White Privilege

The Oxford dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people”.  That definition does not capture the dangerous allure of ignorance that privilege carries along with it.  In its truest form, privilege is the unseen counter effect of prejudice, the equal and opposite reaction to someone being unfairly treated based on his or her skin-color, ethnic group, language, religion, sexual-orientation, gender, social status, age, etc.  If one person is down, then by definition that means someone else is up and usually that person is up precisely because the other individual is down.  Privilege is the unearned advantage that some groups have over others for which society holds a certain amount of prejudice.  Privilege is defined by Peggy McIntosh as an “invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.  White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurance, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank checks” (pg. 31).  It is one thing to acknowledge that one group is disadvantaged in relation to another, but it is much less common for the non-disadvantaged group to recognize their privilege. Being a white person is a privilege as compared to being a person of color.  Peggy McIntosh details 46 ways in which she enjoys privileges due to her skin color that not everyone can count on.  Examples of unearned privilege that whites enjoy are: 1) being able to choose Band-Aids that are “flesh color” and have them match my (a white person’s) skin. In fact, the word “flesh color” refers to the color of my skin, not that of my friends who do not have the same skin tone as I do.  2) I can also be reasonably sure that I can find adequate housing in an area that I would be willing to live and that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.  This kind of privilege that whites automatically enjoy in most situations is usually unnoticed and unquantifiable by the norms of our society.  In fact, this notion of privilege is not acknowledged in legal doctrines according to Wildman and Davis (1996) and creates a serious gap in legal reasoning.  The law is unable to address issues of systematic privilege, unfairness, advantages or disadvantages.

According to Tim Wise, privilege is pathological because those that have all the advantage, are afraid of people taking what they have and become obsessed with protecting it. The privileged are inclined to wage a preventative war to guard what they own and they are constantly anxious about the future.  Tim Wise explains that richer countries have higher rates of anxiety amongst their citizens than countries that are for example, war-torn and impoverished.  The privilege that these people hold generates the anxiety and a mentality of entitlement, a kind of mindset of “it’s our world and we get to make the rules!” Since the privileged group does not deal well with setbacks (probably seeing as how those are rare for them), it shatters their world when they realize that they have been living in a bubble and the dysfunctional pathology that they thought existed over there in reality exists over here too.  Remarking on the Columbine incident of 1999, Tim Wise made the point that if black folks had been buying bomb materials in a suspicious-looking car, they would have been stopped. The fact that the kids were white, middle-class, and drive nice cars probably led the people at the hardware store to believe that they must be building a something like a science experiment instead of a bomb.  His point is that there are reasons for whites to not want to participate in the system justification of white privilege and those reasons keep whites in an unsafe denial of reality.  If you have privilege, you are blind to how unsafe your environment truly is.  You have the luxury of not having to know or care about what a person of color thinks about you.  If you are unaware of his/her reality, nothing life-threatening will befall you if you are white.  However, if you are black and you do not understand the white man’s reality, and if you cannot repeat it verbatim back to him better than he originally knew it, you will not survive in the world that measures success by those standards.  Privilege does not allow us (whites) to see how the rest of the world sees us. We need to be concerned with what privilege does to us because this system is just as capable of killing us as it is them.  We are not immune; we are the collateral damage and if we want to be free of risk, we have to care about the issue of white privilege as an act of pure self-interest, not as an act of altruism. As whites, notwithstanding our guilt, it is our responsibility to pay the debt that is not ours, and clean up the mess that we did not make. Tim Wise concludes his talk by saying: “It is up to us to get busy, not because we are guilty, but because we are here”.

Roy Jacques believes that being white is unbearable.  I believe he would say that because he identifies some of the ways that the “common sense” way of thinking actually reinforces the dominance and marginality of some.  He claims that the dominant identities need to work to identify and resist the dynamics, not only because social equity requires it, but also because if the dominant identities resist defining this problem, they will not survive in a world that is so multicultural.  Thus, it is crucial for the dominant identities to identify and resist this structural dominance in theory and in pracctice because their whiteness is unbearable.

Understanding privilege and identity can help improve multicultural relationships in many ways.  If we understand how we are privileged, we can be better able to enter into the debate of racism, prejudice and sexism. We are able to recognize it when it happens and also able to realize the inability of whites to understand what it is like to negotiate a black identity.  In hiding behind privilege and failing to recognize it for what it is, we (whites) are relegating ourselves to being unintentionally racist.  Tatum (1992) speaks of the difficulty of teaching students about privilege.  White students can sometimes be so overcome with guilt, frustrations and self-loathing that they cannot continue to learn about how the system privileges them.  According to Grillo and Wildman (1996), it is essential for whites to talk about white supremacy instead of leaving all the work to be done by people of color. Only by talking about it and combating the inherent systems that continuously perpetuate white privilege can we begin to make headway in bringing about change.  It is important for whites to realize that in talking about white privilege or minority group disadvantages, it is not acceptable to sympathize with blacks about what it is like to be black. Doing so devalues and undermines the black experience and tends to encourage drawing upon false analogies in order to show compassion.  Even when whites experience discrimination, prejudice or disadvantages, it is not a comparable experience to being discriminated against due to the fact that you are black.  Whites have the luxury to go throughout their day without having to consider the repercussion of their skin color on how the world will receive them.  According to Grillo and Wildman, we (whites) say we are not racist because, of course, we all do not want to be, but wishing so cannot make us free of racism.

An example of a gap in unity is the gap between black women and white women in the feminist core of thought.  Feminist essentialism represents an insult to black women and broken promise that feminism will listen to all women’s stories, when in reality it only understands the white women’s perspective of suffering. Black women, who have a multi-dimensional experience of the duality of discrimination on the basis of gender and race, are unable to divide themselves so as to only compare their womanhood as a point of discrimination instead of their race.  Feminism inherently ignores the fact that every woman is not white.

In conclusion, it is essential for whites to realize that their position of privilege is one that is unearned.  For the moral and physical welfare of mankind it is essential that whites begin to take on a role in bringing about a wider understanding of the current global paradigm that gives them an undeserved advantage over people of color.


Gaines, S.O. & Reed, E.S. (1995).  Prejudice. American Psychologist, 50, 96-103.

Grillo, T. & Wildman, S.M. (1996).  Obscuring the importance of race: The implications of making comparisons between racism and sexism (or other isms).  In S.M. Wildman (Ed).  Privilege revealed: How invisible preference undermines America.  New York: NYU Press.

Jacques, R. (1997).  The unbearable Whiteness of Being: Reflections of a Pale, Stale, Male.  In Prasad, P., Mills, A.J., Elmes, M., Prasad A. (Eds). Managing the Organizational Melting Pot: Dilemmas of Workplace Diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McIntosh, P. (1993).  White privilege and male privilege.  In A. Minas (Ed.), Gender Basics (pp. 30-38). CA: Wadsworth.

Tatum, B.D. (1992). Talking about race, learning about racism: The application of racial identity theory.  Harvard Educational Review, 62(1), 1-24.

Wildman, S.A. & Davis, S.M. (1996). Making systems of privilege visible.  In S.M. Wildman (Ed). Privilege revealed: How invisible preference undermines America.  New York: NYU Press.

Wise, Tim. 2006.  The Pathology of White Privilege.  Class video. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3812249801848706206

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