.
- Accept the conclusion that black Americans have a different relationship with police than I do, by being willing to hear their stories and engage in the conversation.
I now accept that my positive experiences with police throughout my life might be due to more than just my upbringing and my own good behavior, it might be (at least) partially due to my white privilege. Someone who behaved identically but had different skin color might very easily have had any of those encounters with police go very differently.
Note that "recognizing my privilege" is simply the start of a conversation about race and policing in America, it doesn't necessarily imply any specific conclusion or remedy.
Note also that "white privilege" doesn't mean that no white person has ever been mistreated by police, or that no black person has ever been treated well, it just means (on this subject) that in general, white American have a different relationship with law enforcement than black Americans do.