White privilege is a concept that highlights the unfair societal advantages that white people have over non-white people. It is something that is pervasive throughout society and exists in all of the major systems and institutions that operate in society, as well as on an interpersonal level.
The term has a long history but it has come into sharper focus due to recent events such as the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests.
Origin of the Term
The phrase “white privilege”was first coined by activist and scholar Peggy McIntosh in 1988 in her paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”1 She described white privilege in terms of the unspoken advantage that the dominant culture has over people of color.
In other words, power, benefits, and other advantages are distributed in unequal ways among the different groups in society. Specifically, with respect to white privilege, the advantage rests with white people.
Reactions to the Phrase
For people who have never heard the term before, white privilege can evoke reactions of defensiveness and even outrage. This concept has been termed as White Fragility, coined by Robin Diangelo, and the reactions range from shame, guilt, fear, avoidance, defensiveness, and discomfort to extreme reactions such as shaming, covert aggression, intolerability, invalidation, and weaponizing privilege (i.e. calling 911).
On the other hand, for some, the idea that a person could have special privileges just because of the color of their skin is an unsettling realization and can elicit feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion.
If you are a white person and feel like the concept of white privilege doesn’t pertain to you, you are likely mistaken.
Meaning of White Privilege
If you are white and have grown up feeling as though others have advantages over you, perhaps regarding your wealth, you might bristle at the notion that you are in some way privileged because of your race.
White privilege is an advantage that protects white people against any form of discrimination related to their ethnicity and race.
White privilege, however, does not imply that white people have not or cannot experience challenges in life; it means that any challenges that a white person has faced or may face is not related to the color of their skin.
Examples of White Privilege
In order to understand white privilege in action, it’s helpful to think of examples of how it can appear in day-to-day life. The following examples are drawn from the work of Peggy McIntosh.
- Imagine that you, if you’re white, are going shopping and looking in the cosmetics section for a brand of foundation that matches your skin tone. Are you fearful that your shade doesn’t exist? Most likely not. This is white privilege.
- What if you’re looking for a pair of shoes or lingerie and you find an item in the color “nude”? Are you forced to wonder why a brand’s version of “nude” doesn’t apply to you? Probably not.
- How about if you walk into a store? Do you assume that employees might be looking at you because they think you’re going to steal something because you can’t afford it? Again, probably not. These kinds of worries don’t exist when you have been afforded white privilege.
- If you’re white, take a moment to imagine that you are going for a job interview and it is specifically stated that certain hairstyles are unacceptable in the workplace such as braids or dreadlocks (styles that are traditionally worn by Black people). Does the mention of this restriction on hairstyles make you feel like you are being discriminated against because of your race? If not, that is an example of white privilege.
- Moreover, have you ever had to worry that your untouched or unprocessed natural hair (the way it grows out of your scalp) might be deemed as unprofessional? If not, and you are white, you are experiencing white privilege.
- If you are a white person reading a magazine, watching a TV show, or a movie, do you find yourself wondering why none of the characters or people look like you? If not, that is an example of white privilege.
- What if you’re watching the news, and you’re white, are you left feeling invisible in the stream of positive and uplifting stories and misrepresented by the media? This is also white privilege.
Freedom and Perception
- What if you’re white and you are moving to a new neighborhood, starting your child at a new school, going for a walk alone, or going shopping at Target? Do you feel as though your race might have a negative impact in terms of how well you will be accepted or how you will be perceived by other people? If not, this is white privilege.
- If you’re white and you are interacting with your coworkers, do you ever have to wonder if people think you sound eloquent enough while speaking? If not, that’s white privilege.
- If you’re white and have recently been accepted to college, gotten a new job, or been promoted at work, are you worried that other people may think you only got to where you are because of affirmative action?
- If you do well or are a high achiever, are you worried that others will be surprised or tell you that you are a good role model for others of your race? If not, that is an example of white privilege.
- Imagine you are a white parent raising your child to go out into the world. Do you feel the need to teach your child about how they might be discriminated against because of the color of their skin? If not, that is an example of white privilege.
- If you’re white, do you have to think about whether your child will be bullied or sent home from school because of their hair texture? Most likely not.
- Do you have the real visceral fear that your child may not come home as a result of police or extrajudicial violence?
- If you’re driving around in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood, do you fear that you may be pulled over for questioning because your skin color is deemed as threatening or out-of-place? If you’re white, this fear will not apply to you.
- If you find yourself in a situation involving the police or find the need to ask the police to help you, do you feel as though your race could put you at a disadvantage or that you may be treated unfairly? If not, that is also an example of white privilege.1
How White Privilege Affects White People
A major issue that comes up in discussions about white privilege is that bringing up the topic of white privilege can often trigger defensiveness in white people. They may shut down and stop talking or stop listening.
This can be particularly true for white people who have grown up in poverty or perceive that their lives have been particularly challenging. They are left to wonder how they could possibly be privileged. The phrase makes it sound like an easy life, when in fact it is just referring to advantages conferred by race.
White Privilege Doesn’t Invalidate Struggle
Having white privilege doesn’t mean that white people have never endured challenges and distressing events. It just means that their struggles have not been caused by their skin color.
Is one type of struggle worse than the other? That would be a matter of opinion as all struggles are valid but nobody would argue that living in poverty or experiencing trauma is not a difficult situation regardless of someone’s race.
White Privilege Ignores Implicit Bias
The truth is that growing up as a white person means never having to consider race for the majority of one’s life. It’s not something white people notice, because the world is set up for their convenience. They have the power of being “normal,” or in the default state.
When white people say they are “color blind” or don’t notice differences in skin tone it actually minimizes BIPOC experiences and ignores implicit biases.
White Privilege Is Not About Blame
White privilege is not about blaming white people for the advantages they have. How can you be blamed for something you have never had to consider?
The phrase is about helping white people realize that they have systematic advantages over non-white people and that they can make efforts to ensure equality.
Acknowledging White Privilege
If you’re white and looking to help fight for the equality of all races, the first step comes with acknowledging that white privilege exists. The examples above describe the daily disadvantages that are faced by people of color, but they don’t even begin to underscore the results of those disadvantages.
In all areas, there is a gap between those with white privilege and those without, when it comes to generational wealth (and particularly property ownership), the experience of violence, and other indicators of quality of life.
So, if you’re white, here’s what you can do to acknowledge your privilege:
- Recognize that white privilege exists.
- Examine what is going on in your own life, look at everything you may be doing to promote/maintain and make active efforts to address it on an individual level.
- Listen to BIPOC when they point out your biases or share their experiences with you.
- Try not to be offended if someone points out your ignorance. Instead, choose to hear them out.
- If you are offended by the term “white privilege,” consider why you feel that way.
- Be committed to helping people fight anti-racism.
- Offer to be a source of support for non-white people.
- Talk about race with other white people and BIPOC even if it makes you uncomfortable.
A Change in Mindset
Change will only happen when the majority of the population experiences a mindset shift. Moreover, that mindset shift begins at the individual level not the group. One person at a time, changing their mind.
McIntosh P. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Institute on Assets and Social Policy. The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide.
McIntosh P. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.